It’s all about a stolen skull. Pancho Villa’s skull, to be exact. Head Games opens in 1957 with leading man Hector Lassiter, a crime novelist. Hector, or Hec as the author refers to him, is sitting in a bar with his two buddies, Bud Fiske, a poet, and Bill Wade, a rascally miscreant. Hec is the quintessential leading man from that bygone era where men were macho, everyone smoked cigarettes, and women were curvy bombshells who offered little to the story besides eye candy.
Shortly after being introduced to the reader, this trio is interrupted—tables are turned, shots are fired, and Hec finds himself on the run with some unexpected cargo: Pancho Villa’s skull. After acquiring Villa’s skull, Hector and Bud hatch a plan to sell it. Along for the ride is the femme fatale of this story, Alicia Vicente. She’s soft and sensual with a traumatic past. Beyond that, she mostly serves as Hector’s plaything.
From there, things just get… weirder. McDonald includes characters both real and fictitious in this story. We encounter the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Orson Welles, and even George W. Bush! And what pulpy crime novel would be complete without some hitmen? Hec, Bud, and Alicia dodge members of the Skull & Bones society, soldiers of fortune, and federal agents, while trying to get Pancho Villa’s skull to a buyer. In doing so, they traipse all through the Texas-Mexico region, including El Paso, Juarez, and Tijuana. Through the whole novel, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to don a trench coat or a sombrero. Depending on the tone and artwork of the panel, it could have been either.
As the story progresses, Lassiter begins to realize that his glory days are behind him and that red-meat-eating, hard-drinking, and cigarette-smoking men like him are a thing of the past. The novel winds down in a rather depressing and somewhat out-of-the-blue way, but I won’t spoil that here.
Between the violence, the language, the drug and alcohol use, the nudity, and the portrayals of sex, this graphic novel is for adults. Singles and McClaine’s art does an excellent job of portraying the down and dirty elements of the story, with a muted color scheme of black, white, and goldenrod. If you look carefully, you may even find a naughty surprise or two hidden within the artwork. Very cheeky.
Black and white only panels serve to separate the past from the present, in a nod to film noir perhaps? The overall effect of the limited color palette and heavy use of black in the negative space, is edgy and suspenseful, which is very fitting for this pulpy crime novel.
This graphic novel, an adaptation of Craig McDonald’s debut novel of the same title, tries very hard to mimic film noir. Between the gunfire and the copious amounts of alcohol, the car chases, and the femme fatale, I was prepared to enjoy something like the movie Touch of Evil. However, it doesn’t quite hit the mark. Many of the plot lines are confusing, and the last third of the book seems like an ill-fitting toss-off.
To be fair, it must be a complicated ordeal to reduce a full-length novel, which allows ample space for character development and long story arcs, into a graphic novel. Thankfully, McDonald did not bombard us with a wall of text. That said, neither did he provide us with clarity. Then there are the aforementioned cameos by Marlene Dietrich, Orson Welles, and George W. Bush. Perhaps in McDonald’s novel, these seemingly random, real-life characters are allowed to naturally become part of the story. I’m afraid in this context, it comes across as a bit campy, and I don’t believe that was the author’s intent.
Ultimately, I would not recommend this unless you’ve an ample budget for the crime/thriller portion of your graphic novels collection.
Head Games: The Graphic Novel
by Craig McDonald
Art by Kevin Singles, Les McClaine
First Second, 2017