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Vengeance in Portland: Christopher Sebela and Joshua Hixson talk ‘Shanghai Red’, dealing with negativity, and mutual trust falls

Shanghai Red is a beautiful revenge story that tells a multilayered story with great writing and art.

Shanghai Red is a beautiful revenge story that tells a multilayered story with great writing and art. AiPT! recently had a chance to speak with creators Christopher Sebela and Joshua Hixson, who have put together one of the can’t miss books of the year.

AiPT!: How would you describe Shanghai Red?

Christopher Sebela: In my quickest summation? It’s a bloody, dark, turn-of-the-century revenge story about identity, family and a world between the Old West and the coming Industrialized Age.

Back in the 1800s in big port cities, there was a phenomena known as “shanghaiing.” Sailors on shore leave from their boats or just people frequenting waterfront bars would be tricked, drugged or abducted onto ships about to leave, looking for bodies to fill their quota and go on their next run. The abductees had had their signatures forged to contracts and were trapped on these boats where they got paid nothing and were subject to abuse. Our main character, Red, is one of those sailors. Except at the end of her contract, instead of taking their offer to sign back up or be left in a strange port in China, she kills them all, turns the boat around and heads back to Portland to reclaim her life.

AiPT!: There are some great revenge stories in literature, cinema and comics. Which ones influenced you?

Sebela: There’s kind of too many to choose from for me. I’m a fan of what my friend called “gun fiction” so I’ve seen and a read a whole lot of them. I like to think they all seeped into some unconscious soup that I used to figure out a lot of Shanghai Red. A couple I definitely had in mind along the road are movies like Point Blank, The Limey, John Wick and Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance Trilogy. As far as comics go, Darwyn Cooke’s Parker: The Hunter is maybe my favorite revenge narrative in the whole medium. There are others, but that book kind of shines so brightly it washes the rest out of my head.

Joshua Hixson: I wish I had a list as cool as Chris’s, but I can’t ignore the countless times I watched movies like The Count of Monte Cristo (2002 remake), as well stuff like Gladiator, Braveheart, and a bunch of Clint Eastwood movies. I was kind of at the mercy of whatever my parents had on DVD because we didn’t have cable growing up. So I watched all of those movies a lot and they definitely left a mark on me. I’m also really into more recent films like Blue Ruin and John Wick. As for comics, I loved characters like Ghost Rider and The Punisher. Those were some of the first comics I was able to get a hold of and I couldn’t get enough of them. Darwyn Cooke’s Parker: The Hunter is definitely a big one for me as well. It’s hard to say how much any one of these stories influenced what I brought to Shanghai Red, but subconsciously I’m sure I took bits and pieces from all of them.

AiPT!: Red speaks longingly of Portland and it seems it is more than just a random city you chose. Why did you set Shanghai Red in Portland?

Sebela: Historically, Portland was one of the shanghaiing capitals of the world. People were still getting abducted and put on boats from Portland as late as the 1920s, when the industrial age had already changed seafaring completely. Portland is also home to a tourist attraction called the Shanghai Tunnels, which were allegedly used to ferry the bodies of imprisoned people onto ships waiting on the banks of the Willamette River. Once I found out about the tunnels and Portland’s prominence in shanghaiing and corruption, the story came pretty quickly.

Personally, I’ve lived in Portland for the last eight years and I’ve spent a lot of that time learning about my new home, especially all the grimy dark stuff that they’d prefer you not know about. So, this is kind of my love letter to Portland, in a weird way, except I’m focusing on who it used to be and, I guess, trying to figure out how that informs this place I live in now.

AiPT!: Your use of heavy shadows brings a very distinct atmosphere to Shanghai Red. There is a sense of claustrophobia and foreboding that fit the story’s tone perfectly. What did you use as reference?

Hixson: I don’t really use a lot of reference to figure out the lights and shadows. I use reference more for stuff like character poses and historical accuracy for the setting. 
It kind of depends on the scene. For some, I’ll know exactly where I want to put the lighting and shadows and others I kind of make it up as I go. I do a good amount of the drawing in the inking stage and I like to keep that part as spontaneous and loose as I can. But yeah, I definitely wanted to use a lot of heavy blacks to set the tone in areas where it needed it. But I also tried to pull it back in places where color would come into play more.

AiPT!: The book is obviously a revenge story. During the first issue, Red speaks about her past, giving insight to her character and adding emotion to the story. What can we expect tonally and visually from the story?

Sebela: Tonally, I’d say it’s a pretty serious book. So much of it is rooted in actual history and populated with actual people from Portland’s past and the story is borne from a place in history that took a lot of peoples’ lives away from them. I felt like that deserved some reverence. But at the same time, we also try to really go for it when we break out into some of our more suspenseful or action setpieces. Ideally, we feel like we earn those moments by getting you to care about Red and what she’s in the middle of.

Hixson: Visually we definitely wanted a lot of the book to be dark and unpleasant, but within the parameters of a color palette that’s (hopefully) nice to look at at. There are also moments where I wanted to push it in a lighter, more beautiful direction. That part in issue one where she’s recounting her past is a good example of how the book changes tones; particularly with regard to the color. I tried to carry throughout the book as much as I could.

AiPT!: As previously mentioned, the book has strong emotional moments. It is also very violent. How do you manage to bring to two together so effectively?

Sebela: A lot of that is due to Josh. He’s able to make the two fit into the same world so well that they seem kind of interchangeable, which is what I was looking to do with this book; blur the lines between physical and mental violence in a way. That we can take a beating with some fists and walk away but the beatings we get inside our own heads are stronger and last a lot longer. Red’s explosions into physical violence are just louder expressions of the fights she’s going through in her head all the time. I wanted the emotional parts to be as much of a gut punch as, y’know, the actual gut punches.

Hixson: As much as I’d like to take credit for this, it really comes down to Chris and how he wrote the characters; specifically, Red. I just wanted to emphasize all of those moments so that they stood apart from each other, but in a way where it doesn’t feel like we’re trying to tell two totally different stories. That would have been a lot harder had the characters and story not been written in an authentic and believable way.

AiPT!: What do you want to emphasize in Shanghai Red?

Sebela: I’m not good at answering these kinds of questions. More than anything, I want to tell a really good story. Something satisfying that is worth your money and time. Whatever readers get out of it beyond that is sometimes stuff I wasn’t even aware I was going for when I wrote it or came up with it. There’s definitely stuff in my head I can see in the issues that mean a lot to me, but if someone else sees It or If they don’t, I just want to tell stories that aren’t out there in the world and have someone else pick it up and see something of themselves in it.

Hixson: I think it took me a while to figure out what I wanted to emphasize most with this book. It’s something I wasn’t really concerned with at first, because you kind of figure those things out as you go. Starting off, I knew the basic plot and outline but we didn’t have scripts for every issue. So the more I got from Chris the more I learned about Red’s character the more I cared about her. I wanted to get that same feeling and empathy across to the reader.

AiPT!: How did you two come together for the series?

Sebela: We met on Tumblr. I messaged Josh after seeing his at and asked if he’d want to work together on something and weirdly he said yes. I’ll let Josh tell it because it’s a better story from his end.

Hixson: Yeah, it was Tumblr. I had just got out of school and made a point to have a good web presence in the hopes of getting work. I got a message from Chris one day and he asked sort of nonchalantly if I’d be into doing a book. My immediate reaction was this guy probably isn’t serious, or that he wants me to draw his ten thousand page magnum opus for exposure. I had had a bit of that up until that point. I really didn’t think someone who was already established would want to work with me. Once I saw he was the writer for Dead Letters which he was doing at the time, I got super excited. It was a book that I had heard and wanted of and I think I went out that day, bought it, loved it, and was instantly onboard.

AiPT!: The art and story work together perfectly. What is the working process like for you two?

Sebela: We work pretty separately since we live on opposite coasts of the country. From the beginning, I would just send Josh pages, sometimes chunks of scripts if that’s all I could manage, sometimes whole scripts. Then Josh comes back with pages done. We used to do a process where we’d go over thumbnails but it was clear early into issue 1 that we could just skip that step entirely. Now Josh just sends me inked pages and a voice memo explaining his thoughts on it. Which are cool to hear, but I can’t remember the last change I had for him. The stuff he changes is for good reason and usually better storytelling than what I gave him. I think we work really well together. It’s just a mutual trust fall, really.

Hixson: Yeah, it’s kind of evolved over time. There’s a lot less back and forth now because we kind of get each other more and Chris is cool enough to trust that I won’t totally screw up his scripts. Much of that came about by communicating about things like panel count and the overall real estate of pages depending on what’s going in a scene. But yeah, overall I think it comes down to building a trust. Chris is also just super easy to work with in general.

AiPT!: Red is a strong woman. She and her story are very topical. Was this intentional?

Sebela: No, I don’t try to be topical. That stuff doesn’t age very well to me. Once you’re out of the moment, then you lose a lot of your storytelling currency and momentum, I guess. Everything in the story is driven by history. So our story about Red and the worlds she moves through is based on reality then. Any significance you might see to today’s atmosphere probably speaks more about how we as a country and a people haven’t really come as far as we’d like to believe in the 120 or so years since.

AiPT!: You have been working on the book since 2014. How much has the story changed since you started it?

Sebela: The majority of it has been the same, the skeleton of it, but getting to live inside this world, inside of these characters has definitely enriched a lot of stuff that was initially way under the surface. Taking this long to get the book out was not in our plans at all, it was just a necessity to, y’know, stay alive and stuff while we were making it. But I think it’s worked to our advantage — we really got to soak it in and, if anything, hone it down to the bone of what was absolutely essential. I don’t recommend it as a way of telling a story, but in this case I think it’s made our book better.

Hixson: Yeah, it definitely wasn’t planned this way, but I think it worked out for the better. We took some significant breaks in between the first couple issues to work on other projects, so coming back to it each time after being gone for a while made it feel refreshing and new again.

AiPT!: The story has been a very cinematic look and feel to it. How did you manage this?

Hixson: I wish I had a smart answer but I’m not really sure why that is. If I had to guess I’d say it’s how I like to use light and composition. I also don’t like to do fancy pages with crazy layouts that dart your eye everywhere. I like to keep things fairly simple and I think that may have something to do with the cinematic feel to the story. A lot of my storytelling sensibilities has probably come from looking at Sean Phillips’ work so much. The way he lays out his pages is so smart and concise and there’s definitely a cinematic quality to his work.

AiPT!: Comics used to be an escape from the real world. Even books like Shanghai Red that are not your typical superhero comic, have immersive stories that provide an escape. There seems to be an ugliness that exists in the comic book world today. How do you deal with this negativity?

Sebela: I think there’s ugliness that lurks everywhere these days, it’s just a lot easier to see. And I still write my books as escapism, both for myself and ideally for anyone who picks it up. Shanghai Red is definitely not the most upbeat form of escapism but it’s the kind of story I tend to go in for. I mean, John Wick starts with a dog getting killed but I love that movie. I deal with negativity from myself on a non-stop basis. I’m clinically depressed and self-loathing is pretty up there on my list of idle activities (but I’m working on that) so any negativity that might come out of comics is nothing compared to the stuff running around in my own head. I guess the one thing I’ve done is I’m trying to push comics that I love to people who might not have caught them the first time around. I love comics, but even with the stuff you love, sometimes you have to remind yourself why. So I’m doing that.

AiPT!: You are both active on Twitter. I saw Christopher joke that Twitter is the only place you get pushback for pointing out should not say offensive things. Do you ever think of just going off the grid?

Sebela: Not at all. Any complaints I have are tempered by the fact that I get to talk to friends of mine and just babble random stuff out there and get responses from people that fill in gaps or teach me about stuff I never knew. I think Twitter is great. I think there’s a big sour side of it too, but I do what I can to avert my eyes and just enjoy myself. Granted, I kind of suck at that, but I’m constantly a work in progress, so I plan on sticking around and weathering any storms that blow through.

Hixson: I’ve definitely thought about it, but I don’t think I ever would. Mainly just because of how useful social media is as an artist. Sure there’s a lot of people who actively make it terrible to look at, but overall it’s a great way to connect with people. Especially in comics.

AiPT!: What’s your favorite revenge story?

Sebela: Probably Point Blank/Parker: The Hunter (the movie/comics adaptation of Richard Stark’s The Hunter). Because there are no heroes, there’s just varying degrees of evil, with Parker being the evil we can live with because he just wants the money he’s earned that was stolen from him. He just has this set dollar amount he wants to collect and he’ll tear through anyone in his way to get it. That force of nature-ness of Parker seems to sum up revenge to me, just endless and unstoppable and unable to be reasoned with.

Hixson: I’d probably have to say The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that remake I don’t even remember if it’s actually a good movie, but what I always loved about the story was the patience that the protagonist Edmond Dantés had. That slow process of him getting free and building a new life to enact his revenge was always captivating to me.

Shanghai Red will be in stores June 20th.

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