I think the phrase these days when you’ve missed a thing is that you “slept on it” (or something like that; I never presume to fully understand the latest internet slang), and it sort of feels like that with Crowded. I guess the series has been running for about a year now, and I mostly ignored it because I was neck deep in WicDiv as the comic I was most keenly obsessed with. Since then I’ve tried to read a little more widely, but I still have relatively narrow tastes (just because I can afford to read some series on a monthly basis instead of waiting for trades doesn’t mean I’m eager to just pick up whatever #1 strikes my fancy), and my general vibe was more deep emotional dives grounded in existential angst. Crowded, if you’re just going by the elevator pitch, is a satire about the technological dystopia we’ve created for ourselves with a big helping of gunsplosions. I’ve read the writer Christopher Sebela’s 2015 series Welcome Back, and while it had a strong emotional core and an interesting romance, it didn’t totally grab me. There are some conceptual similarities between that series and Crowded, and I wasn’t sure I’d find the premise compelling for more than a few issues. Nonetheless, it kept popping up in my Twitter feed (mostly because I inadvertently started following the series’s editor, Juliette Capra, for WicDiv related reasons), so I eventually picked up the first trade.
I am now hooked, and I plan to read this series to its end.
Naturally, there’s a pretty distinct difference between a comic series that I will enthusiastically read and one that I will enthusiastically discuss at length. As I sit here thinking about what to say about Crowded, I find myself feeling the tension between those two mindsets. Ten minutes in the future everything is just slightly more terrible than it is now except that Janelle Monae has been elected President of the United States and I honestly wonder how much mental bandwidth to spend thinking about all the ways that the rich and powerful have engineered society to fail us in such spectacularly stupid ways. Every story has its pet issues, and Crowded beats a pretty steady drum about the techpocalypse. The reason our two main characters, Charlie and Vita, are thrown together is because the concept of regulating something like murder has become so difficult in the face of app-driven crowdsourced slaughter that the government has essentially thrown up its hands in defeat. I get enough of “people are going to shoot other people anyway, so why bother?” in the real world every other week; the prospect of discussing it in the context of a comic series’s witty observations about the thoroughness of our societal self-own feels daunting.
And somehow despite that trepidation, I’m still eager to explore the characters of the series. They’re pretty familiar types: Charlie scrapes together a living with twenty different side hustles while being the most obliviously terrible person in the world (there is a reason she’s been tagged with a million dollar bounty, and it’s only partially because of whatever shady conspiracy is happening far in the background of the story), Vita has a tragic past full of regrets and should-have-beens that drives her to be the best bodyguard she can be, and Dog is the adorable internet pet that people have, apparently. The supporting cast is full of sketches of the most obnoxious types the internet has produced, from the unwashed jerkwad teenagers who treat their computer expertise as a free pass on basic empathy to “Hey guys, how ya doin’?” Youtubers who push the limits of poor taste in pursuit of engagement. I kind of hate them all, but Charlie and Vita’s dynamic as odd-couple fugitives from no law works to terrific comedic effect most of the time and is deeply resonant as a picture of a couple of lonely folks trying to find some kind of connection in the always online present.
That idea gets more explicitly displayed with Vita, who clearly hates everything modern with her 1950s sedan (complete with tail fins) and antique house that smells of old people, but it also seems to be simmering under the surface with Charlie as well. What must it feel like to live a life with virtually no roots and an endless stream of meaningless interactions that get quantified into a 1-5 star rating in some tech company’s database? These two need each other even if it kills them. Of course, being basically a buddy comedy, they probably won’t actually die; still, I hope that things get plenty harrowing along the way, particularly since I can only say so much about a bunch of tech jokes. This first issue, for all its thrills, is primarily just world and premise setup. Charlie mysteriously finds herself the target of a crowdsourced assassination campaign on the app Reapr, so she hires Vita through the Dfendr app to be her bodyguard for the duration. If Charlie doesn’t die before the month’s up, then the campaign ends with no payout and she’s immune from being targeted by future Reapr campaigns. It’s unclear at this point why she specifically has attracted so many backers, but that will just be a fun mystery to tease out for a while yet I’m sure.