In panel after panel and page after page of writer Christopher Sebela (Crowded, High Crimes) and artist Joshua Hixon’s Shanghai Red the central character, Molly “Red” Wolfram — in the guise of her male persona “Jack” — beats, bashes, and bludgeons dozens of men to death in brutal fashion. This is all with good reason given what the aforementioned men have done to her and would be compelling enough on its own given how beautifully rendered and scripted everything is. However, the underlying themes and character development, tugging at the edges of Molly, and Jack’s, unraveling persona and humanity elevate Shanghai Red beyond the usual revenge story into something significantly more interesting and coherent.
What’s it all about? Image’s preview reads:
“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.”
A compelling hook! One that is even more empowered, however, by the effectiveness with which Sebela’s narrative and dialogue details Red going about exacting her revenge. From an opening scene where Red slits a shipmate’s throat, to horseshoe brass knuckles boxing matches, Sebela maintains an incredible tension and tenacity that doesn’t let up centered primarily on this great character-driven plotting.
Meticulous and articulate, but also callous and careless, blinded by rage but wary of how it will affect the rest of her family (her well written and nuanced sister, Kate, who features prominently), Red is a fantastically realized character that I came to care for by the end of the first of the five issues contained in this collection because of the juxtaposition of these contradictory ideals — she feels real, authentic — her quest all the more important because of this. Further underlining this character work is her assumption of a male persona “Jack”, first to get work, but secondly because she undeniably likes it, calling upon Jack to do the work of killing men that Molly may not be able to. One line of dialogue encapsulates this perfectly:
Red (as Jack): “Do I look terrifying?”
Her sister, Kate: “You look like a man.”
Red: “That’s what I meant.”
It’s more than a revenge story, then. It’s a story of identity and change. Molly became Jack to first find work in Portland, but Jack becomes so much more. Maybe Jack always existed, exists within all of us for various purposes, as Sebela drip feeds bits of Molly’s backstory throughout five issues sometimes confusingly interspersed throughout the story without much warning, but always important. Sure, it’s violent and brutal, red blood flows, bricks break people’s faces, 1800s lingo flies (thankfully without too much burden) but there’s so much richness to this exploration of what the process of becoming the monster it takes to kill monsters does to her, how it makes her almost unrecognizable to the home she’s returning to. That’s the strength of the plot here, and it’s impressively realized, honed and worthwhile for what on the surface may just be a revenge story.
Similarly, Hixon’s work is impressive in both its surface level brutality — bloody, brash, violent and barbaric — but also in its more intricate extrapolation. Those moments of throat slitting and face-breaking are great, if too frequently awash in a monotone pallet of red, black, and blue, but what really shines is the flashbacks and hauntings.
As Red details her family’s story of traveling across the continental United States to Oregon, a beautiful tapestry of blues, oranges, yellows and more akin to very real pioneer paintings themselves takes hold — an authentic depiction of a beautifully unburdened American wilderness tinged by the violence of men (thematically fitting!). Likewise, and in similar effect to books like House of Penance, Hixon beautifully and creepily brings to life the ghosts of death and violence that haunt Red, will probably take hold of her, in a strong juxtaposition to otherwise quiet, dialogue-driven or contemplative scenes with rivers of blood and howling faces, bodies stripped of their flesh. It’s disarming, effective, and in perfect keeping with the narrative predilections that Sebela is exploring.
That’s the main takeaway here, that these creators are so impressively complimentary that this story in both its immediately violent and brutally impressive revenge interests as well as its larger, more exploratory character-driven ones cannot help but be successful. Sure, there are minor hiccups in plotting and artistic monotony along the way, but they’re overcome so easily by the sheer willpower of the craftsmanship and storytelling that this demands being read. I highly recommend it.
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