The previous “Shaft” miniseries landed at #19 on CBR’s Top 100 Comics of 2015, and for good reason — it was a fantastically intense, well-constructed look into the flawed heart of a man. Set before the events of Ernest Tidyman’s first novel, the series examined John Shaft as a young man coming up in the world and learning right from wrong in the toughest circumstance imaginable. By contrast, this second miniseries sees the character pushing forward into life as private investigator while simultaneously working as a consultant on a new Blaxploitation movie.
It’s a typically wry twist on a story from Walker, who is not only writing Dynamite’s Shaft comic books, but new prose stories starring the character as well. Maintaining a singular voice through two mediums isn’t easy, and Walker spoke with CBR News about the process, how he first brought Shaft to Dynamite’s attention, and what awaits the sleuth in this new story.
CBR News: The first Shaft series at Dynamite felt more like an opening salvo than a singular statement on the character. Was it always your intent to get to continue telling stories with the character, both in comics and in prose?
David Walker: I had certainly hoped to tell more stories, and had more in mind, but I was always aware of the fact that there might only be this one opportunity. The first Shaft series was the first ever Shaft comic book, and I wanted to make sure that if it was to be the first and only, it would be something of merit. The reality of the comic business is that if it doesn’t sell well, it doesn’t have much of a chance of longevity. I knew this going in, and there was always a very clear understanding between myself and Dynamite. Fortunately, the series did okay — not great — but okay enough in terms of sales, that it had a chance of continuing. And then there was a slow burn of positive critical reception, and my stock started to rise, and suddenly all the factors were in play for a second series.
If I’m not mistaken, you essentially brought the series to Dynamite. You spoke to Ernest Tidyman’s estate about the rights, then you raised the idea to Dynamite and essentially pulled this whole project together. Is that accurate?
Yes, I reached out to Chris Clark-Tidyman, Ernest’s widow, and told her I was interested in doing a Shaft comic series. Chris was very receptive, and very supportive. The idea of doing a Shaft comic had been in my head for a very long time. When Darwyn Cooke started doing those Parker adaptations, it rekindled the fire I had to do something with Shaft. I reached out to Dynamite, because I knew the comic would need to be done by a company with experience in licensing, and who wasn’t afraid of a book that would essentially be R-rated. Garth Ennis had just done “Red Team,” and I really liked that book, so I reached out to Dynamite.
Is there much collaboration with the estate?
Chris and I occasionally email, and she has been super supportive on every level imaginable, but that’s it. There’s never been any sort of notes about doing things this way or that way. I know that Tidyman himself was not too happy with the direction the films took, and the television series was even more of a misstep, so I knew to not go that way. I decided to stick with the books, and the character as he exists in the literary world.
You’re currently writing both the comics and new prose Shaft stories somewhat simultaneously. How easy is it to cross between the mediums and retain a singular voice for Shaft?
It has proven to be quite a challenge. Aside from the fact that there are considerable differences between comics and prose, I took a different narrative approach for both projects. Tidyman’s original novels are written in the third person, and he reveals a lot of what the characters are thinking. This is hard to translate in comics, so I decided to have Shaft narrate the comics, which is an homage to many classic detective stories. At the same time, I chose to not have him talk about the case as much, and instead focus on what he was thinking or feeling about life. Basically, I figured if Shaft was going to talk to the reader, he would be talking about more than what was going on in the moment. That’s part of the beauty of comics a storytelling medium — you can play with the juxtaposition of not just image and words, but action and character development. This gave me a chance to really build the character up in a very personal way.
For the prose novel, I stuck with Tidyman’s narrative style. This way, I was sharing a lot of what Shaft was thinking and feeling, though some of it was stuff he would never admit to personally. I don’t know if that makes sense or not, but I wanted to make sure that some of the narrative in the novel was especially revealing about where he was at in his life. Chris Clark-Tidyman once told me that for Ernest, Shaft was like an old friend that would come over and tell stories about his life. That struck me, and I really wanted that kind of relationship with the character. Instead, I turned into his therapist, but that worked out just fine.
Politically, Shaft is a fascinating character, especially in a smaller-scale environment. How do you think we’ve seen him grow between the first miniseries and this new series?
In Tidyman’s first novel and the first movie, Shaft arrives on screen as a fully realized character. In the book he has back-story that never made it into the film, but in both cases, we know who this guy is pretty quickly. In the first miniseries, I was showing how he became the person that we know — it was essentially something of an origin story. In this new miniseries, as well as the novel “Shaft’s Revenge,” we are seeing him somewhere closer to where he was when he first entered the pop culture landscape. In this miniseries, he is someone that people know — he’s had some high profile cases, and people actually recognize him on the street. I can’t say he’s more comfortable in his skin than he was, but he is more established in who he is.
Whereabouts is this new series set in Shaft’s timeline? He’s working as a detective at this point, right?
This story takes place shortly after the events chronicled in Tidyman’s original novel, as well as the events in the first movie. We’re talking a month or two after the biggest case of his career, and he’s taken something of a tumble on a personal level. The case he’s coming off ended in violence, and that is one of the monkey’s on Shaft’s back, his capacity for violence and killing. We see him crawling out of the hole he’s been in, and trying to get back on his feet with a case that won’t demand too much of him.
At this point we’re hitting the ’70s, and Shaft himself is hitting the headlines. How is he responding to being much more the center of attention as this series begins?
He’s not in the best place when we see him. Shaft is a violent man. He is good at being violent. But that violence comes at a high price, and we’re seeing him at a time when he’s tired of paying that toll. The first miniseries really helped to establish how violent he can be, but it also sets up the loss he has endured, and how be became such a violent person. When this series starts, he’s practically a celebrity. But he’s famous for violence, and that messes with his head.
He’s working as a consultant for a blaxploitation film as part of your story, which adds a meta-narrative to proceedings. What do you think this brings out of the character, being roped into Hollywood whilst still working as a PI?
The idea started out as something of a joke — wouldn’t it be funny if Shaft was hired to be a consultant on a blaxploitation film? But as the story developed, it began to evolve into something more of a statement on how Black heroism is portrayed on film — both in the 1970s, and now. The comic itself is a statement on this perception of the hyper-masculine Black man, but then we peel back this other layer that reveals the absurdity of that perception itself. This concept of the film was also an opportunity to explore, and poke fun at people who think they understand the character of Shaft, and what he represents. I’m talking about people like the producer of the recently announced “Shaft” reboot, which is supposed to have a comedic tone.
That doesn’t sit well with me, and I suspect that most attempts to infuse humor into a Shaft story will fail. So, I wanted to put humor in, to show that the real joke isn’t Shaft, or the 1970s, or strong Black heroes, but clueless producers who think they have their finger on the pulse of blackness. I’m not one of those writers who thinks that only women should write women characters, or only Black people should write Black characters. That line of thinking is total crap to me, but I do think some people are too stuck in their perceptions and preconceived notions to do anything other than a disservice to characters that are not white men.
You’re joined for the series by artist Dietrich Smith. What has that partnership been like so far?
Working with Dietrich has been great. He has a much different style for Bilquis Evely, who drew the first “Shaft” series. Dietrich has a style that reminds me of underground comics of the 1960s and 70s. He hits a really good stride in the first issue, but in the second issue, he’s firing on all cylinders. If you look close, you can see that there are other stories going on in the background, which really gives the world a sense of density. There’s a scene that takes place in Times Square, and there are all these little things in the background that bring that world to light.
How does the change of artist reflect the changing tone of the series, for you? Would you say you have a more noir-ish, harder approach to Shaft as we approach this second miniseries?
I’m not sure if I’d call it a change in tone, so much as an evolution. Dietrich’s art has a gritty quality to it, which gives the book more of a down-and-dirty feel. Bilquis definitely captured the world, and it had a hard-hitting tone to it, but that tone has changed, becoming more grim and dilapidated. What we’re seeing on the page is a reflection of a world Shaft is more deeply immersed in than when we met him back in the first series. Few things evoke moral depravity than Times Square in the 1970s, and Shaft is definitely associated with that world. Cinematically, this is the world where we first saw him. In an essence, this is his world.
There’s a reason why you never saw Shaft in Times Square in that first miniseries, and its because it hadn’t become his world yet. When we see him in this miniseries, especially the second issue, this is his world. Now, how it became his world is another story.
The series won a Glyph Award for Best Story last year — how have you found the response to the series, both as a whole and specifically from African-American comics fans and creators?
It’s been an incredible feeling on so many levels. The first series touched so many people, of so many different stripes and backgrounds, that it blows my mind. There were people that either didn’t know Shaft at all, or only knew him in this rudimentary context as an icon, but not a character. Those readers were incredible to meet and interact with, because their love and acceptance of Shaft meant he had a strong appeal outside of a niche audience. But the real treat has been the way the series was received by Shaft fans who never read comic books. I got message from people, and had folks walking up to me at conventions, and they’d say, “My dad is in his sixties, and he doesn’t read comics, but I bought him ‘Shaft’ and he loves it.” Nothing compares to that feeling.
That said, it has been great to get positive feedback, especially from other Black creators and fans, who get what it was that I was trying to do with the book, and that is to show a Black character with a complex personality and genuine emotions, moving through a hostile world. That is, after all, the story of the Black experience in America.
When you first started writing, what audience did you have in mind for the comic? Was it difficult to balance the idea of Shaft as a nostalgic icon vs. Shaft as a character for contemporary audiences?
I made decision from the very beginning to be true to the character in Ernest Tidyman’s books — that was it. I knew if I could bring that character life, if I could build on what Tidyman created, I’d have a great character for the comic world. As much as I like the movies, I had no desire to portray that character. The cinematic Shaft is mired in a bit too much iconography, and to be perfectly honest, not nearly as well developed as the character in the books.
Shaft in the books is a veteran of the war in Vietnam, a former juvenile delinquent, an orphan, and emotionally disturbed man with a knack for killing. Shaft in the movies is a badass with an afro and a great wardrobe. It’s a no-brainer which character I would want to play around with. I knew that if I did it well, the people that know Shaft as an icon would be pleasantly surprised that the book was more than afros and asskicking, and that the people that knew the literary character would be happy as well. If I was writing for any one particular fan, it would be the fan of the books.
But honestly, I was writing for two people — Ernest Tidyman and John Shaft.
“Shaft: Imitation of Life” #1 goes on sale Feb. 10 from Dynamite Entertainment.