Revenge is often times depicted in quick, passionate, and sometimes unconscious actions in an attempt to right a believed wrong. There are other times, though, that revenge becomes justice wielded by a clear-thinking individual determined to return balance to their life and world. Shanghai Red is a story like this and creators Christopher Sebela and Joshua Hixson have brought to life a dangerous part of America’s history. The story follows a young woman that was taken from her life and now seeks to subtract this injustice from those responsible. Set in Portland at the turn of the century Shanghai Red is a unique comic book story that promises to reveal to the reader a dark time in history. Creators Sebela and Hixson gave me the opportunity to discover more about their creative process for their book.
Chris Campbell: What drew you to the history behind Portland and to turn it into a comic book?
Chris Sebela: I moved to Portland about 8 years ago and, like I do with any new city I live in, once I figured out what the present tense situation was, I wanted to go back into what it used to be like. There’s a lot of troubling stuff in Portland’s past, and the entire state as a whole. Eventually I found out that this town used to be a capital city for the practice of kidnapping sailors and other folks onto boats — known as Shanghaiing. What really got me into this was going on a tour of the remnants of the shanghai tunnels here in Portland, where you have to go under the street into a section of tunnel that wasn’t filled in. It’s dark and claustrophobic and the tour guide is talking about these horrible things people went thru being shanghaied, while you’re looking at piles of old shoes and what look like prison cells. By the time we came up to street level, I had a story in my head, which turned into Shanghai Red.
CC: Did you base Shanghai Red on a particular incident or is it a creation of your own?
CS: I based it on a lot of historical facts, but the engine of our story is totally made up. I just wanted to get as close to a baseline level of reality so I went and did massive research: reading old documents at the Central Library, preserved letters from sailors, ancient newspaper articles, seaman’s records. Lots of stuff. Red and what she does and goes through in our book, there’s nothing in history that I found to match that. But that’s what made me want to tell this story, because it was something we created, not just a retelling of the past, but using the past to tell the kind of stories I want to tell.
CC: In what ways does the story and Red in particular relate to the world we are living in now.
CS: People from a hundred, two hundred years ago, they’re still people. It’s still a story that ideally someone now can relate to on an emotional level, but weirdly, I’m kind of the wrong guy to ask about that. I often don’t really know what I’m angling at until the book is over or sometimes while I’m in the middle of it. I just know the things I want to do, the moments I want to have and that’s what I handle. My subconscious takes care of all the rest. I mean, you could draw parallels between Red’s journey and the present — our story largely focuses on Red and other women who have been denied a place at the table and have had to fight tooth and claw to get their bit — but I tend to try not to do that and let the reader decide.
CC: As a writer what are you doing to keep this from becoming just another revenge story? What makes Red’s journey unique?
CS: A few things, I think. Our setting, for one, takes place in that weird space between the Old West and New Industrialized Age, which is kind of a blank spot in the big picture view of America. Cars weren’t a thing yet, big sailing ships ruled the sea. It was where the past was still holding on tightly but the future was coming to destroy it and maybe people sensed that, wanted to get ahead of it. Also, our hero, Red, isn’t just a mindless revenge machine. She had to hide who she is in order to get the kind of life she wanted, dressing like a man to get the kind of work she was most suited for but was denied because of who she was and then getting abducted because of who she’s pretending to be. Our world is largely focused on her and women like her, who were shunted to the side, denied a place at the table, and how they fight back against it. Plus, I like to think, despite all the blood and violence, it’s nothing compared to the emotional warfare Red is up against, both with herself and those around her.
CC: In this series will Red/Jack have to deal with any mental problems from maintaining a split personality for so long?
CS: For sure, and that’s where we start with her. She’s been forced to live as Jack for her entire time on the boat. Women who got abducted and put on boats suffered a much worse fate then men ever did, so she had to stayed disguised as a man, to shut down any part of who she really is and just focus on building this fake person as her only means of protection. And now she’s back in a world where she doesn’t have to do that, but she’s too invested and she’s too torn by who she thinks she really is and the things she’s done to get herself back home, so she tries to offload it onto Jack. He’s the one who did all that stuff, not her. And also? She kind of likes being Jack. It feels natural to her, in a way that being herself never did. So she’s struggling with all kinds of identity dilemmas as she’s trying to navigate this new Portland and get her pound of flesh.
CC: When writing dark stories how do you handle having your mind in that world for so long. Does creating a world and situation like the one Red is in affect you negatively?
CS: Not really. Maybe I’m just dark all the time, but I don’t think so. Things like these are a good outlet. You pour it all onto the page, every ugly emotion and bad feeling and sinister impulse. Then you get to stand up and walk out into the world where none of these things are swirling around you. If anything, it’s sometimes hard to get myself back into that dark of a mood to really write the book the way I know it needs to be written. So I have to work to get myself into Red’s mindset, re-envision this city I live in the way it used to be. If this work affected me negatively, I’d probably look for another line of work. Mostly, it’s like free therapy.
CC: What drew you to Chris Sebela’s story?
Joshua Hixson: I liked that it had a lot of layers to it, particularly with regard to Red and how she navigates her way through the story. Revenge is a pretty easy genre to phone in but I could tell Chris put a lot of thought into the story and characters. I also loved the setting of 1890’s Portland and felt like it was unique time and place for a revenge story. But it’s more than just a backdrop; the setting is an integral part of the story and Chris did an excellent job blending history and fiction, which was a big part of what drew me to the book. Chris is also really good and getting you to care about his characters. Which is probably the biggest thing I look for in a story.
CC: What references did you study to come up with costume and set design for Shanghai Red?
JH: It was a lot of googling. Chris also gave me a good amount of reference he came across during his time doing research which was super helpful, but for the most part it was just a matter of looking up what I needed and collecting photo reference page by page for stuff like clothing, architecture, props, etc…. I also went to Portland for the first time for Image Expo which was such an informative experience; just to be there and get a lay of the land and to see where everything is in relation to one another.
CC: What technique did you use that was most important to the story?
JH: Not sure how to answer that exactly. I guess if I had to pick one thing it would be the way that I tried to ink the book. I don’t have a particularly clean line and I wanted to emphasize that a bit with this story. I felt like it called for something that was rougher and unpolished. Same with the coloring. It was a marriage of those two things I think.
CC: What did you enjoy the most about bringing this story to life?
JH: I liked doing the confrontational scenes. Chris was very inventive with the brutality and how people kick the can. It was fun trying to figure out how that would all look on the page. There’s a few scenes in particular throughout the story that are…pretty messed up. But they were always fun to figure out. I also loved drawing the more somber and quite moments as well. Trying to evoke those kinds of emotions is probably my favorite part of storytelling and fortunately Chris gave me ample opportunity to do that with this book.
CC: Is it difficult to illustrate a story that takes place mostly in darkness?
JH: Not exactly. The darker it is the easier it seems to be for me. Mostly just because I like to work with a lot of heavy shadows and fortunately that was what this story called for most of the time. The difficulty usually lies in trying not to be too repetitive and make the same marks and decisions, particularly when things are in shadow. So, in a way, the fact that it feels easier for me is kind of the challenge. If stuff starts to seem easy it usually means I’m not learning anything, and that I should try to approach it differently.
Shanghai Red hits stores June 20, 2018 from Image Comics.