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Head Games
by Craig McDonald and Kevin Shingles
First Second, $19.99, 176pp
Published: October 2017

I regularly rave in these virtual pages about the graphic novels that First Second publish and here's another one, as different from the last as that was from the one before that. This one's an adaptation of a novel and, as that's the first in a series of ten books, this could well be too. It certainly caught my attention and I'll certainly keep an eye open for its prose antecedent.

That source novel is 'Head Games' and it was written by Craig McDonald, so this adaptation ought to be pretty close, given both those statements remain true for this adaptation. That the author does a good job here, given that he had never written in a graphic format before, is unsurprising given that he hadn't written a novel before 'Head Games' and that made him a finalist for Best First Novel at the Edgars, the Anthonys and the Gumshoes, to name just three.

That original 'Head Games' was the full length debut not only of McDonald as a writer but of Hector Lassiter as a character. He's the lead, a fictional novelist and screenwriter who resembles one of the historical characters he interacts with on a frequent basis, Ernest Hemingway, or, as other characters suggest during the series, the actor William Holden. McDonald points out in his introduction to this graphic version that Lassiter was born on 1st January 1900, coming in with the new century and very deliberately moving within it over the ten novel arc that he'd already planned and structured before 'Head Games' was published. The goal was to provide him with the mechanism to document 'a kind of under-history or secret history of the twentieth century'.

This one mostly takes place in 1957 as a road trip across the American southwest. Lassiter is an aging writer of pulp crime fiction whose hard-drinking, hard-living lifestyle has taken a heavy toll over the decades, but he has a job to do and he'll do whatever it takes to get it done, as his abiding sense of honour overrides everything else, up to and including his physical wellbeing. I won't tell you what that job is because he doesn't know it either at this story begins, but everything revolves around the skull of Francisco 'Pancho' Villa.

In McDonald's version of history, which may or may not be entirely true, Villa was murdered in 1923. Because a treasure map was stashed inside his skull, his body was dug up in 1926 by a secret society called the Skull & Bones, at the orders of Prescott Bush, future senator and father and grandfather to US presidents. In 1957, it's come into the possession of a soldier of fortune called Bill Wade, who wants Lassiter to take it to Connecticut, where the senator will hand over $80,000 for it. Their conversation is ended by arriving authorities who shoot the soldier of fortune dead, so Lassiter sets off with a sack of skulls, Wade's notebooks and a poet named 'Bud' Fiske who's been sent by 'True' magazine to interview him. Talk about getting more of a story than expected!

This is a fantastic way to begin a story and it proceeds very much in cinematic terms appropriate to the period. The most obvious comparison is 'Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia', Sam Peckinpah's cult masterpiece, as it's another southwestern road movie revolving around the delivery of a severed head for money, but another is 'The Big Sleep'. In that picture, Philip Marlowe 'solves' the mystery, not by eliminating the impossible but by asking questions, stirring pots and prompting reactions until sheer entropy presents a solution that may or may not be the right one but, by that point, matters as much as anything else. In other words, it's about the journey not the destination and that applies here, as the story that Fiske thinks he's writing is changed by enough folks along the way to become something else entirely and, like any road movie, it's about the journey.

One other film deserves mention here, because Lassiter and Fiske visit the set. That's the 1957 Orson Welles picture, 'Touch of Evil', another fantastic film noir that grows as it goes and which gains more respect as time goes by. The director knows of Lassiter's romantic history with one of his stars, Marlene Dietrich, whom he's talked out of retirement, so he summons him in an attempt to stir up some chemistry between their respective characters on screen. That part of the story ends, as so many do here, with a hail of bullets to speed Lassiter on to the next part, with another detail to accompany him. This time, it's a young lady, Alicia Vicente, to deepen his background by adding to it or prompting the revelation of it. McDonald does a lot with too few pages.

Frankly, I adored this book. It's the Great American Novel, full of insight into the human condition and with a strong eye on history, but it's just as full of sex, violence and bad language. It's a wild ride that's as pulpy as the stories that Hector Lassiter wrote for 'Black Mask', with a fantastic tagline: 'On the road to Hell with a trunk full of skulls'. It mixes novelists and filmmakers, prostitutes and conmen, politicians and revolutionaries. It includes a host of real historical figures, some of whom were well known in 1957 and some who wouldn't be until a few decades later. It takes us on a journey from the brothels of the poor to the secret societies of the rich via pretty much everywhere in between and it ties all this together in a package labelled the true America. It's mythology and history and much that blurs the two.

Of course, all of that comes from the mind and pen of Craig McDonald, a journalist and novelist who had put most of the ten novel cycle that is Hector Lassiter's story together before the first book in it was published. It can apparently be read either in order of publication, where 'Head Games' is the first one, or in chronological order, as currently published by Betimes Books, where it's number seven. What I haven't mentioned yet is the art of Kevin Singles and Les Maclaine, given that this is a graphic novel adaptation. McDonald mentions that he was stunned by how well these artists captured what was in his head a decade earlier, so they did their job right.

Certainly it feels right. It's simply drawn, in a style that feels older than it is, more complex than the strips you find in newspapers but crafted with those in mind. The only colour is a yellow tinge that overlays most of the book like nicotine stained wallpaper on diner walls that have sat and watched the drama of decades pass. This vanishes for black and white memories, as if showing a clearer history untainted by everything that's happened since. Yellowed or not, everyone and everything seems alive, every pose ready to move, every scene ready for more bullets. It's immersive and it's a perfect accompaniment to the story.

I'm a huge fan of First Second so I hope this book does well for them. I also hope it does well for me, because I'd love to read the next volume in Lassiter's story, 'Toros & Torsos', in graphic form, even if I've tracked down the novels first. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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