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David F. Walker on Shaft, Nightshade and the Problem with Cyborg

by  in Comic News Comment
David F. Walker on Shaft, Nightshade and the Problem with Cyborg

Critical darling David F. Walker sat down with writer Geoffrey Thorne to discuss his career and perspectives on the industry during a special WonderCon panel focusing on Walker’s career, in comics and beyond.

Among the many stories he shared during the panel, Walker admitted that “Number 13” wasn’t his first professional work after self-publishing comics for many years. He’d previously worked on the English language adaptation of “Tokyo Tribes” for Tokyopop in 2004, though that mainly involved “putting in cuss words.”

Walker described the creative process on “Number 13” — which he called a “postapocalyptic version of Pinocchio” — as unusual. Artist Robert Love approached him to collaborate on a project that already had 24 pages drawn, with no words attached to them. He took more of a hands on role, learning to outline better, and Walker said there had never been any tension between them. “It felt really smooth. A lot of it was figuring out logistics… we’re friends to this day, he’s never pulled a knife on me.” Walker took general details and themes — a mutant eating someone’s leg, fight scenes — and translated that into scripts on a schedule.

Walker grew up in Portland and graduated high school the day Dark Horse Comics opened its doors. He took classes at the Joe Kubert School and the School of Visual Arts, but ended up working as a journalist. Diana Schultz reached out to him at his newspaper in 2001 to see if he would interview Will Eisner, who was coming to Portland for a Dark Horse event. Walker leapt at the chance, as no other outlet in town would cover the comics legend. “Mainstream America did not know who Will Eisner was until two years before he died,” Walker explained.

Eisner was skeptical of Walker at first, but they ended up speaking for two hours about comics, and Eisner found himself impressed with Walker’s comics knowledge. When Walker admitted making comics was his dream but maybe it was too late, Eisner responded, “It’s never too late for anything.” That set a fire under Walker that led him to accept Love’s offer. He’s proud of “Number 13” because it was the first work he didn’t have “in the trunk of my car, you had to have my pager number to get it. I’d be like, ‘You want some comics? I’ll be there in 25 minutes!'”

Shortly after that period, Walker was freelancing for MSN as an entertainment writer. He, along with the other sixteen entertainment writers were fired at the same time, which cemented Walker’s ambitions. “‘Hunger Games’ hadn’t come out, so it was like ‘Battle Royale’ for entertainment writers,” Walker said, who wanted to be writing fiction and comics.

Next in his publishing history came “The Supernals Experiment” with Canon Comics, a company founded by NFL veteran Philip Buchanon. “I’m broke, right? With the money from ‘Supernals,’ I paid an artist to draw ‘The Army of Dr. Moreau’ that had been percolating for five years. Didn’t pay my rent, didn’t pay my car note, didn’t pay any bills — I paid an artist.”

During this period, Walker pursued bringing John Shaft to comics. He tracked down the holders of the publishing rights and explained what he wanted to do: create a comic true to the novels. He got their blessing and brought the deal to Dynamite Entertainment, the only company he felt was right for “Shaft.” “They were silly enough to say ‘yes’ in writing,” Walker explained. A year and a half later, the deal was done.

“When I was looking at publishers that weren’t afraid to do R-rated — it had to be R-rated, not PG-13. They had to go there, and Dynamite was the only one that was going there and was still available in Previews. They were also licensing a lot of stuff.” Walker said he calculated that doing Shaft would “shave maybe two to three years off my professional journey. I hate to sound that cold and calculating.”

Walker’s editor on “Supernals” got a call from “certain publishers I won’t name,” looking for diverse writers. She sent “Supernals” to that company, saying Walker was easy to work with. Shortly before “Shaft” came out from Dynamite, Walker started working on one of their properties.

Revealed that he was talking about DC Comics and “Cyborg,” Walker said, “DC had seen ‘Supernals’ and they had seen ‘Army of Dr. Moreau,’ but they hadn’t seen ‘Shaft.’ I strongly believe DC was like, ‘We need a Black guy.’ I just happened to be in the path as that runaway train hit me. Around the same time, Marvel reached out to me, saying, ‘We love Shaft, you have a clear voice.’ When ‘Cyborg’ came out from DC, Marvel reached out again and they were like, ‘You’re the guy who wrote ‘Shaft?!’ This is what you’re writing?'”

“It was a cage match, it was tables, ladders and chairs,” Walker said of his time on “Cyborg.” “There was a lot of struggle. I was like, ‘You don’t have enough Black characters, so you have to be cognizant that this character means more than you think he means. It’s not the story about, ‘Is he more man or is he more machine?’ He is more man. If he was 99% machine, he’s still gonna be more man. The story is about, he can see his own humanity, it’s always gonna show through. I know because comics meant more to me than they probably should have. Black characters meant more to me than they probably should have, because there were so few of them.” Walker also noted the appeal the character had for disabled fans.

Walker said, “I was under the false impression that all we needed was diverse creators working on diverse characters, and we’d be on our way to fixing a lot of problems. No, you also need diverse editors, people in the marketing department who get it, the distribution angle has to get it, retailers have to get it, the comics journalists have to get it. Unless you get all these things to align, you’re Sisyphus.”

“I left DC prematurely,” Walker said. “Marvel was knocking at my door … it was a scary time. To the outside world, it looked like the timing had been perfect, that I left DC and had my Marvel stuff lined up. There was this gap, I’d drive by a Jiffy Lube and see they were accepting applications. I was a neurotic mess. Marvel was interested. We were talking about a ‘Nick Fury’ solo series, and the editor left and that fell apart. Nighthawk went into development, and we spent a long time on that. ‘Power Man and Iron Fist’ came along.” There were talks of him taking on “Black Panther” as well, but Walker was concerned about being pigeonholed.

Even with that, “Nighthawk” was the title that seemed to answer all fan questions about Black characters, but it didn’t sell well enough to stay afloat. Fortunately, it allowed him to rehabilitate Tilda Johnson a.k.a. Nightshade. “I kind of fell in love with Tilda,” Walker said. While it was Nighthawk’s book, his intention with the undone second story arc was to shift the focus to make her the actual main character, much as Milestone’s Rocket was to Icon. “Tilda is the women that raised me,” Walker said. “My aunts, my grandmother. Now, she’s in ‘Occupy Avengers.’ You couldn’t write a character this angry if it was a Black man.”

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