Writer's Commentary – David F. Walker On Shaft: Imitation Of Life #4
David F. Walker has brought one of the iconic characters of the seventies back to the spotlight with his first Shaft mini-series for Dynamite. He continues that work with the latest series, Shaft: Imitation of LIfe and we have his writer's commentary for issue #4 that came out this week. The cover below was done by Matthew Clark and interiors by Dietrich Smith.
The first issue of Shaft: Imitation of Life started with a sequence from the original Shaft novel by Ernest Tidyman, and I wanted to make sure that this final issue of the story made some kind of passing reference to where it all started. Hence, the flashback in Panel 3. This actual scene never occurred in the book (or the movie), but I needed a way to explain how Shaft would have so much cash on hand, and it made sense (at least while I was writing it).
It's also important to note that in every issue of Shaft, his first person narration was an integral part of the story. But with this issue, it was very difficult for me. The first draft had no narration, and I struggled with what to have Shaft say, because it just felt like this issue didn't need him blabbering on an on. But at the same time, the precedent had been set, and not have him narrate would be weird. Some of you may notice that there is less narration in this issue.
The supporting character of Tito didn't start out as important as he ended up being. In fact, in the original outline, he was only in the first two issues, but as the story grew and evolved, so did the character. I specifically asked Dietrich to draw a Volkswagen Beetle for this scene, because it seems like the least badass car Shaft could be driving. I find it funny, but I don't know if anyone else will appreciate the humor.
I loved working with Dietrich Smith on this series. He had an incredible way of bringing my scripts to like, but the thing I like best is the way he captured the little details that were very important. On this page, the single most important detail is that Tito is taking the gun from the bag. There is nothing else that the reader absolutely has to know, but they need to know this, and they need to know that Shaft doesn't know. Dietrich made this one bit of information truly sing.
In the original script, there was only dialog in the giant panel. After seeing Dietrich's art, I felt that there were missed opportunities on this page, if I left the remaining panels silent. I struggled with what to have the characters say. I knew I wanted Tito talking to himself in Spanish. The problem was that the character is Puerto Rican, and I wanted to make sure that what I had him saying "sounded" right for someone from Puerto Rico, because not all Spanish-speaking languages say things the same way. I think (or hope) that I got it right. If it is wrong, I apologize. As for what Shaft says, I just wanted to play around with the idea that he knows this case was a bad move.
This mini-series has an odd history. Originally, I had written a self-contained Shaft story that was supposed to be some kind of annual, but it never got published. When Dynamite asked for a second story-arc, I decided to use material from that other script, and combine it into a second story. Essentially, Shaft: Imitation of Life is a combination of a one-shot style story, that was repurposed and combined with a second story. What we are seeing here is one of the few scenes from that original one-shot that made it into this series completely unaltered. There's actually a certain amount of symbolism on this page, mostly in the last panel, as it represents Shaft about to enter a very absurd world.
To the best of my knowledge, this was not how porn movies were made in the 1970s. To be honest, I have tried to keep Shaft somewhat grounded in fact, and with this, my tenth issue of the character, I have ventured into a complete and total land of make believe. That's part of why this series is called Imitation of Life.
If you've been reading this story from the start, you know that Shaft was originally hired to find this kid, Mike Prosser. The case involving Mike, and the introduction of Tito, was all part of secondary story that came about when the one-shot story was expanded. The original one-shot story was nothing more than Shaft working as a film consultant. This particular scene was never in that story, because the character of Mike wasn't in that story. I needed away to bring both of those cases together, and thanks to the sleazy world or porn…here it is.
The character of Lou "Lollipop" Peraino is fictional. In real life, however, there was a mobster name Anthony "Big Tony" Peraino, who was a huge player in the porn industry. Big Tony was part of the Columbo crime family, and he financed the porn film Deep Throat, which changed the world of pornography. In the world of Shaft, Lollipop Peraino is the nephew of Big Tony, which is how he got into porn.
I try to give my artists reference material for when they have to design key characters. I don't expect them to make the characters look exactly like the reference, but it helps the artist to get an idea of what a character can look like. For Lollipop Peraino, I sent Dietrich photos of several actors, including John Saxon, Jack Palance, and Henry Silva. To me, Peraino looks like a cross between Palance and Silva.
It's hard to believe that originally, Tito was a throwaway character that only appeared in the first two issues. At some point, I grew attached to him, recognized that he had a lot of potential, and even came to understand that this story is as much about him as it is Shaft.
This scene is wrong on so many levels, and I wrestled with keeping it. I knew it would offend some people. And then I thought, "Well…f*ck 'em." I always wanted to take this story someplace outrageous, sleazy, over-the-top, and exploitative. I wanted to evoke the balls-to-the-wall aesthetic of some of the more outrageous grindhouse films of the 1970s, and this is how I decided to do it. I love this page. I love this scene. Dietrich captured it all beautifully.
Of all the things in this issue that I could be worried about, this is the page that concerns me the most. I worry that people will miss the fact that Shaft is reaching for his gun in the bag, and that is not there. Perhaps I should be concerned that we are implying that Shaft is about to anally assaulted with a sausage, but that doesn't matter to me. I just want people to realize the gun is missing.
I love how Dietrich brought the action to life on this page. As I pointed out, there is much less narration in this issue, and I knew that at some point Shaft would have to start telling his story again. The point of the narration has always been to give the reader insight into Shaft that works either in conjunction with what is on the page or, in some cases, beyond what is on the page.
And here we are essentially where Issue #2 started. This scene is directly from the original one-shot that never got published.
Here we see the two different cases of this story coming together, but also a bit more than just that. Once again, Shaft: Imitation of Life was originally supposed to be a self-contained one-shot. It was the story of Shaft working as a film consultant, and was meant to be absurd, over-the-top, and, quite possibly, a bit offensive. The second storyline, the one that came about when I was asked to write another series, was the missing persons case involving Mike Prosser. That story was about Shaft failing on the case, with someone else finding the person he was looking for. That story went through many changes—especially considering that Mike was originally a teenage girl, and the character of Tito didn't exist. But things change and stories evolve, and in some cases, two stories come crashing together in more ways than one.
I don't do much lettering (because I'm not that good at it, and because I don't have the time). But I love lettering Shaft, because it allows me to play with the dialog (and even the story) up until the very last moment. This page is pretty much as I wrote, except for the second panel. The dialog was slightly different, and when I saw the emotions on the characters' face as Dietrich had drawn them, I saw a great opportunity to add just a bit more to the story.
I absolutely love what Dietrich did with this page. In the original one-shot story, I never showed how Shaft and Rockman escaped. But when the story expanded, and Tito was brought in, I had to have some kind of action-packed ending. I also love the use of Volkswagen. Much of this story was in response to the announced Shaft film reboot, which was announced last year, and was reported to be comedic in nature. I don't think Shaft should be done as a comedy. But if it is going to have comedic elements, it should be him killing a warehouse full of pornographers, then jumping out of a window, and landing on the hood of VW. That is comedic gold, my friends.
This is what we call an "expository dump." You've gotta wrap up a story some way. I just wanted to end on a note that held some kind of promise of more adventures with Tito. Honestly, I'd love to write a story just about him.
Here we have not one, but two homages. The first is to the film Midnight Cowboy. The second is to Taxi Driver. In my own twisted mind, this entire story is a bizarre mash-up of Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver, starring John Shaft. No one else may see it, but I know that it is there.
This page may or may not be some kind of thinly veiled commentary on the upcoming Shaft film, or it may be some kind of deeper commentary on how film portrays black masculinity, or it just may be the end of the story.
I love this page. I really do. At the same time, I recognize that I used the character of Honee in a way that was lacking in originality or complexity, which is a sign of my shortcomings as a writer. If there is one thing about this story that I look back on with any regret, it's the fact that I didn't try harder to make Honee more than just a sex object. Unfortunately, sometimes you don't see these things until after they are done, and then all you can do is work to grow as a writer, so that next time, you don't do it again. That said, I really love this page.