SHAFT, CAN YOU DIG IT?
The opening funk of Isaac Hayes’ Theme From Shaft can set off an earworm with the persistence to stick in your head for days. You also can’t hear the theme without immediately picturing the long black, leather-coated, figure of Richard Rountree strutting down the streets of Harlem, and the unquestionable self-assurance of the bullet-blazing hell he can summon down at any given moment. The theme…The figure…There is not one without the other…That’s Shaft…
As a cultural icon, the character of private detective John Shaft has endured through novels, films, a television series, a terrible cinematic reboot, and—most recently, and more successfully—a comic series and new novel by writer David F. Walker.
The originally 1970 novel Shaft, by the then little known author Ernest Tidyman, features the angry, no nonsense, private detective of the title rampaging through Harlem and the neighborhoods of the Italian mob pursuing the missing daughter of a black mobster. In 1971, the film adaptation—by Tidyman and John D. F. Black—became the touchstone of the blaxploitation genre that would dominate B-movies for the next decade.
The casting of Shaft was near perfect—Richard Roundtree as Shaft, Moses Gunn as Bumpy Jonas, and Charles Cioffi as Lt. Vic Androzzi. The soundtrack, composed by Isaac Hayes, was lightning in a bottle. The tough, smart, well-dressed, black private eye who never backed down, made such an impact that the NAACP presented Tidyman with its Image Award—a very unusual honor since Tidyman was white.
At the suggestion of Macmillan’s mystery editor, Alan Rinzler, Tidyman originally conceived Shaft as a sort of African American James Bond (the paperback cover of Shaft sports the blurb, Hotter than Bond, cooler than Bullitt). In quick order, Tidyman turned the novel into a screenplay and found a home for the low budget production. At the same time, Tidyman’s script for The French Connection (which would win an Academy Award) was also making its way to the big screen.
Tidyman went on to write several other novels featuring John Shaft (Shaft Among the Jews, Shaft's Big Score) along with providing the outline for several more written by other hands (Shaft Has a Ball, Goodbye, Mr. Shaft, Shaft's Carnival of Killers, The Last Shaft). Two more films followed (Shaft’s Big Score and Shaft In Africa) both starring the redoubtable Richard Roundtree, who would also go on to star in seven 90-minute made for TV movies between 1973 and 1974. Despite the presence of Rountree, the television series watered down Shaft’s more aggressive tendencies, softening the character into a pale imitation of the original.
Eventually, disillusioned with the film and television treatment of his character, Tidyman tried to crash the series into a wall by depicting Shaft’s demise in The Last Shaft. But like Doyle with Holmes, David Morrell with Rambo, and O’Donnell with Modesty Blaise, popular demand has kept the character vital and alive—even to the extent of giving Rountree a cameo asking his nephew—Samuel L. Jackson—to partner in the private eye business in the (terrible) reboot of the movie franchise in 2000.
All of this brings me to the latest and much more successful incarnation of the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks. December 2014, saw the debut of Shaft as a six part comic book mini-series—Shaft: A Complicated Man. Written by David F. Walker (illustrated by Bilquis Evely) and published by Dynamite Entertainment, the series follows young John Shaft's earliest adventures and is adapted closely from the Ernest Tidyman novels. Due to the success of the first series (and Walker’s obvious affection for and knowledge of the character), a second mini-series—Shaft: Imitation of Life—has recently hit the comic store shelves.
Dynamite also commissioned Walker to write the first new Shaft novel in 40 years…When the Godfather of crime in Harlem reaches out to Shaft for a favor, the hardboiled detective finds himself caught in a web of violence and murder. No one is safe as the bullets start to fly and the bodies start to drop, leaving Shaft with only two options: kill or be killed… Walker’s effort, Shaft’s Revenge, was published in February.
Dynamite has promised more original comics, graphic novels, and prose novels, and will also be issuing re-prints of all the existing Shaft novels, which have been out of print for far too long.
FOR AN INTERVIEW WITH WALKER CLICK HERE
FOR MORE ON SHAFT’S REVENGE CLICK HERE
Shaft is also the focus of a wonderful reference work by Steve Aldous. The World of Shaft, was published by McFarland Press in the latter part of 2015. Eminently readable, this complete guide to the novels, comic strip, films and television series draws extensive on Aldous’ access to Tidyman's personal papers. Covering the history of John Shaft from the original novels, the film franchise, the first-ever coverage of the forgotten Shaft newspaper comic strip (including previously unseen artwork), and Shaft's recent reappearance on the printed page, in both comic book and prose form.
FOR MORE ON THE WORLD OF SHAFT CLICK HERE
Shaft remains an seminal character of the private eye genre, deserving of this renewed attention to both Shaft’s history and future…Can you dig it?