It's dark and the wind is howling outside right now as a cold front blows in. I'm perched beside a lamp with warm cocoa, blanket, and dog to keep me warm. It's almost Halloween and an absolutely perfect night to watch a slasher flick—The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, and Deep Red all come to mind. However, Basketful of Heads #1 makes for a perfectly suitable replacement transforming what has worked consistently on film and making it work in the (more-often-than-not disappointing) field of horror comics. From the very beginning this premiere issue ushers readers into a familiar set of motifs and makes them feel revitalized with a few original twists and impeccable presentation. With the holiday only a few days away and the mood already set, I'm certain Basketful of Heads is the only must-read comic for Halloween 2019.
The story is set in 1983 in Brody Island, ME, a small town connected to the mainland by a single bridge that features prominently throughout the first issue. It's the sort of comfortable place where everyone seems to know one another, one where everyday familiarity allows secrets to lurk in plain sight. The timeline ensures that modern conveniences like cell phones don't disrupt the increasing tension as a four escaped convicts roam the island, and it allows artist Leomacs to capture the look, as well as the tone, of many horror classics from the same decade. Nothing in this premise or its execution aims to reinvent the wheel. A single page at the start of the issue provides a mysterious supernatural sheen to these unfolding events, but there is a comfort to be found in those same events for someone who considers themselves a horror fan.
Excellence doesn't require a comic to be groundbreaking, however. Horror comics tend to be far less successful in delivering scares and building momentum than their cinematic counterparts. You can't surprise audiences in the same fashion and serialization makes it easy for individual segments of a story to stall. Joe Hill, an accomplished horror writer in both prose and comics, understands the nature of his chosen media and emphasizes what comics do well. Basketful of Heads #1 carefully develops an uneasy tone, one that leaves obvious and subtle questions to plague readers and mount into ever more precarious positions like a Jenga tower of red flags. The result is a final few pages that had me squirming in my exceedingly comfortable seat, surprising me with how much intensely I was invested. There's no doubt this propulsive experience will read even better when collected.
The emphasis of tone also allows Basketful of Heads #1 to be effective despite lacking any typical scares. Rather than leaning on gore or twists to transform this story into horror, it embodies the genre in every moment. That doesn't mean that every panel is steeped in doom. To the contrary, artist Leomacs demonstrates incredible range across the issue. There are carefree teenage frolics that make it easy to like the central protagonists and unsettling artifacts that construct a looming bit of foreshadowing. Leomacs' storytelling is confident and inventive without drawing unnecessary attention to artifice. Slippery stone steps produce some vertigo from their presentation, but they don't call so much attention to themselves as to detract from the page-turning joy of this story. Dave Stewart is perfectly suited to Leomacs' style and the overall tone of the book, enhancing clear, bold lines and distinguishing each new sequence with a precise, soft palette. Brody Island is made into a familiar place in just over a dozen pages due to their effective collaboration, an island filled with history and intriguing landscapes, one that isn't difficult to imagine visiting. That touch of familiarity makes the encroaching horror of Basketful of Heads feel all the more inescapable.
There are so many bad slasher stories that it can seem difficult to explain what makes the great ones great. Even in a genre that often utilizes the bluntest of tools and plainest of stakes, there is a degree of subtlety that transforms the obviousness of terror into something that can also lurk and prey from the shadows. Basketful of Heads #1 captures that special magic. It is patient in laying groundwork for the story ahead, but that never prevents it from providing a disquieting reading experience. In fashions both clear and ephemeral, the unfolding pages pull readers in before forcing them back out of a promise that more will arrive in November. This issue is enough for now and will deliver quite the treat to any readers who save it for Halloween night.
Published by Hill House Comics, an imprint of DC Comics
On October 30, 2019
Written by Joe Hill
Art by Leomacs
Colors by Dave Stewart
Letters by Deron Bennett