Shanghai Red #1
“Chapter One: Life Among the Rats”
Writer: Christopher Sebela
Artist/Colors: Joshua Hixson
Letters: Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou
Cover artists: Hixson (regular)/Tyle Boss (variant)
Editor: Andrea Shockling
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $3.99 US
I was fortunate enough to get a chance to look at a preview copy of this comic book for review purposes. Here’s how good it is: upon its release, I bought the first issue at my local comic shop and added it immediately to my pull list. Shanghai Red (a reference to the main protagonist) is a dark and grisly piece of historical fiction, but it’s absolutely riveting. It reads a little like what might arise if director Quentin Tarantino were asked to deliver a spin on Pirates of the Caribbean. Mind you, there are no pirates here, only sailors and slave labour, and the inherent conflict that would arise from such circumstances. This may very well be the best comic book I’ve read in weeks, and what’s truly surprising is that it flows from the talent of creators who are completely unknown to be.
Men sold into servitude – or shanghaied – aboard a ship complete their two-year stint on the high sea, and they’re presented with a choice that’s no choice at all. Either sign up for another tour as a paid member of the crew, but under the heels of their abusers, or leave the ship in a foreign land with no means to make their way home to America. One among them decides that’s no choice at all and develops a third option, one the captain and his malevolent men won’t care for one bit.
There’s a lot more to the story than my synopsis above would suggest, but I’m being careful to avoid revealing anything about the twist in this story. I was completely unaware of it, and going into this comic with no spoilers added to the experience immensely. In preparation to write this review, I saw that the key element to which I’m not to refer is revealed in a good deal of the promotional material. If you know nothing about this comic as I did, I recommend keeping it that way until you read it. Suffice it to say that writer Christopher Sebela sells it, transforming that unlikely concept into something plausible and the bases for some riveting characterization.
I love Joshua Hixson’s artwork here. The sketchy style captures a sense of the historic setting and scenarios, as well as the grimy ship and the harsh actions the characters take against one another. I was reminded of the early work of such artists as Paul Azaceta, Michael Lark and Cliff Chiang. Hixson also excels with the colors, often capturing an unnatural and unsettling atmosphere. I particularly enjoyed his depiction of Red, as he conveys the character’s youth and anger incredibly well.
On the surface, this is a simple story of revenge, something of a Deathwish of the sea. But there’s something rich and pervasive about the storytelling here. I’m looking forward to Sebela’s exploration of the shanghai practice that ruined lives and took simple people all over the damn planet in a time when that seemed next to impossible. I’m completely captivated, and not despite the ugly violence and cruelty that serves as the foundation of this plot, but, oddly enough, because of it. 10/10