Interview: Chris Sebela, Ro Stein, and Ted Brandt on the Share Economy and How it Inspired CROWDED

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Where are crowdfunding and share services leading the economy and world as a whole? Chris Sebela, Ro Stein, and Ted Brandt provide a possible answer to that question with CROWDED, a story of a girl with a million jobs and a low-rated bodyguard. They try to not get killed by the mob going after Charlie and figure out why a number of people funded the million dollar bounty on her head. I had the opportunity to chat with them about the series and their feelings on the share economy that inspired the story they’re telling. Check out our discussion below.

All art by Ro Stein, Ted Brandt, and Trionna Farrell

Chris, you’ve run several your own successful Kickstarter campaigns. Were your experiences there an inspiration for CROWDED?

Chris: Yes, for sure. If nothing else, I definitely tried to tap into that big healthy river of anxiety and neuroses that comes from running a Kickstarter and hoping you don’t fail publicly. Beyond that, the analogs sort of fall apart, but it’s been interesting viewing it from that other side of the campaign. I won’t lie and say I didn’t pretend I was putting together a Reapr campaign while assembling that last one. Somehow the idea of anonymously asking people to kill someone was easier than the idea of publicly asking people to give me money.

Did you do any further research into the share economy, crowdfunding, or social media to flesh out the world?

Chris: I did. As soon as I figured out that that’s what Charlie’s deal was, job-wise, I went looking and found dozens of apps and platforms for the weirdest jobs. There’s a platform where someone pays you to go and look at something for them, like to confirm an eBay item or a used car purchase from across the country. Stuff like that. So all the jobs Charlie has, those are jobs you can get right now. I didn’t really need to research social media as a battlefield because I’ve been on twitter for the last however many years, so that part I was pretty familiar with.

Charlie is a hustler, working a number of different jobs in the share economy. Have your experiences as freelancers informed her career path?

Chris: Mine definitely have. I never expected to be freelancing as long as I have at this point. I kind of backed into after being fired by my last day job and not knowing what the hell I wanted to do except never have to get a day job again. So that idea of flailing around, trying to get as many different streams of income coming in, no matter how thin you stretch yourself and what you sacrifice in the process, that made a lot of sense to me. It might be why I connected with Charlie as a character so quickly because I really understood a lot about her before I began to dig deeper.

Vita is an effective bodyguard despite her 1.4-star rating. Does that speak to an inherent flaw in being judged solely by the customer?

Chris: Vita’s good at one part of her job, the actual job-type-job of defending the client. But that’s only half the job, the other parts involve customer service and managing expectations and she’s just not interested in doing those parts. If you looked at her record from a strictly numerical perspective, it’d be impressive, but she’s not holding hands and playing into other peoples’ lives and needs. All they need, from her point of view, is to stay alive for as long as her clock is running. So, yes, I guess there’s a flaw there in the customer-only rating system. There’s no room for nuance, it’s just one perspective and if you go so far as to fight back against it, then you run the risk of dragging yourself down further. Luckily Vita’s not that motivated when it comes to defending her nobility online.

Charlie is always around people and Vita is an isolationist, but both seem equally lonely. Does that speak to the state of the world as a whole, or mainly these two characters?

Chris: A little of both. I think it definitely speaks to the world they’re in, and that’s something we’ll explore more as we go on. I mean, I think the isolationist stuff is already in play these days to some degree. We’re just taking a look down the road to see where all this could lead on a bad day. But more than that it’s very much about Charlie and Vita as people. And we’re going to explore who they are and what them makes tick as much as we do for the whole world of CROWDED.

TED: I know Chris has said it’s a mixture of both, but I never read it as a commentary on the world at large, personally. Charlie and Vita are such rich characters that they exist as themselves, not cipher stand-ins for humanity. I think the world of the book speaks well to the world in general.

Do you see the world of CROWDED as a (high-concept) extension of the hate-fueled online culture we currently live in?

Chris: It’s kind of impossible to write a book like this without being influenced by stuff like that, but I came up with this idea 4-5 years ago when things weren’t nearly as out of control as they are nowadays. I was more interested in exploring the stuff people will allow themselves to get up to when they’re not held accountable by anyone except themselves. That the Reapr platform makes it so easy, all you have to do is make a couple clicks and you’re co-funding someone’s murder, but you could have just as easily been requesting a car to pick you up or buying something. Mostly we’ve been racing to stay ahead of what’s happening online these days, and it’s been happening at pretty breakneck speeds.

RO: This question seems to be focusing on Reapr, but the world is so much more than that. What we’re building isn’t just about the hate of that one platform, but it’s about pushing the ridiculousness of the current world even further.

TED: Brand names, tv shows, we try to look at the other things besides the coming of Reapr, the stuff that exists for life, all the things crowdsourced assassination can’t touch. People still need to live in this world, and we’re trying our best to look at trends the world has followed and extend them out. What’s the saying? “Today’s satire is tomorrow’s policy”?

Based on the number of people openly trying to kill Charlie, killing seems legal or at least not very frowned upon. Will we learn how things reached that point?

Chris: Oh yeah. I’m not asking the readers to just suspend their disbelief and buy into this one-line concept. Along with everything else, we’re going to be exploring Reapr and how it works and how it came to be and all that stuff. I spent a long time doing the societal math on it so it felt truthy to me and ideally when the readers hit those points where we’re unpacking this stuff, they’ll be invested and go along with it too.

These days it’s rare to see a penciler and inker on a creator-owned series rather than one artist handling both duties. Ted and Ro, what appeals to you about collaborating on the art?

RO: You always want to use the best tools for the job. We both represent very different sides of the creative process, which means working together we can get far better results than either one of us singly.

TED: That’s definitely true. Ro is more creative than I am when it comes to visual storytelling, body language, etc. My skill set is much more in processing and refining. I usually parse out the actions on the pages and do initial choreography for the panels, which Ro turns into actual pencils, and then I refine them into the final lines to accentuate what we were aiming for.

What do you hope readers take away from CROWDED, outside of the delight resulting from a well-told story?

Chris: Mostly that. There are definitely things I bring to the table when I work on a book, consciously or not, but I try not to make those things anything more than mental suggestions. Sometimes I have no idea what a book is truly about, on a deeper level, until I’m halfway thru writing it or after I’ve finished it. So, with CROWDED, I hope people see themselves in it, see people they know, recognize the world a little bit, but not so much that it’s distracting. We’re not trying to make a book that’s a polemic about how effed up the future is. We’re all living thru it right now, we’re all aware. We just wanted to do something that kind of repurposes the panic of living through all this and put it somewhere a bit more fun and brightly colored.

TED: As Chris said, that definitely is the main drive for me. CROWDED is, in a certain light, a cautionary tale about modern society, but all of the warning lights it creates are flashing loud and clear in the real world, so it’s mirroring as much as predictive. If we can get a compelling narrative that people can connect to out of these terrible characters and the awful world they live in, I’d say our job is done!

RO: Yes. This.

CROWDED is out next week on August 15th. Grab it at your local comic book shop or digitally through ComiXology.

Follow the creative team on Twitter @rosytintedspecs @ten_bandits and @xtop. Check out christophersebela.com for an overview of Chris’ career in comics. Visit brandtandstein.com to see more from the artists and buy original pages from Captain America, Bitch Planet, and other wonderful series.