HEAD GAMES by Craig McDonald & Kevin Singles and Les McClaine
Though this adaptation has moments of depth and entertainment, the staggering narrative makes this HEAD GAMES adaptation less than successful.
70 %
Entertaining but Convoluted
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Beware, potential spoilers for HEAD GAMES below!

In 2007, author Craig McDonald released the acclaimed historical fiction novel HEAD GAMES. The story focuses on the widowed Hector Lassiter, the protagonist of various other Craig McDonald works. When he comes into possession of the skull of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, he becomes a target for those hunting the skull down. Ten years after its publication, the work is being adapted into a graphic novel by First Second Books, with Kevin Singles and Les McClaine providing the artwork.

The original novel is campy, teetering the line between realism and absurdity. One sequence depicts a college-aged George W. Bush confronting a naked man wearing devil ears about the “skull chasing.” This moment exemplifies the dark humor that is subtly present throughout the work. The graphic novel is no different in style. If anything, it emphasizes this juxtaposition between realism and absurdity even more. At times, this improbability works, but for the most part, it makes for a convoluted story.

head games
Courtesy of First Second Books

A Game of Skulls and Bones

The graphic novel opens with a brief introduction to Hector Lassiter. He is at a bar with two companions, one of them being writer Bud Fiske who is doing a profile on Lassiter. We learn Lassiter’s other companion, Bill Wade, holds the skull of the Mexican revolutionary, Pancho Villa. Surprisingly, this possession makes Wade a target. Within moments, a shootout begins in the bar, resulting in Wade getting his head blown off. Apparently, this skull is actually worth a hell of a lot. Ivy League fraternities, as well as government officials, hunt the skulls of notable individuals for ceremonial purposes. So Lassiter and Bud Fiske, later joined by the mysterious and tenacious Alicia Vicente, find themselves on a chase from various people wanting to kill them for the skull, and this chase lasts for the majority of HEAD GAMES.

READ: Hunting for more skulls? Check out our analysis on THE DEATH OF STALIN!

A Stitch in Time 

I enjoy how quickly the action begins. McDonald does not spend too much time introducing his characters. He depicts Lassiter as a man with experience in these type of situations: the act of shooting a gun or blowing up a car does not phase him. We have a man who knows what he’s doing because he seems to have done it all many times before. Then there is Bud. Bud is an interesting foil to Lassiter because of his naivety and inexperience in adventurous situations. Arguably, he may be the most relatable character in the story.

HEAD GAMES is set in the late 1950s. The historical fiction elements that McDonald implements are also among the comic’s positives. The presence of real-life individuals such as Orson Welles and Ernest Hemingway, who serve as acquaintances to Lassiter, renders him a more dynamic character who walks in our own world. However, these relationships do not impact the plot very much, which is a shame considering the significance of these historical individuals. With this, the story of HEAD GAMES tends to waver between focusing on the overall story and attempting to tie that story back to Lassiter and his personal relationships. Because there is little attempt to tie these two factors together, the plot just appears to be jumping back and forth between narratives.

head games
Courtesy of First Second Books

A Clash of Pasts

Though the adaptation has its positives, perhaps the most obvious flaw is the inconsistency in pacing. This is most notable towards the end of the graphic novel when the story seemingly rushes to provide closure after Hector Lassiter’s death. We hastily discover he fathered two children with Alicia and that Bud has transitioned from being a poet to a thrill-seeking, gun-wielding adventurer. If both the original and graphic novels spent more time fleshing these developments out, they would have worked for these characters.

READ: Want to check out another indie graphic novel? Enjoy our review for THE GOOD EARTH.

Lassiter’s own backstory suffers from this problematic pacing as well. We only witness glimpses into his past relationships with his dead wife, Hemingway, and others. Of course, it would be impossible to flesh out all these relationships and their impact on Lassiter’s character, but I believe the graphic novel adaptation provides a little too much ambiguity here. We don’t know how significant his relationship with Hemingway was, or how his wife’s relationship shaped his personality. These details would have given more depth to Lassiter.

I personally wish there was more of Alicia Vicente. She maintains a dark past. With this, she may be the character with the most significant character development in this adaptation besides Bud. She transitions into an individual who is willing to kill to ensure survival despite her initial hesitations. Though Bud may appear to have the most growth in the grand scheme of the work, his actual growth seems to be rushed in the latter part of the graphic novel. He abruptly becomes an eye-less, hardened man with the skill-set of an assassin. Sure, he grew close to Lassiter, but that closeness did not seem influential enough to change Bud’s passive qualities. On the other hand, Alicia’s growth is more organic, and thus, successful. Because of this, it was a shame to see her brushed off as a side character when she maintained so much depth.

An Achromatic World

Regarding the artwork, I initially thought the dull yellow tones would be a good fit for HEAD GAMES. As I kept reading, though, I found that it provides an overlaying dullness. It ultimately tones down the car chase sequences and dramatic shootouts that are continuously present in the adaptation.

READ: Finished binge-watching RIVERDALE? Get your fix with our review for YOUR PAL ARCHIE #1 here!

The lack of color makes it particularly difficult to follow action sequences, and it often fades out a character’s facial expression. With this, it becomes difficult for readers to identify with these characters and understand them. There is a disconnect in what the main characters are experiencing and how their faces convey it.

I believe the tone of the work could have been kept even with less visual contrast. The addition of color could have given the varying settings of the graphic novel more life as well, particularly when the settings are significant to the work as a whole. With this said, the black-and-white flashback sequences were executed well. They ultimately capture the unfamiliarity and dark mysteriousness of the past HEAD GAMES explores.

head games
Courtesy of First Second Books

Final Thoughts on HEAD GAMES

The graphic novel adaptation of HEAD GAMES certainly has its winning moments. There is plenty of action and humor to keep you engaged from start to finish. However, there is a pacing issue that makes for an inconsistent narrative. This issue is most notable towards the conclusion of the work. At that point, the story oscillates hastily, leaving more ambiguity than closure. So, though there are some entertaining moments, the adaptation ultimately fails to be completely gratifying.

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