A new comic written by Joe Hill? Even though it’s debuting in hardcover, I was sold on picking up “Basketful of Heads” when it was collected after the writer’s comics work on the “Locke & Key” series and “Wraith.” That the writer was also setting this title up as the flagship for his Hill House imprint at DC served as further encouragement to that end. After having read it, I can say that my excitement was maybe a little premature. This isn’t a bad comic by any means, but it feels a bit more indulgent than it should be for its pricey format.
The story takes place on the last day of summer in Brody Island, Maine, in 1983. Gender Studies major June is as thrilled as she can be because her boyfriend Liam has just finished his summer job of working with the local police. Before they can take off together, Liam gets word that a few convicts have escaped a chain gang and offers his help to the local police chief. He’s told to take June and go back to the chief’s house to hole up with his wife and son. Which sounds like a perfectly fine thing to do. Until the convicts show up, that is.
That paragraph I just wrote is a general description of everything that happens in the first issue. Give or take a one-page prologue, and a viking axe that glows menacingly in one panel. You might have noticed that one key thing is missing from that summary: A basketful of heads. One would think that when you give a story an attention-grabbing title like that, you’d want to waste no time in getting to it. That is not the case here.
The basket and the head(s) don’t make their appearance until the second issue. This is when June has a close encounter with one of the convicts and finds out that the ancient Viking axe she’s wielding is really great at cutting people, but kind of terrible at killing them. It’s a really well-handled scene and it does a good job of delivering up the gory good time that the title promises.
Yet it’s also emblematic of a larger problem with the story being told. Hill loves taking his time here to establish character and local color, and he’s got a twisty crime conspiracy to unspool over the course of this volume. It’s not that he does any of these things badly. It’s that he tends to deliver them in serial rather than parallel. Which is why we’ll get some scenes of the characters talking to each other to advance the plot before we get some axe-wielding action that stands on its own. Even if these things entertain, it really slows down the story’s pace to a near crawl over these seven issues.
I’d be more upset about this if Hill wasn’t good at delivering all this exposition or setting up the action. June is a protagonist who’s easy to like even before she has to defend herself. When she finally has to, it’s satisfying to see her work past her nerves and do what needs doing. I’m not just talking about delivering more decapitations to make good on the promise of the title. We get to see her use her wits, and fists to get these heads to talk and fess up to what’s really going on.
Which is the source of a lot of this story’s fun. Hill mines this grimly absurd situation for thrills and chills, but also more than a few laughs as well. The first scumbag who winds up as a talking head is the source of a lot of these and it’s hard to completely hate him as a result. (I also can’t imagine anyone but Walton Goggins playing him if there’s ever a movie made out of this.) It all feels like the writer is trying to channel an 80’s slasher movie vibe, but in a more respectable way. By which I mean that this is essentially a slasher movie that has quality plotting and characterization behind it in addition to some quality kill scenes.
Which are all handled pretty capably by Leomacs, the artist. He’s an artist I had not heard of before this series, though I can see him getting plenty more work after this. That’s because Leomacs channels the best of what I like to call the “Vertigo Style.” DC’s Mature Readers imprint may be dead, but more often than not it served up art that was expressive and stylish in equal measure. Leomacs’ characters sell the horror and hilarity in equal measure while he frames the action in ways that catch the eye and effortlessly drag it across the page. I know that sounds painful, but the story inspired me.
“Basketful of Heads” is certainly a good story, in the end. It’s a horror story that knows how to have fun with its setup while delivering the gory goods as well. The problem is that it takes a while to get going while letting the pacing go slack at various points throughout the narrative. This isn’t a problem I’ve had with Hill’s other works in the medium of comics. So you have to figure that writing this for his own imprint caused him to indulge more than he should have. That takes “Basketful of Heads” down a notch, but only in the sense that you should probably wait to pick this up in paperback instead of rushing out to buy it in hardcover.