He’s written Cyborg. He’s writing Luke Cage. But no character David F. Walker has tackled is as famous — or as influential in mass media — as John Shaft. On his second mini-series (with the novel Shaft’s Revenge under his belt as well), Walker sat down to chat all things Shaft and Blaxploitation at C2E2 this year, sharing a bit of his thought process on the genre and his recent development of gay character Tito Salazar in the current series.
Matt Santori: Starting broadly, you’ve written A LOT about Shaft — the comic and the film — and about Blaxploitation as a genre. What are your thoughts about the role it played then versus now?
David F. Walker: In a nutshell, if we were to focus on the positive aspects of Blaxploitation — of which I think there are many — it’s that it represented the recognition of the viability of a Black audience, and/or the viability of interest in telling stories about the Black experience in America. That’s the thing about it that’s really interesting.
It represented a shift in how Black people were represented pop culture — not just films, but also in television, books, and even comic books. That’s the positive aspect of it. There’s negative aspects to it too, but we don’t need to get into that.
My fascination with it always stemmed from how it was counter-programming to everything that was out there in film and television. As a kid growing up, I would see these images — even before seeing the movies — on the cover of Ebony or Jet magazine that were unlike any other characters I was seeing on TV or at the movies. It fascinated me because all I was seeing was Happy Days or Laverne and Shirley. It was really crucial, and sparked this curiosity in me that led me down a path of life that changed me forever.
Now I look at it as if we’re in a new position. Where there could be a new movement of Blaxploitation, and by that I mean we take how we’re represented and take more control of it. And change it.
Steve Orlando and I talked about it a lot when he did Virgil, which is a queersploitation graphic novel. It reminded me a lot of films in the 1990s by Gregg Araki, like The Living End. When that movie came out, I was in my twenties, and just exploring independent cinema and coming to grips with my own view of queer folks. Coming out of the “Dark Ages” of my teen years where you’re cracking gay jokes with your friends — until you realize there was this one friend that never laughed.
Then you need to rethink everything. Even within those jokes, which were only meant to be fun, there’s a level of negativity and hatred. Then you go, “I care about my friend. I love this person. What does this say about me? Do I have to give up my gay jokes?” It’s not about giving up gay jokes, though. It’s about giving up the mentality that leads you to make those jokes. Stop seeing people as an object of ridicule, and just as human beings, and everything starts to change.
Ha! I got a little off track there.
MSG: Maybe! Maybe not. It all relates to the latest book, I think. But what about Blaxploitation today?
DFW: You know, it’s like “A rose by any other name.” It’s still out there. You look at a movie like Django Unchained, which is Blaxploitation, or a lot of Denzel Washington’s movies. Something like American Gangster. We call it something different, but at the end of the day, exploitation is just a term we use to talk about the market to which something is being exploited. They call them art films in certain circles, and not artsploitation, but it’s the exact same thing.
There’s chick flicks. Arthouse films. You add “sploitation” to it, and it gives it this sort of lurid, salacious sound to it. But it’s just change in different forms.
In the 80s, it became the Eddie Murphy movies, like 48 Hours and Trading Places. Then it morphed into movies like Lethal Weapon, the interracial buddy movies. Then it morphed again into New Jack City, Boyz in the Hood, or House Party. There’s always been these iterations of it, but we’ve just called it different names. But it’s always been there.
It’s a product that has primarily been marketed to a Black audience, giving off a representation of what is considered by many to be “The Black Experience in America.” Whether or not that’s true is another thing entirely.
MSG: Leading then into Shaft, I realized this morning that John Shaft is literally the most famous Black character being published in a comic book today.
DFW: [laughs] And I thought about that! I’ve been wanting to do a Shaft comic book for years. It was in the back of my mind. Probably about 4-5 years, I thought, “I really want to do a comic with a Black character, and these are the things I really want that character to do and represent.” Like a Black James Bond.
I mean, Shaft is Shaft. He’s not really a Black James Bond. But he is a really iconic character. He would effectively allow me to tell the story I want to tell. So, I asked, “Do I create an original character for the story, or do I somehow get the rights to this iconic character that brings with him more recognition [and would allow me to sell more units]?”
I was gambling, really. In the world of comics, you cut your teeth in the independent world and make a name for yourself there, hoping you get a hit. But I wanted to do something with a Black character. And if I do something I create on my own, it’s not going to go over, because there’s a trend to how people buy comics. There’s a trend to how retailers order comics. And there’s a trend to how the comics press talks about comics.
And the only way I could figure out how to buck that trend is to do Shaft. And that was it.
DFW: I’m definitely beholden to Tidyman’s character quite a bit. But the aspects of him I’ve held onto and run with the most were little minor passages throughout the books.
The books were written in the early 1970s, but it’s clear that John Shaft was suffering form PTSD (before they were calling it PTSD) as a Vietnam vet. He was a kid who had been criminalized early on in life, having gone through the juvenile justice system. These were the things I glommed onto the most, because they were the least explored in the books. They were never explored in the movies.
This is what makes this guy tick. I’ve known this guy. Not just Nam vets, but now Gulf War vets. And I know guys that have done time. This story is about them. It’s about a guy who didn’t always make the best decisions, but he always comes out ahead.
I made him a little bit less of a sex machine with all the chicks, honestly because I don’t think it’s that interesting. I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this, but yeah, you can have a character who’s sexist or misogynist. Yeah, fine. If that’s what you want to do. But to me, that’s not that interesting.
Yeah, I get it. You need to have the obligatory sex scene in a Shaft story. But who is it going to be with and how can I at least make her not just a sperm receptacle to him. It’s the trouble with the Bond films and books to me too. I love them, but I’m old enough now to recognize that there’s stuff that’s problematic.
And as a creator, how do you skirt that? Do you dive in head first, or do you try to do something different? One of the things I wanted to do with Shaft was show him falling in love and losing love. I was worried it was just going to be another Woman in Refrigerators moment, which it kind of is.
I talked to Jen Van Meter about it and asked her, “What if Shaft fell in love with a dead woman? She dies and he spends the rest of the story affected by the idea of what she could have been to him. Is that a woman in a refrigerator?”
And she was like, “Well… yeah… but not too many have been done like that.”
I wanted to bring her back from time to time as kind of a haunting thing, and she was like, “Go for it.”
You have to become cognizant of your sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, ageism, whatever it is… because we all live in a society that’s built upon these systems of oppression. It’s so easy to get caught up in them without realizing it. And you end up feeling like shit when you do something terrible.
MSG: That sort of ties into the new storyline. You were saying to me earlier that you were surprised there wasn’t much of a reaction — or at least a negative reaction — to your portrayal of a gay character and Shaft’s visit to the Stonewall Inn. Tell me a little about your thought process there.
DFW: Originally, it was going to be a missing person’s case for a teen girl. And I kind of thought that’s been done. Fuck it. I’m going to have it be a missing boy who ran away from home because he’s gay. Because that would then put Shaft into a world where he’s not necessarily comfortable.
If you read the original Tidyman novels, I think one of Shaft’s biggest character flaws is he’s extremely homophobic. I’m not going rebuke or apologize for anything Tidyman did in his books, but I’m writing him now. Maybe I can take him to a new place. Maybe I can have part of his arc is in grappling with his own homophobia in a way that’s uniquely John Shaft.
So, how was I going to do that? I brought in a character that would test him along the way. And that was Tito Salazar.
And then it becomes a question of how does Tito become anything other than gay comedic relief or the stereotypical sissy? We’ve seen that character before.
In the beginning, I hadn’t really thought about that. I just figured we’d have a gay character. But I want to do something with Tito that makes him different. And he sort of evolved from there.
Originally he was going to be a throw away character that just appeared in issue #2. But then it was like, I have to bring him back! He started to evolve. I didn’t want him to be a victim. Yes, some sense of comedic relief, but only in contrast to how serious John Shaft is. I needed someone who could do that for the story. But both of those characters are going to grow and become something more because of it.
It was interesting, because there’s a scene in the original script that was way too long — like ten pages long. It was a moment where Tito says something to Shaft and Shaft said without thinking, “Oh yeah. That faggot club down on 8th.” And Tito goes into this long thing and it was this really long scene that just wouldn’t work. And at the end, Shaft would admit Tito was right, which Shaft would never do.
But sometimes you need to get the sentiment out of the way. So, instead we have it play out where Shaft says his line, and Tito just stares at him and says, “I hate that word.” And then you have a panel where Shaft doesn’t say anything, so you know he’s thinking. And then he just says, “I’m sorry.”
I went over that with some of my friends to see how it resonated with them. I don’t care necessarily if people think I’m homophobic, but I want them to get what the character is going through. I figured people could come to me if they’re offended and we can resolve it like human beings.
And then NOBODY SAID ANYTHING! [laughs]
MSG: I’ll tell you, my read was that it was really well done. I do have some sensitivity to throwing the word “faggot” into a comic for shock value. I think the thoughtfulness of the scene and the empathy that Dietrich Smith drew into it with Shaft totally changed the page. And it resonated.
DFW: When issue #3 comes out, there’s a follow-up to that scene. But I do think that scene in the diner is the most important one in this particular series. The growth of John Shaft is handled in those five panels.
It’s my way of saying you need to think about the words you use. And that word especially. It sticks in my mouth now. To say it is as bad as any other word that disparages or is some sort of slur. It’s interesting to me to think that I would think that now. If you had said that to me at 18, I would have laughed and said, “Oh, it’s just a word!”
It’s funny because one of my gay friends uses it all the time, and I’m like, “How can you use that word!!” But when I’m in the company of some of my Black friends, we’re dropping N-bombs like you wouldn’t believe. There are conversations that you have with some people where it’s understood…
MSG: They come preloaded.
DFW: Exactly. And there isn’t a dynamic of oppression to those words. Lenny Bruce used to talk about this. Words only have the power that we give them. Well, the key is, if I use a word that has a lot of power with you, but I don’t give it a lot of power, it’s still got power.
So, unless we’re on the same page…
MSG: Working first with artist Bilquis Lively and now Dietrich Smith, how are you negotiating getting what you want out of the story, but also representing the original vision of the character?
DFW: First, I’m sending a lot of reference. I get a lot of photos and an entire folder of Shaft reference, like what Times Square looked like in the 1970s to clothing stuff. Different actors. And then just trying to be descriptive enough.
As a comic book writer, you’re really writing for two people: for the artist and for the reader. And what you write for the artist is as important — if not more important — than dialogue you write for the reader, because the artist is the one drawing the reader in.
I try to be pretty specific, but then I also leave some of it up to the artist. Once you get to know them, you start to understand their “fighting style.” The kicks that they’re throwing. And then you just hope they get what you’re doing.
With Bilquis, there wasn’t a lot of contact between us because she’s in Brazil, but she’s like psychic or something!
MSG: Keith Giffen said the same thing about working with her on Sugar and Spike.
DFW: Yeah! It’s amazing. She’d add these bits of emotion. It’s one thing if you’re making a movie or directing a play and I want an actor to act suspicious. I can show you how to act suspicious. I can get up in front of a room and show everyone what suspicious looks like. But how do you draw suspicious? How do you convey uncertainty or that level of nuance? Fear, sadness, whatever — those are easier to draw. But Bilquis does it.
With Dietrich, he’s American and English is his native language, so the scripts don’t need to be translated. He’s reading the script and getting it immediately.
And it just gets crazier and crazier. In issue #2, Shaft takes the job as a consultant on a film, so that’s the good chunk of issue #3 and 4. We finally get a sex scene in issue #3.
It gets so over the top in #4, that there’s a moment where I doubted if I could turn it in. There’s a moment that deviates so radically from everything else that happens in reality. #4 goes off the rails. But you know what? I’m happy doing that. It involves snuff film producers and guys dressed up in KKK outfits. It’s kind of a response to this new Shaft movie that they’re doing that they claim is going to be a comedy.
Oh, you want comedy in Shaft? I’LL GIVE YOU comedy in Shaft.
David F. Walker’s Shaft: Imitation of Life #3 hits stores and Comixology today from Dynamite Entertainment. You can also read his work monthly on Power Man and Iron Fist and Nighthawk from Marvel Comics.