Spoiler Warning for Crowded Vol. 1, Trigger Warning for death and violence.
Dystopian fiction about a world that’s not quite apocalypse level, not quite a fascist dictatorship, aren’t precisely new. Nor are pieces of media where the so-called civilized world has devolved into blood sports and some form of legal murder (legal for civilians I mean). That’s not where Crowded stands out, not really. Admittedly, having two queer women as the leads does do something in and of itself to make the comic stand out as unique within the sub-genre.
But what really makes Crowded stand out is its context, the setting. Crowded is firmly rooted in the modern gig economy, as well as crowdfunding and streaming. The premise? In the moderately distant future, a new app has appeared called Reapr, by which you can crowdfund the murder of a person, offering up money to get a bounty that others can help grow, rewarding the person who kills the target with whatever funds are raised. Law Enforcement, rather than trying to fight the trend, has decided to settle for regulating it, drowning it in paperwork as much as possible. Such an app has, of course, lead to the creation of a counter app, Dfend, to allow you to hire bodyguards.
And it is in that we meet our protagonists, Charlie and Vita, as they make their way through this strange and brave new world.
Crowded has a fairly realistic art style. Certainly it’s not the most photo-realistic style, and I confess that I’m still unclear if Charlie (the one with the pink hair and the phone) has pink skin or not which bugs me (I’m…fairly certain she’s pink, but nobody else has an unnatural skin tone, so it’s been low key driving me nuts), but everything looks good and on model. There’s no uncanny valley to speak of, and it’s honestly quite pretty. Some of the panels and full-page spreads are beautiful, to a degree that I’d love to have them as posters. Reading this comic is never a chore thanks to the lovely artwork. For a dystopian future comic it’s remarkably bright and colorful, which is a pleasant change from the usual. So while I have some issues with parts of this comic, none of that lies on the feet of artists Ro Stein and Ted Brandt.
One day a little old lady with a small dog attempts to kill Charlie Ellison, which is how the seemingly average, gig economy embracing, pink-haired girl learns that she is the target of a massive Reapr campaign. After stealing the dog and low on funds, she quickly grabs the lowest-rated bodyguard on the Dfendr app, Vita. The pair butt heads repeatedly after meeting as Vita takes them back to her house, largely due to Charlie’s insistence on being secretive but at the same time prying into Vita’s life. It doesn’t help that for someone so tuned into the technology of the world Charlie is entirely unready for trying to lie low, having spent most of her life doing the opposite.
This lack of awareness leads to some problems, with the pair being chased out of Vita’s home after an attack, a brief meeting with Vita’s ex ensuing before they move on. It’s an amicable meeting at the very least, though Vita’s clearly not over her yet. They briefly settle in a hotel, though Charlie drags them to a nightclub first, where she attempts to kill a pop star ‘friend’ of hers for backing her Reapr campaign, forcing Vita to knock out one of her Dfendr colleagues and shoot another.
After that particular mess, Vita drags Charlie to a comic book shop to meet her…gang of teenage boys who condescendingly explain things to the pair of women and also hack into things to get information for Vita when she needs it. It’s an odd thing to be sure, though admittedly it’s likely a genre reference to the style of ’80s action and adventure films that Crowded exists as a lovingly exasperated homage to. This is when the comic takes some time to deliver the exposition about the creation of and nature of Reapr, with some lampshading that this is all things Charlie knows and the boys are just mansplaining how she’s going to die. It’s an amusing and tongue in cheek way to address the issue of delivering this information to the readers without just using narration boxes.
And to escalate things, two professional killers arrive in Los Angeles, one a mysterious woman with big glasses who looks more than a little like Sia, and the other a social media star who streams his murders. Both begin digging into Charlie and Vita, trying to discover what makes the pair tick, while others go after the pair, driving them from the hotel and to a library. In this future world, physical books are extra obsolete, and libraries now double as hotels, offering security and signal blockers for cheap, as well as only taking cash to lessen the trail. This doesn’t help them for long though as they realize that Charlie’s dog (which she stole from the first person who attempted to kill her for her Reapr price if you recall) is chipped after a double-decker bus, an assassination tour for people who live in towns too small to get Reapr campaigns but who still want to kill people and get money.
This leads to a rather lot of property damage and paperwork for Vita, only increased by the fact that a trio of drug addicts run into the Sia Killer (she doesn’t get named in this volume, so that’s what I’m going to call her, for lack of a better moniker) when both go into Vita’s home, resulting in it catching ablaze. Vita is forced to run into it to retrieve some items while the house is still burning, and the pair return to the library. At the same time, the Sia Killer begins destabilizing the social media star, Trotter, using psychological warfare to prey upon his insecurities and destabilize him.
It all culminates in a big car chase through Los Angeles after an attack on the surprisingly well-defended library (most likely another genre homage, given the ’80s and ’90s fondness for seemingly harmless groups like monks to bust out crazy weapons and military skills) flushes Vita and Charlie out. Trotter was already wavering and unstable, and he falls apart completely rather quickly. However, Vita is dangerously more competent, and she’s able to keep herself and Charlie alive. The pair are then given a police escort out of the downtown area, and the next day they once more meet up with Vita’s teen hackers. And here it’s revealed that a not insignificant number of the backers of the campaign to kill Charlie were bots, but the money is real. And, as Vita quickly realizes, the one organization with that kind of power and resources is the government itself (not sure why it couldn’t be a Bezos type, but maybe there’s something that will be revealed later about that, this is only the first volume of the comic after all). It ends with the pair driving out of Los Angeles, with Vita muttering about her lack of trust for Charlie while the pink girl sleeps.
Okay, so I know my summary probably feels rushed, but there’s a reason for that. Crowded doesn’t lack for content or character, and there’s no fat, nothing that feels like it should have been trimmed down. That being said, most of said content is either actions scenes, in which case there’s not much to summarize without bogging us down in play by play recaps which wouldn’t be interesting, or conversations between characters which are, for the most part, well written but would require me to paraphrase or quote so much that we’d be bogged down. I don’t want to do that to y’all, so instead, I just tried to get across the actual plot, the frame rather than the details.
Plus, I actually like Crowded a lot, and as I’ve said in the past it’s hard to review something I like.
That being said, it is not without flaws. Now, some of these are likely due to simply the fact that Charlie and Vita are both secretive and I’ve only read the first volume. So some issues I have, like Vita apparently being the lowest-ranked bodyguard on Dfendr due to not being flashy enough and no other reason despite her insane competence, or some hints that Charlie might be evil and duplicitous despite her rarely acting as such even when alone, may very well be addressed and fleshed out more fully in future issues. My low key frustration with the fact that Charlie is inexplicably pink is mostly a nitpick.
There is a rather…pessimistic edge to the series, and not more than a hint of disdain for streaming, crowdfunding, and the gig economy. I suppose that’s fair, the last two on that list definitely have some major issues and it tracks with the premise of the comic, but it does wear on me at times.
Still, it’s got a lot going for it. Vita and Charlie are both very well written, fleshed-out characters, there’s well done casual representation, particularly of the queer variety (there’s lots of people of color in the comic, but as a white girl I’m not qualified to say if it’s good representation or just good at avoiding offensive stereotypes), the art is good, the action clear and easy to follow. All in all, while Crowded is by no means flawless, it’s still a very worthy and fun read, well worth checking out!
Story: Christopher Sebela
Art: Ro Stein & Ted Brandt