During the 19th century, Portland, Oregon invited waves of pioneers into its valley for work and commerce around the Columbia River and the nearby Pacific Ocean.
Like much of the American West during that timespan, the city stood as a symbol of freedom and new beginnings. But for some new settlers, the biggest surprise came with an unexpected blackout.
Countless legends recount tales of new arrivals—without family or wealth—going out for a drink (or multiple) and waking up on a ship at sea. These victims have been pressed into a crew, evidenced by an inexplicable signature no new sailor remembers providing. If these men and women are paid anything, much of it will be stolen by the predators who sold them into service. They will be abused and beaten, and if they try to flee, they will be treated as criminals.
They have been shanghaied.
Shanghaiing is one of the underexplored horrors of American history, a practice common to American port cities between the mid 1800s and the early 1900s. Though all traces of this history have been scrubbed from the surface of the city, Portland was the nation’s capital for this mythic shanghaiing. In Shanghai Red, a new series by writer Christopher Sebela, artist Joshua Hixson, and letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, one sailor forced into a ship’s crew turns the tables on their captors and sails down a bloody path of revenge, leading into the seedy underbelly of Portland’s forgotten shanghai culture.
“Portland was one of the epicenters of shanghaiing,” Sebela, a Portland resident, says. “It had an international reputation as a place where men went out drinking and woke up on boats. Portland really leans into it nowadays, especially with a local attraction called the Shanghai Tunnels. It’s one preserved section of what were a series of tunnels under downtown Portland that led to the shore of the Willamette River, and a lot of stories abound about how kidnapped men were kept in jail cells until they could be sold to ship’s captains. Some of our local legends are shanghaiers like Bunko Kelly and Larry Sullivan.”
Sebela says the story for Shanghai Red started on a tour of these tunnels with two other Image creators.
“What sealed the deal for me was a few years ago, I went on the Shanghai Tunnels tour with Jordie Bellaire (Redlands) and Declan Shalvey (Savage Town),” Sebela says. “They tell a lot of lurid stories (many of which are probably not true at all), and as we left, all three of us admitted to having come up with a really good story while we were down there. So I felt like I was onto something.”
The hero of Shanghai Red is Molly, an auburn-haired woman who, for years, disguised herself as a man to avoid violence and harassment on her maritime prison. As much as the story revolves around her external struggle to find revenge on those who wronged her, it’s also an internal struggle with her questions of identity. For Molly, being a man has slowly become more than a disguise. In more than one way, she’s torn between the identity she was born with and the identity she was forced to adopt.
“In the last few years, I’ve definitely started to come to terms with some Big Questions I’ve had about myself and where I fit in the spectrum of things,” Sebela says. “[These] aren’t easy discussions to have with yourself, so I channeled a lot of that confusion and processing into Red and her story. How she dealt with living these two lives. Her confusion over how one aspect of yourself sometimes fits better than the other, and sometimes neither of them do. It definitely comes from a lot of thinking I’ve been doing lately.”
For Molly, that conflict is as troubling and divisive as her outward quest for revenge.
“I didn’t want to make it a very easy and neat thing, because these things seldom are. From myself, to knowing and talking to other people who wrestle with identity issues, a lot of them are really messy to figure out. That’s what I wanted Red to be—someone struggling with all this, under the absolute worst of circumstances.”
These outward and inward conflicts are both visible in her detailed character design. Sebela wrote general ideas to Hixson for what Molly might look like, specifically that her design should show the impact of a hard life at sea.
“Sailing was physical torture for actual sailors,” Sebela says. “People who’d had no experience and who were subject to beatings, I wanted to make sure we conveyed that without being too exploitative. Scars say a lot about a person.”
In Hixson’s hands, the vague suggestions of hardship became a detailed tapestry of violence: missing fingertips, bandages, torn clothing, scars, and tattoos in the cryptic iconography of sailors. “We really just wanted to make her look as rough as possible when we first see her,” Hixson says. “There was also a bit of back and forth about her hair. All of this changes throughout the book though, through the passage of time, but it also happened organically. I started to draw her a little differently as we got further into the book, which I think worked out well given that her appearance changes a bit with each new disguise.”
As the book evolved, Hixson, who also colors the book, says the visual style and palette evolved with it, from a more subdued palette to something more colorful and vivid. “I started off with a pretty clear idea of how I wanted to color it but ended up going back and changing a bunch of things after doing the first half of issue one. I was getting the script as I finished pages when we first started, and getting more of the story changed how I wanted to color it. One example being the flashback sequences; they were originally black and white, but when I got to some of the more emotional scenes with Red telling her story, I knew it had to be in color to convey the right mood. One thing that went unchanged that me and Chris both agreed upon early on was the importance of [the color] red and how it would be used throughout the story. Those are some of my favorite moments. That and all the sunset scenes. I love sunsets.”
Like Molly’s story, the comic’s portrayal of 19th-century Portland is a mix of history and creative license. “I looked up a lot of reference of the Portland docks, and what the general landscape looks like, but [the port scene] is really just from my head,” Hixson explains. “Unless it's a specific location or I find the perfect photo to go off of, that's usually my method.”
The docks, factories, and dark city streets of Portland will play a prominent role in Shanghai Red as Molly cuts her way back through the vast web of shanghaiing. “Shanghaiing had its own weird culture,” Sebela says. “The ones in charge were called crimps, and they owned boarding houses where they’d overcharge sailors into debt then sell them off. The crimps had underlings named runners who they’d send out to meet incoming boats and lure the sailors away, so the ships suddenly needed to buy men from the crimps.”
But Sebela says the infection of the shanghai culture spread beyond the city ports. Reflecting that history, Molly’s quest for revenge will take her deeper into the city. “The whole thing extended all the way up into city government and political leaders who knew about it and were even in on it,” Sebela says. “Once I found out one thing, it led to the next fascinating part, and eventually I was sucked in.”