You will not find a comic book that moves more quickly than Shanghai Red #1 this week. Readers familiar with the monthly grind of stories have come to expect that a complete narrative will only be delivered in a collection, while each new installment will deliver just enough new details to keep readers hooked. This debut may feel like a kick to the face for anyone too adjusted to trends of decompression, but a refreshing kick to the face if there ever was one. The first 10 pages grab you by the throat and don’t let go. It feels almost like a dream sequence, not due to a lack of coherency, but simply because it is all so very surprising. While the rest of the issue is not quite as relentless in its pacing and changes, it is anything but slow. The end result is one of the most refreshing Image Comics debuts of this year and a valuable reminder that comics don’t need to wait 10 issues, much less 10 pages, to kick some ass.
It’s easy to miss in the fast paced story, but Shanghai Red presents an authentic representation of its period. The story takes place in the late 1800s on the Pacific Ocean with characters effectively enslaved aboard their ships, taken advantage of in horrible manners. Nihilism and violence are not present for their own sakes, to be gawked and provide a surge of adrenaline, they are a fundamental element of this seabound hellscape. The attitudes, language, and history all reflect a serious study of the era and enthralling details emerge upon a second and third reading. A handful of panels showing the past and the changing American landscape are every bit as notable as those that occur on the sea.
Joshua Hixson’s depiction of a cargo ship from this era requires address. It is one of the most complex settings imaginable for an artist. Masts, ropes, and sections of the ship all cohere in a very specific manner that constructs a carefully engineered miniature world, and unlike a similar ship on a science fiction adventure, those details cannot be guessed at. Throughout the action in the opening sequence, it is easy to understand how the ship is assembled, visually displaying distances and distinct elements. Without this comprehensive understanding of setting, the action and historical reality of Shanghai Red would crumble.
It is no blueprint either. Hixson’s style gives the impression of a detailed charcoal sketch, further enhancing the period elements while simultaneously leaving each moment with a humane perspective. His colors complete the construction of this reality and enhance the tone of the story in terrific fashion. Cold blues dominate much of the issue with red bubbling up as if from shark infested waters. Hixson never loses track of the beauty of the world though, even if his characters do. Seaside skies at sunset are every bit as striking as they ought to be, resulting in panels that force you to pause, if only for a moment.
When Shanghai Red #1 stumbles, it is out of necessity. Red, the anti-hero of the piece, fills a role familiar to Western fans minus the sand, but still with plenty of grit. Much like Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” she is as much a force of nature as a human being, and not given to chatter. Yet her own origin is integral to what comes next giving way to an extended monologue that reads as being out of character, even this early in the story. It’s the sort of moment that stands out in a single issue as much as it is unlikely to repeated in the series ahead.
Even with those rough waters, there is no denying Shanghai Red #1 is an impressive debut. The comics introduction would have been sufficient to hook readers seeking thrills and revenge, but it has so much more to offer. Both the ship and American landscapes show a real interest in the history surrounding the story, lifting it from background to almost a character in its own right. And the color design and moments of reflection have only begun to unfurl a much more nuanced story to carry the series beyond its initial bloody thrills. Shanghai Red #1 delivers a robust first issue and promises so much more on the seas ahead.
Published by Image Comics
On June 20, 2018
Written by Christopher Sebela
Art by Joshua Hixson
Letters by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou
Cover by Joshua Hixson