The Heroes Of This Week's Best New Comics Are Searching For Answers And Vengeance At Sea

If you, like me, are a sensible person who knows better than to willingly put yourself in obvious danger, then you know to stay far away from large bodies of water, because they are teeming with aquatic horrors just waiting to kill you. This is a fact.

Shangai Red's Red and a crewmate gazing at a port from the deck of the Bellwood. Illustration: Joshua Hixon (Image Comics)

For some reason, though, none of the heroes of this week's new comics seem to have gotten this very important memo, as they all insist on not just being near oceans, but full-on diving into them. You have to admire their fearlessness, but at the end of the day, you could really consider each of these comics cautionary tales just waiting to happen.

Aspen Matthews emerging from the sea. Illustration: Siya Oum, Peter Steigerwald (Aspen Comics)

Fathom

There are many secrets and mysteries yet to be discovered in the murky depths of the Earth's oceans, in large part because surface-dwelling humans simply don't have the technology necessary to properly explore what lies beneath.

In the world of Aspen Comics' Fathom, humanity has a keen sense of just how much it doesn't understand about the oceans because of a young woman named Aspen Matthews, a member of the aquatic, water-manipulating race known as the Blue.

In Aspen's original Fathom series from the late '90s, she's is one of several passengers discovered aboard a cruise ship that suddenly returns to port 10 years after it mysteriously vanished at sea. Unlike the other passengers, however, Aspen was seemingly picked up during the ship's voyage and had no recollection of her life aside from her first name.

Aspen's new Fathom opens at a point in her life where she's already become an established hero and guardian of the seas, which the world now knows to be populated by the Blue. Unlike so many other stories about sunken civilisations of sea people, Fathom frames Aspen not just as a member of a race that detests humanity, but also as a cautious liaison who understands the delicate balance between worlds that needs to be maintained.

While artists Siya Oum, Peter Steigerwald and John Starr's scenes on land are charged with intense emotions, it's in the panels that take place underwater where Fathom's visuals really shine. The details in the dense illustrations of marine life and the moments when Aspen is using her abilities are astounding, and have the overall effect of making Fathom a visual delight. (Ron Marz, Siya Oum, Peter Steigerwald and John Starr, Aspen Comics)

Tom, a deep sea explorer, being pulled into the murky depths of what might be Atlantis. Illustration: Alvaro Sarraseca, Chris Blythe (Aftershock)

The Lost City Explorers

Civilisations from across the world have told legends of a once-great city whose technological and cultural marvels were lost to the seas, never to be seen again. In every telling, the exact place where Atlantis once stood is a little different, which adds to the overall mystery of the tale, but in Afteshock's The Lost City Explorers, Atlantis' location is decidedly closer to the US than usual.

Deep beneath the grimy streets of Manhattan, a group of engineers and explorers working for a company called Sagan Labs have discovered what appears to be a portal to an undersea world that can only be activated by playing a specific melody.

While the team is elated that their years of research have paid off, their mission is cut short when a pool of water near their exploration site seemingly comes alive in the form of a humanoid woman - and begins drowning a number of the scientists. For those who survive, the attack is a horrifying reminder about just how much they don't know about the answers they're trying to find.

However for Helen, the teenaged daughter of one of the drowned explorers, the attack is a reminder of just how lost and adrift she feels in the world. Artists Alvaro Sarraseca and Chris Blythe render the parts of New York that Helen moves through with a flat and dreary greyness that will ring true to anyone who's ever found themselves depressed and in pain while living in the concrete jungle.

As shaken as her father's death leaves her, though, Helen's steadfast in her suspicion that Sagan's hiding something from her and her family. By the end of The Lost City Explorers' first issue, it becomes all too clear that she's better off going with her gut. (Zack Kaplan, Alvaro Sarraseca, Chris Blythe, Aftershock)

Red disposing of the Bellwood's previous captain. Illustration: Joshua Hixon (Image Comics)

Shanghai Red

Beneath the streets of Portland's Chinatown lies a complex network of underground tunnels that connect many of the city's older buildings to the waterfront of the nearby Willamette River. For years, the tunnels were used to transport goods directly to establishments as they were offloaded from boats.

But it's also believed (though it's something of an urban legend) that the passages were also used to "shanghai", or force, unwitting sailors into stints on ships they did not agree to.

In Image's Shanghai Red, one such unlucky soul named Red finds herself in such an unfortunate situation - stolen from her life and made to work on a ship for two years.

One day, the captain of the Bellwood announces that the enslaved workers are free to depart when the ship hits land. But the Bellwood's captives aren't really being freed, considering that they're to be dropped in Shanghai itself, thousands of kilometres from their homes in America.

Red, being the sensible person that she is, makes the bold decision to murder the Bellwood's captain and anyone else on the ship who wasn't dragged onto it against their will the way that she was.

While her fellow captives are stunned at her sudden bloodlust, they're even more shocked to learn that she's a woman, a woman who found freedom in 19th century America by posing as a man, which is where Shanghai Red's tale of revenge becomes something much more fascinating.

Though a powerful desire to be reunited with her family is a large part of what drives Red, Shanghai Red is also a story about what it meant for a woman or gender non-conforming person to subvert social norms at a time when they were strictly regimented.

In her life before being captured, Red found freedom in posing as a man, because it enabled her to exist in spaces where people understood and respected her for her talents.

In a way complimentary to the fact that Red is most able to be herself when the world reads her as a man, Shanghai Red is infused with a distinctly masculine energy, thanks to artist Joshua Hixon's brutally elegant illustrations that are rendered in a bold, limited colour palette of blacks, reds, oranges and greys.

For Red, the world around her is simple enough to understand - even though it may buck at her refusal to abide by its prevailing notions about what kind of person she is.

With the Bellwood under her command, her goal of exacting revenge on those who kidnapped her is that much more within reach, and by the end of Shanghai Red's first issue, there's little doubt that anything's going to be able to stand in her way. (Chris Sebela, Joshua Hixon, Image Comics)


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