“Shaft” is a legitimate pop culture icon. Even if you haven’t seen the films — three produced in the ’70s starring Richard Roundtree, and a 2000 remake with Samuel L. Jackson as the lead — you’re likely well aware of the oft-referenced “Theme from Shaft” written and performed by Isaac Hayes, featuring lyrics like, “Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks?”
John Shaft was introduced in novels before making the leap to theatrical films and, later, a series of TV movies — but the character hasn’t yet appeared in a comic book. Dynamite Entertainment has set out to change that, with the New Jersey-based publisher announcing earlier this year that it had acquired the rights to not only bring Shaft to comics, but also release new prose novels and reprint past books. Today, the publisher announced that its “Shaft” series is set to premiere in December from writer David F. Walker and artist Bilquis Evely — who has past Dynamite illustration credits, including the “Doc Savage” miniseries — plus covers by Francesco Francavilla, Michael Avon Oeming, Ulises Farinas, Matt Haley, Sanford Greene and, collaboratively, Denys Cowan & Bill Sienkiewicz.
Walker has in-depth experience with the genre that spawned “Shaft.” He was a co-writer 2009 book “Reflections on Blaxploitation: Actors and Directors Speak,” and his blog BadAzzMoFo frequently focuses on 1970s Black films. He’s also a comic book writer, with his most notable credit being 2012’s “Number 13” miniseries at Dark Horse Comics. The series will tell the origin story of John Shaft for the first time, picking up after the character has returned home after seeing combat during the Vietnam War.
In his first interview on “Shaft,” Walker tells CBR News how Ernest Tidyman’s novels heavily inspired his take on the character, the importance of “Shaft” to him as a creator, the responsibility of telling this origin story, teaming with Michael Avon Oeming and Taki Soma as part of the “Sinergy” team at Image Comics and recognizing the diversity that exists in the current comic book landscape.
CBR News: David, let’s start at the beginning: How much of an impact has “Shaft” had on you as a fan, and as a professional storyteller? Most people are at least peripherally familiar with Shaft, but as an authority on blaxploitation films, how much personal significance does the character have for you?
David F. Walker: When I was a kid, my cousin showed me a copy of the “Shaft” soundtrack, with that iconic image of Richard Roundtree, smashing through a window while firing a gun. I was maybe five or six at the time, and it blew my mind. That image became burned into my brain, even though it would be several years before actually seeing the movie. I finally saw the film when it ran on television, and it had the same impact. I had never seen a character like Shaft. I was raised on James Bond movies and comic books in the 1970s, but nothing prepared me for Shaft — not even Luke Cage. Film, television and comic books are the place where our fantasies and myths are translated into something that appears real. Part of that translation that resonates on a very deep level is seeing these representations that look like us and the people in our lives. As a black kid, as much as I loved James Bond, or The Six Million Dollar Man, or Batman, none of them looked like me or my family. Shaft looked like he could be one of my uncles, and as a kid, who fell in love with storytelling in its various iterations, that gave me both inspiration and a certain type of freedom.
As much as I fell in love with the character of Shaft from the movies, it wasn’t until I’d read Ernest Tidyman’s original novel that the character really came to life for me. It was very much like reading my first James Bond book, after years of watching the movies. I read my first Bond book when I was about 11 or 12, and I remember thinking at the time, “Oh, there’s more to this character than I’ve been seeing.” It was the same way reading that first “Shaft” novel. He became much more real as a character, and that was when I first really started thinking about writing a character like him. Honestly, this was about 20 years ago. I didn’t realize how much of an impact Tidyman’s Shaft had on me as a writer until very recently. I was going back over the first book, and I began to see all of these similarities between John Shaft and Darius Logan, the lead character in my YA series [“The Adventures of Darius Logan”]. My first YA book was done, published and out in the world, and it suddenly dawned on me that my lead character, within the context of that story and that world, was very much like Shaft. That was the moment that I realized how much of an impact the character had on me.
You just mentioned Tidyman, and in the series announcement from Dynamite, you state that your Shaft is steeped in the original novels. For those unfamiliar with that take on the character, what do you see as the key differences from the film version — and what makes that take on Shaft the right one for you to pursue as a writer?
Going back to the James Bond comparison, the literary John Shaft is more complex than his cinematic counterpart. That’s just the nature of the mediums. It is why you always hear people complaining about the way their favorite books get adapted into films, how this scene got left out, or this character seemed overly simplified. For all of the things a film can do, as a medium, it doesn’t require the same sort of active participation that reading requires. I loved the movie “Silence of the Lambs” — it was a great adaptation of the book. But man, that confrontation between Clarice and Buffalo Bill at the end? The film simply didn’t capture it the way my mind interpreted what Thomas Harris had written.
With Shaft, the biggest difference between the films and the books is that the character in the books is simply more badass. He’s also more complex. It is that complexity that drew me in, and it is what is driving my interpretation of the character. In the books, there are these very brief passages about his youth and his time in the Vietnam War. If you took all of this stuff, from all seven of the books, you’d have only a few pages of material, but it is all gold. Tidyman created this character, and gave him just enough backstory that it really sparks the imagination.
In the films, there’s not a single reference to Shaft being a combat veteran, but there it is in the books. And as he is running around, killing people and blowing things up in the novels, there’s this knowledge that who and what he is was forged in war. That’s part of what I’m playing with. At the time the books were written, and the films were made, America was still fighting in Vietnam. As a country, we didn’t fully understand what was happening over there. No one was talking about Post-traumatic Stress Disorder in 1971, or really examining what was happening to these soldiers when they came home. There were a few exceptions, like “Taxi Driver” or “First Blood” — the book and the movie — but none of that is there in the “Shaft” books. That’s a huge part of what I want to do with the character.
It’s notable that this series is set to detail Shaft’s origins for the first time. What kind of responsibility is it to tell the origin story of such a famous character (and the first original Shaft story since, I believe, the 2000 remake)? And how far back in Shaft’s origins are you planning on exploring?
For me, it is a huge responsibility. Writing Shaft is a bigger deal to me than getting tapped to write Batman or Spider-Man. In part, because the character means so much to me, but also because this is the character’s first incarnation in this medium, and the first true exploration of who he is, and how he became that way. I’ve built a relationship with Chris Clark-Tidyman, Ernest’s widow, and that has added to the feeling of responsibility. I want to do right by Tidyman, Chris and John Shaft himself.
With this first story arc, I’m going back to the late 1960s, just after Shaft has come home from Vietnam. There are few brief flashes of his time in the war, and a few quick glimpses of his life as thug on the streets when he was a teenager, but right now, this story is really about how he becomes a detective, with most of it taking place in 1969, about a year or so before Tidyman’s first novel. Shaft is trying to figure what to do with his life, and nothing is really working out for him.
If everything works out, and Dynamite keeps me around on the book, I’d like to do a story that is set in Vietnam during the war. I also have a story idea that partially focuses on Shaft’s youth. In the novels, we know that he was a juvenile delinquent and that at age 17 he was arrested, charged as an adult, and given the choice of prison or the military. In the story I’ve been developing, Shaft lands a case that ends up being tied to his misspent youth, and he is forced to face the demons of his past.
The first Shaft novel was released in 1970 — this series coincides, roughly, with the character’s 45th anniversary. That actually makes Shaft newer than many comic book superheroes, but fair or not, he’s viewed distinctly as a product of the ’70s. In what ways do you see the character as still viable and relevant today? And on the other side of that, what do you think the strengths are of writing a character so uniquely associated with a distinct time period?
That period, especially as it relates to black action characters, or, if you prefer, blaxploitation, has unfortunately become part of this collective joke. The 1970s in general are often viewed as a joke, and this especially true when it comes to black characters. People confuse “Shaft” with “Black Dynamite” or “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka,” and that’s not what the time period was like. Go watch “The French Connection,” or “Serpico,” or “Across 100th Street” — that’s the 1970s from which “Shaft” came. That version of the ’70s — the gritty version populated by John Shaft and Travis Bickle and Popeye Doyle and Frank Serpico — is still relevant and viable, because it still speaks to who we are.
With Shaft in particular, he’s especially viable and relevant today, because despite what some people would have us believe, the world hasn’t changed that much. There are still kids living in poverty, caught up in the criminal justice system, who are moments away from becoming another statistic. Likewise, we’ve got these men and women coming home from more than a decade of war, and facing tremendous adversity. I’ve got friends who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and veterans of those wars are facing challenges no one should ever face. So while I think the time period has its unique trappings, the times haven’t changed that much. Shaft doesn’t exist in a world with cell phones or the Internet, but he does live in a world where young men are trained to kill, and then come home and aren’t prepared to get back to the normalcy of their former lives. We have a black president, but racism exists. Poverty, injustice and crime are as real now as they were then. Time period is seasoning to the main course, which is character and story.
The series will be illustrated Bilquis Evely, who has worked on multiple Dynamite projects, but will likely still be a new name to many readers. What has you excited about collaborating with her on the series?
Bilquis is an amazing talent. She should already be a star, and it is only a matter of time before that happens. People will debate over how to pronounce her name, but they’ll know her work.
At this point, we haven’t had any direct contact, but she is doing a tremendous job. I really liked what she did on “Doc Savage,” and when I found out she was going to be the artist on “Shaft,” I got a bit excited. I asked Chris Roberson what it was like working with her on “Doc Savage,” and he sang her praises in a way that made me go, “OK, how much are you being paid to say this?” Then I saw some of her pages for “Shaft,” and I realized Chris was actually downplaying what Bilquis can do. She is bringing this sense of humanity to the characters that is incredible. There was an artist or two that I was really pushing Dynamite to get — to the point I’m sure I was a pain in the ass — but I’m so thankful they paired me with Bilquis. She is a great creative partner.
Though you’ve worked in a variety of media, you’re still a newer name in the comics scene. How significant is this “Shaft” series to you? How do you see your abilities as a comics writer helping to shape this book differently than how you would have approached it just a few years ago?
“Shaft” is very significant, for a variety of reasons. This is certainly my biggest project in comics, though not my biggest project in general. Like you said, I’ve worked in a variety of media. I had a successful career in journalism. I’ve worked in film and television, and published a novel. The thing is, I’ve always wanted to do comics, but it never fully came into being. Honestly, it is easier to make micro-budget feature films than it is to make comics.
As a writer of comics, things starting coming together for me a few years back. I got a few breaks here and there, and that helped bolster my confidence. Shawna Gore, who is an amazing editor, brought me on an indie book called “The Supernals Experiment,” and working with her really helped me a lot. Writing comics is very different from writing novels or screenplays, and Shawna really helped me with adjusting to those differences.
The idea of doing “Shaft” had been in my mind for a very a long time, but I didn’t feel I had enough of a body of work to go for it, nor did I have the confidence. About two years ago, I started to feel like I was ready to make a move forward in my career. I made of list of characters I wanted to work with, and the goals I had as a storyteller. Then I asked myself, “Which of these characters will let me tell the stories I want to tell?” The answer was, “None of ’em.” Then I looked at existing properties outside of comics, and realized that there was one character that could let me do what I really wanted to do. That character was John Shaft.
Honestly, I never thought it would happen, but I also knew I had to try. I’m fortunate enough to have some great friends who are among the best writers in the business. These are people I’ve known for years, who know that I know the medium, and that I can tell a story. These people really pushed me, and when I said to them, “I want to write a Shaft comic series,” they all said, “You’d be perfect.”
To digress a bit, you’re also lettering Mike Oeming and Taki Soma’s “Sinergy” at Image Comics. What can you share about your involvement in that upcoming project? I know you also lettered “Number 13” — how did you find your way into that craft?
Mike and Taki are really good friends of mine. They asked me if I’d be interested in lettering “Sinergy,” which really took me by surprise. When I was working with Robert Love on “Number 13” for Dark Horse, there was no budget for lettering. I decided to teach myself how to do it, because there was no other option. It was serviceable at best. Then when I wrote “The Army of Dr. Moreau” for Monkeybrain, I decided to letter that, again mostly for budgetary reasons. But it was on that project that I started to get the hang of it — and by that I mean I didn’t totally suck.
For me, lettering my own stuff has helped me fine-tune and develop my skills as a writer, but I never imaged doing it for someone else. Taki twisted my arm, while simultaneously giving me this pep talk about how great it would be for us to work together as a team. I was too scared to say no. “Sinergy” is a really fun book. It’s something I would read even if I wasn’t part of the team, and even if Taki and Mike weren’t my friends.
The funny thing about lettering is that I learned how to do it the old-fashioned way, with the T-square and an Ames Lettering Guide. This was back when I went to the Kubert School. Hy Eisman was my lettering teacher. I was terrible at hand lettering, and he told me so. I wasn’t very good at drawing either, hence my becoming a writer.
I was struck by your post “The Invisible World of Black Comic Creators” on your BadAzz MoFo blog — it gave an optimistic feeling; that even though there is definitely a lack of diversity and representation in comics, that people already working in the industry need to be recognized. It was eye-opening, because sometimes things seem pretty bleak on that front, but you were highlighting the positive. Do you feel that there is actual progress being made in increased diversity and representation (though of course with more work to be done) in the comics industry as a whole? Are things getting better in significant ways?
There is progress, to be sure. But there is still a long way to go in terms of diversity and representation in the industry, both from a creator standpoint and a content standpoint. I’ll give you an example that isn’t tied to race: Kelly Sue DeConnick is an amazing writer. Her name came up in a conversation recently, and someone referred to her as “cute.” Now, I know Kelly Sue, and “cute” is not the first adjective I’d use to describe her. Yes, she is cute, but the first word that comes to mind is fierce, followed by badass. I think if I ever called Kelly Sue cute in a context related to her writing, she’d put a foot in my ass. She is, quite simply, one of the best writers in comics today. Honestly, she is probably better than the medium is allowing her to be. But most people can only contextualize Kelly Sue as a woman writer, and not simply a great writer, as if the two can’t go hand in hand, or if there needs to be some sort of qualifier. “Oh, she’s a great writer, for a woman.” This is what we call marginalization, and too often it undermines the true talent of the creator. I was talking to Jen Van Meter about this recently. Jen is also a great writer, but when people talk about her, they always say, “She’s a great woman writer.” No, she is a great writer, who is a woman. No one ever says, “You know, that Brian Bendis, he’s a great man writer.”
For black creators — as well as other creators of color and women — we often are denied the luxury of just being creators. We have these identifying labels that marginalize us, placing us in a category as some type of “other.” And there are a lot of creators out there that deserve some coverage and exposure, especially if diversity and representation are going to really move forward, not just in comics, but in other forms of mass media.
When I was a kid, I met Ron Wilson. Up until that time, I didn’t know black people worked in the comic industry. And when you’re a black kid, growing up in poverty, the opportunities of the world can seem limited. For me, meeting Ron Wilson meant that there was a place for people who look like me to work in comics, just like seeing “Shaft” meant there was a place for people who look like me to be the hero of the story. Both of these are very important, especially to cross-sections of the population that have been marginalized and oppressed.
The thing that I think needs to happen for representation and diversity to really advance in comics is for people to start talking about what is out there, instead of only lamenting on what they think isn’t out there. How many times can someone write a scathing piece on there being no black creators, and no quality black characters, before you realize that this is lazy journalism? This is bloggers and fans looking only at the Big Two, and not at other publishers. I’ve now written for Dynamite, Dark Horse, Image, MonkeyBrain and Tokyopop, but most people only know me from BadAzz MoFo, if they know me at all. I’m not mad about that, but I will say this much, if you want to see more black writers and black characters at Marvel or DC, you’ve got to support what’s already out there at Dynamite, and Image, and Dark Horse, and all these other indie and self publishers.
You want someone like me writing Luke Cage? Go out and buy “Shaft” — multiple copies of all the variant covers, and make it a big hit. Buy my other series, “The Army of Dr. Moreau” from MonkeyBrain, or wait for the trade paperback to come out next year from IDW. Buy stuff written by Brandon Easton, Geoffrey Thorne or Brandon Thomas. Pick up “Concrete Park” by Tony Puryear and Erika Alexander, which is one of the best comics I’ve read this year. I know people reading “Concrete Park” that have never read a comic before, and it’s because I told them about it. Support titles like “Watson and Holmes” or “Five Weapons.” Then tell your friends about this stuff. Especially tell your friends that might not be into comics, but might like a particular book. Tell your local retailer to support these titles as well. Some retailers only know how to order based on what’s offered by two or three publishers, but they are there to serve your needs. Share something you like on social media. Leave a review on Amazon, or give a rating on comiXology. All of this stuff helps. And I’m saying this to everyone — not just black people. I write for everyone, just as Kelly Sue writes for everyone, just as Greg Rucka and Brian Bendis write for everyone, because I believe comics are for everyone.
“Shaft” #1 is slated to debut from Dynamite Entertainment in December 2014.
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