Today sees the release of Tim Story’s version of Shaft. The director noted for his Ride Along films has controversially adopted a similar action-comedy-buddy movie tone which is completely out of kilter with Ernest Tidyman’s creation. Reviews of the movie have been mixed and the aggregator sites suggest an average rating of around 5 out of 10. I will have to wait until 28 June, when Netflix distributes the movie on its streaming service in the UK before I am able to make my own judgement.
In the meantime, I continue to feel this has been a wasted opportunity to re-introduce the character to cinema audiences and to formally introduce Shaft to a new generation. I have suggested before that David F. Walker’s comic book prequel Shaft: A Complicated Man would have made for a perfect adaptation. David really got under the skin of Tidyman’s creation in that book and it would have been a great starting point for the movie franchise relaunch. If the producers had chosen to go back to the start, set the movie in period – with all its social attitudes highlighted in a serious manner and Shaft’s character traits properly explained – this could have been a successful and authentic adaptation.
In a recent interview reported on People.com Samuel L Jackson talked briefly about the latest Shaft movie. It was originally reported that the film would be an Action/Comedy. This caused much disappointment and anger amongst fans of the original books and films, myself included.
In the interview about the dynamics in black films Jackson says: “When we started the film, the producers wanted to make an action comedy, and I told them that you can’t make John Shaft a comedic character. He can be funny, but he has to be strong, dynamic, and charismatic in all the ways that he was because he is part of our mythology. Shaft is part of our black film anthology. He was a hero and one of the first people we saw to be that kind of a character.”
Whilst this statement on its own is unlikely to convince sceptics, it may offer some faint hope that the filmmakers will take the character seriously. However, with the focus being on the original characters’ nephew and nephew’s son it is unlikely the film will resemble Ernest Tidyman’s vision. Why New Line did not consider re-introducing Tidyman’s original character, whether it be in an update or a retro crime thriller, remains a mystery. Trying to extend the Shaft family (despite it being clear in the novels that Shaft had no siblings) takes us further away from the original character concept. As I have said before, my preference would have been for an adaptation of David F Walker’s comic book “origins story”. But I guess this is more about trying to make money than being authentic and respectful of the Shaft legacy.
Well, here we are again. Another year on and it seems to have gone so quickly. At this time last year I gave a summary of activity in the world of John Shaft. It came at the end of an exciting two years, which saw the publication of two original comic books as well as a new novel, all written by David F Walker, relaunching Ernest Tidyman’s detective in literary form.
Walker had done a superb job at introducing the character to a new audience. His work proved to be a real treat for fans of the original books and films. Despite critical acclaim, these books did not sell in sufficient quantities to satisfy publishers Dynamite Entertainment and a planned reprint of Tidyman’s original novels stalled after the first release. The Italian reprints through SUR, however, did at least continue with the publication of the second book, Shaft Among the Jews, in January (retitled Shaft Tragli Ebrei).
Also in January, further news on the proposed new Shaft movie emerged when Tim Story was announced as director. The fact that Story has a string of comedic action tales to his credit added further fuel to the fire that the producers were moving away from the original concept.
In February, Walker’s Shaft: Imitation of Life comic book was nominated for the 2017 Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity. Whilst the book failed to win the award, it was further acknowledgement of Walker’s achievements. The writer would go on to produce high profile work away from Dynamite with a new Luke Cage series for Marvel along with Power Man and Iron Fist and Occupy Avengers and a comic series book series of Planet of the Apes for Boom.
All went quiet in the Shaft world until August, when in an interview Story confirmed, “My Shaft movie is going to be definitely not straight action. We’re going action-comedy or comedy-action, I’m not exactly sure which one comes first. We’re going to definitely make sure the stakes in the world are real, and then you’ve got these characters who are dealing with kind of a father/son situation, we’re going to see them put a family back together.”
Pre-production was mobilised and casting commenced with Jessie T Usher confirmed as the son of Samuel L Jackson’s John Shaft, who in turn is the nephew of Richard Roundtree’s original. The film, provisionally titled Son of Shaft, is therefore a sequel to John Singleton’s 2000 Shaft, which starred Jackson and was a belated sequel to the original Shaft trilogy from the early 1970s. What modern audiences will make of these nods to the character’s cinematic legacy remains to be seen, but it feels like this is Shaft in name only. Usher’s character is described as being at odds with the old-school methods of detection employed by his father – being a more tech-savvy sleuth working for the FBI. With the tone set for an action-comedy, the result is likely to be far-removed from Tidyman’s gritty novels and Gordon Parks’ iconic 1971 interpretation.
Alexandra Shipp and Regina Hall, the latter as Shaft Jr’s mother, were also added to the cast and shooting commenced in Atlanta in December with a scheduled move to New York planned in early 2018. A June 2019 release date has also been slated and a distribution deal has been agreed by New Line with internet movie provider, Netflix.
So, with 18 months to wait before we get to see any new Shaft on screen, what else is happening? Well the answer is not much. Whilst the original Shaft was finally released on Blu-ray in the UK in October, we still await BD releases of Shaft’s Big Score! and Shaft in Africa anywhere in the world. My guess is these will be released in 2019 to coincide with the new movie. Whether, Dynamite will follow suit by reprinting the remainder of Tidyman’s novels remains to be seen.
I remain hopeful hype around the movie will bring the Shaft legacy into the public eye once more – despite my reservations about its tone and subject matter. Dynamite still owns the literary rights, so maybe interest will be rekindled in commissioning more original literary work whether in comic book form or prose, hopefully with Walker on board.
SHAFT: IMITATION OF LIFE by DAVID F. WALKER/DIETRICH SMITH (2017, Dynamite, 104pp) ∗∗∗∗
Blurb: After a high-profile case puts him in the headlines, private detective John Shaft is looking for something low profile and easy that will keep him out of the spotlight, out of danger. Shaft takes a missing person case that proves to be more difficult than he initially thought. At the same time, he is hired to be a consultant on a low budget film that may or may not be based on his life, and proves to be as dangerous as any job he’s ever had. But when there’s danger all about, John Shaft is the cat that won’t cop out – even if it means squaring off against sadistic gangsters that want him dead.
The trade paperback publication of this four-part comic book arrives a year after similar treatement for Shaft: A Complicated Man. David F. Walker returns as writer and is partnered with Dietrich Smith as artist. The book demonstrates the confidence Walker took from his critically acclaimed debut as the literary heir to Ernest Tidyman’s creation. The story stretches itself around social issues of a decaying New York and the expoitation of young gays through pornography. Walker also finds time to seemingly take a satirical swipe at some of the excesses of Blaxploitation cinema, by having Shaft work as a consultant on a film based on his own exploits, only here exaggerated to comical effect. In reality, however, this is a dig at the makers of the proposed new Shaft movie, which is reported to have a comedic slant. Smith’s artwork is more bold and colourful than the more sensitive tones applied by Bilquis Evely. His work is very effective and at times sublime – notably in the use of light and shade at the start of Part 3, where Shaft is interviewed by detectives in his office. Ultimately, whilst the story lacks the dramatic and emotional bite of Walker’s debut, it is an entertaining read lifting the lid on the sleazier aspects of early 1970s New York. Unlike the TP publication of Shaft: A Complicated Man, this book comes without any extras, such as an introduction, script extracts and character profiles, which is a shame. It is also a shame that Dynamite seem to have stalled on any new Shaft output – with as yet no commissioned third comic book or follow-up novel to Walker’s excellent Shaft’s Revenge. There is also no news of the continuation of the reprints of Tidyman’s originals. I hope the publisher has not lost interest in the series and that we see more Shaft output very soon.
It was announced today that Shaft: Imitation of Life has been nominated for the 2017 Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity. Written by David F. Walker with art work by Dietrich Smith and featuring the eponymous black hero, the comic also tackled issues of the exploitation of homosexual males in early 1970s New York. The comic followed Walker’s Shaft: A Complicated Man, which was nominated for the same award in 2015.
Amazon has a listing for the 96-page trade paperback publication of the 4-part comic book Shaft: Imitation of Life. The book, written by David F. Walker with artwork by Dietrich Smith is set for publication on 21 February 2017.
The blurb reads: After a high profile case puts him in the headlines, private detective John Shaft is looking for something low profile and easy that will keep him out of the spotlight, out of danger. Shaft takes a missing person case that proves to be more difficult than he initially thought. At the same time, he is hired to be a consultant on a low budget film that may or may not be based on his life, and proves to be as dangerous as any job he’s ever had. But when there’s danger all about, John Shaft is the cat that won’t cop out – even if it means squaring off against sadistic gangsters that want him dead.
The following editorial review extracts are also included in the listing:
“The creative team of Walker and Smith channel Ernest Tidyman’s iconic detective with an accuracy his character has not seen in years.” – Comicsverse
“David F. Walker populates this sensational medium of ours with living, breathing human beings. It’s what he’s good at. It’s his gift.” – Doomrocket
“Worthy of our attention.” – Comic Bastards
“The faithful adaptation of the character. Shaft is back and he’s packing heat.” – Project Nerd
In May 2014 Dynamite Entertainment announced it had purchased the literary rights to Ernest Tidyman’s creation John Shaft. The purchase was prompted by comic book writer and author David F Walker, who was given responsibility of writing new Shaft adventures in both comic book and prose forms. The result was the brilliant comic Shaft: A Complicated Man and the less effective, but nevertheless entertaining Shaft: Imitation of Life. Walker’s commendable novel Shaft’s Revenge completed the relaunch.
Last month Dynamite followed through on its promise to republish the original Ernest Tidyman novels by releasing 1970s Shaft on 20 July. This is the first time the novel has been available in a new print version in the US since the 1970s. Recently Shaft was also reissued in Italy via publisher SUR. Whilst the 7-book series has been available in a German translation as well as audio books, Shaft excepting, it has not been published in the UK since 1977.
Dynamite’s Shaft is presented in a similar format to Shaft’s Revenge and has a stylish retro cover by Robert Hack resembling the UK Corgi paperback covers for the series in the 1970s. Whilst I am delighted that Dynamite are seeking to re-introduce Tidyman’s work to a modern audience, I am slightly disappointed by the standard of presentation of the text inside. Paragraph indents are far too deep and the method of scanning the original text has resulted in some typos. The same issues were apparent in Walker’s Shaft’s Revenge. More care should have been taken in the editorial stage. I hope these problems are resolved ahead of publication of the promised second Tidyman Shaft novel Shaft Among the Jews, for which there is a preview in this reprint. That said it is great to see the first book on the bookshelves again, hopefully introducing a new generation to one of crime fiction’s most enduring characters.
Whilst Dynamite continues to fly the flag for John Shaft there is, as yet, no further news on New Line’s development of a new Shaft movie. David Walker’s open letter to the producers was trailed heavily in the press last year and although New Line attempted to reassure fans that they would not turn Shaft into a comedy, the hiring of writers known for their comedic approach did little to allay such fears. Since then it has all gone quiet. Let’s hope the producers have taken time to reflect on recent events in the US and will proceed in producing a Shaft for a modern audience whilst maintaining the essence of Tidyman’s creation.
SHAFT: IMITATION OF LIFE(2016, Dynamite Entertainment, 4 issues, 4 x 32 pp) ∗∗∗∗ Shaft Created by Ernest Tidyman Written and Lettered by David F. Walker Illustrated by Dietrich Smith Coloured by Alex Guimares Cover by Matthew Clark Cover Colours by Vinicius Andrade
Blurb: The only thing John Shaft wanted was a simple case, one where no one got hurt or killed. He figured working as a consultant on a low budget film would be easy money. He was wrong… dead wrong.
David Walker’s second Shaft comic book series, which follows last year’s excellent Shaft: A Complicated Man, has an altogether different tone to that hard-hitting debut. There is a dark satirical feel to a story that explores the underbelly of the sleazy porn industry in 1970s New York. Not only does Walker tackle this in graphic detail, but he also challenges Shaft’s own homophobic viewpoint by having his client/sidekick be a gay teenager. Finally with Shaft also hired as consultant to a Blaxploitation movie, which turns out to be a horrendous parody of the real Shaft film, Walker throws his own punches at the producers of the new Shaft film in development – which is reported to be taking a more comedic tone.
The opening sequence replays the end of Tidyman’s Shaft novel with the rescue of the kidnapped Beatrice Persons, daughter of Harlem crime lord Knocks Persons, from the Mafia. The remainder of the first issue deals with Shaft being hired to trace a missing teenage boy and in the process hooking up with Tito, a gay teenager. The plot diverges in issue 2 toward Shaft being hired as consultant on a Blaxploitation movie based on his life. Over the next two issues the two plot strands come together as the movie’s star is kidnapped by “Lollipop” Lou Peraino who runs the Mafia funded porn industry and, having funded the movie, is owed money. Shaft plans and leads a rescue attempt and in the process finds the missing teenager at Peraino’s porn film factory.
This series features the art work of Dietrich Smith (replacing the more textural Bilquis Everly) and the bold colouring of Alex Guimares. Together they create a colourful view of 1970s NYC and present memorable characters that complement perfectly Walker’s tough script. There is an excellent sequence at the start of issue 3 in Shaft’s office where he is in discussion with two NYPD vice cops that is beautifully illustrated. In turn, Walker continues to have fun with Tidyman’s creation and obviously enjoys exploring the more satirical aspects of his story.
Whilst Shaft: Imitation of Life doesn’t quite match the levels of brilliance of its predecessor, it is still an entertaining ride with aspects of social commentary added to a winning formula. Here’s looking forward to a third series from Walker and co. very soon.
The first reviews of the final issue of Shaft: Imitation of Life – Part Four: All the World’s a Stage are in:-
“…a tense issue that concludes the series in terrific fashion. David F. Walker’s script balances the action with thematic content, giving a layer of depth to the issue that could have easily spiraled into simply being a fiery conclusion. Artist Dietrich Smith and colorist Alex Guimaráes’ bring the world to life in theatrical fashion, heightening the drama of the story. In short, Shaft: Imitation of Life #4 is a fantastic ending to a superb series, worthy of John Shaft.” – Robert Reed, AdventuresinPoorTaste.com
“Writer David F. Walker oozes the aesthetic of this time period and the visuals from Dietrich Smith and Alex Guimaraes take the reader right back to the era of polyester and shag carpets. Wonderful work.” – Hannibal Tabu, ComicBookResources.com
“David Walker and Dietrich Smith’s sequel to last year’s superb “Shaft” six-parter does so, as well, wrapping things up with a bow and some clever-if-somewhat-obvious “metafictional” nods to John Shaft’s place in popular culture history. Can we get another series next year, please?” – Alex K Cossa, GraphicPolicy.com