I suppose I’m obliged to start the article like this.
I’ve been on a crime comics kick lately, which started several months ago after I tore through the first six volumes of Criminal from Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips. Ever since, I’ve been trying to hunt down other series that fill my interest in these types of stories. Enter Shaft: A Complicated Man written by David Walker and illustrated by Bilquis Evely. I’ve loved Walker’s work on Power Man and Iron Fist, though hadn’t read much else from his bibliography.
Furthermore, I knew next to nothing about the character of John Shaft. Sure, I’d heard the iconic song and seen some parodies in the likes of films like Black Dynamite, but it was news to me that before Shaft appeared in films and television he was a character in a series of novels by Ernest Tidyman. With little to go on other than acclaim I’d heard for the series, I cracked open the trade to see what I’d find.
Shaft: A Complicated Man explores John Shaft’s origins. After returning from serving in the Vietnam War, Shaft returns to a career in professional boxing. Upon refusing to throw a fight, Shaft is forced to retire to avoid the ire of several gangsters and decides to take a job as a private detective. He enjoys a peaceful life with his girlfriend Arletha Havens until their world comes crashing down. But Shaft won’t rest until he navigates the web of crime, and rises to the top as a hero.
A Complicated Man is not Walker’s first foray into the world of John Shaft, penning the novel Shaft’s Revenge in 2015, marking the detective’s first novel in roughly four decades. Without much prior knowledge of Shaft it’s hard for me to say how well Walker treats the character, but as a newcomer I must acknowledge that Walker does a superb job introducing Shaft and his world to someone mostly unfamiliar with the protagonist. Furthermore, Walker weaves an intense and emotional crime tale, with Shaft’s internal monologue helping the reader navigate the streets of late 60s Manhattan. Walker also makes sure to pepper in some humor and a few lines of dialogue that reference the popular theme song of the titular detective. There are poignant moments littered throughout the tale the tie the reader to Shaft’s struggles, and while the ending wrapped up the tale I was left desiring more.
Bilquis Evely helms the art team for A Complicated Man. Evely is a maestro of expression, with her characters able to communicate a range of emotions without a word. She also blocks the panels to draw the eye across and lend deeper meaning to the narration or conversation placed on the page, while her action scenes are frenetic and enjoyable. Daniela Miwa provides coloring for Evely’s work, using a palette that respects both the time period and the cityscapes explored by Shaft and company. In pages where panels jump between timelines, Miwa varies her palette with a different overarching tone for each that helps guide the reader without the need for captions explaining time shifts. Walker himself provides the lettering for this volume, and does solid work.
Shaft: A Complicated Man is a near perfect crime story. My only complaint is that I wish we’d seen more buildup of the relationship between Shaft and other characters, such as his girlfriend Arletha and his boss Butch. There are certainly moments that communicate the depth of both relationships, but some additional exposition would’ve strengthened the story, though in a packed crime tale already layered with events this would’ve been a challenge. I’m glad to know there’s another volume, Shaft: Imitation of Life from Walker and a new art team. Even if you don’t know anything about Shaft beyond the catchy theme song, this is a volume you must pick up.
-Exceptional crime story with engrossing emotional beats
-Beautiful artwork, particularly in terms of characters’ facial expressions and the blocking of scenes
-Peppered with clever humor
-Wish we could’ve seen more moments between Shaft and Arletha, and between Shaft and Butch
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