REVIEW: Basketful of Heads Is a Great Sick Joke

Detail from the cover of Basketful of Heads

Brody Island, Maine, 1983. While college student June Branch is staying with her cop boyfriend Liam, four escaped convicts break into the house and take Liam captive. To defend herself, June grabs an antique axe from a household collection and succeeds in decapitating one of the men – but as the axe turns out to have supernatural properties, the fugitive’s severed head is still alive. The talking head becomes June’s chief companion in her hunt for her kidnapped boyfriend, during which she runs into more trouble – and gets more heads for her basket.

Basketful of Heads

Deron Bennett (Letterer), Joe Hill (Writer), Ricardo La Bella (Additional pencils), Leomacs (Artist), Dave Stewart (Colourist)
DC Comics
September 8, 2020

Basketful of Heads cover

Basketful of Heads is one big, sick joke. It inverts the slasher formula with a young, blonde heroine decapitating various attackers one by one – with the added twist that she is forced to carry each victim’s head as it mouths off at her, like a cartoon version of Poe’s tell-tale heart. This is a premise right out of a ghoulishly humoured EC horror comic from the fifties; although, in an actual EC comic, the concept would have served as a punchline. With Basketful of Heads, writer Joe Hill and artist Leomacs have seven whole issues to spin their sick joke into a shaggy-dog story.

And it turns out to be a shaggy-dog story with a degree of depth and sophistication.

Screaming head in Basketful of Heads

During the course of her search, June is forced to confront the fact that Liam was not the perfect boyfriend she made him out to be. Hints that he had an adulterous relationship snowball into allegations of still darker misconduct, involving several grand stolen from the body of a suicidal girl. But when June’s main source of information is the severed head of a drug dealer, can she believe everything she hears?

Following the trail left by Liam’s dealings, June is led directly into the shady underside of Brody Island. Her explorations not only furnish the story with the requisite MacGuffins (the case of the purloined money is joined by a hunt for a cassette tape purportedly containing police evidence) but also emotional resonance. As the narrative unfolds, both June and the reader learn the full tragedy of Emily Dunn, the girl who committed suicide – and who, unlike some members of the comic’s cast, will not be returning from the dead.

Convicts at bridge in Basketful of Heads

Basketful of Heads succeeds in creating a close-knit island community, one tied together by a strong sense of place. Early in its story, the comic establishes the main settings across Brody Island (the bridge from which Emily jumped, the house with the Viking artifacts and so forth) and makes them strong enough to work as backgrounds for both character-based drama and decidedly off-colour humour: our tour guide for the island is a girl who, in almost every chapter, comes up with a new use for a talking severed head.

The artwork by Leomacs (aided by colourist Dave Stewart and, in one issue, by penciller Riccarrdo la Bella) meshes nicely with the subject matter. Like Joe Hill’s script, it evokes the classic EC horror comics in tone, if not necessarily technique. Leomacs’ depictions of the characters and settings is sufficiently naturalistic to ensure that the gore scenes have a visceral impact, yet the drawing style never strays too far from humour. June’s exaggerated facial expressions (at certain points turning her into a dots-for-eyes cartoon caricature) help to make her a delightful protagonist no matter how many heads she chops off.

Dialogue scene in Basketful of Heads

Basketful of Heads is the flagship title of the Hill House Comics line, itself part of DC’s “mature readers” imprint Black Label, and the comic’s tone makes for a distinct contrast with its stablemates. The Low, Low Woods and The Dollhouse Family each showcase the eerie strangeness and twisted whimsy that characterises many of the classics from Vertigo, the imprint superseded by Black Label; Daphne Byrne is knee-deep in traditional Gothic iconography; and Plunge, the only other title written by imprint frontman Joe Hill, is an unabashed homage to eighties sci-fi/horror cinema.

With Basketful of Heads we get something that is markedly different from each of these titles, and yet complements them well. Hill and Leomacs have reached back into the glory days of 1950s horror comics for inspiration, capturing that precise mixture of gore and glee while also recreating it for the contemporary graphic novel market. A triumphant mission statement not only for the Hill House line, but for modern horror comics in general.

Doris V. Sutherland

Doris V. Sutherland

Horror historian, animation addict and tubular transdudette. Catch me on Twitter @dorvsutherland, or view my site at dorisvsutherland.com. If you like my writing enough to fling money my way, then please visit patreon.com/dorvsutherland or ko-fi.com/dorvsutherland.
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