‘Shaft’ Comics Writer David Walker On The Character’s History In Media [Interview]
Next month, the world's most famous fictional Private Dick / Sex Machine / Bad MotherSHUTYOURMOUTH will make his first-ever appearance on comic shop shelves, when Dynamite Entertainment releases the premiere issue of Shaft, by the creative team of David Walker and Bilquis Evely. And while John Shaft is a well known figure to moviegoers and soul music listeners worldwide, this title promises to focus on the rough-and-tumble version of the character that originated in Ernest Tidyman's series of novels. We spoke to series writer Walker about the character's long history in multiple media, and his plans for the comic incarnation.
ComicsAlliance: You've stated that you're using the novels as your starting point for the stories you're telling, but will you also be giving nods to the films?
David Walker: There are going to be a few moments here and there that reference the films, but this is going to draw mostly from the books. In the third issue, there are several references to Isaac Hayes’s theme song to the first film, that hopefully people will get. Honestly, the books are richer, and Shaft himself is more complex in his literary incarnation. The first two Shaft films were based on books, so in that regard, if we do draw from the films, we're actually drawing from the books. I'm pretty sure Shaft in Africa is off limits, which is fine with me. Originally, I had envisioned adapting the novels. But coming up with original stories, building up the world of John a Shaft, is so much more fun.
CA: Are you approaching this as a straight period piece, an updated interpretation, or something in between?
DW: This is period specific. The first story arc starts in late 1968 and carries over into '69. As much as we talk about Shaft as an iconic pop culture character, it’s important to remember that he’s also a very socio-political character. He was created during a time of massive political and social struggle in this country. Shaft is very much a product of the times in which he was created, and that's a huge part of his creative appeal to me. The war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, the benign neglect that left communities like Harlem and the Bronx crumbling ruins—this is all part of the world that John Shaft came from, and it wasn’t something I was willing to sacrifice to make the story more contemporary.
The fact of the matter is that even though the series is set in the 1960s and 1970s, there is going to be a lot of contemporary relevance. Much of what Shaft is going through as a young man, who grew up poor, got caught in a life of crime, and then went off to war, is still happening today. In the 1970s we were dealing with a generation of young men whose lives were forever altered by Vietnam. Fast forward 40 years, and we’re dealing with the similar issues, only now it is men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. In that regard, some aspects of Shaft could’ve been made more contemporary, but I didn't want to lose the aspects of his character specific to the time period he was created. And frankly, there is a creative challenge to writing a period piece, where the characters don't have cell phones or access to the Internet. Nowadays it's easier to be a detective, thanks to Google.
CA: How did you settle on character designs? It's a safe bet that when people think of Shaft, they think Richard Roundtree. But aside from the Cowan/Sienkiewicz and Francavilla covers for #1, that's not the John Shaft we see in this comic. How did you settle on a design for the lead character?
DW: The character as described by Ernest Tidyman in the books is very different from Richard Roundtree in the films. My understanding, and I could be mistaken, is that Tidyman was not happy with how the character appeared in film. The initial character designs we came up with were based on the descriptions in the books. I provided some images of actors that looked more like what Tidyman described in the books. The covers for the first issue are a mix of the more iconic look associated with the films, and the character as described in the books (as well as some of the book covers).
The cover to Shaft’s Carnival of Killers really nails the way Tidyman describes the character in the books. For many people, Roundtree is how Shaft is supposed to look, but that look isn't very true to the original character. Before becoming an actor, Roundtree was a model. Look through old issues of Ebony and Jet magazine, and you’ll see pictures of him in cigarette ads. John Shaft in the books isn’t supposed to be a model, he’s a handsome guy, but he’s rugged as well—a man that is heavily scared, both physically and emotionally. As much as I enjoy the films, every time I watch them, I think to myself, “This isn’t really how Shaft is supposed to look.” The first time I saw Trouble Man starring Robert Hooks, however, I thought, “Now that is John Shaft.” I feel the same thing about character actor Tony King, who was in films like Bucktown and Report to the Commissioner. When I’m writing a script, the John Shaft that I see in my mind looks just like Tony King.
CA: Many "retro-Blaxploitation" comics tend toward a very macho, aggressive, exaggerated look – but Bilquis Evely has been announced as your artist, and she tends to work in a clean, detailed, fine-line style. It's a pretty bold choice. How did she end up as part of the team?
DW: I had given Dynamite a list of artists that were my dream collaborators. I knew Bilquis from her work on Doc Savage, but she hadn't been on my list – not because I didn't like her work, but just because she wasn't on the list. I remember seeing her work on Doc Savage and thinking that I'd like to work with her on something in the future. When I saw the first character designs, I recognized the work, and asked [editor] Joe [Rybandt] at Dynamite if Bilquis was the artist they had in mind for the book. At that time, it wasn’t a definite that she’d be drawing the book, but it was clear that her designs had captured the literary incarnation of John Shaft. I felt like a fool for not having her on my wishlist from the very beginning. And then the pages started coming in, and I was blown away. I don’t know who at Dynamite made the decision to bring her on board, but I owe them a tremendous thanks.
CA: How does that choice of visuals speak to the direction you intend for the book?
DW: Bilquis is great at both action and drama. There's a lot of emotion in the way she draws her characters, and at the end of the day this is a character driven story. I love a great action sequence in comics, but there's nothing like a panel filled with emotion. Bilquis brings an extra layer of emotion to the story. And sometimes that emotion is very subtle. You have to study a panel, and you start to get an idea of what a character is thinking or feeling, because not everything is drawn in an exaggerated way, which I absolutely love.
I can’t speak for other writers, but for me there’s always this moment when I start to see my scripts transforming into drawn pages, where I forget that I write the story. It is an odd sensation—sometimes great, and sometimes not-so great. But with Bilquis, is has been great from the beginning. She is an amazing talent. And I’m hoping we will be able to continue to collaborate. I haven’t told her this yet, but there’s a creator-owned project I’m developing, that I’d like to work with her on.
CA: What tone will you be shooting for? Is this a mature readers series, or will it be more like watching the film on network TV (where it fades to black before any hanky-panky occurs)?
DW: This book is Rated R, period. I submitted my first script, and waited for a note regarding the excessive profanity. With second issue, I was waiting for notes on the sex, violence, and excessive profanity. The only thing that’s been said to me so far has been, “Wow, I never heard that word before.” To the credit of Dynamite, I've been allowed to run wild, which is one of the great things about working with them. Shaft can’t be a PG or a PG-13 book. And that’s not to say that it is pornographic or over-the-top in its violence, but it is gritty and raw—especially the language. I didn’t want to write a book where characters as saying “heck” and “shucks” and “freaking.” We see these words, and we know what’s really being said, so why not just say it?
CA: Do you have a clear idea of when and where your stories will be set?
DW: The series is set primarily in New York, and there’s a definite historical component to the series. There will be cases revolved around actual events in New York, and characters inspired by real people. I love history, and I’m a research freak. There’s a scene in the second issue that takes place at a go-go bar in Harlem that was a real place. A good friend who grew up in Harlem got me in touch with a friend of his, whose family owned some of go-go bars in Harlem. In the first issue, much of the story takes place at a real location. And the entire story itself is steeped in actual New York history. Not to compare it to Polanski’s Chinatown, because I’m not that good as a storyteller, but that was one of my biggest inspirations. In that movie, Chinatown represents all of these personal demons for Jack Nicholson’s character. In the Shaft series, it is a similar dynamic with Harlem. John Shaft would rather go back to Vietnam than to return to Harlem.
There are no plans for Shaft to go to Africa or the moon or anywhere like that. He does venture outside of the city a bit, but for now, New York is a big enough playground.
CA: There've been many different takes on Shaft over the years – the novels, the films, the TV series. Have you read/seen all of them? Are there elements do you think especially worked, and you'll be trying to incorporate?
DW: I've read everything and seen everything. I prefer the literary character over the cinematic version. My favorite books are Shaft, and probably Goodbye, Mr. Shaft. And though some people consider it to be blasphemy, when it comes to the movies, I prefer Shaft's Big Score over Shaft. There's a lot of stuff from the books that will be incorporated, not so much from the film, unless it was one of the movies based on the books. Part of that has to do with the nature of license itself, but also because the character in the books is just more interesting than the one in the films. There is almost no back-story for John Shaft in the films—no details of who he was before he first stepped out of the subway and into Times Square. I’m really exploring who the man is that we saw step out of the subway and strut his way through the streets of New York. Trust me, that guy is really interesting. He grew up in the streets of Harlem, was a gang warlord, joined the Marines at seventeen, did three tours of duty in Vietnam, and came back a very damaged and dangerous man. None of that is in the movies, and yet all of that is more interesting than a leather suit.
CA: I rather enjoyed John Singleton and Samuel L. Jackson's sequel, and the expanded world it creates for the character. Will any nods to that find their way into the series?
DW: Honestly, I hated the Singleton film with a burning fury. It built off the original films, but it was a slap in the face to Ernest Tidyman’s creation. For one thing, it wasn’t even the actual character of Shaft, but his nephew. And not to get all nerdy, but it is impossible for John Shaft to have a nephew, because he was an orphan, with no siblings, raised in foster care. And he’d never be a cop. No way. John Shaft hates cops almost as much as he hates criminals (which is part of what makes him so complex, because he’s mixture of both). That said, I do have a story idea that references not just the Singleton film, but the movies and TV shows from the 1970s, but only in the sort of way that will get me in trouble.
CA: Do you have a personal soundtrack for writing this series?
DW: I do have a soundtrack, and Dynamite actually just asked me for a playlist. Surprisingly, Isaac Hayes’s theme to the first film is not on the list. O.C. Smith’s theme to Shaft’s Big Score is on the list, as is the The Four Tops’ theme to Shaft in Africa. There’s also some Curtis Mayfield and Donny Hathaway, as well as some Public Enemy and Ice Cube, which are obviously not the right time period, but helps get me in the mood. And though it is completely out of place given the character and the time period, there’s also some metal courtesy of Armored Saint, which is always good to listen to when you want to think about kicking some ass.
CA: And how far in advance do you have things mapped out?
DW: I’m contracted for six issues. I have enough stuff mapped out to fill about 24 issues, and that doesn’t include an adaptation of the first novel, which I really want to do (though I don’t know how much interest Dynamite has in doing a straight adaptation). Dynamite is also doing new prose novels, and I’ve got stuff mapped out for two to three of those. At the same time, I don’t want to keep other writers from working on the series, and there are a few writers I’d be interested in possibly collaborating with on something, especially in the prose area. I’d love to see a collection of prose shorts by different authors (myself included). I’ve pitched that particular idea to Dynamite, so we’ll see if it happens. So much depends on how fans react to the series, and how it does financially. Dynamite just announced they’ve acquired the rights to James Bond, and I’d love to do a Shaft meets Bond story. I’d also be really happy if Dynamite scored the rights to The Rockford Files, so I could write a Shaft/Rockford crossover.