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WRITING COMICS: How I Ended Up Writing SHAFT

There’s a new SHAFT movie coming out, and it is no big surprise that a lot of people are asking me about it. No, I haven’t seen it. No, I have no interest in seeing it (it’s a comedy, and SHAFT is not supposed to be a comedy). A lot of people have also been asking me how I ended up writing two SHAFT comic book series (collected into two graphic novels – SHAFT: A COMPLICATED MAN and SHAFT: IMITATION OF LIFE), as well as a novel (SHAFT’S REVENGE). Here’s a little overview of how all of this came to happen…but first, a brief bit of history.

Cover for the first U.S. edition SHAFT (right), Ernest Tidyman (center), U.K. edition

SHAFT started out as a novel written by Ernest Tidyman, published in 1970. Tidyman would go on to write six more novels starring John Shaft, all published between 1971 and 1975. The first novel in the series was turned into a film in 1971, starring Richard Roundtree, and directed by Gordon Parks, Jr. Although I became aware of the film when I was a kid, I didn’t see it until years after it was released. Now here’s the thing you need to know about me as a kid…if I liked a movie that was based on a book, I would do my best to find the book upon which it was based. It took me a long time to find a copy of SHAFT, but I found one when I was in my early 20s. I was struck by how much more interesting the character in Tidyman’s book was in comparison to the movies (there were three SHAFT movies, plus a short-lived television series).

Richard Roundtree as private detective John Shaft

For years, I though SHAFT would make an interesting comic series. I became even more convinced of this when Darwyn Cooke produced his incredible adaptations of Donald Westlake’s PARKER novels. Even though I couldn’t draw, I wanted to do with SHAFT something like Cooke had done with PARKER. But to be honest, it was nothing more than a dream – especially considering the fact that my comic career was going nowhere.

Things started to change for me in comics in 2011 and 2012. I had gotten a little bit of work, which led me to foolish idea that I might be able to make some semblance of a career in comics (I had already had a successful career in journalism, and had dabbled in film). I made a list of both original projects that I wanted to do, as well as established properties I wanted to work on. I also made a list of the types of stories I wanted to tell, and the types of characters I wanted to write.

Bilquis Evely’s original character design of John Shaft. In Tidyman’s books, the character didn’t have a mustache.

I wanted to write a gritty, hardboiled action story, with a black protagonist – but I felt that writing something like that with an original, unknown character would be a tough sell. It occurred to me that I could accomplish some of my story telling goals through SHAFT, and that such a series would help push my career to the next level. But it all seemed fairly impossible. Who owned the publishing rights to SHAFT? What comic publisher would be willing to put a comic that absolutely had to be Rated-R?

Honestly, I didn’t think I could make it happen. But there was a voice in my head that kept saying, “You have to try. If you try, and it doesn’t happen, that’s one thing, but not trying is bullshit.” So, I decided to try.

I did some investigation, and tracked down the widow of Ernest Tidyman, and sent her an email, explaining that I wanted to adapt SHAFT as a graphic novel. She wrote back, said it sounded like a good idea, and put me in touch with the lawyer that represented the property. After that, I reached out to Dynamite, as they had a history of both publishing licensed properties, and doing stuff that was Rated-R. Then – and this is important – I got it in writing that if I introduced Dynamite to the Tidyman estate’s reps, and they came to a deal, I’d be the guy to write SHAFT. This was in 2013.

It took nearly a year for the deal to be worked out, and in that time Dynamite decided that they didn’t want to do a straight adaptation of the first novel – they wanted something new and original. Even though a deal hadn’t been finalized, I had already written an outline for a six-issue adaptation of the first SHAFT novel, as well as the first issue. Once it was clear that the first SHAFT comic was going to be something new, I started outlining what would become A COMPLICATED MAN. The first issue took place almost entirely in the Vietnam War, and it was rejected (at one point Dynamite was hoping to a SHAFT series in Vietnam, written by a very well-known comic writer that was not me). I had to do a massive rewrite of the first issue, which to be perfectly honest was somewhat rushed.

While the first issue of SHAFT was being drawn by Bilquis Evely, Dynamite approached me about writing a novella. They had also procured the right to all of the Tidyman books, and wanted to do a new book. This new SHAFT novel/novella would initially be released digitally in chunks, with download codes in each issue of the comic series. This is how SHAFT’S REVENGE came to be. SHAFT’S REVENGE would be the first novel starring John Shaft since Tidyman’s 1975 THE LAST SHAFT (not to mention the only other SHAFT novel not written by Tidyman). I wrote the entire book in about six weeks – spread out over six months. It was a scheduling nightmare, and each chunk of the book was turned in before the entire book was done. I’m amazed that it turned out as well as it did (and for the record, I am very happy with my work on that book, as well as the two graphic novels).

The first issue of SHAFT, as well as the first part of SHAFT’S REVENGE came out on December 3, 2015, two days after my birthday.

 

 

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