On The Cheap: They Say These ‘Shaft’ Comics Are 99 Cents Each – Shut Your Mouth!
One of the really nice things about the rise of digital comics is that there's always a sale going on, and this week, Dynamite has one that's definitely worth checking out. It's listed on the site as a "Recent Hits" sale, and there are a lot of great comics from the past year that are up for 99 cents each: the amazingly weird Bob's Burgers tie-in that features a new installment of Tina's Erotic Friend Fiction in each issue; the beautiful Conan/Red Sonja crossover; the surprisingly great Django/Zorro series from Matt Wagner, Quentin Tarantino and Esteve Polls; the Kirby-inspired Captain Victory; and even the first issues of their new King Features line.
It's one of those sales where it's easy to spend a whole lot of money --- which, I believe, is the entire idea --- but if you've only got the budget to check one thing out, then there's one book that I can recommend over everything else: David F. Walker and Bilquis Evely's Shaft, one of the year's best miniseries.
The weird thing about a comic book version of Shaft is that if you'd asked me a year ago, it would've been a book I had around zero interest in reading. Don't get me wrong, I love the 1971 movie a whole heck of a lot --- I even like the reboot from 2000, although that's mostly because it has a scene where Samuel L. Jackson gets so mad that he throws a police badge like a ninja star --- but most of my affection for it comes from things that just don't translate well to another medium. The story's fine, but to be honest, it's not really the selling point. For me, it's all tied up in the style of it, that Isaac Hayes soundtrack, and Richard Roundtree's smoldering cool. That's stuff that just flat-out can't be replicated in comics.
I ended up picking up that first issue on a whim, though, mainly because of how great Denys Cowan's covers have been. And when I did, it grabbed me like very few books have done, and made me realize that Walker and Evely are coming at it from a completely different direction, building their story with a style that does work in comics.
Like the movie, the plot isn't really the selling point here. That's actually the one major flaw you could find in the book if you're looking for it, that the beats are pretty predictable. It's a story that's built around a lot of the standard tropes of the hard-boiled private-eye genre that have become clichés over the years, and when Shaft spends the second issue falling for a beautiful, angelic and understanding young lady, it doesn't really come as much of a surprise that she ends up being murdered within 20 pages.
Nine times out of ten, that'd be a pretty big turn-off for me as a reader, but this book is that tenth one. It's everything around those clichés that's so great, and Walker and Evely do a truly phenomenal job of wringing genuine emotion out of them.
A lot of it comes down to the dialogue. Walker writes Shaft with a natural rhythm that's both engaging and revealing. I'm not sure how it is in the original novels --- and Walker has, I believe, mentioned being a fan of those more than of the movie, to the point where the comic was accompanied by a six-part prose story --- but here, he plays with first-person narration in a way that only really works in comics. We see him on the page in Evely's expressive, emotional art, and we see the very few words that he speaks out loud, but we get all of his thoughts as he moves through this mystery, telling us everything that he's thinking.
It's exactly the kind of thing that might actually ruin a character in a movie, taking away that remote, unknowable coolness by showing us what's going on underneath that unflappable surface, but here, it works. We see the intensity, the regret, the dedication to getting payback, and we even see conversations that Shaft has with people who have died. And because we're seeing it in contrast to how expressive everyone else is, we know without even having to think about it that Shaft's stone-faced scowl is a choice, that he's hiding himself away from everyone but the reader.
Evely's art is, by the way, some of the absolute best that I've seen from Dynamite. Not to lean too hard on comparisons, but her work has a quality that reminds me a lot of Jamie McKelvie, that same kind of easy expression and an attention to detail that uses fashion as a signifier. The staging and acting are top notch, and under Daniela Miwa's colors, she pulls off the almost impossible feat of making a book that feels retro without feeling dated.
Of course, Walker does his part on that front too, and one of the best things about the book is that it's frequently very, very funny. I imagine that having something in there to break up the tension a little bit is almost necessary, considering how intense and dark the story gets, and he manages to do it withot going too far into undercutting the tension. The moment where someone speaks very earnestly about the sorry state of Harlem while also stealth-quoting Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five is one of my favorites, but every issue of this comic has something that's one of the best lines of the year:
One weird thing about the Comixology sale, though: For some reason, only the first five of the six issues of the series are on sale; the final issue, which you're probably going to want to get, is still at the full price of $1.99. Still, seven bucks for the entire series isn't a bad price by any means, and it's definitely worth checking out that first issue, even if you're on the fence about getting the rest.
The "Recent Hits" sale runs through the end of the week.