Christopher Sebela, Ro Stein & Ted Brandt Take Aim at Contract Culture in Crowded

| By Jakob Free

Within the past 20 years, an increasing number of Americans have chosen to eschew the traditional nine-to-five grind in favor of freelance work. For some contractors, that shift hasn’t been a choice as much as a necessity. According to recent studies from CNN and Forbes, if the current rate of people jumping into the gig economy (or “sharing economy”) holds, then United States’ freelancing workforce will rise from 34 percent to more than half of all workers by 2027.

In Crowded, a new ongoing written by Christopher Sebela with art from Ro Stein and Ted Brandt and colors courtesy Triona Farrell, main characters Charlie and Vita fall knee deep in this ever-growing economy. The pair meets after a bounty is placed Charlie through a crowdsourcing murder platform known as Reapr. In order to fend off her would-be assassins, also freelancers, Charlie hires Vita, a bodyguard with a meager one-and-half stars on the bodyguards-for-hire app, Dfend.

Charlie is also a freelancer in the extreme. Before lunchtime, she’s already rented out her clothes, her car, and her apartment. Her afternoon is spent dog-walking, babysitting, tutoring, and performing a host of other app-delegated services. Some or all of what Charlie does may seem ridiculous to readers, but writer and co-creator Sebela made sure that Charlie put her skills to use with jobs that have a basis in the real world. “Actually, every job I gave Charlie is a job you can go out and get right now. Most have their own apps.”

Vita’s a freelancer as well, but she’s content to stick to one job: making sure her clients don’t get murdered. To get a handle on the character, Sebela read up on personal security, i.e., bodyguards. “Respect is earned by the bodyguard by showing their client they can do their job well,” he says. “But these guards are dealing with really high-echelon folks, while Vita is picking up jobs on the Dfend app. She’s not getting prestigious people. She’s getting folks who can only afford a couple hours at best, who are only calling her because they’ve run out of options. So she has to be a bit sharper and cold with them.”

Vita also adheres to a rigid set of her own rules. One of the most important ones? Do not get attached to the “principal.” In creating Vita and her lifestyle, Sebela referenced some of the famous bodyguards, thieves, and antiheroes in cinema and beyond. “The most successful bank robbers are the ones who have a rulebook that they stick to and don’t deviate, because they get caught if they do. That level of professional, when there’s bodily harm at play, you have to compartmentalize to do well at it, you have to lock away the human parts of yourself and just focus on the rules and play by them to the letter. For all the intrigue and glamour that might swirl around being a bodyguard or any high-stress field like that, you wind up becoming your own worst boss, basically.”

But Vita may not be all that she seems. She harbors her own secrets, avoiding a kill count if possible, and alluding to a past where that morality was much more fluid. That intrigue and duality will fuel the twists and turns that populate Crowded’s future. “Vita’s a much more complex character than some standard bulletproof badass, so we’re almost deconstructing her,” Sebela explains. “She’s not flawless by a mile and neither is Charlie, but those are my favorite people to write.”

But Crowded isn’t just about freelancers; it’s also made by them, with the personal experiences of the creative team lending an authenticity to the characters and the world they inhabit. “I definitely draw a bit from my freelance life for Charlie’s hectic schedule, trying to make juggling a dozen different things every day work and keep the lights on,” Sebela says.

As to whether the endless hustle is good or bad, Sebela thinks it might be both. “A lot of people will cast off stuff like bosses and fixed schedules but replace them with having to run around and do a million things to make ends meet. One of the upsides of the gig is freedom, but sometimes we have a little too much freedom—like freedom from really great health insurance or job security. Especially in a world where even now artistic stuff is farmed out to the cheapest bidder, it makes you sweat a little about how much hustle is required to stay above water in whatever the future brings us.”

Freedom to choose how to make money was the big selling point for gig economy participants who got in on the ground floor. But as seen in the struggles of workers for startups like Uber or Fiverr, the realities of a capitalistic economy can’t always be cast aside, only reformatted for an increasingly trod-on working class. How can people truly break free from the conditions that sent them to the Wild West of freelance in the first place? That theme will slowly become part of Charlie and Vita’s struggles as the issues pass.

"I strongly believe that protections under the law are always necessary,” says artist and co-creator, Ted Brandt. “Over in the U.K., the gig economy is extending into the traditional one through what are called zero-hours contracts, wherein the employee is guaranteed no minimums of work, and therefore earnings. In my experience, this is untenable at the worker level and makes it much harder to do much more than survive. I would describe the world of Crowded as a cautionary tale in that respect, I guess, rather than a firm prediction, per se.”

Crowdsourcing is another element that the comic takes a swing at. The current healthcare market has remained one of the most surreal, unfortunate facets of modern society, leading to crowdsourcing campaigns for individuals who aren’t insured facing gargantuan medical bills. In Crowded, the creators subvert this concept with the Reapr platform. With this app, users don’t strive to help the disenfranchised get better—they’re out to make people dead, as Charlie soon discovers. So does the creative team think that people might actually use a murder platform?

“Not everyone,” Sebela admits. “But I think more people than we’d be comfortable [with]. We live in a world of massive injustice, and Reapr’s big appeal, why it takes off so quickly, is that it’s a quick fix. To the people who back these campaigns, they’ve found a way to right the scales, to see that the wicked are punished, all with the bonus feature of not getting their hands dirty.”

“The cynical part of me says that some people would do it, because people often have the potential to be small and petty,” says artist and co-creator Ro Stein. “Anything that can legitimize the idea of doing a bad thing will encourage some people to do that thing.”

When pressed to answer when exactly the events of Crowded take place, Sebela has this to say: “It’s why I always refer to the time period of this book as ‘10 minutes in the future,’ because so much of that aspect is grounded in stuff that’s going on right now.”

But Crowded also serves as a way for its creators to find harmony past the dehumanizing economics that prize money over compassion, even if the odds are devastatingly slim.

“In the end, Charlie and Vita are the personification of my optimism about humanity as a whole. So there’s probably something to the fact that they’re wildly outnumbered by everyone else, who represent my pessimism for what we’re in for.”