Feb 1 2015
Part of Shaft’s timeless appeal as a central noir icon is his honesty. Built up as the banner-waving standard of African-American manhood, his famous pride is superseded by an almost simplistic, ineffable honesty, an inbuilt modesty that accompanies his actions; he is perhaps more Chandler than Van Peebles, more Philip Marlowe and Sam (ahem) Spade than Sweetback.
So maybe it’s fitting that in the first issues of David Walker and Bilquis Evely’s Shaft, you find the character getting his ass kicked, you find the character looking for a job. As recognizable as he is, he is also merged into the scenery; a sample of the architectural blackness of New York, whose slowly unspooling history frames the character concerned about venturing into Harlem for fear of stirring old blood feuds. “Concerned” is the word, not “scared.” Because as modest as John Shaft can manifest, he is never afraid.
Walker has cut himself what feels like quite the decadent first piece of cake with this series, taking on a character that requires quite a bit of chutzpa to even decide to touch. Yes, there is that timelessness, though this is exactly the challenge. Inheriting an iconic figure and putting words in his mouth might be a grueling ordeal. To Shaft’s many fans and followers of the past 45 years, knives are definitely sharpening in the first few pages of a new treatment. In a way, Roundtree had it easiest – he was breaking new ground with his performance and was able to set the standard on his own terms.
Walker is admirably up to the task of a Shaft renaissance, and more. The building blocks of the tale in these first issues is vengeance, history, and the synergistic, doomed combo of pride and staying out of trouble. Walker is writing Shaft: Year One, bringing us through the character’s wartime experiences and into the boxing ring for a fight scheduled to be thrown. The story is not about surprises or plot tricks, but about the repercussions apparent when the shit-suckers of Shaft’s era mistake him for everyone else in their world. The dialogue is usually smart, expletive-ready and intimidating, and his interior monologue in particular deserves points for being fluid and engaging, character-consistent but not without a touch of expected modernity.
The sharp script is brought to a simmer by Evely’s impressive linework, rendering young Shaft in his city pitch-perfect time and time again. Daniel Miwa’s colors maintain a kind of subtle, noon-lit VHS wash, setting the tone and temperature, ensuring that a romantic moment with the lead is framed by peach hues instead of red or pink. Evely’s work in black and white alone would affect the tale as a bit more stark and severe, but Miwa’s contribution adds a comforting touch of emotion, which is not out of place.
This is because Walker’s Shaft is comfortable with feeling things, becoming emotionally invested. Unlike the thugs within arm’s reach, his history has not dulled his ability to have emotions, desire them, or be empowered by them. His war enlistment precedes him, but he is not shell-shocked or withdrawn, more sharpened and ready to meet approaching challenges; his mutant power is most assuredly “reading the room.” This is not a re-imagining, more a refinement, contributing material to a character that has room for it, if it’s treated with this much care. And thanks to the glorious cover treatments of Denys Cowan & Bill Sienkiewicz, you’ll spot the series easily at your local shop.