September 9, 2020

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Series Review - Basketful of Heads by Joe Hill, Leomacs and Dave Stewart


Basketful of Heads HC
Written by Joe Hill
Illustrated by Leomacs
Colors by Dave Stewart
Published by DC Comics/Black Label/Hill House Comics

If you're in the market for a Horror-action-drama story (with some pretty great humor along the way), then I have excellent news. Basketful of Heads is here, and it's great.  It's a very satisfying, darkly funny, slightly terrifying, hugely entertaining story written by Joe Hill (Locke & Key, NOS4A2) with art from the fantastic Leomacs (whose work was completely new to me) and the always-spectacular Dave Stewart (Hellboy, Umbrella Academy, DC: The New Frontier, many others).  For horror fans, you'll love this. For non-horror fans, there's violence here but it's never gory, and the scares come from terrifically paced action and suspense.

It’s 1983, and it’s Labor Day weekend on Brody Island, Maine, and our story centers on Liam Ellsworth, a college student working the summer for the Brody Island Police Department. His girlfriend June Branch has come down from Bates to join him for the weekend. They’re joining Chief Wade Clausen and his family for dinner, and are on their way when they spot the police and a van from Shawshank State Prison. Apparently there are 4 escaped prisoners loose on the island. Liam wants to do more, but Chief Clausen says he wants Liam to head over to his house; the Chief would feel better if Liam watched over his family.

Liam and June go over to the house, and the Chief’s wife Roberta shows June all around the house, including the Chief's prized collection of Norse artifacts. These include an 8th century axe depicting Yggdrasil, the tree of worlds.  Later on in the night, Liam and June hear noises, and things only get worse from there. Liam goes missing, and June is now on her own. Did I also mention that there's a huge storm that's hit the island and completely flooded out the bridge to the mainland?  
June finds herself on her own in the Clausen's house which has gone dark on account of the storm. Thankfully June remembers seeing the axe with a depiction of Yggdrasil (in this situation it's something of a Chekhov's axe).  

Before too long June needs to make use of this axe. It's a special axe from several reasons. First, it can cut off a person's head in one clean swipe, even if (I'm just guessing, in the case of June) you haven't had axe or other Viking weapons training. The other extremely noteworthy (and supernatural) aspect of the axe is that the decapitated head will continue to be able to speak and function as it would, were it still attached to the rest of its body.  Before too long, June will make use of this axe, on more than one occasion. I won't say too much else about the story, but from here on in, $%^t gets freaky, and a lot of things are not as they seem.
Basketful of Heads is a tense, action-packed story, and that's thanks to the masterful combined efforts of Hill, Leomacs and Stewart. Together, they tell a story where every aspect contributes to the sense of tension and dread. The "our hero is trapped on an island, or in a house, or on a boat...and someone out there is trying to get them" is of course a well-worn setup for a story, but the team here brings some original twists to the story while paying homage to a number of classic tales. First is the Jaws of it all. The story of a New England island (that serves as a popular tourist destination) that's under some sort of terrifying threat should sound familiar to anyone who's ever heard seen Jaws, or even not seen it but soaked it up by cultural osmosis. As you may recall, Jaws is the story of the people of Amity Island being ravaged by a great white shark in its surrounding waters, of the misguided politicians who fail to adequately protect the populace because they're scared of losing the July 4th business, and of the heroic men who go after that shark. One of those men is, of course, Police Chief Brody. And in Basketful of Heads, we find ourselves on Brody Island, off the Maine coast.

The Jaws parallels don't stop there, of course, given that we are spending a significant amount of time with Chief Clausen, his family, and other members of the Brody Island police force. There's also the sense of being trapped on the island, surrounded by a deadly foe. That's quite literally the case here, where access to the mainland has been cut off, and there are escaped criminals on the loose. But lest you worry, this story isn't just an homage to Jaws (though, frankly, that wouldn't be a problem). It's got several great twists - some of which, I won't spoil here, but the other ones I'm happy to discuss.

First, while we meet a number of characters in Basketful of Heads, the real hero and our point-of-view character is June. She's just down to visit her boyfriend and doesn't know anything about the island, nor does she know anyone other than Liam. And as the story begins, she's terrified and confused by what's going on around her, particularly when those things get supernatural (i.e., scientifically impossible). But I appreciate this as a more modern, inclusive take on Jaws. The heroes in Jaws are the police chief, a research scientist, and salty old sea captain (and naval veteran), all variations on the theme of white men and different examples of masculinity.

But June isn't a scientist, a police officer or a salty old veteran; she's a college student, and people underestimate her and what's capable of.  Hill and Leomacs are constantly testing June, physically and mentally, and she absolutely rises to the challenge. We see her personality, and her strength, come through her actions. She's clearly overwhelmed, but she's clever and resourceful, and is motivated to find and rescue her beloved Liam, who she believes is in great danger.

This is a tense story, and as I mentioned, it fits well into the "I'm trapped and need to escape and there are dangerous people out there who want to kill me" genre. But there is also the matter of the magical axe. This a genuinely tense story, but there are moments of real humor that come through. Most of those relate to the unique properties of the axe. June has reason to behead people that are trying to harm or kill her, and to defend herself she makes use of the axe, beheading more than one person. And the humor comes from the genuine absurdity of the situation. June is shocked - shocked at what she had to do (i.e., kill someone in order to defend herself) but also shocked abut the fact that somehow, the person still seems to be alive and speaking, even though their head has been removed form their body.  The story is scary but it also can't help but be funny in this situation, as you have disembodied talking head(s) coping with their new reality, as June herself struggles with what the hell is going on, and what in the world is she going to do next. 
  
One thing I'm relived about is that this story spends precisely zero time attempting to explain how it is that this axe works; there's no mysticism, or fake science jargon that takes up any time in the story. Because it doesn't matter. None of the "how" of it matters. All that matters is that this a magical axe that somehow can behead people but keep them alive.  And June has it, and she's not afraid to use it. 


I mentioned that the tension, fear, and action are a result of all of the creative team working together perfectly, and that's completely on display in every visual aspect of the story.  Leomacs has a style that I think is perfectly suited for this story. Leomacs' style here is "true-to-life" while still making room for interpretation and exaggeration, such as in facial expressions or body language. But his sense of detail is impeccable. The world of Brody Island feels impeccably constructed, from the spatial geography, to the police buggy that Liam drives, to the interior of the Clausen's home, to the inside of a pickup truck. All of the details of this world feel very faithfully rendered. The threat and the stakes feel very real because the world feels real.

Leomacs' characters are terrifically portrayed throughout the story. Each person is highly distinctive as to look, appearance, body type. I feel like I'm looking at a fully and richly populated world of distinct characters. When we see June and Liam stopping by the police who are dealing with the missing prisoners, we can see all of the various personalities' of the players involved. Liam is enthusiastic and eager to please. Chief Clausen is cool, friendly, and in control. Mr. Hamilton is nervous with a little flop sweat (and in those moments, definitely reminiscent of Ned Beatty, which feels like perfect characterization). And June, well June runs the gamut of emotions throughout the story, and all of those (from flirtation to fear to confusion to terror to resolve) are brought to distinctive life by Leomacs' line.

His style feels both distinctive and also meant to be reminiscent of the art of an earlier era. I thought of the neo-classic style of artists like Chris Samnee, Leonardo Romero, or Evan Shaner. Leomacs' physical and emotional grounded realism also reminded me a little of Sean Phillips. Some of my fellow Patterers thought of 90's Vertigo greats (Chris Bachalo, Jill Thompson, Steve Dillon). All of these artists are spectacular company to be in but Leomacs' work isn't like any of them. It's very much his own style, and it feels both modern but also timeless.  Leomacs is as skilled at moments of swift action as he is at quiet moments of terrifying tension. And his storytelling throughout the series is first rate, with moments of visual humor, and excellent pacing that feels perfectly right for that particular moment in the story.

 

Speaking of timelessness - this is a comic that is not only set in 1983, but would also feel perfectly at home in the 70's or early 80's. Leomacs' detailed linework is a huge part of that, but just as significant is the incredible colors of Dave Stewart. Leomacs has a perfect artistic partner in Stewart, a colorist who (I think) brings out the very best in line artists. For example, I'm a huge fan of Andrea Sorrentino, and I think he does a fantastic job coloring his own work. But my favorite Sorrentino work is when he's colored in Gideon Falls by Stewart. In Basketful of Heads, Stewart brings the early 1980's back to life by using a more muted color palate and flatter colors throughout the series. The colors (suh as in the above images of Liam and June) have an almost faded quality that doesn't feel at all gimmicky. Rather, it conjures up the sense of an earlier era, and the faded yellow perfectly captures the fading light of day.

Later on the excellent color work continues such as in the above pages, which take place in the Clausen's home, as there are some very scary-looking people looking around the Clausen's home. In the page above with three vertical panels, Stewart does masterful work in conveying the fear in June's eyes, and then transitioning to the shifting little bits of light in the otherwise dark house, as we see the flashlight move from facing in one direction to the other. From one panel to the next, we feel the light moving from one direction to another, and the shadows left in the lights' absence could not be more ominous.

In the page immediately above (set in a bathroom), Stewart again uses shadow to terrific effect. In the panel where someone is ripping open a shower curtain, the shadow around his eyes makes him seem like a monster. Someone doing what he's doing in this situation would be scary enough as is, but the light and darkness add to the terror and tension of this scene.  I also want to note some fantastic and clever sequential work from Leomacs on this page. It took me a little while to realize that the larger box on the top half of the page is actually two different panels. The second panel is on the lower part of the box, and the curve of the shower curtain rod serves as a the panel border, showing this man opening the curtain that the panel above it shows him walking towards. I appreciate the skillful use of in-story objects to create panel borders, and it's some fun and inventive sequential storytelling.
 

I'm strongly recommending Basketful of Heads to anyone who enjoys a tense, suspenseful story and who can handle a little bit of violence (sure, there are beheadings, but they're tasteful beheadings). It's a blast of a story with great characters, terror, suspense, and interpersonal drama. It's an excellent, incredibly engaging read, and you won't want to put it down until you're done.