Best Shots Advance Reviews: SHANGHAI RED #1, WITCHFINDER - GATES OF HEAVEN #2

Witchfinder: The Gates of Heaven #2
Credit: Dark Horse Comics
Credit: Joshua Hixson/Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou (Image Comics)

Shanghai Red #1
Written by Christopher Sebela
Art by Joshua Hixson
Lettering by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou
Published by Image Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

There’s an intensity and a sense of specificity that drives Shanghai Red, as writer Christopher Sebela, artist Joshua Hixson, and letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou work in perfect rhythm to produce a pirate revenge thriller that feels unlike anything else on the market today. Bringing together disparate themes like frontier living, gender inequality, urban development, and the psychological toll of violence, Shanghai Red is a winning debut that traverses an ocean of possibility and potential.

For those not up to speed on their piratical lingo, the practice of being “shanghaied” would involve being drugged or kidnapped to serve on a ship, essentially being forced into slavery for the duration of a forged contract. But Sebela, Hixson, and Otsmane-Elhaou really emphasize the brutality of this practice with their titular heroine Red, who finally uncorks three years of white-hot rage by launching a bloody mutiny against her captors.

As a character, Red is immediately intriguing, as we discover that not only has she survived three years of horrific conditions, but done so while maintaining an alter ego as a man - with this twist, Sebela opens up a vast spectrum of storytelling avenues, as we learn Red’s past protecting her single mother and younger sister, with her identity as “Jack” not just offering financial possibilities, but a sense of self-worth making her own way through the late 1800s.

But after being captured and subjugated for years, the price of freedom doesn’t come cheap, and Red’s flashbacks to her brutal emancipation will raise readers’ pulses a bit - and makes her overarching quest for revenge feel all that much more mysterious. Sebela’s flashbacks to Red’s past make it clear that she has reason to be mad as hell - that she had people depending on her that she had to leave behind - but this sense of pirate PTSD will make readers wonder what kinds of snags our hero will hit when her finger is finally on the trigger.

Yet while the lead character is intriguing, it’s Joshua Hixson’s artwork that will undoubtedly define what Shanghai Red is all about. It’s perhaps not surprising that 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank’s Tyler Boss has drawn a variant cover for this series, because Hixson’s artwork absolutely fits within that same wheelhouse - but while Boss has a clarity and brightness to his work, Hixson’s scratchier rendering plays up the shadows and ambiguity of his characters, bringing out a Sean Phillips/Elizabeth Breitweiser vibe that looks terrific.

From Red stabbing one of her captors in the neck to a flashback of her world literally being pulled out from under her, Shanghai Red is the kind of book that has its own distinctive style that is a true showstopper - and as Hixson switches up his color palette to match Sebela’s flashbacks, you’ll find that moodiness helps maintain your interest even when the book’s pacing starts to slow down. Letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou also deserves major props for playing up the grittiness of the story, with his choice of fonts evoking the style and feel of Watchmen.

Shanghai Red is a cinematic and ambitious read, and one that will deservedly push Sebela and Hixson’s reputations into the stratosphere. While some readers might chafe at the book’s slower pacing, there’s a method to the madness, as this creative team is building up their lead character piece by piece. There’s nothing out there like Shanghai Red, and this storyline proves to be a terrific debut for this up-and-coming creative team.

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

Witchfinder: The Gates of Heaven #2
Written by Mike Mignola and Chris Roberson
Art by D’Israeli and Michelle Madsen
Lettering by Clem Robins
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Sir Edward Grey’s latest adventure gets bigger and stranger in the second installment of his newest miniseries The Gates of Heaven #2. Supported by last issue’s steampunk inspired cliffhanger, Grey finds himself in the middle of “The Foundry,” a sort of secret think tank with royal backing that has been building airships for Her Majesty and her empire, thanks to the discovery of ancient tech from all around the world.

But The Foundry isn’t immune to the rash of occult thefts that have been plaguing London, and now it is Grey’s job to recover what was stolen as well as finding their disgruntled former researcher. Though not as atmospheric as the debut issue, writers Mike Mignola and Chris Roberson double down on the steampunk elements that were teased in the first issue, giving this sophomore issue a nice blending of brass and magic as Grey starts to sniff out more clues. Combine that with the pulp-inspired, ropy-looking pencils of D’Israeli and the sepia-toned colors of Michelle Madsen and Witchfinder: The Gates of Heaven #2 stands as another entertaining occult mystery for the Mignola-verse.

The year is 1879. A group of soldiers patrolling the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan stumble upon an impossible discovery; a derelict metal aircraft buried underground. Cut to the “present day” (1884) and using that discovery, plus many more taken from various sites around the world, the Foundry’s field team and researchers have built a whole fleet of airships and armored vehicles to “protect the interests” of the British Empire. But this think tank is not without troubles as one of their lead researchers has absconded with a powerful artifact and has become obsessed with various occult rituals and power sources.

Part of the Witchfinder series whole charm is its ability to fit comfortably within its genres and deliver accessible, easy to jump into stories. Thankfully, The Gates of Heaven has so far been no exception. But while the other series have been straight horror or have only dealt with the supernatural, this newest series has done a great job of blending steampunk with the occult elements with a healthy sprinkling of Edwardian mystery on top. Much of that comes from Mike Mignola and Chris Roberson’s willingness to write outside the box with this newest series, while still keeping the Witchfinder brand, for lack of a better term, alive and well. I know steampunk isn’t exactly the most novel of takes, especially for a series set in the 1800s, but the brass rivets and ancient, possibly alien, tech does the stuffy mysteries of The Gates of Heaven a world of good.

And speaking of good, artist D’Israeli and colorist Michelle Madsen really lean into the more stagey and expository elements of this issue’s script, much to its benefit. Though this issue isn’t exactly the most kinetic installment, D’Israeli and Madsen add a real sense of theatricality to the scenes of Grey working the case and to the expansive, airship filled warehouse that is the Foundry. The pencils and Madsen’s brassy colors really give a tight visual representation of the series’ melding of magic and technology, which is a real hallmark of the Mignola-verse as a whole. Though hopefully next issue we can get this pair working on a chase scene or a Witchfinder version of an action scene, which usually involves someone punching a monster or two, D’Israeli and Michelle Madsen keep this series’ visuals on brand and tightly rendered going into issue three.

Magic and unexplainable technology - two tastes that taste great together! Thanks to these two elements, Witchfinder: The Gates of Heaven #2 really entertains, despite its lack of action and “talky” scene construction. Anchored by Grey, who continues to be a great leading man, Mignola and Roberson’s genre-hopping script, and richly rendered penny dreadful inspired artwork, The Gates of Heaven #2 keeps this corner of the vast Dark Horse universe weird and trying new things to keep the series fresh for new and old readers alike. Only time will tell if this brass coated mystery will reach a satisfying conclusion, but for now, Witchfinder: The Gates of Heaven #2 keeps the series and its cult hero leading man in the Queen’s good graces.

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