Shaft #4

David F. Walker and Bilquis Evely continue to craft a remarkably compelling protagonist in "Shaft" #4, remarkable in part because the plot should be a bigger detraction. The story unfurls rather slowly around what's clearly a fridging storyline, and there's only one way that the creative team can get away with that pace and that plot: with a heck of a captivating narrator. Both Walker's writing and Evely's detective-ready layouts create a kick-ass investigative comic that somehow overcomes its story limitations.

I'm definitely not a fan of fridging storylines, and Shaft's purported motivation is still solidly in that school. His relationship with Arletha only developed over a few issues, and all the retrospective vignettes in the world won't deepen that connection for me. However, Walker seems to recognize the flimsiness of that plot device, because he focuses the issue on Shaft's detective work and simmering rage. When Shaft thinks, "It's only easy to get lost in a city like New York if the city isn't paying attention -- if no one is looking for you" or fumes that his enemies are, "Thinking I can't hear... Thinking I can't see... That I don't pay attention," the lines are full of quiet fury and intelligence. They suggest that, while Arletha may be the ostensible motive, she isn't quite the point. Taking back control is the real point. That Shaft himself doesn't seem to understand his own motives makes it all the more interesting.

Evely's artwork imbues even the characters' smallest facial expressions with meaning, which is a real necessity in an issue with so many silent panels. Less subtle, less expressive faces would make Walker's script feel more clunky or obvious, but Evely achieves the right look and feel. The panels are also structured to play to this strength, zeroing in on the small smiles, frowns and stares that let the reader know everyone's state of mind. It would be easy to rise to the audacity of the dialogue, but Evely is measured. The characters talk trash, but they're always silently assessing one another at the same time.

Evely also stretches out the pace of things. Even though this is a "Shaft" comic, many of the scenes in this issue don't keel kinetic; they're still as paintings. Things aren't spelled out, and the reader is meant to absorb the scene slowly and thoughtfully -- to do some of the same detective work that Shaft himself undertakes. It's unexpected and rewarding to try and guess the clues before they're revealed.

Daniela Miwa's colors also surprised me. Instead of going full '70s with flashy colors and bright suits, she creates a more washed world that's vintage rather than retro. When the scene requires a pulpier feel, Miwa goes dark instead of Technicolor. It's alleyways instead of buckets of blood, and I just didn't expect a world this quiet from a comic with this many uses of "motherfucker." The combination is really captivating.

All told, I can't stop reading "Shaft." Despite its problematic plot and shuffling pace, its subtle universe -- combined with its protagonist's confident, simmering voice -- keep the series together.

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