Everyone knows the Song. Isaac Hayes' "Theme From Shaft" is one of the most recognizable movie themes out there, and John Shaft, as a character, is known by name to many fans of pop culture. But the details of the character, the man himself, are less well-known. On Saturday at the Emerald City Comicon, writer David Walker talked about resurrecting one of the most recognized, but least understood, characters in pop culture in his new comic book series from Dynamite Entertainment. "He's an enigma. People know the name, but they don't know the character," said Walker. "People walk up to me and say, 'Is this like a Black Dynamite thing?' and then I smack them in the head and say, 'No, this is Black Dynamite's dad.'"
Shaft is mostly associated with the Richard Roundtree film adaptations, and the movie version of the character was explicitly compared to James Bond in much of the marketing. However, the character's roots aren't in cinema, but in pulp detective stories. "John Shaft changed pop culture forever, which is interesting for a character created by a white guy from Cleveland," said Walker, referring to original novelist Ernest Tidyman. "In the books he was a throwback to Philip Marlowe -- the books are very pulpy detective sort of things. The third book is where you can see the more James Bond-y sort of things. It becomes more international."
Part of Dynamite's deal with Tidyman's estate includes the possibility of re-issues of the original novels, which editor Joe Rybandt expressed hope for. Walker has also written Shaft novels on his own, and, over the course of his dive into the life of the character, discovered Tidyman attempted a John Shaft newspaper comic. "Tidyman tried to do a syndicated 'Shaft' comic strip, like a 'Dick Tracy' sort of thing, and I wondered, 'Does this strip exist?'" said Walker. "It was interesting seeing them, because they're probably like twenty of them, and in the novels Shaft doesn't look anything like Richard Roundtree. Tidyman hated Richard Roundtree and he hated that he had a mustache -- the thought that there could have been a daily 'Shaft' strip, I don't know what I think of it, but it's fascinating, nonetheless."
In exploring the character of Shaft, Walker has explored what it's like to be a veteran, and what it's like to take a human life. "I looked at that with a lot of young black men now -- who are going into the military who are taught to kill, but they're not taught how to reintegrate with society. I sat down with this guy who was ex-Special Forces and he went into the military when he was young," Walker recounted. "He had something like 37 confirmed kills. He said, 'I got out of the Army when I was 21, and I had 37 kills.'" Walker said the encounter influenced his depiction of Shaft, a fairly young black man who is a veteran, and who has a large body count to his name. "I thought a lot about that, and I thought about what it was like to be criminalized not because you're a bad person, but because it's what you need to do to survive. In the books, Shaft's an orphan -- I know those guys. Not just young black men, but especially them."
Shaft is highly associated with the Isaac Hayes theme song and '70s music in general, and Dynamite has included a track list of songs to enjoy wile reading each issue of their new "Shaft" series, a practice Dynamite started with their "Django/Zorro" miniseries. "The playlist is interesting, because I don't listen to music while writing, but I do think in terms of music," said Walker. "Some people thought it was weird that there was some Anthrax on there, but you don't kick someone's ass to Marvin Gaye."
Walker talked extensively about how he found the character of Shaft compelling precisely because he is so troubled and grey. "I think that what's interesting about the character as Tidyman created him," said Walker, "is that there's this line that separates the good guys from the bad guys. The cops are good guys, but they're really corrupt. The gangsters are bad, but they have this criminal code. Shaft is in a grey area -- everybody needs him. If one person could represent the necessary evil in a city of corruption, Shaft is the necessary evil.
"In the movies he's cynical and comical, but in the books he's cynical and reluctant," Walker continued. "He's sort of mercenary in that way. He's almost an anti-hero -- he's reluctant in what he does. He's in it for a paycheck, but that paycheck has a higher moral price that he has to pay, and that is more in the books. That's what drew me to the character."
Both Walker and Rybandt were optimistic about the comic's future. " Walker expressed interest in taking a '70s character and seeing him age and interact with the changing world of the '80s. "I would love to do a Shaft story set in the early '80s -- and deal with the shift in America, with Reagonomics, crack cocaine -- it would be Shaft versus Ollie North. And I'd like to see what kind of father he'd be. How does a guy who has all these issues with women raise a daughter?"
"We're not going to just do six issues and never do it again," said Rybandt of Dynamite's plan for the franchise. "I would love to be up here and talk about 'Shaft' #100 -- It's not ending. This story is ending right now, but it's not over."