A look at Dynamite's Shaft comics

November 6, 2018

 

Most people are familiar with iconic 70s' action film character John Shaft (if only for his theme song performed by the late Issac Hayes), but the late writer Ernest Tidyman first introduced the character in a series of novels.

The character was a hard-boiled detective whose African American heritage seemed politically relevant decades ago. He is now more of a pop-cultural artifact - a snap shot of one side of his era.

Whether Shaft can be considered a modern Pulp or Neo-Noir character is open to debate. But there is certainly overlap between Pulp tropes and those associated with the character, which will be explored in a later column.

Dynamite Comics expanded Shaft's universe with several comics which have been collected into two trade paperbacks. The first series, 'A Complicated Man,' won the 2015 Glyph Comics Award for its story, according to the publishers. 

'A Complicated Man' is essentially an origin story for Shaft. It depicts how he joined the US Marines after a plea bargain in court before serving in Vietnam. He eventually joins a detective agency and puts his criminal past to professional use before starting his own business.

The main threat is a mob-connected black gangster whose background connects with Shaft's brief boxing career. Shaft becomes involved following a tragic romance and discovers a blackmail plot connected to the forthcoming construction of the World Trade Center Towers.

The story by David Walker perfectly captures the era in which it is set. The covers by Dents Cowan and Bill Sienkiewicz  are particularly evocative but the interior art is by Bilquis Evely is more workmanlike. There are decent extras that include alternates cover art.

There is a lot of harsh language and violence in the book, which is for mature readers.

The second book, "Imitation of Life," takes a more humorous approach but is even more R-rated than its predecessor. The story, which is also by Walker, has Shaft balancing two plot threads -- he is hired by an affluent white family to find their homosexual son while working as a consultant on an outrageously bad "blaxploitation" movie. Both storylines lead to a scummy mob-connected pornographer.

There is a scene involving a gay porn film with actors in Lu Lux Klan outfits that has to be seen to be believed. Like most of the book it is tongue-in-cheek enough to avoid being too offensive. The portrayal of a sympathetic gay character who assists Shaft in his investigation is also well-handled (a spin-off series, perhaps?).

Deitrich Smith illustrates the second book. As with the first it does the job.

Both books are a little harsher in tone than the original movies starring Richard Roundtree. But comic fans with any curiosity about the character should find these an absorbing diversion.

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