SHANGHAI RED #1 by Christopher Sebela and Joshua Hixson
Despite its dark and sometimes claustrophobic atmosphere, SHANGHAI RED #1 succeeds on nearly every account. The deep focus on lead character Red and the grim and gritty plot make for a fresh and realistic pirate adventure unlike any other.
97 %
Exciting Voyage
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The seas were not a kind place to sailors during the height of the Age of Pirates. On any voyage, a skull and crossbones flag could crest the horizon. A crew of pirates could accost your ship, leaving you penniless, if not dead. This is the pirate story that we all know. However, many don’t know of those Americans shanghaied into pirate service. Drugged or drunk, these hapless citizens would wake the next morning aboard a pirate ship, contracted into slave labor. This is the side of pirating that SHANGHAI RED #1 explores, not the looting, greedy, and rum-soaked aspect. It delves into the gritty, dirty, and often dark side of adventure on the high seas. More importantly, it does so in a way that is constantly enticing.

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Molly, a.k.a. Red, was the sole provider for her family before getting shanghaied. Disguising herself as a man named Jack, Red found a job and a life outside of society’s strictures. However, this life draws the wrong sort of attention. After a night of too much drinking, Red awoke aboard a pirate ship. Three years later, and the contract is up. On the day of her release, though, Red stages a mutiny, slaughtering all of their captors. Taking control of the ship, Red sets sail back to Portland. The blood hasn’t stopped flowing, after all. Someone has to pay for putting her on that ship.

Blood on the High Seas

SHANGHAI RED #1, Page 1. Courtesy of Image Comics

Pirate fiction always excites me. Whether it be a long time fascination with PETER PAN or PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, the idea of high seas adventure enthralls me. With that said, SHANGHAI RED #1 is nothing like any other pirate narrative. For one, it has a deep devotion to the real hardships of life on a pirate ship. This is a dark story, and Writer Christopher Sebela does a brilliant job making that believable. There is a moment when Red lifts her shirt to examine her scars, scars earned by the pirates’ tortures. In that moment, this story showcases the true gravity of its source material. Pirates weren’t some ideal you’d aspire to become. Most were corrupt monsters.

That darkness may not appeal to every reader. God knows that it shocked me when Red begins her early killing spree. However, this story does something rather special with that darkness. It uses it to inform the lead character. That anger and resentment makes complete sense once you realize what happened to Red. More importantly, it just feels so different. There is a kind of dark psychosis that hovers over this book. It feels nothing like the giddy Jack Sparrow insanity. Rather, it is gnawing, gnashing thing always in the background. That thing is the sea and all of the hardships that come with it. Sebela brilliantly focuses this plot on that darkness. He constantly reminds us that pirates only want one of two things: money or blood.

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Red’s Journey

SHANGHAI RED #1, Page 2. Courtesy of Image Comics

One of the reasons SHANGHAI RED #1 feels so satisfying stems from the focus on Red. This is definitely her story, and the slow revelation about her life throughout this issue made her character stand out. Her need to disguise herself to find work; her constant vigil over her family; the eventual betrayal that got her shanghaied. All of these elements come together to create a well-rounded and interesting character. My sole complaint about this issue comes from the fact that Sebela gives so much to us at once. He kind of drops her entire backstory on the reader in one large bundle, making it hard to parse through. I would have preferred to see these pieces spread throughout future issues, slowly building on her persona.

With the focus on Red, many of her fellow crewmates do fall to the wayside. In fact, the only other important character is her right-hand man Boston. In almost every other story, I would call this out as a failing of the writer. However, Sebela does something really cool in SHANGHAI RED #1. He calls attention to the pinpoint focus on Red. At one point, Red claims to have killed the pirates to save the crew. However, Boston believes that she only saved herself. In the end, Red’s story is solely personal. She has no space for other people outside of their utility to her plans. With that said, the generalized nature of her crew makes sense. She doesn’t form any personal bonds with anyone, meaning they don’t need lengthy characterization.

Red Water

SHANGHAI RED #1, Page 3. Courtesy of Image Comics

Joshua Hixson handles the art in SHANGHAI RED #1 and I have to say I love his style, although it isn’t particularly detailed. In fact, his character design isn’t entirely realistic. Sometimes, they even look a bit cartoony. However, I barely noticed this because of the way Hixson handles atmosphere. Even in the bright light of day, SHANGHAI RED #1 feels just as moody and dark as the story needs. This story works so well because Hixson knows visual storytelling. His panels and pages are so dynamic, amplifying the dark and exciting nature of this already compelling story.

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SHANGHAI RED #1: Final Thoughts

SHANGHAI RED #1 is an incredibly exciting new release for comic book fans. The dedication to the gritty realism of pirate life feels refreshing, if a bit bloody. The deep focus on the protagonist also leads to an intense and powerful experience. Red’s anger and thirst for revenge feel believable, and the way Christopher Sebela handles her character truly feels satisfying. Couple these fantastic elements with Hixson’s fantastic art, and you have a winning new series for Image.

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