The Knockout: Walker And Evely Change The Game In ‘Shaft’ #1 [Review]
David Walker and Bilquis Evely have teamed up at Dynamite for the first-ever comic adaptation of Ernest Tidyman’s ‘Shaft’ character, delivering an exhilarating, game-changing opening issue to a series that should make stars of the entire creative team.
Surprisingly, the book deftly skips away from the John Shaft seen in film and TV, instead dialling back in time to look at the young Shaft, just out the military. The original books talk briefly about this time in the character’s life, mentioning his brief stint as a boxer; this is where Walker chooses to focus as his series starts off. The story of the first issue sees Shaft just getting started as a boxer when he's asked to take a dive, and that hook is all Walker needs to create a solid sense of place and character. The story gives us a look at a confident but less seasoned John Shaft, still feeling out his place in the world and deciding what kind of mark he wants to make.
The creative team feel like they have an immediate spark between them, and a complete idea of who their protagonist is and what they want him to be. Evely gives Shaft a stocky determination that grips onto the body language in each panel; the character towers over the rest of the characters, despite being technically their latest acquisition and several rungs down the pecking-order. His character is defined here through resistance – you can feel all sorts of angry emotions raging around internally, which intermittently express themselves through complaints, questions, and stubbornness.
He’s stocky without being scrappy, stern without being dull. The script and art set him up as someone of intellect and interest – with all of this shown to the reader rather than outright stated.
This is a considered piece of storytelling, not least from Evely. Her work takes on several disparate influences and comes out as some sort of wondrous hybrid mix of Denys Cowan, Howard Chaykin and Tom Fowler. She completely refuses to inject any sense of melodrama into the storytelling, keeping this real and low-key throughout. That choice builds up the tension already present in Walker’s script in a methodical, slow burn fashion – by the time we reach the actual boxing match, the reader can feel knots in their stomach. The panels are wide, focused always on the characters, and distinctly expressive throughout.
Colorist Daniela Miwa is a huge part of why the issue works. Her work reminds of the quiet toning Jordie Bellaire sometimes uses on a book. The flashback sequences in Quantum & Woody bear a lot in common with this similar leap back in time. Miwa undersells at every opportunity, creating the feel of noir while never completely giving over to the genre.
Likewise, the lettering from Walker is simple, but plays some fun tricks from time to time. The racial tensions of the time play out quite openly in his script, but the lettering hides and distorts the wording to make racism an incidental threat and fact of society, rather than a device used to shock readers. The sense of privilege afforded some characters is naturalistic, and all the more devastating for it.
The sheer level of detail in each page of Evely’s art is incredible, and plays a huge part in establishing the tone of the series. When asked to draw a crowd scene, she details a surprising number of the faces. When given a scene set in a changing room, she takes care to keep control of which mirrors reflect where, and at what angle. Her characters are distinctive from one another whilst feeling like part of a group – and they all have different faces. At times the book struggles to tell an action sequence, and some of the boxing sequences feels a little stilted, but that's a nitpick when the character work is this intelligent.
You can sense the competing posture of the characters, which informs their dialogue and attitude even when they aren’t the focus of a panel. Some of them only have a single panel of speech, but Evely invests them all with a worn-down sense of spirit, honor, or bravado.
The artwork immediately lets you know where the real power lies in the gang that Shaft has been inducted into, and it’s not the loud-mouthed man who keeps telling people that he calls all the shots. Evely makes sure the reader notices another face in the group early on – that of Bamma Brooks – who surely enough steps up towards the end and makes an impact that rings through the final few pages. Evely gives the character such a striking posture, solid and strong and aware, and Walker is then able to step in and bolster that visual with some stinging dialogue.
The script crackles delightfully, not offering the reader any particularly scary opponents for Shaft at this time, but instead giving us a very real, authentic feel of criminal culture in the 60s. There’s a slight sense of unprofessionalism beneath the surface of these gangsters, which you can sense bristles against Shaft. We may not see the character actively take up a pistol and start exacting revenge, but you can see a steel forming behind his eyes. Walker doesn’t try to overreach with a first issue filled with dangling subplots and mysteries, but instead focuses in and finds reasons for the reader to want to know more about the lead.
It’s an intelligent first issue, which sets up a longer narrative without shortchanging the reader. We’re given a complete storyline to establish character, dialogue, setting and period – and a cliffhanger that's genuinely intriguing. This isn’t a heightened superhero approach to a character who came from novels, but instead a complete continuation of the more calm, bracing tone of the novels. We see the parameters of the boxing match established, the stakes each group of characters are taking into the bout, and how the fallout hits each of them.
Shaft #1 a stellar opening gambit; one which discards the expected tone, style, and melodrama of the Shaft character and instead gives real substance and weight to the character. This is just the start of Shaft’s rise to infamy, but already you can feel him developing into something utterly compelling and magnetic.