Red has been drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery. And now she is out for blood.
Christopher Sebela, Justin Hixon, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou set sail on the South Seas in Image Comics' upcoming Shanghai Red. Scheduled to debut June 20, the new series tells the story of Red and her journey from the seas to the secret Shanghai tunnels of 1800’s Portland.
“Red hasn’t had an easy go of things throughout her life,” said Sebela. “She grew up on a farm, working the land, fought to get her family to the West Coast when it failed and managed to build up a whole new life, only to have it taken away from her when she gets shanghaied. Before that she was living two lives, splitting her time between being herself and being ‘Jack’ - disguising herself as a man to get the kind of things like money and jobs that appealed to her that women were mostly shut out of.”
Because of that, Red’s not sure who she is anymore.
“Is she still Red, the girl who kept her mom and sister alive through the American wilderness or is she Jack, the guy who got her abducted in the first place but also the guy who does the bloody things she’d rather not.”
“Yeah, I’d add that at the heart of her conflict is an uncertainty of who she is and who she’ll be at the end of all this,” added Hixson. “It’s a question that’s prevalent in all revenge stories; what to do you do when you’re finished and if you’ll be able to live with what you’ve become. I think Chris took that question even further with Red which is a big part of why she’s so unique.”
The two met on Tumblr, where Sebela had been seeing a lot of what Hixson was posting back in 2014 and “just generally being into it”. It was around that time, that Sebela had the foundations for the Shanghai Red and felt Hixson would be a perfect fit for the story.
“So I just messaged him and said ‘Hey, if you ever want to work together, I’d love that.’ Weirdly, he wrote me back and said 'Yes.' I mean, Josh is a great storyteller all on his own, so I was kind of shocked he wanted to team up with me, but I’m forever grateful he took a chance,” Sebela stated.
Hixson said that he and Sebela are similar in that aspect because he was also shocked that he wanted to work with him.
“I mean, he was currently working with people like Chris Visions and here I am fresh out of school with nothing published under my belt,” said Hixson. “At the time I had made it a point to have a good web presence in the hopes of getting work. So I was pretty active with my social media and portfolio sites. Oddly enough though, Tumblr was the last place I expected to be approached for work. Well, not by a working professional at least. He actually sent me a few different ideas for a bunch of books he had started fleshing out but we both agreed almost immediately on Shanghai Red and felt like it was the most suited for my style.”
Sebela, a Portland citizen talked about the level of research he did for the series, which started at the Portland Central Library, which had a very good documents room where he got to read over actual ship logs as well as accounts from people who were pressed into becoming sailors.
“I also dug deep into people from Portland’s past who were around when our story takes place, to try and integrate as much of reality into our story.”
The genesis of Shanghai Red came from a tour of the Shanghai Tunnels.
“A section of the tunnels that hasn’t been filled in where they explain shanghaiing, how the tunnels functioned, supposedly, and how Portland was back in the late 1800’s. When I came out of that tour, I had the opening of the book in my head, I had Red and then I had to go figure out the rest.”
Once he put all that together into a foundation of sorts, he then felt free to go off and do the fictional parts of the story.
“Even if we went completely nuts at times, and we do, that all of it has its roots in real life and real facts. It’s like the spoon full of sugar that makes the medicine go down, ideally.”
When describing art, Sebela admits that he’s bad at describing it, but says that Hixson’s style has a “ragged energy” to it that he just loved.
“He isn’t chasing some kind of polished perfection,” he says. “His work feels, for lack of a better word, real to me. Maybe it’s because I tend towards darker material in my life in general, but even his nicest panels have an air of menace to them. He’s amazing at just drowning in shadows and making it work to a stunning degree.”
“I think for this book, because it takes place in such a ramshackle and dirty period of history, because it’s a kind of adventure book but also a really dark revenge book,” Sebela continued, “Josh’s art just felt perfect. Like, to me, it felt like adventure comics from the past. Plus, Josh can tell a story all on his own, so he’d make changes to my scripts or add panels or do what he felt worked best for the story and it’s always been the smart choices that make the book even better. We don’t even have a thumbnails process anymore, Josh just sends me inks with a short explanation of the changes he made, etc. and I mostly just stare at them in awe until the next round of inks comes in.”
“It’s a little hard for to articulate why my art works for something because I spend so much time thinking about why it doesn’t. I can be a little self-deprecating in that aspect. I’ve come to accept that I’ll forever be in a perpetual state of second guessing myself. That being said, I am really proud of the work that I’ve done on this book and I do think it works well for the story. It’s rough, unsettling, and dark, but with moments that allow you to breathe and see things from a different perspective.”
“Ultimately, what I love to do most is create some kind of atmosphere or evocation that’s striking,” he continued, “regardless of what the tone is. Luckily Shanghai Red is the kind of story that gave me ample opportunity to do that.”
Hixson actually colors himself in the series, but that wasn’t always the plan.
“Initially we had a colorist who was working with us on the pitch, but stuff popped up and he wasn’t able to do it anymore, so Josh just colored it and we figured we’d get a new colorist at some point. But Image approved the book and we were like ‘well, they liked the pitch pages, so maybe you should color the whole thing?’”
He also had nothing but praise for his collaborator’s colors.
“I love Josh’s colors. Like, I felt lucky just getting to work with him as a line artist, but when I saw his colors on top of that, I was even more blown away. I think what makes them work best is how they build their own mood on top of the mood the inks are delivering. I love how blue parts of our book are and when Josh chooses to really push the reds, how much it pops out. Or there’s a sequence where Red is in a well-lit room for maybe the first time in the series and it’s almost blinding in comparison. Josh makes really smart choices that make our story feel even more like a gut punch at even the quietest of moments.”
Working with a character that has such a strong dichotomy between their personalities, Sebela went into the biggest difference between Jack and Red and how he handles writing them.
“Jack is both sort of Red’s ideal and her monster. Living as Jack opens a world beyond the one she lives in, a world where women didn’t have the vote, were told how to dress and were relegated to domestic work. Being Jack gave her the kind of work she wants, the ability to go where she wants and do what she wants. And she loves it.” He went on to say how Jack represents a lot of rage in Red and when it somebody has to pull a trigger or unsheath a blade, it’s Jack’s hand holding the weapon.
“It makes it easier for Red to think of Jack as separate instead of facing the truths about who she is and what she’s capable of,” he continued. “I could try to answer a little clearer, but even Red isn’t entirely sure about the difference between her and Jack, so I try to remain as in the dark as she is about all this.”
“To me, Jack is a part of Red that she doesn’t fully understand, and is many ways the source of the conflict within her,” added Hixson. “He starts off as a means of survival and over time becomes something else. Red tries to use this part of her as a way to hide and be disconnected from her actions, but I think her character struggles with the fact that she can’t exactly turn him on and off like a switch. It’s complicated both for her and us and I like that you’re kind of learning about it along with her as the story progresses.”
Lastly, Sebela opened up about returning to Image Comics after his first comic with them over ten years ago, Screamland, and what is the big
gest thing he’s learned since then.
“Screamland was my very first toe in the water and it was a situation where I had to learn how to make comics from the ground up. After we got approved, we were given a date when files were due and then we had to go off and make the book.”
He talked about how he had to learn the entire process from lettering, to delivering and organizing files.
“I dumped so much of my life into it at the time. It was an experience full of a ton of headaches and heartbreaks, but when I held the trade for it in my hands at the end, I knew I wanted to do it again. I wouldn’t be here now, I don’t think, if Screamland wasn’t my first book, because I learned just how much work was involved in making comics.”
“Since then, I guess I’ve learned how to write better, how to let go a little bit more, how comics beyond the creator-owned model at Image works, from the Big Two to licensed books with smaller publishers,” he added. “I don’t know, it all feels like a whirlwind. But I’ve been working since then to get back to Image with some books of my own and the reality of it coming true is somehow even better than what I’ve been picturing in my head for the last five years or so.”