Red is one of hundreds shanghaied out of Portland in the late 1800s. Drugged, kidnapped, and sold to a ship’s captain, she wakes up on a boat headed out to sea for years, unable to escape or even reveal who she truly is. Now she’s coming back in a boat covered in blood to find her family and track down the men responsible for stealing her life out from under her.
Eisner-nominated writer Christopher Sebela (High Crimes, Heartthrob, We(l)come Back), and Joshua Hixson (The Black Woods) bring you a tale of revenge, family, and identity that stretches from the deck of a ship outside Shanghai all the way to the bleak streets and secret tunnels of Portland, Oregon.
The creative duo took some time out of their schedule to discuss their collaboration, their influences and revenge.
FOG!: Congratulations on Shanghai Red! First, can you explain the term “shanghaiing”
Christopher Sebela: It’s an old term relating to people kidnapping or bamboozling sailors into working on ships that needed bodies for their voyage. Sometimes they would slip something in their drink and drop them down a trap door, other times they would trick them into spending all their money and running up a huge debt. It was called Shanghaiing because a lot of these sailors would find themselves on ships headed for Shanghai, trapped on board for years at a time.
FOG!: What was the genesis of this series and how early on did Joshua become the artist?
Christopher Sebela: A lot of it came from me moving to Portland and wanting to know more about the history, and a lot came from me taking a tour of the small segment of the Shanghai Tunnels that are still accessible to the public here in town. They run tours with a guide who explains how it all worked and it was like a crash course for me. By the time I got back from under the street, I had the whole opening of the book and I just had to figure out where it all lead from there.
FOG!: One of the more interesting characters is the title character, Red, who has spent years pretending to be a male, Jack after being drugged and kidnapped. How much of her story is driven by revenge and will she ever return to the Jack persona If necessary?
Christopher Sebela: Definitely. It was one of the things I really wanted to explore in this book. This idea that she’s been living as a completely different person, one who has all kinds of doors open to him that she doesn’t. And how it ironically lead to her being shanghaied and stuck on this boat. Now that she’s found a way out of her captivity and doesn’t have to live as Jack, does that necessarily mean she doesn’t want to? Not really. There’s a lot of confusion for Red trying to figure out where she ends and Jack begins. Especially when she starts to tackle the concept that there might not be much difference between them at all.
FOG!: Joshua, what about the series was visually exciting for you? What is your collaboration process with Chris like?
Joshua Hixson: I tend to veer towards stories that are dark in tone but what was nice about doing Shanghai Red was that it didn’t beat me over the head with how dark and depressing this story could’ve easily been. I mean, there is a lot of that and plenty of what you would expect from a revenge book, but that’s all offset by what I think is a very human and beautiful story told through Red.
I know this gets more to the story than the visuals but the telling of the story is what gets me excited about comics more so than how their drawn, and fortunately Chris gave me ample opportunity to try new things and do what kept the story fresh. He’s been super cool to work with this whole process and really trusted me to do what felt right for me. That was definitely something that I appreciated especially with this being my first published work.
FOG!: How much and what kind of research do you both do in working on the series?
Joshua Hixson: Yeah research and reference is tricky because I try to limit how much time I spend on that. It’s so easy to sit and look stuff up all day but at some point I gotta sit down and actually draw the thing. It’s a pretty unexciting process of me Googling stuff and trying to make sure the thing I’m looking for is accurate for the time.
Christopher Sebela: I spent a lot of time in libraries and special collection rooms, taking out old documents from the 1890s, journals of sailors who’d been kidnapped onto boats, old news articles debating the topic and basically anything I could absorb about Portland at the time. Wandering around in the same area our story is mostly set was interesting, though I had to squint pretty hard to try and see it the way it was all that time ago. But I think the brunt of the really useful research fell on Josh’s shoulders, much as I tried to help out with pictures.
FOG!: What does Hassan Otsmane Elhaou bring to the series?
Joshua Hixson: More than I can put into words! I know I’m not doing anything new by saying that letterers are the unsung heroes of comics but it really is the truth, and especially in the case of Hassan. He would do things I had planned to do with the lettering without even telling him; little things like where to leave a panel silent and how to arrange the balloons. But he also did lots of stuff I wouldn’t even think of and really helped to make the book as strong as it could be. Yeah, can’t say enough great things about Hassan.
FOG!: What’s your favorite revenge story?
Joshua Hixson: The one that always comes to mind for me is the 2002 remake of The Count of Monte Cristo. Haven’t seen it in years but I used to watch it a lot as a kid and it always stayed with me. It’s about a mid 19th century french sailor who is wrongfully imprisoned where he spends several years plotting his escape and getting revenge on everyone involved in putting him away. I always liked the slow build of him getting free and creating a new life after losing everything. It was originally a book written by Alexandre Dumas in 1844 which is probably way better than all the movies they’ve made of it.
Christopher Sebela: Right now, I’d say it’s The Limey. Steven Soderbergh’s movie about an old English gangster getting out of prison to find out his daughter is dead and he has to find the guys who did it and, most importantly to him, find out why they did it. It’s a really strangely presented movie but when it finally gets to the reveal of the mystery, it’s a real punch in the gut, the way these things should be.
FOG!: Shanghai Red is a five issue mini-series. Is the story finite or do you have plans to revisit that characters?
Joshua Hixson: I could definitely see myself revisiting these characters if it felt right or if people were pining for it. But yeah, I like how it stands on it’s own and wouldn’t be upset if that’s all there ever was of it.
Christopher Sebela: Not really. There’s definitely more story we could tell, but I don’t think that’s ever the ideal reason to make a book longer than it should be. It always felt like a five issue burst and I think we accomplished what we set out to do: tell a really story with a beginning, middle and end and get out without overstaying our or the story’s welcome.
If people rose up and demanded more, we could do it, but I think both of us are interested in exploring some other ground.
FOG!: Who or what have been the biggest influences on your work?
Joshua Hixson: The people I tend to look to the most are guys like John Paul Leon, Sean Phillips, Paul Azaceta, and Jorge Zaffino. There’s many many more names but I always seem to have those four artist’s books next to me when I’m drawing. I’m also always looking at Elizabeth Breitweiser for color. Her work is constantly blowing me away.
Christopher Sebela: I’m always bad at these because my influences cycle thru pretty quickly and I can never be sure who the ones with the most longevity and influence on me are. Grant Morrison. The book Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. The movie Midnight Run. The tv show Halt and Catch Fire. If you ask me another day, I’d probably have a whole different series of answers.
FOG!: What are you currently geeking out over?
Joshua Hixson: I’m one of those people who is regularly late to the party so i’m just now watching Mad Men and am pretty obsessed. Same with Post Malone, just started listening to him and really dig his sound. Oh and I recently saw Hereditary which was just so so good. I went after it got Chris’s blessing and all I’ll say is it deserves all the blessings. Haven’t been able to read much the past few months but I just got the last issue of Kill or Be Killed and I can’t wait to read it all over again to completion.
Christopher Sebela: I just started the second season of the TV version of Preacher and it completely grabbed me after I spent the first season kind of disappointed. I’ve been reading Joshua Cotter’s latest comic, Nod Away, which I love like no one else’s business. The new Courtney Barnett album and the new Chvrches are both great. I’ve also been watching a lot of dashcam footage on YouTube, which is just a normal week for me.
Shanghai Red #2 is available today in comic book stores and via digital.