Dynamite’s ‘Shaft’ Comic Might Just Be The Best Thing Going
For a comic that's only two issues in, we've talked about David F. Walker and Bilquis Evely's Shaft comic a lot. There's been a review of the first issue, an interview with Walker, and now, with the second issue hot off the presses this week, we're going back to the well to talk about it again. The reason for all this ballyhoo from your pals at ComicsAlliance is simple: It's already one of the best comics in recent memory, and well worth your attention and ours.
The first issue started that trend, but in the second, things are heating up, and while the storyline follows a pattern that you probably expected going in, it's executed in an incredibly entertaining way.
The thing about what Walker and Evely are doing here is that I never expected to want to read an origin story for John Shaft. I imagine it's this way for most fans of the character, but I became a fan of Shaft from the movie. I saw it when I was fifteen, in what I have consistently described since as a life-changing experience. The movie sparked an interest in blaxploitation films that continues to this day, and that bleeds into comics with how much I love stuff like Afrodisiac and World of Hurt. I even brought that movie in to watch in a high school English class one time, and got a teacher mad at me because I'd assured him that it was perfectly suitable for a class of 10th-grade kids.
If you haven't seen it, it turns out that there's a lot of cussing and a really long sex scene in that movie.
Anyway, one of the things that I've always appreciated about the movie is how Shaft as a character is fully formed from the moment Richard Roundtree steps on the screen. There's no backstory required -- though if you do feel you need any kind of primer, we basically get it in the song. Private dick, sex machine, bad mother, risks his neck for his brother, all that stuff is right there on the surface, and that's part of the fun.
To be fair, I hadn't read the novels, which provide Walker and Evely with their inspiration. Much like Die Hard and Gymkata, I always forget that Shaft was based on a book. After years of comics (and movies and TV shows inspired by comics) that focus on telling origin stories over and over, the last thing I'm usually interested in is a comic that gives an origin story for a character who doesn't need one.
It happens all the time in licensed comics, especially when they're riffing on something where we join a character who's already established in a career, like Die Hard or even Sherlock Holmes. The only real exception I can think of is that one Scarface comic from a few years back that opted to do a sequel instead, which is a pretty neat trick when you consider that Scarface ends with its title character snorting a mountain of cocaine and getting murdered with a shotgun. But with Shaft we're getting something that almost never happens: an origin story that makes me like everything else about the character even more.
One of the most interesting things about this second issue of Shaft is also the thing that might end up being the worst thing about it, which is that the creators are very, very good at playing around with the tropes and cliches of the genre. That they can do it and make the book feel as fresh and interesting as it does is something that speaks very highly of their abilities. On the other hand, a book that puts together those familiar elements in a new way is still using those elements, so when Shaft falls in love with a pretty lady on page 7, it's not really all that difficult to figure out how she's going to end up on page 23.
Spoiler warning: It does not end well.
But at the same time, bringing those pulpy, noir elements that feel so familiar, from the fixed boxing match in the first issue to the motivating murders in the second, help to recontextualize Shaft as a character. For me, he's always been the prototype of a new kind of hero that rose up after his box-office success, but the way he's built here brings him a lot closer to the other heroes of the era.
Maybe it's just what I'm bringing to the table as a reader, but Shaft's origin story feels like it's more in line with the Punisher than anything else. The return from the Vietnam War and the sudden motivating tragedy all have the earmarks of that story. It's something that places them both as the products of the same era and the same fears, and just as the Punisher has remained an interesting character in the decades since, the ideas that are being explored through those old setups still feel relevant, especially when they're pulled off as well as they are here.
Like I said above, we're only two issues into Shaft's run as a comic, but it's quickly become one of the comics I look forward to the most every month. Seeing Walker and Evely slowly shape John Shaft into the unstoppable badass that we know he's going to become is the best kind of origin story.
To be honest, the only problem is that Walker's interview with us back in October included a line about how the story was going to be focused largely on New York in the late '60s and early '70s, and how "there are no plans for Shaft to go to the moon." Maybe it wouldn't quite have the engaging, noirish tone of the origin story that we've gotten so far, but on the other hand, it would've been Shaft on the moon, and I think that's something we'd all like to see.