It’s 1957: Hector Mason Lassiter, “pulp-writer-turned-crime writer, turned-lately screenwriter”, in on his way to LA to meet with Orson Welles. At his side is poet/journalist Eskin “Bud” Fiske, tasked with writing a profile on the aging Lassiter for TRUE Magazine, who just happens to be present as the aging writer comes into possession of quite the prize: the head of Mexican revolutionary Francisco “Pancho” Villa. Or his skull anyway, which may contain a treasure map to hidden treasure and more.
Lassiter is promised an easy booty – 80 grand – if he delivers Pancho’s skull to “the big man”, i.e. Senator Prescott Bush, also the head of a fraternity that orchestrated the skull’s theft for his mysterious Skull & Bones Society. Yeah, it’s exactly what you think it is, and before this two-fisted tale is through we’ll even meet old Prescott’s heir, who isn’t the first (or last) historically familiar character Craig McDonald name drops into Head Games: The Graphic Novel, the first illustrated adaption of his first novel.
With help from artists Kevin Singles and Les McClaine, McDonald has compressed his 2007 debut into a fairly easy comic introduction for both fans of the Lassiter character and those yearning for a touch of pulpy noir in their comic reading. Despite the glut of upfront world-building, Head Games both honors its genre roots while steadfastly remaining a product of its time, for better or worse.
Back to the story: before they’re done our heroes evade corrupt government officials, thuggish frat boys, mingle with Hollywood icons Orson Welles and Marlene “Kraut” Dietrich, and pine endlessly over Ernest “Papa” Hemingway (who will factor greatly in this series, I’m told), narrowly escaping from one explosion to the next. They’ll even cross paths with a future US president with familial ties to both the Skull & Bones and Lassiter’s fate in a scene with all the political subtlety of a wet taco. Of course, none of these things are deal breakers in the world of pulpy noire, especially when you know there’s an entire series waiting for you.
As it happens, this version of Head Games is the first graphic novel for both McDonald and Singles, and it shows. Characters, including the lead, are too frontloaded with padded development, too overwritten with repetitious dialogue; we’re not introduced to ideas so much as clobbered over the head with them, time and time again (diabetes, anyone?). Also, despite its relative shortness, the story attempts too much and goes on for too damn long. I’m not sure if these are defects in the original book or this translation (I suspect both). It’s odd when a book simultaneously has too much information and yet not enough.
Of course, none of these things are deal breakers in the world of pulpy noire, especially when you know there’s an entire series waiting for you. When handled correctly they certainly can help keep a good hardboiled thriller spinning on its axis.
Artistically, Singles’ two-toned artwork fares better, alternating between a mix of ocher-drenched and black and white panels to bring McDonald’s otherwise visually uninteresting characters to life. I’m unsure about the contributions of artist Les McClaine as he’s largely short-shifted here, given only a brief “with” credit near the title. It would have been nice to know what his contributions were, to be honest.
Head Games – the 2007 novel – may have been the first published appearance of the Hector Lassiter character, but I’m not sure it was a wise choice for his graphic novel debut. The character here is both aged and past his prime. While I won’t give away the climax, this seems hardly a fitting introduction for a pulpy hero we’re supposed to believe is himself a writer of pulp fiction, screenwriter, and sometimes journalist blessed with movie-star looks (and James Bond-level success rate with the ladies). Still, he’s the star of nearly a dozen of these things, so what do I know?
There’s no shortage of skullduggery in this fast-paced tale of intrigue and historical comeuppance, both literally and metaphorically. Head Games: The Graphic Novel was my introduction to McDonald’s writing, and while I’m not ready to seek out the rest of his oeuvre just yet I am sufficiently curious about the next adaptation, which he hints is already written. I’m a sucker for a good old-fashioned yarn with batty conspiracy theories, conflicted heroes, and baddies that get what’s coming to them, nice and hard. It doesn’t take much, honestly.