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John Shaft vs. Sam Wilson: Rewriting the History of Black Comic Characters

Originally posted at BadAzz MoFo

I’m about to stir it up. I’m about to talk some shit, ruffle some feathers, and remind those that know me, how I break it down. Some of you will get pissed off, and that’s okay. Righteous indignation is a wonderful American tradition. Run with it, my friends.

As many of you know, in the world of comics, Sam Wilson, better known as Falcon, has assumed the mantle of Captain America over at Marvel/Disney. This has been a much-hyped story, that I have weighed in on (read HERE and HERE), but couldn’t go into as deep as I wanted because of a secret that I needed to keep. That secret was made public last week, when Dynamite Entertainment announced that I was writing their upcoming Shaft comic book.

I’m not going to lie. I really wanted to write a Falcon story for Marvel. And not just any story — I wanted to write the definitive Falcon story. I wanted to write something that would elevate him above his status as nothing more than a sidekick, which has remained unwavering now for 40-plus years. I even put together a pitch. It was pretty good. I managed to consolidate the convoluted history of Falcon, and reinvent him as one of the most dangerous characters in the Marvel Universe. Unfortunately, I never got to pitch that story, because Marvel, in all their progressive wisdom, decided that the best way to give a black character a badass storyline was to have him assume the role of a white character. And as disappointed as I am, I ain’t that disappointed, because I’m writing Shaft for Dynamite (sorry, I know, it’s shameful bragging, but I can’t help myself).

My love for the character of John Shaft is no secret. I was introduced to the character in the films of 1970s, but really began to appreciate John Shaft through the original series of books, created by Ernest Tidyman. A lot of people are surprised to find out that Shaft started as a novel, followed by six sequels, and that his creator was a white man — which is irrelevant to me. I’m just eternally grateful that Tidyman created Shaft in the first place, and in doing so helped to change pop culture. I also need to be very clear about this… my vision of Shaft — the one that will be in the comic — comes from the character that Tidyman created. There will be glimpses of the character from the films, but that Shaft is a shadow of the man in the books.

The idea to do a comic series based on Tidyman’s novels first occurred to me years ago, but back then it was more of a dream than anything else. As a writer of comics and prose, my goal has always been to have characters of color that are complex. But the reality of mainstream comics is that black characters with complexity are few and far between. To be sure, they exist, but they exist in worlds controlled by large corporations, that seldom deviate from the status quo. These characters are like toys that are owned by someone else, and only a select few people get to play with these toys, which come with rules for how you get to play with them.

Without bragging, I could have given Marvel a Sam Wilson/Falcon story that would have made him the most iconic black character they have in their toy box. But I no longer have any interest in that, because I’ve been given a better toy, with fewer rules attached. And just so there is no confusion… I know that Falcon is a superhero and Shaft is just a plain old badass. But they are both characters, and one comes with a tremendous amount of untapped potential, and the other comes with a ton of baggage and rules.

By letting me write Shaft — whether they realize it or not — Dynamite is changing the game. From this point forward, whenever people talk about black characters in comics (or black creators), they will need to talk about Shaft. (They also need to start talking about Watson & Holmes, Molly Danger, Midnight Tiger, Concrete Park, Genius, and all the other amazing comics that keep getting overlooked and ignored.) In other words, the time has come where the history of black characters in comics needs not just a new chapter, but an all-new book. In that book, there will be a paragraph or two about the time Sam Wilson took over for Captain America, and the buzz/outrage it created. And hopefully, in that very same book, after the chapters about Milestone, Jackie Ormes, Morrie Turner, Brotherman, and the rich legacy that came before me, there will be an entire chapter on a comic publisher that licensed an iconic black character created by a white man, and then hired a loud-mouthed black guy — with a bad habit of bragging and talking shit — to bring it like it’s never been brought in comics before.

Shaft #1 debuts in stores on December 3, 2014. Pre-order your copy now.

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