Though he’s been working on comics for years, David F. Walker only recently started to get the attention his talent deserves after a critically acclaimed run writing Shaft for Dynamite Comics. His steady hand with multifaceted plots and skill at nuanced characterizations have served him well writing a variety of different books, including the recent Secret Wars: Battleworld #2 and Cyborg #1, out this week. The A.V. Club talked to Walker about Cyborg, Shaft, blaxploitation narratives, and his favorite comic-book characters.
The A.V. Club: You have so much experience outside of comics—you spent years working as a journalist, a filmmaker, and a pop-culture critic. Was writing comics always part of the plan for you or was it a recent development?
David F. Walker: Getting involved with comics, not even writing them but being involved, was always the first goal. I went to The Kubert School in 1986 with the goal to become an artist-slash-writer versus a writer-slash-artist. I was young and lazy and not as disciplined as I should’ve been, so it didn’t work out. The writer thing stuck with me, but comics [didn’t seem] to happen until recently. I think part of that was because comics are a collaborative medium—when you’re writing you have to have an artist, too—and that was always difficult. So now it’s really more about me getting around to finally doing the one thing I wanted to do when I was 13 or 14. When I was in high school, my guidance counselors were saying I’d probably get a job as a fry cook. My response was, “Nope, I’m gonna do comic books.” Of course, this is in the ’80s, when saying you wanted to do comic books was just shy of saying you wanted to get into porn. Dark Knight hadn’t come out, and Frank Miller was just doing his Daredevil stuff, so it wasn’t mainstream like it is today. Now, you look at colleges and universities and there’s all these incredible comic-studies programs, but none of those really existed when I was a kid.
AVC: Most people were introduced to your work through the Shaft comic. You have written extensively about blaxploitation in the past. Was this book something that you’ve always wanted to do? Did you approach Dynamite Comics with a pitch?
DFW: Before I approached Dynamite, I reached out to Chris Clark Tidyman, the widow of Ernest Tidyman. It was a cold email, just out of the blue, and I let her know I was really interested in doing a Shaft comic, asked her what the print rights looked like. Shaft is based on Tidyman’s series of books, but there were also the movies, and sometimes those two rights are interconnected. I felt if publishing rights for print weren’t tied to the film and television rights, there was a good shot that might happen. She responded quickly and was really interested. From there I approached Dynamite and introduced them to the agency that represents Tidyman’s estate, and everything came together. This was actually about two years ago, but it took a while for all the pieces to fall into place.
AVC: For the Shaft comic, you also wrote a novel called Shaft’s Revenge, which is the first Shaft novel since Tidyman’s last novel in 1975. Was that something that you originally planned or was that a later development during that long process with Dynamite?
DFW: That was a later development. Dynamite got the rights to all the Tidyman novels; there are seven of them in total. The last one, The Last Shaft, came out in ’75 but it’s never been released in the U.S. In that book, the character gets killed. When Dynamite said to me that they want to do another novel, I thought, “Let’s not do one that brings him back to life. Let’s just do one [that’s] grounded somewhere in between all the Tidyman books, which take place between ’70 and ’75.” It was just a pipe dream before that. It never occurred to me that Dynamite might try to put some novels out, so it was pretty exciting. It was also honestly the hardest thing I’ve done as a writer.
AVC: Did you write the novel or the comic first?
DFW: The comic was what I wrote first, and the novel actually isn’t a novelization of the comic. It’s a completely new story. So the comic takes place in 1969 before Shaft becomes a becomes a detective—or rather it’s how he becomes a detective. For lack of a better term, it’s his origin story. The novel Shaft’s Revenge takes place between the third and fourth books, which is around 1973-ish.
AVC: With the initial six-issue miniseries complete now, are there any plans or even a desire to do more Shaft books? Since the final book, The Last Shaft, came out in 1975 but was never released in the U.S., do you have any desire to do something with that?
DFW: I could do Shaft for years, and I know Dynamite wants to do more. They’ve talked to me about doing more, but there’s also other writers who want to take a shot at the character, so I don’t want to get in anybody else’s way. I think that there will be more, but a lot of it’s going to depend how the trade paperback sales do. The trade paperback is due out in October. The comics industry is kind of weird because we got really great positive reviews for the most part, and it was really well received. It won the Glyph Award and was nominated for Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity, and I couldn’t ask for a more well-received book. But in terms of sales, I got a lot of emails from from people all over the country that said, “Oh, my retailer didn’t carry it,” or, “I didn’t know about it.” I still think there’s a considerable audience out there that hasn’t discovered it or stumbled across it yet. So I’m hoping with the trade paperback, there might be an opportunity to find its legs more. There’s another novel I would like to write and then there’s at least four, five other story arcs I would love to do. Dynamite knows how to reach me. They’ve got my phone number, so we will work something out at some point.
AVC: There might need to be a social-media campaign to really make it happen.
DFW: Please do [that], because I have a storyline I’d like to do. My goal was to find a way to resurrect Shaft, to bring him back from the dead and then give him a daughter, and do a story that takes place in the late ’90s/early 2000s, where she takes over the business. Now Shaft is this woman in her mid-20s and she’s got issues just like her dad did, but it’s really a passing of the torch to the next generation. That’s all I want to say because I don’t want Dynamite to say, “Hey, that’s a great idea,” and then have somebody else write it. Not that they would do that, but I think it would be really fun to play with that character in that world.
AVC: You’ve done a lot of analysis and critique about blaxploitation films and the role they play in pop culture. How did all that analysis and critique affect how you approached writing and contributing to blaxploitation narratives?
DFW: Wow, that’s a really good question. I’ve always taken blaxploitation seriously, even though some of my writing has been very flippant, and some of [my] public persona is flippant. That stuff was very serious to me when I was growing up, but as I was studying and writing about it and a lot of that seriousness was lost. I love the animated series Black Dynamite—that show is wrong on so many levels but I love it. But when people think about blaxploitation they think about Black Dynamite more than they think about Across 110th Street or Trouble Man. It’s become a very comical, satirical stereotype of what it what it was originally. I wanted to try to recapture some of that seriousness, like with the Shaft novels. Those are just pulp-fiction potboilers; they’re not meant to be the joke that people take a lot of that stuff to be now. I want to try to remove that sense of humor from it—[but] there is still a sense of humor in this stuff. I think that it can be dangerous when we look at something, especially if it’s a pop-culture thing, and only look at if you get the lens of irony, or we’re going to crack jokes about it. It’s like the Shaw brothers’ kung fu movies from the ’70s and ’80s. You can watch the dubbed versions and make fun of them, but there’s something really serious going on there. And if you’re not looking for the serious stuff, you’re not necessarily going to learn from it.
AVC: One of the criticisms that you’ve leveled at blaxploitation films is the lack of historical context—you use the phrase “historical cultural ties.” Shaft had a lot of historic context around the story in the comic; was that a specific decision you made because it was something that you’d criticized in other blaxploitation work?
DFW: I did it more because that’s my sort of mania as a writer. I just wrote a one-shot for Marvel for the 50th anniversary of S.H.I.E.L.D. this year, and part of the story is supposed to take place in 1965. I wondered, “What happened in 1965 that I could tie this story to?” I think that finding little pieces that you can tie your stories to in terms of reality just makes it that much more fascinating. For example, one of my favorite movies of all time is Chinatown. Chinatown is a great movie, but there’s an even more incredible backstory behind it in the L.A. water wars of that era. For some readers, that gives them a little extra something to grab onto and to expand their scope of the world.
AVC: Without revealing huge plot points, when characters begin discussing a specific construction project that’s at the heart of the Shaft story you wrote, all of these pieces fall into place. So readers can go down this internet rabbit hole, researching and seeing a larger context that wouldn’t been there without that one element of the story.
DFW: Not to give away spoilers, but yeah, that building is an incredibly fascinating bit of American history that most people don’t know. There’s a name of a of a particular character that’s a real person. He was really the head of the Port Authority of New York during that time. That story was just so incredible to me, and I’m a history buff anyway. So I try to infuse as much of that as possible to the story.
AVC: Shaft is entrenched in a lot of historical context, but Shaft #1 also came out in December 2014, which was only a few months after the killing of Mike Brown and an increased level of scrutiny about police violence and corruption when it comes to people of color. How did the context of the book’s release date affect what you were doing?
DFW: That’s really interesting because it was always there. Not even looking over my shoulder—more like sitting at my side poking me in the ribs and saying, “How are you going to talk about this?” Shaft’s Revenge definitely gets into a lot more than the concepts of police brutality and police corruption plays in heavily into that novel. One of the variant covers for Shaft #2 has him with his hands in the air saying, “Don’t shoot,” and then that was really inspired by—[Sighs.] Inspired is the wrong term, but it was the death of Darrien Hunt in Utah last year. In some ways more than all the others, which is saying a lot because there’s been so many. I’m still grappling with how to address that in the work I’m doing right now and how I’m going to address it in my future work. This is, if not the biggest problem facing in this country right now—we’re facing a lot of big problems—but I think what we’re seeing in terms of police violence and police brutality, especially against unarmed people of color, is at an epidemic level right now. How do we address that? We do need to address it because I feel like more and more this country is in a schism, right? When I look at my Twitter feed, half the people are commenting about nothing but pop culture, and then half of people are commenting on nothing but politics and police brutality, and there’s almost no crossover between these two distinct groups of people. Here I am in the middle, and I want to promote the new issue of Cyborg that’s coming out, but we also really need to talk about McKinney, Texas right now [where a black teenage girl was restrained by a white police officer in June —ed.]. Because that’s more real. The things that we use to escape reality are great and we need them, but if we don’t address reality, the horrors that were seen in the world are going to impact us regardless. I don’t think that we as a society are in a really good position when there are so many people have this notion that “Oh well, that’s never going to happen to me.” I wrestle with this all the time. If Marvel or DC would give me a book where I could just really go on about this, I would. But I don’t know if people want to read that. Maybe they just want to read stuff that doesn’t depress the hell out of them.
AVC: To that point, you wrote in one of your essays in Becoming Black that “things that are frequently dismissed as frivolous, disposable works of entertainment also serve as tools of propaganda and helping set and reinforce different ideologies.” Do you see the industries that you’re working in, and in particular the comic-book industry, recognizing this and embracing responsibility for it?
DFW: I think it’s more individuals that see it and recognize it. The one example in terms of creators that I know who sees this is [Captain Marvel writer] Kelly Sue DeConnick, because I talk to her about it regularly. I think a lot of individual people see it, and I think that even on the business side there are people, editors at Marvel and DC and big publishers—even Disney and Warner Brothers because that’s ultimately who we’re talking about—a lot of them recognize it too. But there’s this fear of, “How is this gonna play in the South?” “What’s going to happen if we tell this sort of storyline?” I read the news and I hear some of the things that people are saying about women, reproductive rights, or blacks, or the LGBT community, and I’m mortified. If there are still people who think like that, then the people who create our entertainment and market our entertainment are cognizant and aware of them and have this concern about alienating that particular audience. That’s where things become problematic. I don’t think that big corporations are totally evil and want to turn a blind eye to the things that are important to us, but I think their bottom line is money. Then it becomes responsibility of individual creators, and that’s why you get a creator like Kelly Sue DeConnick. That’s part of the reason why her words resonate with so many people, and she’s got this attitude, this fierce quality about herself of just saying what’s on her mind and really firing from the hip. I try to be like that, and I don’t think I’m nearly as effective as she is, but she’s been at it a bit longer than I have.
AVC: Before you started publishing comics, you also wrote: “My work as a writer and a storyteller is not just for Black people or the oppressed, because enlightenment is not something that should be exclusive. If the light of wisdom, equality, and tolerance is not shown to all people, then the darkness of ignorance, injustice, and hatred threatens anyone.” Given the reputation that comics fans on the internet have, has your perspective changed on that at all?
DFW: I still hold by what I said, and that is how I still feel. I want to be careful about how I phrase this, but I think a lot of people in any kind of fandom invest so much of themselves in that which they consume or that which they are entertained by, that they lose sight of reality. That’s a really difficult thing to deal with. So what we see happening time and time again is what’s happening around the Fantastic Four movie. People are invested in the Fantastic Four as if they’re real, and then Michael B. Jordan gets cast as Johnny Storm and people freak out when they say these things, and I don’t even think they realize how racist they’re being. In the course of making these comments about how Johnny Storm could never be a black person, not only are they being racist, they’re contributing to the dehumanization of blacks through this concept that a black person couldn’t do this or a black person can’t do that. They can’t be a spy; they can’t be a superhero. In the process of doing that humanization, they’re just saying really ignorant stuff. I don’t want to be the most enlightened, intelligent person in the room—nobody wants that, right? I hate to say it this way, but nobody wants to feel like they’re the only smart person in a room full of stupid people. Of course I’ll get in trouble for saying this, but everybody thinks they’re right. The key is that we’re all right and we’re all wrong, we’re all smart and we’re all stupid. There is no hard, fast right or wrong; there is no black or white. How do we share knowledge and information with each other so we can all start to see things with that complexity? So that I can share my thoughts and feelings with you, so that you can see things with a similar sort of complexity, so that we’re all meeting on the same page.
AVC: You mentioned on a panel at Emerald City Comic-Con that one of the challenges for Cyborg is that Victor Stone’s character design dehumanizes and emasculates him as an African-American man. Andrew Wheeler argued on Comics Alliance that the redesign for his character for Cyborg #1 re-humanizes him and reasserts his masculinity. Was something that you and the artist, Ivan Reis, did intentionally?
DFW: It was something that I talked about from the very beginning, and at least some people at DC were cognizant of it long before the Comics Alliance piece came out. Giving Cyborg back some of his humanity was something that I really wanted to do with the storyline I pitched to them. But Geoff Johns has started addressing some of that in Justice League, so there is this feeling that Vic needs to be looked at with more complexity. Vic, Cyborg—you know they’re the same, and I think part of this push is coming from the fact that by and large he’s always been a character that has been a member of a team or a supporting player. When we’re writing comics or writing novels, you don’t think about those characters the same way that you think about the lead. But now there’s a lot of thought being put into, “How do we treat this character as a lead and what does that mean? What are all the other things that come with it?” For example, a lead character like Superman or Wonder Woman or Spider-Man has an entire cast of supporting characters that may never or seldom show up in any other title. But when you have a supporting character on a team that doesn’t have their own book, that person doesn’t have the next-door neighbor or the love interest. Those are all the things that begin to flesh a character out and then make them see more real. That’s part of what I wanted to do, and that’s part the reason DC brought me in. It’s all happening right out of the gate in Cyborg #1.
AVC: This is sometimes a point of contention for comic-book fans, but you said Vic and Cyborg are the same person. Some people would argue that one is the person and the other is the alter ego. So do you think that Vic and Cyborg are one and the same? Or do you think there are two different identities that he occupies, code switching between the two?
DFW: That’s a really interesting question. I’ll just jump into it and get in trouble for saying what I believe. I personally believe Vic is Vic and Cyborg is his disability. And Vic is a cyborg—it’s not that he is Cyborg, he is a cyborg. He’s different from a lot of other characters—it’s not like he was bitten by a radioactive crocodile and now he’s Alligator Man. He’s a kid who was injured in this horrific accident and in the process of saving his life he had all this mechanical stuff attached to him and this mechanical stuff helps keep him alive. So it’s not who he is, but it’s part of what he is. That’s a huge part of what I am addressing as we’re moving forward in the story. At one point I was thinking it would be so cool if, instead of calling the book Cyborg, we called it Vic Stone: Cyborg. Colon, right between the two. I don’t see Cyborg as being a persona or personality as much as I see it being a part of his condition. Some people will probably fly off the handle at me with that, but I guarantee there will be about 25 other things are going to fly off the handle about, too.
AVC: It sounds like you’ll be exploring the intersectionality of him being a person of color and being a person with disabilities. Neither defines his identity, but they both contribute to who he is as a person.
DFW: Exactly! I don’t want to write stories that are all him moping around about the fact that he’s got all these mechanical body parts or whatever. That’s part of him, and as the technology changes, he’s figuring out aspects of himself. Most people read comic books to watch “good guys” beat up the “bad guys,” and and you don’t want to lose sight of that too much. Otherwise you’re not necessarily making a successful comic, and no one wants to read it.
AVC: The playlists you made for each issue of Shaft were awesome—does music play a big role in your creative process? Will you do one for Cyborg?
DFW: I doubt that I will do a Cyborg playlist—I guess if DC really wanted me to I could. The thing about Shaft is that I lettered Shaft as well. A lot of the music I listened to was music I was listening to while I was lettering, not while I was writing. I really can’t listen to music while I’m writing. I can listen to music to get in the mood to write. Sometimes while I’m writing a scene I’ll have this moment where I think, “You know what would be great is if this song was playing in the background. If I was making a movie I would use this song in the soundtrack.” Music to me is like magic—I don’t understand it at all. It’s like a caveman looking at fire or something. For me, it’s the greatest form of escape and immersion, to let go of the day. I can’t really watch TV or movies without thinking how I would have done a scene differently. But I don’t know a thing about chord progressions or harmony, so when I’m listening to something, I don’t think, “Oh man, this song would be so much better if they went from an E-flat to an F-minor,” because I don’t know what those are.
AVC: The best question for last: Who is your favorite comic-book character and why?
DFW: Who is my favorite comic-book character and why? That’s one of those ones that goes back and forth on almost any given day.
AVC: What about a top three? Is that more reasonable?
DFW: Top three is fairly reasonable. The easy answer would be Cyborg, because I’m writing Cyborg. The two characters that fascinated me as a kid that really got me into comic books were Spider-Man and Batman. I’ll always go back to the love of those two, and part of that is when I was a kid growing up there was that terrible Spider-Man cartoon from the ’60s, the Batman live action show, and an animated Batman show all in syndication. So there’s a lot of nostalgia tied into those characters that that make them my all time favorites. They’re what’s tied into my youth. [Laughs.]
I’ve never admitted this one out loud: One of my favorite characters is Cutter from Elfquest. I seldom talk about it, but Elfquest had just started coming out when I was a kid, it was the first non-Marvel, non-DC comic I ever read. I became endlessly fascinated by it. I haven’t read it in years, but growing up as a kid, I always felt an affinity for that character. That said, if you really want an honest-to-God answer, my favorite comic-book character is Kevin Matchstick from Mage. Again, that’s not the most orthodox answer because everyone’s really expecting a superhero, but to me, Kevin Matchstick is a superhero. Mage is a comic book that I discovered when I was a teenager that still holds up and still really speaks to me. Reading that book at 18 had a profound impact on me and then I went back in and reread it several times. That character has spoken to me at various different parts of my life in a way that no other characters have managed to do consistently.
That’s what I love about comics: It doesn’t have to be just about superheroes in spandex tights. It can be about anything.