Portland has a not-so-secret dark past, in the late 1800s, of kidnapping men and forcing them to work as sailors. Known as shanghaiing, the practice is undisputedly part of Portland’s history. What’s less certain is the purpose of the underground world beneath Portland: a system of interconnected passageways known colloquially as the Shanghai Tunnels. Whether the tunnels’ use aided in the abduction of men into forced labor, its existence is a legend within Portland’s history. This seedy past provides the backdrop for Christopher Sebela, Joshua Hixson, and Hassan Otsmane Elhaou’s SHANGHAI RED.

We meet Red, the protagonist of SHANGHAI RED, shanghaied out at sea. After years spent stolen away from her family, she’s about to take her life back and exact revenge on the men who abducted her. But SHANGHAI RED is more than a revenge tale. ComicsVerse spoke with Christopher Sebela and Joshua Hixson, who give us a deeper look at what we can expect from SHANGHAI RED, out June 20th from Image Comics.

shanghai red
Courtesy of Image Comics

ComicsVerse (CV): To begin, can you tell us a little about SHANGHAI RED and what we can expect from the series?

Christopher Sebela (CS): SHANGHAI RED is a revenge book set in late 1800s Portland, where people were regularly abducted and woke up on ships sailing out to sea, forced to work the crew with very little money and no protections. Our main character, Red, is one of those people, only she’s going to break free and take the boat over to go back to Portland. Both to find her family that she left behind as well as all the people who were responsible for putting her on that boat. It’s a book about identity and family as well, where we dig into how Red lives a double life as a man named Jack and the past that makes her so attached to her mother and sister.

CV: The legend of the Shanghai Tunnels seems to be a combination of myth and historical fact. Are there certain elements of this legend that you’ll be expanding on and making your own?

CS: Definitely. That’s one of the things that drew me to it. That it’s a disputed thing in Portland history and depending on who you listen to, the tunnels had nothing to do with people getting shanghaied or it had everything to do with it. The tunnels do actually exist, though most of them were filled in as new construction made its way through Old Town Portland. They were largely built to move cargo from ships thru town without getting caught in street traffic. But they also became home to the Chinese Tongs — a place they could set up their own enterprises where they wouldn’t be messed with.

The whole idea of the tunnels being used to transport people to ships in secret is, from what I can tell, largely a myth. Portland was so corrupt and used to the practice that you could just carry a drunk person on the back of your wagon up to a ship and toss them on, no one would bat an eye or raise their voice. So I tried to deal with all these conflicting threads and comb them all into one united view. There’s no way to know for sure, there will always be disputes about this, but I try to present an accurate picture of the tunnels, with a hint of artistic license to give the opposing sides some room in my take too. And because the tunnels are just so perfect as a set piece and a metaphor for everything.

CV: Chris, you’ve spoken with CBR about your interest in the Shanghai Tunnels and press gangs. Josh, what is it that drew you to this story and Portland’s history?

Joshua Hixson (JH): It felt like a fresh portrayal of revenge, particularly with regard to Red and how layered her character was. The revenge genre is pretty easy to phone in because you already know what the character wants. But Red’s story goes far beyond wanting to get back at those who did her wrong; there’s a lot of things happening internally with her character that make her all the more compelling to follow.

As for the history of Portland, I knew next to nothing about it prior to Chris approaching me. He came to me with a lot of research he’d done which just compounded my interest in the book. Every city has its history of a criminal underbelly, and Portland’s is particularly unique. It’s more than just a backdrop, though, the setting is an integral part of the story. And while it’s just a glimpse into Portland’s history our hope is it’s one that people haven’t seen before. That was certainly the case for me.

shanghai red
Courtesy of Image Comics

 

CV: We first meet Red as “Jack,” the persona she was under when she was shanghaied. How will we see Red’s relationship with/as Jack develop throughout SHANGHAI RED, and how integral will that side of this character be to both Red’s identity and the story?

CS: Jack and Red’s relationship with him — with this part of herself — is a big focus of our book. Not only is Red trying to exact revenge, but she’s trying to come to terms with Jack at the same time. She began living as him to make her life better, to expand her horizons and get her the kind of work she wanted, sharing tables with the kind of people she felt comfortable around. But Jack is the reason she got shanghaied out of Portland, and who she had to live as to keep herself safe on the boat. Jack is who she blames. But she also knows, deep down, it’s her.

But Jack is also advantageous to her goal. She can hide as him, he can get her into places where women weren’t allowed, he lets her move through the world without being watched and monitored. It’s a strange relationship, for sure, so we wanted to dig into that as much as we could, so that all the blood and violence actually means something at the end of every issue.

CV: The first issue of SHANGHAI RED progresses through a variety of settings and moods — from Jack’s entrance in the ship’s gritty interior, to Red’s flashbacks to her past — and presumably will lead to the Shanghai Tunnels themselves. How how did you both approach all these tone shifts in the story and art, especially between Jack and Red?

CS: One of the joys of comics is being able to work at a pace like this and have it make sense to the reader. In any other medium, you risk jumbling things up, getting one mood into a scene where you don’t want it at all. Comics makes all of this make sense and flow in a way no other medium can. So I tried to play to those strengths, and Josh’s strengths, by keeping things moving while still keeping people invested in Red and the others on the boat. We didn’t want this to just be a straight shoot ‘em up type book, we wanted everything to have weight and consequence to it.

Josh and I talked awhile before we started in on pages and I always had that opening in my head since I came up with the story, but the more we worked together, the more invested we got in Red and her story, so she’s our constant, she pulls us through all these worlds along with her. It’s just the approach that made the most sense to me to put the reader directly in her shoes and experience everything she’s gone thru so they can understand why she does what she does next.

JH: I think we both approached the division of Red and Jack organically as opposed to some kind of dichotomy. It wasn’t like, when she’s Red things are this way and when she’s Jack things are another way. Maybe that struggle exists with her internally to some degree, but visually we didn’t want it be so on the nose. So, while Jack is violent and impulsive and Red is more reserved, the tonal shifts from one to the other felt organic to me, with each side of her being shown in different lights. At the end of the day Red and Jack exist in the same person, so it made sense to me that it shouldn’t be so cut and dry.

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CV: Though Red is more than capable for the task at hand, she seems extremely unsettled by both her past and her present situation. What’s going to challenge Red as she seeks revenge on the men who shanghaied her?

CS: Largely herself. Red has been living with just herself for the last three years, stuck in her head, going over and over all the decisions that led her here. And she’ll have to deal with that when she returns to the real world. Try to make it make sense so that she can go on with her life. She’ll also run into people in Portland who will help her. Both people she wants to get back to and people she wants to hurt. I think what challenges her most is that there is no clear-cut good and evil. No black hats and white hats. Everyone gets their hands dirty in this world and it becomes a matter of how much of that you can live with — both from yourself and the people around you.

She’ll also be going up against the network of people who helped to pass her from a barstool to the cargo hold of a ship and it won’t be a simple track them down and light them up scenario. The whole city of Portland was a network of people making money off the boardinghouses and crimps who stole people away onto ships and how do you fight that?

shanghai red
Courtesy of Image Comics

CV: What elements of SHANGHAI RED are you most excited for readers to experience and explore?

CS: The art. Finding Josh and getting to work with him has really been a privilege because he started out great and has only gotten better since then. Plus his coloring work is just as good as his linework. When I first saw Josh’s art I thought he’d be perfect for SHANGHAI RED and it’s one of those rare moments where I could just see a thing come together naturally in my head. And then it did. But truly, Josh is great and only getting better and I feel lucky to get to partner up with him on this book and hopefully one or two more down the road.

JH: I’m excited for people to go on this journey with Red. Chris wrote a truly unique protagonist and I’ve become really attached to her character over the course of making this book. There’s some memorable moments in this book that are both brutal and beautiful and I’m anxious to see how it’s all received.

CV: Finally, do you have any additional upcoming projects we can also look forward to?

CS: I have another Image book coming out in August called CROWDED, which is all about an America ten minutes in the future where a platform for crowdfunded assassinations exists. I also wrote 2 issues of HARLEY QUINN coming out in June. I also have a couple other things in the works that are way too secret to mention anything other than vague sentences like this one.

JH: I’m in the middle of also finishing art on another book called THE BLACK WOODS which is more in the vein of horror about some high school kids who start to mess with a lost book of magic. It’s written by Joe Ciano and we’re currently wrapping up the penultimate issue. It doesn’t have a home yet though, we’re working on that as well.

SHANGHAI RED Debuts June 20th

You can join in on Red’s revenge on the men who shanghaied her, and her journey as Jack, in SHANGHAI RED starting June 20th. In the meantime, you can keep up with Christopher Sebela and Joshua Hixson on Twitter at @xtop and @joshixson, respectively.

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