November 17, 2017

Adapting Crime Fiction is a Heady Game: Jason Sacks Reviews HEAD GAMES from First Second Books

(Editor's Note: This is now the FIFTH of what I hope to be many contributions to this site from other writers writing about off-the-radar small press books being published today. Today, Jason Sacks talks about the perils of adaptation. When you finish reading this piece, also check out these previously published pieces: Austin Lanari writing about š! #26 'dADa', Nick Hanover writing about GORO by Sarah Horrocks, Alex Hoffman reviewing the anthology NOW #1 from Fantagraphics, and Josh Hicks on RIPPLES by Wai Wai Pang.)

First Second Books recently published a graphic adaptation of Craig McDonald’s noir detective novel Head Games. The new comic book version, written by McDonald with art by Kevin Singles and Les McClane, is a rare work that stands on its own as a literary work. In doing so, it reflects the ambition of the original while also showing the potential of the comics form.

Head Games is a deeply haunting journey through dark back-alleys of 20th century America. As the first of McDonald’s stories starring policeman-turned-novelist Hector Lassiter, and thus the first to appear in comics form, this book is the ideal introduction to the gritty world Lassiter inhabits. In his books, McDonald presents a view of American history that illuminates dark corners of our shared past while providing thrilling plots and fascinating characters. This new adaptation is a captivating counterpart to the original work. McDonald’s meticulous prose and detailed storyline combine with empathetic artwork to deliver a book that combines the best of comic art with a novelistic structure to deliver a uniquely powerful book.

Illustrated by Kevin Singles and Les McClaine, Head Games, the graphic novel, is an often labyrinthine work that successfully combines thematic density with the sparse storytelling virtues of comic books.

McDonald’s original novel twists several urban legends around a series of fascinating plot threads that result in a high-octane thriller that also reveals a darker side of American history seldom reported in newspapers. Set in 1957, Head Games revolves around popular crime novelist Hector Lassiter who has retired from a life of action and adventure. However, when he journeys South of the Border for a chance find of the skull of Pancho Villa (rumored to have a map to a buried treasure), Lassiter drags himself back into a life of violence for one final adventure. With the help of poet Bud Fiske (assigned to profile Lassiter for Fact magazine) and Alicia Vicente (former Hollywood actress and hanger-on), Lassiter follows a trail through the American Southwest that leads him to encounters with 1950s Hollywood royalty, Mexican mercenaries, and members of the Harvard Skull and Bones Society.

That latter group is led by Senatorial candidate Prescott Bush. Throwing Grandpa Bush into the story is a fascinating and delightful bit of stagecraft which allows McDonald to add an additional level of historical heft (or outright historical slander) by bringing the father of two American presidents into this outrageous but realistic-seeming story. In fact, George W. Bush has a quick cameo as part of Skull & Bones, an inclusion that had an odd effect me. Readers can look at people like Orson Welles through a historical lens, but we all feel we know Bush well. Incorporating him into the story feels transgressive and moves this tale from a historical exploration to a piece with contemporary echoes.

The pulpy elements of McDonald’s concepts provide a nice meta-textural flair to the comic. They reflect the types of crime and revenge stories popular in the 1950s comics, full of double-crossing gangsters and world-weary private dicks. But Head Games transcends that juvenilia with a storyline that adds smartly designed characterization that transcends cliches. Those elements may not have been in the original novel, but they live as a quiet heartbeat in the adaptation, allowing the comic version to expose unexpected resonances.

These historical references provide a lot of the thrill of reading this book. McDonald includes some delightful anecdotes about Villa, name checks Ernest Hemingway, and drops readers on the set of Orson Welles’s doomed film Touch of Evil, among other things. These ground the work in a definitive past, one in which we can easily tie the terrible and haunting events of McDonald’s historical insertions as small touchstones. It made me want to go back to watch Touch of Evil to investigate some of the rumors McDonald shares.

But what gives this book much of its power is the complexity of its leads. Lassiter is the kind of hero you can imagine portrayed by Robert Mitchum in an old crime film, all 1950s masculine swagger tightly wound like chain-mail armor around an inner pain too horrible to contemplate. The poet, Fiske, is no shrinking violet but instead quickly finds himself compromising his morals because of the roughness of the world to which he is exposed.The descent of Fiske has a brutal power. We witness Fiske perform his first killing, watch him engage in subterfuge and espionage, and watch as his exposure to the vast conspiracy takes its physical and emotional toll on him. The woman, Vicente, likewise shows her inner grit, a strong, angry woman who defies 1950s stereotypes by being an equal partner to her two alpha-male companions. These pulpy heroes echo back the era with characterizations that surf close to cliche but meticulously avoid it, a counterpart to the “murderous wife” crime stories that were so popular in comics and pulps at the time.

Cartoonists Singles and McClaine deliver the story in an art style that provides a nice match to the story they’re telling. As McDonald discusses in his Afterword, the artists take McDonald’s literary approach and transform it into something different, a work that stands on its own as a comic, following rules and expectations of a work of comic art while remaining true to the literary and novelistic roots of the book they are adapting.

In fact, most of all I was struck by two aspects of the art. First, Singles and McClane provide just the right amount of detail. They never overpopulate their backgrounds with endless detail that distracts from story. Echoing McDonald’s writing, the details Singles and McClane emphasize have significance and add to the life of the work. The vastness of the Arizona desert, the desultory features of a sleazy hotel room, and the facade of a seemingly glamorous film set all come to life wonderfully by the artists. Secondly, I was struck by the amount of life given to these characters. Singles and McClane deliver people with life, verve, and energy, while also allowing the reader space in which they can see their own interpretation of these characters. Facial expressions are often enigmatic rather than on-the-nose, which often gives readers a sense that these men and women are thinking ahead, planning their next moves on the metaphorical chess board.

Head Games is one of those unique graphic novel adaptations that does not diminish or demean the original. McDonald, Singles, and McClaine avoid common pitfalls by remaining true to the spirit of McDonald’s original book. They deliver a work with smart complexity that features characters who transcend stereotypes and become three-dimensional as we explore their increasingly ramshackle lives. Head Games, the graphic novel, shows that when empathetic creators work together to create a complex story, they can deliver a uniquely satisfying experience.


Jason Sacks is the former Publisher of Comics Bulletin. He writes books about comics history, including Jim Shooter: Conversations and The American Comic Book Chronicles: the 1970s, when he’s not hiking, working in the software biz or tracking down lost treasure.

No comments:

Post a Comment