Shaft is not a gay man. Shaft is a charismatic, stoic, street hardened black private detective; one who casually, if not lethargically, has co-opted gay rights in his latest story: Imitation of Life. It’s these interesting cultural conflicts and strong character development that should make this a Shaft story worth following. First we should call out the elephant in the room and that’s how brutal black culture has historically been towards LGBT culture. And also how historically difficult it is for black gays or bisexuals to find acceptance in their own communities (please see the tragic tale of Donny Hathaway or the apparent shunning of Frank Ocean). Thrusting an African American hyper male with a chip on his shoulder, like Det. John Shaft, into the seediest parts of gay culture immediately creates powerful conflict. Kudos for David Walker for seeing that and building a story around it.
This is not a Blaxploitation story, at least as far as Issue #1 goes. In fact, the second time through (and maybe it’s the Steve Dillon-esque feel of some of the characters) this felt a lot more like a Punisher book to me. Shaft’s Vietnam cred is on display as he tears ass (not a pun) through multiple baddies like a finely tuned machine. The character models don’t quite fully express the stoic nature of a man like Shaft or the desperation and fear of a kidnapped sex slave but still manage to adequately move the story along.
Shaft is no Punisher, and I mean that in a good way. Coupled with the occasionally banal visuals, we get some very strong introspection from our main man Shaft. These aren’t just casual thoughts or mental meanderings, these are meticulously crafted memories and observations that manage to serve as foundations for how Shaft approaches the world around him. Even with these insights it’s still unclear why he decides to investigate the case of the missing gay boy, even Shaft questions himself about it multiple times.
Whatever Shaft’s reasoning, be it boredom or cabin fever, the Imitation of Life is setup for a fantastic story. While the artwork was a little stagnant at times the story carries the load through Issue #1. With all the cultural conflicts naturally setup and David Walker’s talent for contextualizing internal dialogue I expect this will be a series worthy of our attention.
Shaft: Imitation of Life #1 Writer: David Walker Artist: Dietrich Smith Publisher: Dynamite Entertainment Price: $3.99 Release Date: 2/10/16 Format: Mini-Series; Print/Digital