By Zack Quaintance — Shanghai Red—a new creator-owned book from Image by the rising team of writer Christopher Sebela, artist Joshua Hixson, and letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou—is an ambitious comic, one that opens fast and vicious, with art that makes readers all but feel salty blood mingling with the unforgiving sea. It quickly gives us a protagonist—murderous and mysterious Jack—and a reason to root for them in spite of the violence they’re committing, that reason being that they’ve spent years on the boat enslaved.
After a white-knuckled opening volley, however, Shanghai Red #1 grinds to a bit of a halt in the service of necessary but slow backstory dissemination. This exposition isn’t bad or clumsy here, no. It does, however, feel abrupt and incongruous with the high action opening of the book’s first act. As a result, the pacing in Shanghai Red is almost at odds with itself, creating an effect presumably akin to battling for your life against a mugger and then having to immediately sit through a lesson about history. No matter how exciting that history is, that shift is still a tough adjustment.
Simply put, the middle of this comic feels a bit slow relative to the action of its beginning and the tense foreboding crescendo of its end (which, no spoilers). Still, with our protagonist’s backstory so thoroughly and thoughtfully laid out, there’s every reason to believe Shanghai Red will establish itself in coming issues as a top-tier comic. The artwork is especially something to behold, not just for the craft and visual quality, but for the choices Hixson makes with perspective.
I was particularly impressed with the way he used spacing in each panel to convey what the characters within must have felt. Scenes below deck were kept dark and cluttered, claustrophobic the way ships in the 1800s surely felt, while scenes with characters looking to horizons were wide and free, sometimes taking up entire pages. The end result is feeling at once trapped and limitless, as if readers too were traversing the seas.
Overall: Shanghai Red #1 is the first issue of a book with MASSIVE potential, and both the writer and artist hit some truly impressive heights here. Now that the protagonist’s backstory has been made clear in great detail, this book seems poised to sail (sorry!) to some really exciting places. 8.0/10
Zack Quaintance is a journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at @zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.