Shanghai Red TP
One part John Wick, one part Sin City, one part Mad Max: Fury Road, and three parts Gangs of New York. Shanghai Red is a bloody revenge story set in late-1800s Portland.
If you are looking for a multilayered revenge story featuring a nuanced protagonist and a setting inspired by both historical fact and urban legend, I have good news.
You found it.
“Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”
Those are divisive words. Endearingly hopeful. Timelessly poignant. Somehow both insightful and foolish. But whatever your emotional reaction, know that they are not words to live by.
Jay Gatsby is delusional.
The Great Gatsby’s title character is a tunnel-visioned Romantic who spends strange amounts of time creeping on a past lover. Evidence of Gatsby’s creepiness: he 1) amassed a fortune for the sole purpose of wooing his ex-girlfriend, 2) bought a mansion near his ex, 3) adopted a materialistic mystique crafted specifically for his ex, and 4) did all of that without really considering his ex’s feelings, marriage, or young child. Gatsby’s greatness is the result of unfiltered, unmitigated hope for a relationship that ended years ago. For nearly 200 pages, Gatsby tries to manipulate time and feelings like a god.
But we are not gods, and we cannot repeat the past. Gatsby’s hope is flawed. Time spent wandering is time lost. So when the protagonist of Christopher Sebela’s Shanghai Red declares in an early scene that she is “taking every moment of it back,” readers should take note.
Molly, also known as Red, is the protagonist of Sebela’s comic, and she is different than Jay Gatsby in most ways. She is smarter, stronger, and more self-aware.
But Red and Gatsby share two important traits: they both spend life-changing time on a boat, and they both want to revisit moments from the past.
Shanghai Red is a violent revenge action-drama filled with bullets, blood, and—most importantly—beleaguered family moments. The story’s protagonist was robbed of some important moments, and she wants them back. (Thus the bullets and blood.)
At times, reading Shanghai Red can feel like reading a Ray Bradbury novel. Readers are tossed into scenes without lifelines and forced to pick up details slowly as the scenes progress. (High schoolers may remember trying to figure out what the hell happened to Mildred at the beginning of Fahrenheit 451.) This style is similar to the film technique of beginning a scene with an ambiguous or decontextualized close-up before clarifying the surrounding landscape (through rack focus, panning, dollying out, or a number of other techniques). And it can be effective as long as the reader or moviegoer has enough patience. A few Shanghai Red readers have opined online that Shanghai Red’s use of this technique—an aggressive version of in medias res—is distracting or confusing. I don’t entirely agree (because expecting all comics to be narratively simple is a monstrous misstep for the comic community), but I do offer a word of caution: read Shanghai Red when you have the time to read Shanghai Red. It is a comic that begs to be read at a steady pace—neither rushed nor prolonged.
The artwork, beautifully crafted by artist and colorist Joshua Hixson, is a hazy splash of color and silhouettes. Reds and blues bleed from panels, and the characters walk from panel to panel through a thick fog, as if they are trudging through dreams—unpleasant dreams.
That’s what Shanghai Red is: a violent, dreamlike tale of revenge. Not quite a nightmare. Not quite a fantasy. Just a fog through which those looking for justice try to navigate. And most readers will find that a deeper understanding of redemption and justice waits for them on the other side of the mist.
Whether you read Shanghai Red for the action or for the drama (and you should read Shanghai Red), remember that revenge is a timeless story. Deep down, we all want to get and give what is deserved. Red’s story may take place in the 19th century, but parts of it are unnervingly relatable.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Shanghai Red: Can’t Repeat the Past?
- Writing - 8.5/108.5/10
- Storyline - 9/109/10
- Art - 8.5/108.5/10
- Color - 9/109/10
- Cover Art - 8/108/10