By Brendan F. Hodgdon. You’d be hard-pressed to find a comic book writer having a hotter summer than Christopher Sebela. Between kicking off the season with the cathartic, violent Image series Shanghai Red, ending it with the Black Crown title House Amok, contributing to the killer all-star title Evolution, and self-publishing his Short Order Crooks series, Sebela seems to do no wrong these days.
While Sebela regularly turns in great work, his collaboration with Ro Stein, Ted Brandt, Triona Farrell and Cardinal Rae is a particular sort of phenomenal. In this latest Image series, Crowded, a young woman named Charlie has become the target of a crowd-funded assassination attempt and has to rely on an app-sourced bodyguard named Vita to stay alive.
“There’s definitely bits of me in both Charlie and Vita,” Sebela admits. “I relate to Charlie’s hustle, her ‘always moving or else you’ll die’ shark mentality. I’ve been freelancing for over a decade, so I tried to funnel a lot of the insane anxiety into the appropriate places.” And Vita? “Her misanthropy, her ‘get in and get it done’ focus is more aspirational than anything.”
Crowded is a wild blast of pop energy with sharp social commentary baked in, and I was thrilled to have the chance to discuss it with Sebela this week.
1. Deconstructing the modern Internet era has become almost a de rigeur topic for speculative fiction writers these days, but with ‘Crowded’ it really feels like you’ve found a new angle. How did you approach this idea, and what have you done to keep it distinct from other Internet culture satires as you write it?
Christopher Sebela: I try not to read them, mostly. Ever since I’ve had this idea pop into my head, which hasn’t been easy. Mostly I’m still watching Black Mirror, and mostly I was doing that because I like it and I figured if anyone got there before us, it’d be Charlie Brooker. But somehow we squeaked by. And really, the most distinct part of it comes from my partnership with Ro & Ted. They turned this book into something a lot more fun than its original glum skeleton.
2. You’re also writing another great Image series right now, ‘Shanghai Red’. While aesthetically the two books are very different, there seems to be a shared sense of pessimism about humanity in both titles. Is that an intentional response to the world around us?
CS: It’s very likely. The issues of Shanghai Red you’ve read so far, I wrote those 3-4 years ago now, so there’s a lot of cynicism built-in and the world around me exacerbates it, I suppose. Hopefully, when you get to the end of both of these books, you’ll see that there is hope in there. I’m not a full-on nihilist or here to bum people out. Even me, I still desperately believe in the good in people, even when it’s buried in a mountain of trash.
3. While the premise of ‘Crowded’ is eye-catching, what makes the book sing is the relationship between Charlie and Vita. Where did their dynamic come from, and how do you relate to them, both individually and as a duo?
CS: I’m not exactly sure. For a while I wasn’t sure who they were and I was trying to just shop the idea around with these two vague leads attached and it didn’t get picked up. But once I figured out who Charlie and Vita were, the whole book made sense to me in a way it hadn’t before. I definitely tried to lean on some tropes here and there, in the hopes of upending them here and there, but I think some of my best friendships come with this element of talking shit to each other, like, the only person you’ll accept it from is them, and vice versa. There’s something really fun to be in a friendship like that and I guess I wanted to show why that is? Just to figure it out myself?
There’s definitely bits of me in both Charlie and Vita. I relate to Charlie’s hustle, her ‘always moving or else you’ll die’ shark mentality. I’ve been freelancing for over a decade, so I tried to funnel a lot of the insane anxiety into the appropriate places. I think also Charlie’s tendency to be super selfish and ignore the world burning around her because she’s bored or she’s hungry or she feels something else that isn’t being met. I’m definitely guilty of that at times. With Vita, her misanthropy, her ‘get in and get it done’ focus is more aspirational than anything. Definitely some of the bits of her living in this weird space both physically and in her life and trying to figure out what happens next. Probably more, but that’s as confessional as I’m feeling right now.
4. Aside from their obvious talent, what drew you to Ro Stein and Ted Brandt and the rest of the art team? What made them the ideal choices for ‘Crowded’?
CS: Mostly their talent! Also, they wanted to work with me. And we got along in our initial meetup over Skype with our editor and mutual friend Juliette. She knew I had pitches and she knew Ro & Ted were looking to work on something they could make their own. So I offered them two pitches: Cold War and Crowded. They immediately picked Crowded when I explained the scenario along with describing Charlie, Vita and their dynamic. I knew they were super talented and mostly I was excited to see what they came up with. As soon as they sent along the first designs of Charlie and Vita, I knew these characters, and I knew Ro & Ted were perfect for the job.
When it came time to get a colorist, I told Ro & Ted to choose and they picked Triona, who they’d worked with before and loved how she worked with their art. Then I started looking for a letterer, preferably one who was a woman, and Triona recommended Cardinal, who she’d been working with on Rose.
5. In addition to writing the series, you’re also credited as the designer. How has that role related to the work of the art team?
CS: It just means I do the inside front cover. I think up and design stuff like the little chat between Vita & Charlie that technically opens the book. As we go, that’ll turn into more in-world-based recaps of previous issues, in a way that catches people up but also kind of expands this world in a way that’s subtle. I also designed the letters pages, the back cover and the interior back cover. Also I made those DFEND balloons of Vita’s where she’s looking over her profile.
Mostly what it means is I get to contribute in a meaningful way to the look of the book. I’ve taken on the same role with Shanghai Red and it’s something I really like doing. I don’t want to just write the book and move on to the next issue, I wanna have a little bit more of myself in there. But as far as me and the art team, I stay out of their way and I send them screenshots to show them what I’m working on and they tell me if it sucks or not.
6. How long had ‘Crowded’ been in development, and how early were the artists involved in the creation of the series?
CS: Just over a year now. I really broke it wide open around January of 2017 when I realized I had all these pitches half-finished and needed to actually do the hard part and finish them and send them to people. I met Ted & Ro a month or two later and by then I had already basically mapped out the first arc with our editor and we got our pitch pages together. It’s happened pretty quickly, as far as comics go.
7. ‘Crowded’ has already been picked up for development as a movie, before this first issue even debuted. Does that influence your approach to the story at all?
CS: Nope. The way I see it, we showed up to do our book and someone saw the potential in it and offered us some money that would help keep our sails full while we did the hard work of making a book but not having the book out on sale. I know how our story ends, I know the last line. I also know that there is zero guarantee of what we’re making being a 1:1 translation if and when it happens. None of it changes what we’re doing or where we’re heading, just gives us a bit of a confidence boost and a safety net while we’re trying to make the best comics we can.
8. Ro Stein tweeted a while back about shipping Charlie and Vita. Now that I’ve read the book I’m definitely in agreement, and I’m sure a lot of readers will feel the same way. Do you think there’s room for that in the series or do you like their dynamic as-is?
CS: Definitely room for that in the book, outside the book, wherever. It’s a little scary making up fictional people because once you put it out there, it’s only half yours anymore and anyone can do whatever they want with it to some degree. That’s part of the fun, to me. And I’d be lying if I said there hadn’t been discussions amongst the team about who is shipping who with who and who hopes who ends up with who. So, we’ve kinda been fanning out over it while we make it; hopefully that prepares us for what might come. That said, I like their dynamic, but they’re operating under a very, very strange dynamic. One of those end-of-Fight Club moments where they’re holding hands and watching the skyscrapers detonate all around them. I like that kind of weirdness, especially exploring what kind of effect it has on people and who the people they normally are turn into.
9. Beyond potential couplings, what sort of long-term plans do you have for ‘Crowded’? Are there more stories to tell with these characters and their world or will this be a single, contained narrative?
CS: We have at least 4-5 arcs planned right now. We’re doing a thing where our book is very decompressed compression. Not a ton of time actually passes between the first and last issue of our first arc in story time, but a ton of stuff happens in those few days, because Ro & Ted are geniuses who pack every page with as much glorious stuff as they can. Crowded is just the one story of Charlie and Vita trying to figure their situation out, each other out, and constantly moving to keep from getting killed by some new weird pocket of America.
That said, we also have ideas for doing a kind of “Annual” where we get other writers and artists to tell stories of other campaign targets, or of killers trying to collect a bounty to pay off their college loans and be able to afford insurance. But our focus is taking Charlie and Vita across the finish line.
10. Finally, is there anything you hope people might take away from this series? In particular, what sort of mentality do you think we need to bring to gig apps and social media to avoid a future where things like Reapr exist?
CS: I mean, in a perfect world, I’d want people to magically come away from this book thinking about all this stuff and how it impacts their lives and their behavior and then, cue the music, they all change for the better. But people are going to see what they want to see and I’m certainly not here to hide some kind of manifesto inside a comic. I love technology, I like social media a lot, but I also know that you can put anything out into the world and someone will pick it up and figure out how to turn it into a weapon if they really want to. Our story isn’t about the tech, it’s about the people and what they decide to do with it when it gets common as pay phones used to be.
This is just a really fun story we wanted to tell and life is weird enough that some of reality is starting to edge in on our fiction. I don’t like to write with themes or things in mind I’m trying consciously to get across. I’d rather let my unconscious handle that end of the deal and I’ll figure out what it was I was trying to get across to everyone a few more issues down the road or so.
‘Crowded’ #1 is in stores now.
Check out this five-page preview of ‘Crowded’ #1, courtesy of Image Comics!
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