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Head Games by Craig McDonald and Kevin Singles

Published by First Second on October 24, 2017

This version of Head Games is a graphic adaptation of Craig McDonald’s debut novel. Published in 2007, Head Games was nominated for an Edgar as best first novel. McDonald has written nine more novels in the Hector Lassiter series in addition to a few other books.

Head Games is set in 1957. The premise is that Yale’s Skull & Bones, clubhouse to America’s elite, collects the skulls of famous persons. It wants to acquire Pancho Villa’s skull, which falls into the hands of Hector Lassiter and prompts a shootout with Mexican police.

Rumors link the skull to a map that leads to Villa’s hidden stash of gold. Lassiter is soon teamed with a young poet and a Mexican woman who apparently has a thing for older men. Young women who fall for an aging hard-boiled detective is part of the noir tradition, but McDonald twisted that tradition by making Lassiter a hard-boiled writer.

Lassiter and his entourage (plus Pancho’s skull) travel from Mexico to Hollywood, where Lassiter has a meeting with Orson Welles about a film script he’s writing. The trip also gives him a chance to cash in on the skull. Once there, Marlene Dietrich asks Lassiter to patch up his feud with Ernest Hemmingway. Yeah, there’s a lot of name dropping in this book, but the names belong to interesting people.

A bunch of people want to kill Lassiter, including (possibly) Pancho Villa’s buddy, who really shouldn’t still be alive, and maybe even Prescott Bush. Yes, that Bush. The CIA (always a friend of Skull & Bones) is interested in the skull, and the FBI is interested because J. Edgar Hoover has a bug up his bun about the CIA, which is spying on the FBI.

Despite all the people trying to kill Lassiter, it seems more probable that he’ll kill himself. Diabetes is messing up his vision and throwing off his aim. He’s getting old and often feels like he’s on the verge of having a stroke. And having sex with the beautiful young woman is likely to give him a heart attack. In short, Lassiter is a good noir character.

The name dropping is pretty outrageous but so is the plot. The story is different, more imaginative than most modern noir, and it even seems plausible. The main story is followed by two more, almost like dual epilogs, that carry the plot forward by a couple of decades. The story has a timely message about hubris and leadership, but message or not, the story entertains.

The art in this graphic adaptation is distinctive and consistent. Some of the story drawn in black and white (adding to the noir feel), but it is often supplemented with gold, which both suggests the gold that is central to the plot and adds sort of a sepia tone that is consistent with a story set in the past. More importantly, the art often carries the story. Too many graphic adaptations of novels try to cram too many words into each frame, but Head Games translates the words into drawings, and we all know how many words a picture is worth.

I haven’t read the original novel, but an author’s note at the end explains that this version expands the original, adding characters and events from other novels in the series. Whatever changes might have been made, the graphic novel tells a good story.


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