Right off the bat, I should probably apologize for the misleading headline here — Dynamite Entertainment’s Shaft #1 (the first of a six-part series) isn’t “bringing blaxploitation bad-ass to the printed page” so much as it’s bringing it back to the printed page, given that “the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks” actually started out life not on the silver screen, but in a series of pulp novels by the legendary Ernest Tidyman. And it’s probably down to the fact that Tidyman’s widow owns the copyright to the character of John Shaft that we even have this new spin-off comic at all, seeing as how negotiating a licensing rights deal with her is probably a lot easier than dealing with, say, MGM. Even so — am I the only one who’s surprised that this comic even exists?
I mean, when I think of licensed properties making the leap to the four-color world, I think Star Wars. Star Trek. Battlestar Galactica. Heck, this week Boom! Studios even released the first issue of a new Escape From New York ongoing monthly, and that didn’t exactly come out of left field in my estimation, but this? A comic based on a cult blaxploitation hero who “peaked” about 40 years ago in terms of his popularity? I gotta say, I didn’t see that one coming at all.
Still, I’m glad it’s here, and in the hands of writer David F.Walker and artist Bilquis Evely, Tidyman can rest easy in his grave — they seem to know what they’re doing every bit as much as Gordon Parks and Richard Roundtree did when they translated the urban adventures of “the cat who won’t cop out when there’s danger all about” onto celluloid. Is this a good comic? Damn right.
Walker (who’s also penning a six-part Shaft prose story available by scanning QR codes included in the printed versions of each of the comics) has opted to go the “prequel” route here, taking us back to 1968 when a newly-returned-from -Vietnam John Shaft is trying to make a go of it an as Brooklyn-based amateur boxer. We learn a lot about our main character’s backstory here — certainly more than we ever did in the film — and I have to say that all the revelations we’re served ring very true indeed to the Shaft we’ve always known, while somehow being at least modestly surprising at the same time. The fact that Walker is able to convey all this info with a sparse and breezy prose style is an added plus, and while the main through-line of the plot is a pretty simple one — Shaft is ordered to throw a fight, what’s he gonna do about it? — that doesn’t mean the impact of our guy John’s decision, predictable as it may be, has any less of an impact on readers. He’s headed for big trouble, and I’m looking forward to it already. This first issue is pure table-setting, to be sure, but where’s the harm in that? Set the table nicely enough and I’ll want to stick around for the meal.
The art from Evely, whose prior work I confess to being unfamiliar with, can also be fairly categorized as “not flashy, but certainly effective.” It’s pretty simple and straightforward, but displays a kind of professionalism and eye for craft that were more common in the comics of 1971 — the year that Shaft hit theaters — than they are today. It suits the subject and time period quite well and invests the reader in the proceedings rather than alienating you with so much of the unskilled “flashier” art we find in, say, the average DC “New 52” comic. The panels in this book look good without sacrificing realism and plausibility along the way, and are more concerned with drawing you in than bowling you over. All in all, a job very well done.
As with pretty much all Dynamite first issues, Shaft #1 has hit the stands with about a bajillion different variant covers. I’ve included my four favorites with this review (by Denys Cowan and Bill Sienkiewicz, Francesco Francavilla, Michael Avon Oeming, and Ulises Farinas, respectively), and while they all portray a more Richard Roundtree-looking Shaft than Evely does in his interior pages (well, except for the one by Farinas, since that’s not Shaft at all, but the bad guy of the story), you really can’t argue with the awesome-ness of any of them. I opted for the Francavilla cover since I always opt for Francavilla covers, but I was sorely tempted by the main Cowan/Sienkiewicz one, as well. Any way you go, though, you can’t lose — either with what’s on the outside of the book or what’s in it. This is the John Shaft we’ve always known, but shown in a whole new light that I think almost all fans will appreciate.