After introducing Shaft to the comic book medium, David Walker is joined by Dietrich Smith and Alex Guimares in a new story, Shaft: Imitation of Life. Is it good?
Shaft: Imitation of Life #1 (Dynamite Entertainment)
Shaft: Imitation of Life #1 sees the titular hero struggling in the aftermath of solving a big investigation. No longer a man who can take on a case and go unrecognized, Shaft must come to terms with his new position and himself.
One of the great things about this issue is that it works as a solid introduction to the character of John Shaft. Whether a reader has only heard the Isaac Hayes theme or has devoured the works of creator Ernest Tidyman, Shaft: Imitation of Life #1 fleshes out the titular character in a way that makes the story emotionally engrossing. Part of the way writer David Walker does this is by playing off of Shaft’s persona, subverting the hyper-masculine attributes that Shaft has been defined by for so long.
Yes, Shaft is a self-assured man, but he possesses this confidence because of the knowledge of his flaws, rather than in spite of them. This is a man who has seen his demons. Walker readily explores Shaft’s tendencies for violence as a quick solution and shows Shaft as a man troubled by his own behavior but trying to use it for something positive. It’s an intriguing internal conflict, that also allows the narrative to show off Shaft as a powerful character while still intimating to the reader his vulnerabilities.
The other way that Walker subverts some of the stereotypes thrown Shaft’s way is that he allows the character to navigate the gay culture of 70s New York. As his investigation into a missing boy leads him to a gay bar, Shaft meets a young man who may have a lead for him. Walker doesn’t shy away from having Shaft throw terms like “fairy” around. The language is used delicately, staying true to the era, and adds to the complexity of the hero. John Shaft is a man willing to help, but his bitter attitude can make him seem hostile from those he wishes to aide.
David Walker also does the lettering in the issue, and his work really adds to the pacing of the issue, creating a natural cadence for the characters, especially in the Shaft’s captions.
Dietrich Smith’s artwork throughout the issue is fantastic. The first thing that stands out his his Shaft. With sinewy muscles hiding under stylish clothing, Smith’s John Shaft is a powerful man and that physical presence helps to highlight Shaft’s battle with himself. Smith also has a great sense of staging action, each panel of the issue’s combat scenes is used to maximize the effect of the narrative, highlighting Shaft’s skillset even as he grapples with his use of it.
The vibrant colors of the issue are provided by Alex Guimares. Guimares’ palette is lustrous and varied. Private investigator stories are so often married to a limited range of murky colors, often resorting to washed out shades of grays, greens, and blues that it’s nice to see Guimares give Shaft: Imitation of Life a fuller, livelier feel. It’s a decision that adds to the immediacy of the story, making it feel in the here and now, rather than the distant past.
If there is one minor flaw to the book, it’s in the ending. The narrative structure of the issue doesn’t quite allow for the build-up to a good cliffhanger, and so Shaft: Imitation of Life #1 ends on a bit of a downbeat without indicating where the series is heading next. However, between Walker’s character work and the art, readers will likely find enough to come back for issue two.
Is It Good?
With solid characterization and a unique look at 70s New York, Shaft: Imitation of Life #1 is a fantastic debut. David Walker’s script allows for Shaft to be both a certified badass while being surprisingly vulnerable. Dietrich Smith and Alex Guimares give the book a fantastic swagger worthy of the character while also excelling at creating tension in the smaller character moments. If the future issues can further the plot as well as this issue develops its characters, Shaft: Imitation of Life will end up an excellent miniseries and entry into the Shaft mythos.