By Brendan F. Hodgdon. One of the great highlights of the post-Image comics world is that there are now creators who can dedicate the majority of their careers to their own creations. Image and its various creator-friendly descendants give artists the chance to do things on their own terms right from the start, and this becomes more and more commonplace every day. Of course, there’s no denying the steady work that comes from playing with established properties, but plenty of artists now make their names primarily based on original work. The licensed stuff is secondary.

One creator who has demonstrated this for several years now is Christopher Sebela. His best-known work has always been his own, from High Crimes to Dead Letters to Heartthrob to We(l)come Back. And it’s easy to see why: Sebela has a flair for intriguing high concepts, and always seems to find the best artists possible to work with. It was only a matter of time before a storyteller of this caliber found his way to Image, and this summer has seen him deliver the one-two punch of Shanghai Red and now Crowded (not to mention his contributions to the jam-band series Evolution).

Crowded is an absolute gem of a book. This high-octane tale of a young woman named Charlie, targeted by a crowd-funding assassination app and protected by a bodyguard named Vita, features Sebela’s usual sharp plotting and dialogue. It’s also one of the best-looking books of the year, thanks to art from Ro Stein, Ted Brandt and Triona Farrell. Crowded feels like the sort of title that will be a breakout for everyone involved.

CrowdedCrowded #1

Image Comics/$3.99

Script & Design by Christopher Sebela.

Pencils by Ro Stein.

Inks by Ted Brandt.

Colors by Triona Farrell.

Letters by Cardinal Rae.

Hey, Good Lookin’. In case I hadn’t already made this clear, Crowded is one gorgeous book. Stein, Brandt, Farrell and letterer Cardinal Rae are working in harmony to produce a polished, distinct comic book. (Even Sebela gets in on the book’s aesthetics in his role as designer.) These efforts are what gives this series its personality and energy, toeing the line between action-oriented drama and quirky character humor.

On some level, the art in Crowded reminded me of the first time I saw Babs Tarr’s work: it’s stylish, cartoony, and tonally it’s very flexible. From a well-constructed cutaway shot of Vita’s home to the SFX on the page (look closely at the gunfire and explosions!) there are a lot of clever details throughout the issue. Not to mention the immensely likable character designs for Charlie and Vita, which are instantly iconic from head to toe. On visuals alone, Crowded is a pure charmer.

Crowded #1

Interior page from ‘Crowded’ #1. Art by Ro Stein, Ted Brandt, Triona Farrell and Cardinal Rae/Image Comics

Social Contract (Killers). For all the candy-coating the art provides the story, there is no disguising the dark, blackly funny conceit at the heart of this world. That contract killings and bodyguards are only an app purchase away is more than a little insane, except in all the ways that it isn’t. The feasibility of this concept, and the way it reflects our own reality, is more than a little unsettling; no amount of colorful illustration can distract from that. The series compounds the disturbing nature of this idea by having all the characters treat it as banal, which says more than a little about the state of things in Crowded.

The premise is largely explored through the prism of Charlie’s attempt to survive it, which leaves a lot of potential layers ripe for exploration as the series continues. The potential for class and corporate influence to manipulate a system like this is pretty high, and I hope the story touches on those ideas in the future. For now, I’m more than happy to see the insanity of the Reapr app through Charlie’s eyes, as she tries to avoid lunch-break death squads and revolver-toting grannies.

Crowded #1

Interior page from ‘Crowded’ #1. Art by Ro Stein, Ted Brandt, Triona Farrell and Cardinal Rae/Image Comics

The Fairly Odd Couple. While there is a lot of great social commentary inherent to the concept of Crowded, and a lot of entertaining artwork bringing it to life, what ties it all together is the vivid and empathetic characterization that Sebela and the artists provide to our protagonists, Charlie and Vita. In different ways, each character seems to embody a certain form of the loneliness and disconnection that the social media age has produced.

In Charlie, we see someone who is so busy hustling and making ends meet that she doesn’t have the best connections with the people around her. And in Vita, we see someone detached from the wired world, pushing through her scorn for it all in order to survive. They are both adrift, and therefore perfect for each other… assuming that Charlie’s eagerness to find the source of her Reapr campaign doesn’t get them both killed first.

Crowded #1 is one of the finest first issues I’ve read in a long time. It starts like gangbusters and never lets up, a whirligig of style, action, humor and commentary that pushes every button that it should. Sebela, Stein and the book’s incredible creative team have created a killer title. Get on board now.

9.5 out of 10

You can read our interview with Christopher Sebela here.


Check out this five-page preview of ‘Crowded’ #1, courtesy of Image Comics!

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