After being shanghaied and forced to work aboard the sail ship Bellwood for two years, sailor Jack decides to take revenge on those who imprisoned him. He starts with Captain Schork and the crew of the Bellwood. After taking the ship he sails it for home to Portland, to find his family and make those responsible for his absence pay.
The remaining prisoners on the ship are offered the chance to join Jack but first they are in for a shock becasue Jack is in fact Molly, a hard working frontiers woman who isn’t afraid of a little violence if it means she gets what she needs.
And so begins Shanghai Red, a new series from Image Comics, released this week.
Issue one of Shanghai Red is set mostly on the ship Bellwood, with a few flashback sequences to establish the central character. It revolves mostly around the night that Jack, aka Molly or Red as she likes to be known, decides that enough is enough and she unleashes a wave of violence on the deck of the ship.
The opening pages are beautifully drawn with an initial sombre mood exploding into a series of violent actions. Joshua Hixson creates an unsafe environment on board the Bellwood by casting a large amount of the panels in shadow and using a number of long, often tilted angled, viewpoints. This gives the reader the impression of a ship in motion but also the sense that something is not quite right. This is then escalated when Red begins her series of attacks.
Hixson brings his colour work into play and coats the grey/blue lighting of the ship with vivid red for the flowing blood and vibrant yellows for the flames Red unleashes. This gives the opening a really strong visual impact that draws you into the comic immediately. It gives the reader a sense of tone for the following narrative as well as illustrating the central character’s determination and cruel intents.
The fine line work, vast backgrounds and coloured caption balloons all work together to give the comic a cohesion that makes it effortless to read. Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou’s lettering works in much the same way as Hixson’s colouring does. It differentiates the characters and their moods either through the colouring of the word balloons or the separation of the characters’ speech.
For example, on a number of occasions the speech is split into two speech balloons although it could all have been placed into one. This emphasises the different parts of the speech so that the reader is drawn to a specific word or phrase giving it more weight. So when Red says “It’s not you. I don’t deserve it. I’m damned.” There is a break before ‘I’m damned’ which gives her final words emphasis, they are not just a throwaway comment to distance herself from Boston. They relate to something more, something which obviously plays on Red’s mind.
Subtleties like this are spread throughout Shanghai Red and reward the reader for paying attention. They are even more important early on because initially Red is not a likable character, her actions are seemingly cruel and heartless but there is something in the way that she is portrayed that makes the you want to find out why she is the way she is. Some of this information is slowly revealed over the course of the comic as Christopher Sebela explores Red’s character via interactions with her new crew.
After the initial gut punch, the narrative becomes a sterling character piece mixed with narrative history and allegorical imagery. Sebela allows two narratives to unfold, each giving a different insight into the central character. The first is Red’s own story as she tells it: this is biased and for a large part emotionless because this is how she has learnt to survive. The second is through Red’s waking dreams: these are fuelled by pure emotion and are nightmarish in nature. Together they build a magnificent central character and sets up the story for future issues.
This comic works as a first chapter in a story by introducing the central character and the themes which surround her life. It also works as self-contained story as it contains everything you need to know to understand the events on board the Bellwood.
Shanghai Red is an outstanding first issue. It draws you in over the first few pages and then focuses the narrative to create interest and intrigue. The artwork fits the tone and setting of the story and gives the entire comic an eerie claustrophobic feel; a visual representation of Red’s emotional state having being trapped on the ship for so long. It is an emotional story infused with pain and suffering but there is a glimmer of hope threaded throughout which gives the reader a reason to continue to read: the relationship between Red and Boston represents that hope.
Full of amazing character work, a strong narrative and eye catching artwork, Shanghai Red is a must read.
Shanghai Red #1
Published by Image Comics
Written by Christopher Sebela
Art by Joshua Hixson
Letters by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou
Life long comic book reader, collector, and reviewer.