By Brendan F. Hodgdon. In recent years, as it has grown in stature to rival DC and Marvel, Image Comics has developed a tremendous roster of comics. And while a great deal of those comics have been sci-fi/fantasy or crime stories, Image has also branched out beyond those well-worn genres to great effect. One such area of success has been in historical drama, and the latest example of this winning trend is Shanghai Red from Christopher Sebela, Joshua Hixson and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou.
Of course, this being comics, good historical storytelling means nothing without sturdy genre architecture, and Shanghai Red certainly has that. Sebela’s script is a seamless blend of classic grindhouse-style revenge storytelling, a specific historical setting, and a very lucid perspective on gender and identity. Hixson’s art brings it all to life with grounded tangibility and the occasional surreal composition. The end result is a book that feels recognizable while still having its own unique flair. It represents exactly the kind of daring for which Image is famous.
Written by Christopher Sebela.
Art by Joshua Hixson.
Letters by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou.
Rage Over Troubled Water. The quest of Shanghai Red is, at face value, a standard revenge-thriller plot. Red, our story’s protagonist, kills a ship’s crew that has enslaved her, and then plans to kill those that betrayed her to them, etc. But it’s the elements against which Sebela contrasts this subgenre that really elevate things, even in this sole debut issue. His script deftly examines the selfishness, the moral ambiguity and the relativism inherent in the concept of revenge. He has characters challenge Red’s sudden, violent action and her motivations for taking it from beginning to end. It makes for a thematically rich story that pushes its protagonist in an honest way.
Furthermore, Sebela structures Red’s quest not just as a desire to balance out the wrongs done to her, but as an aspiration to return to the life that was taken from her. This isn’t just destruction in recompense for destruction, but hope that she can reclaim the life she had. In this regard, Shanghai Red feels less nihilistic than other vengeance-themed tales. But, given everything else Sebela and Hixson suggest in this issue, one has to wonder how successful Red will be in returning to who she was before. These details both heighten the ambiguity of her quest and increase the potential for tragedy. I’m morbidly excited to see where it goes.
Gender and Survival. Other distinctive elements in the story are those of gender and identity. In this issue, we see that Red has long masqueraded as a man named Jack, and that she possesses more than her fair share of “masculine” talents. On a surface level, it provides an explanation for why she’s capable with a gun or a knife, or how she’s avoided perpetual sexual violence during her time on the ship. But in the process, it also opens up interesting details about Red’s character, including the way she refers to “Jack” like another person with whom she shares her body.
Right now, these concepts are more plot-relevant than anything else, but I’m very curious to see where Sebela takes this aspect of Red’s character, and how her relationship with “Jack” will change as her trek continues. This nuance gives Red more specificity as a character, and it opens up emotional avenues for Sebela and Hixson to explore going forward.
The Art of Revenge. Joshua Hixson is tasked with establishing mood and selling the book’s often brutal violence, and he does both with real grit and an understated style. He fills panels with dread and tension as Red and her compatriots make their way through the powder-keg scenario in which they find themselves. And when that tension inevitably erupts into action, it is quick, bloody and ruthless. Hixson’s art is a great fit for the series considering these details alone. But he has more than that up his sleeve.
There are a few moments in the series where Hixson takes this historical revenge tale and twists it into a full-fledged Grand Guignol horror. As Red takes her first steps towards her ultimate revenge, we see the faces of the dead reflected in bloody-red water all around her. Even recognizing how awful her captors and abusers were, Hixson’s depiction of the dead in this way highlights the gruesome burden of Red’s actions. It drives home the destructiveness of her revenge, not just for others but also for herself.
Sebela, Hixson, and Otsmane-Elhaou have certainly struck an equilibrium with this bloody entertaining debut. While one might believe they have a comfortable idea of where this series may go plot-wise, there is a lot of thematic new ground to be broken here. The broad strokes of Shanghai Red may be familiar, but the devil is in the details.
8 out of 10
‘Shanghai Red’ #1 hits stores June 20.