He’s written Cyborg. He’s writing Luke Cage. But no character David F. Walker has tackled is as famous — or as influential in mass media — as John Shaft. On his second mini-series (with the novel Shaft’s Revenge under his belt as well), Walker sat down to chat all things Shaft and Blaxploitation at C2E2 this year, sharing a bit of his thought process on the genre and his recent development of gay character Tito Salazar in the current series.
Matt Santori-Griffith: Starting broadly, you’ve written A LOT about Shaft — the comic and the film — and about Blaxploitation as a genre. What are your thoughts about the role it played then versus now?
David F. Walker: In a nutshell, if we were to focus on the positive aspects of Blaxploitation — of which I think there are many — it’s that it represented the recognition of the viability of a Black audience, and/or the viability of interest in telling stories about the Black experience in America. That’s the thing about it that’s really interesting.
It represented a shift in how Black people were represented pop culture — not just films, but also in television, books, and even comic books. That’s the positive aspect of it. There’s negative aspects to it too, but we don’t need to get into that.
My fascination with it always stemmed from how it was counter-programming to everything that was out there in film and television. As a kid growing up, I would see these images — even before seeing the movies — on the cover of Ebony or Jetmagazine that were unlike any other characters I was seeing on TV or at the movies. It fascinated me because all I was seeing was Happy Days or Laverne and Shirley. It was really crucial, and sparked this curiosity in me that led me down a path of life that changed me forever.
Now I look at it as if we’re in a new position. Where there could be a new movement of Blaxploitation, and by that I mean we take how we’re represented and take more control of it. And change it.
Steve Orlando and I talked about it a lot when he did Virgil, which is aqueersploitation graphic novel. It reminded me a lot of films in the 1990s by Gregg Araki, like The Living End. When that movie came out, I was in my twenties, and just exploring independent cinema and coming to grips with my own view of queer folks. Coming out of the “Dark Ages” of my teen years where you’re cracking gay jokes with your friends — until you realize there was this one friend that never laughed.
Then you need to rethink everything. Even within those jokes, which were only meant to be fun, there’s a level of negativity and hatred. Then you go, “I care about my friend. I love this person. What does this say about me? Do I have to give up my gay jokes?” It’s not about giving up gay jokes, though. It’s about giving up the mentality that leads you to make those jokes. Stop seeing people as an object of ridicule, and just as human beings, and everything starts to change.
Ha! I got a little off track there.
MSG: Maybe! Maybe not. It all relates to the latest book, I think. But what about Blaxploitation today?
DFW: You know, it’s like “A rose by any other name.” It’s still out there. You look at a movie like Django Unchained, which is Blaxploitation, or a lot of Denzel Washington’s movies. Something like American Gangster. We call it something different, but at the end of the day, exploitation is just a term we use to talk about the market to which something is being exploited. They call them art films in certain circles, and not artsploitation, but it’s the exact same thing.
There’s chick flicks. Arthouse films. You add “sploitation” to it, and it gives it this sort of lurid, salacious sound to it. But it’s just change in different forms.
In the 80s, it became the Eddie Murphy movies, like 48 Hours and Trading Places. Then it morphed into movies like Lethal Weapon, the interracial buddy movies. Then it morphed again into New Jack City, Boyz in the Hood, or House Party. There’s always been these iterations of it, but we’ve just called it different names. But it’s always been there.
It’s a product that has primarily been marketed to a Black audience, giving off a representation of what is considered by many to be “The Black Experience in America.” Whether or not that’s true is another thing entirely.
MSG: Leading then into Shaft, I realized this morning that John Shaft is literally the most famous Black character being published in a comic book today.
DFW: [laughs] And I thought about that! I’ve been wanting to do a Shaft comic book for years. It was in the back of my mind. Probably about 4-5 years, I thought, “I really want to do a comic with a Black character, and these are the things I really want that character to do and represent.” Like a Black James Bond. read more