Red is one of the 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 reveal who she truly is. Now, she’s on her way back, in a boat covered in blood, to find her family—and to track down the men responsible for stealing her life out from under her.
It’s actually more akin to the kind of prestigious show you would see on a network or streaming service (think Deadwood, Peaky Blinders, The Terror). It’s a fantastic title that shows you how versatile comics can be as a medium for any genre. Chris and Josh took some time to talk to us and tell us a bit about Shanghai Red.
Chris Sebela: It’s become a term of more general use, so I’d heard it as part of the language, but after I moved to Portland and started investigating its general history, one thing that kept coming up was how it was this huge hub for people getting abducted into service on ships. Portland was the capital of the world in terms of shanghaiing at one point. Then I went on a tour of the Shanghai Tunnels and it was all over after that.
Was making Red female always part of the story?
Chris: Yeah. It was the first thing I thought of, really. Because in those days, women who got shanghaied suffered a far worse fate than any guy who did. But it wasn’t just adding a layer of danger for Red. Not only was she stuck on this boat for years, but she had to keep herself disguised as a man to keep from suffering worse. It felt like it drove the stakes up and also made it more unique than just another story about a guy coming back for revenge.
So you have some themes and issues you hope to explore?
Chris: Being a revenge book, a lot of it is about hate, anger, violence — about how far someone will go and what constitutes being made whole. At what point in the cycle do you feel like you’ve been paid back for what’s been taken from you by taking something from someone else?
On another level, a lot of this book is about identity. Red’s spent all this time drawing a line inside herself between her and Jack — the name she gives to herself when she dresses like a man to get the kind of work she wanted to get in a world where women were told to aim for domestic work and the like. She likes being Jack, but he’s also responsible for her being on the boat, so there’s a lot of conflict she deals with, trying to figure out which of them is the killer and which is the victim. It’s also about families, the kind we belong to and the kind we build for ourselves, and America in a weird period of time after the Old West was over but before our new modern age started up.
What made you choose comics as the medium to tell this story?
Chris: I’ve been telling stories in comics for several years now and it’s the medium that makes the most sense to me. I like the structure, doling out information in 24-page bursts once a month, crafting issues that stand on their own as well as part of a bigger thing. It’s ridiculously challenging sometimes, so I never get lazy, I’m always up against some brand new problem or another. And I get to collaborate with artists like Josh, who bring it all to life, turn my idea of a story into something actual and real. I’ll dabble in other fields, but comics is what I love to do.
How much research do you have to do?
Chris: A lot. More than most books, because our book is taking place in reality, in a very specific time and place in history, involving real people. Plus I like to build my books on top of a layer of facts so that anything really wild we put on top of it feels a bit more stable. I spent a lot of time in libraries and special collection files, taking lots and lots of notes. Read a lot of books on sailing and shanghaiing and Portland’s waterfront in the 1890s. I overloaded with info and then kinda let my brain go to work sorting out what’s most useful and the stuff that’s interesting but doesn’t really matter in the long run.
How big of a role is Portland going to play in the series?
Chris: I’m not gonna be one of those writers who say it’s another character in the story, but this story doesn’t exist without Portland and its history. It was the tunnels that drew me in, they’re pretty unique to the story of shanghaiing because it really spoke to how ingrained this practice was into the DNA of Portland at the time. The town was so corrupt that everyone knew these tunnels were down there and home to all sorts of crimes and stuff and it was just business as usual.
So are are you a big history buff then?
Chris: I am. I like to read nonfiction more than fiction and I’ll take a good documentary over a Hollywood film any day. There’s just so much in history that is completely messed up and over the top and unbelievable but it’s all true. I like it because, on one level, I just like stories. But on another, it almost gives me permission to go further in my own, because when the reality is that bizarre, anything I come up with will have to push pretty hard to overtake it.
How did you get hooked up with Josh?
Chris: We met on Tumblr back in 2014 when Tumblr was something I actually used on a daily basis. I went thru his page and saw how great his stuff was and messaged him out of the blue, hoping he’d want to work together on something. Fortunately, he said yes and I pitched him on Shanghai. Luckily he said yes again and we started from there.
What’s your scripting approach when working with Josh?
Chris: It changes a lot. Sometimes I’ll give Josh a complete script. Sometimes I’ll give him several pages while I figure out what comes next or just to see what he’ll do with them and use that as a springboard for stuff I hadn’t considered. That’s not an ideal way to work and I don’t recommend it, but mostly it’s just ultimate trust between us. We don’t go over thumbnails or anything, Josh just sends along inks in batches and they’re always better than the pages I sent him. So I keep doing what I’ve been doing and hope I don’t screw it all up.
How ahead have you written so far?
Chris: The fifth issue is all done on my end, Josh has already wrapped the 4th issue and moved into 5, so we’re humming along. But, and I think this somehow got lost in the process, we’re just doing this as a 5 issue series. I do have ideas for a 2nd and 3rd arc that I would love the chance to do and dive more into the lives of Red and Jack and everyone else because I’ve grown attached to them. But I think ultimately, we just wanted to show up and tell a great story, so we’re not aiming much beyond that unless the response merits it.
Do you have an end to the story in mind?
Chris: Yeah, for sure. I’ve had it in my head pretty much for the last 4 years. I think a few details have changed, but I know where we’re going, even final images. I like to have openings and closings handled before I get too deep into a story because the middle can shift wildly so long as you have your anchors. Hey, I made a boat metaphor!
So Josh, on to you! How do you approach visual reference in a historical tale like this?
Josh Hixson: I wish I had a more exciting answer but it’s mostly just a lot of googling and reading. It’s a somewhat easy process for things like props and clothes, but it gets trickier with architecture for specific locations; particularly with interiors. Chris was also super helpful with acquiring photo reference. A good portion of the work for reference is just me taking pictures of myself in clothes that best resemble the character’s wardrobes.
How do you create your art? Is it digital? Because it has a very ‘hand-drawn’ feel to it.
Josh: It’s a mix of digital and traditional. I draw the thumbnail layouts by hand in a small notebook and then draw over those with digital pencils in photoshop. Then I print those out on copy paper and lightbox over them with ink on 11×17 Bristol. Lightboxing is basically just putting a piece of Bristol over the printed pencils and onto a table that lights up so you can see the pencils through the Bristol and ink over it. I like to ink traditionally but I think I’m gonna have to try to go all digital at some point. I’ll try anything that I think might save me some time.
I really love the striking gutters between your panels. What made you choose such a dynamic layout?
Josh: I dunno, I’m a fan of keeping panels separated by a nice gutter, as opposed to having no gutter or having panels overlap. There’s a simplicity to it that I love. I used to try to do crazy things with panel arrangements or have them be their own element of the storytelling but it always felt forced. It’s the kind of thing where because it CAN be done in comics I felt like I had to experiment with it. At some point, I just accepted that I liked simple panel arrangements. It’s also because of the type of story Shanghai Red was, though. I might approach panel layouts differently if it felt right for the story.
Do you have any specific artistic influences?
Josh: Yeah, too many to name. The people I tend to look to the most are guys like John Paul Leon, Sean Phillips, Paul Azaceta, and Jorge Zaffino. There are so many others but I almost always have those 4 artist’s books next to me when I’m drawing. For color, I’m pretty much always looking at Elizabeth Breitweiser. There’s really no one who does work like her. Her application of color is so unique and her palettes always blow me away. I could stare at her work all day.
Did you have a specific visual style for this story from the beginning?
Josh: I don’t think I’ve been working long enough to have a specific visual style. I mean, I definitely tried to draw the book a certain way when I first started, but because that was a couple years ago I feel like my style evolved into something slightly different. I’ve always drawn with a kind of roughness which is definitely prevalent throughout the whole book, but I still feel like I have no idea what my style is. And I’m not really worried about that like I used to. I think it’s something you acquire slowly over time. Right now, I think I mainly just have a specific way I ink. I try to only worry about getting better at drawing and storytelling.
What do you look most forward to drawing in the world of Shanghai Red?
Josh: I liked drawing the ‘revengey’ parts. Chris really went out of his way to up the brutality and always found new ways for the baddies to go down. It was fun trying to figure out the best way to show that on the page. There are a few scenes I’m thinking of in particular that are pretty messed up, to say the least, which were really fun to draw. I also loved drawing the more quiet and somber 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.
What’s the process of working with Chris like?
Josh: It’s been great. I haven’t worked with a ton of writers in my time but I don’t think it gets more easygoing than Chris. He’s always open to new ideas or trying things differently and really gave me a lot of liberty with the book to do what felt right. More than that I’m just really a fan of the work he does. I’m definitely biased but I also think Shanghai Red is some of his best work yet. There’s a kind of subtlety to this book and its characters that I love so much and tried to tap into. So yeah, I couldn’t be happier to be working on this book with Chris. I’m hoping there’s another Sebela story with my name on it down the road.
How long does it typically take you to finish an issue?
Josh: Well, unfortunately, there’s never been a time where I wasn’t working on other projects while also doing Shanghai. I wish it was my only job but I do other work as well to pay the bills. So for some issues, the start to finish time was at least a couple months. But I average a page a day when I am working on comics so I know I could do it on a normal monthly schedule. I dunno, I think about the constraints of time a lot and how technically I could do 2 books in a month if I really tried, but I’ll always want as much time as I can get to make the book as good as possible. Within reason of course; too much time can also be a very bad thing.
Shanghai Red #1 is due out June 20th, 2018 from Image Comics.