The Serendipity Of A “First”
SERENDIPITY – a word that, depending on who’s speaking, could either refer to:
- A bland and forgettable romantic comedy that tried very hard to make us believe John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale had chemistry between them or
- the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.
I became a victim of the latter about three days ago. As fate would have it, I spent a portion my morning pondering a specific line of thought that came from nowhere in particular other than utter boredom. “Isn’t it odd”, I thought, “that, since I started writing for this website, I had never been tasked with reviewing a comic book that left me feeling ambivalent about it? There had been ups and downs – comic books I loved, things I hated, stories that were so out there that I couldn’t help but think about their twists and turns for days to come. But there hadn’t been anything that, upon its final page’s turn, the only thing left on my mind was a simple “well, I sure don’t know what to think about this thing” that promised to linger for the rest of my life.
As if I had been actively wishing upon a star, that very same day I came across a comic book called Headless Vol. 1 that demanded my attention. Although I approached it with good faith, the signs of serendipity were all there. The first one, and the most obvious one, was a cover that told me absolutely nothing about the story I was about to embark on – not the tone, not the plot, not the genre. However, I grasped at two core ideas: “the title sounded a bit cool and the art style was enticing enough. With those two pluses in front of me, how could I begin to dread the comic that appeared just as I was pondering about books that leave you feeling ambivalent?
This is what experts call “not being able to put two and two together”.
Later on, when I managed to finally complete my journey throughout all 108 pages, I lifted my eyesight from the book and onto the ceiling above me. It was completely white. A pristine surface that was mirroring my state of mind.
“Ambivalence was finally me”.
Great Ideas, Meh Execution
Reimagining a classical literary character can be fun. Creating a cast consisting entirely of horrible people can also be very fun. Not knowing how to use those two assets on your Headless Horseman revival story can break your story. And this comic book is broken…
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The Quick “What’s It About”
Before I describe how it felt to experience the first “meh” of my Soda and Telepath’s stint, I need to come clean about something that may or may not be of importance. In a first for someone that prides themself on devouring entertainment media on a daily basis, I wasn’t able to read Headless Vol. 1 in one sitting. It took me several days, in fact, to plod my eyes all the way from the very first panel to the very last one. It took me three days if we want to get into the specifics.
This wasn’t because its length exceeds that of the “amended for the visually weak edition” of War and Peace, or due to a decreasing window of opportunity in which I can relegate all sorts of non-essential activities in my life. Far from it. This happened due to something simpler: it was physically tiresome to read this comic book.
Headless Vol. 1 is yet another notch in the bedpost of stories that wants to tackle the mythos of The Headless Horseman by transporting it to a contemporary setting and letting the creature run amok in an effort to squeeze endless fun out of its misadventures. This time around, as we are smack dab in an era where, just when the obsession over the 80’s was about to run dry, Netflix launched Stranger Things into our computers, the story of Headless is set, surprisingly, in 1987.
Now, this idea is all well and good. It’s not like there’s too many stories out there, in the ether of our collective imaginations, waiting to be grasped for the first time in human history. Almost everything has already been said for as long as people have had the means of calling themselves “people” in their respective language. So “recycling” or “repurposing” ideas, especially those already in the public domain, is not a practice I can reprimand. That’s basically Disney’s entire film legacy, why can’t Scout Comics do something similar but in comic book form?
It’s also not like Headless doesn’t have a plethora of cool ideas waiting to be drawn, inked and read. In broad terms, it presents us with the story of how, every so many years, the Headless Horseman gets reborn as a random kid and has to be awaken by cassette tapes recorded by the previous version of himself. Or by having his head torn off, whichever happens first. That is objectively cool. I have never seen anything like that being done before and felt honestly thrilled when I saw that. I was like “alright, reading one of the good ones, now!”
But, even at that point, that was a lie. Two chapters in, I already knew I wasn’t reading one of the good ones. Not by a long shot.
A Means To An End
One of my favorite TV shows of all time is Arrested Development. I mean, yeah, I am a fan of the countless in-jokes, references to other jokes and jokes that reference jokes that are referencing the in-jokes, but that wasn’t what drew me in in the first place. Being around eighteen or so when I started watching it, the prime age for a person to embrace edginess as a personality trait in a more subdued manner than fifteen-year-olds, I felt engaged to the cast. Specifically, how absolutely all of them were horrible people that, somehow, you grew to love precisely because they were horrible. Nary one of these characters ever changed and, if they did, it was rarely to become a better version of themselves. I liked that.
Many could argue – and this being the internet, many have – that the reason we, as a community, fell in love with these excuses of human beings was thanks to the actors portraying them and their innate charisma. While I do agree with this sentiment, I have to add another reason: “they are larger than life and the farthest from being grounded to reality possible without becoming fantasy creatures or aliens”. For instance, one of the recurring jokes is a character having a black puppet as a best friend and taking him everywhere to prove he can’t be racist until, eventually, he releases a hip-hop album sung by it. Even if someone in our Earth decided to actually do something like this, no one would be able to take them seriously – except, maybe Kanye.
The trend of having an entire cast of horrible people was probably not created by this show, but it did popularize it on mainstream media. As such, many have tried to tell stories of terrible people that don’t learn their lessons in every media known to man. Comic books are no exception.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying “I despised every single character in Headless Vol. 1.” I am all up for horrible people-based stories, but this cast was, instead “a bunch of mean-spirited asshats”. Every single line of dialogue that came from these people’s speech balloons was callous. There wasn’t a punchline or anything, alleviating the meanness, it was just an array of people trying their best to discredit, bully or assassinate other character’s self-esteem. Worst of all, despite this being a story featuring black magic, demons that wear sunglasses, and ancient cults, their stiff dialogues were all very grounded in reality, adding a pinch of realism to the whole “I can only speak in asshole” aesthetic. And if they were not hard at work insulting the other collection of sketch lines living in the same page as them, they’d impart stiffness and utter cheesiness with their choice of words.
Is it wrong to have realistic assholes as part of your main cast? No. [Insert boomer rhetoric about how this means they are killing comedy and storytelling here] But give the audience something to hang on to so that the entire endeavor is not reading characters abusing each other verbally into oblivion. Like, make the experienced cops who are also templar knights belittle the rookie as much as you want, but have the rookie try to counter it with his own one-liners – even if they fail – instead of just having him mope around for three issues about how mean-spirited everyone is.
How is that I can remember more clearly how everyone belittles each other in this comic than ANYTHING having to do with the Headless Horseman? Oh, I don’t know, could it be because starting in chapter 2, the staff decided to turn a Ctrl+Alt+Del on us and build every page as little screensaver images accompanying walls of text full of info dumps? It is tiring, physically so, to go over one wall of text in a so-called comic book, what with it destroying the pace you were going for, now imagine an entire issue of backstory being told and rarely shown. If you wanted to write a novel-worth of universe building in order for the audience to understand your, admittedly cool, mythos, why not stop yourself, remember the medium you chose, and retool it until it LOOKS like a comic book, guys?
It’s not like we don’t like reading, it’s just that this isn’t why we chose to read your comic book.
“Oh, yeah, that comic is awesome, man, it’s word count is as big as a novel’s, and the pacing just dies after issue 3. I LOVE IT! Trust me, you need to buy the omnibus in order to touch the 4500 words printed on each page, man!”
Way to devalue your own work by your own hand.
But, then again, the art direction accompanying the novella masquerading as a graphic novel is top notch. While the drawing style used to render the characters could be hit or miss, a sort of tribute to 90s animated TV shows that sometimes is too faithful to cheap animation it seems to reuse the same character model for everyone, the coloring is amazing. I mean, yes, most of the time it’s hard to know who is who and where they are sometimes, but it’s nice to look at. Whoever came up with painting all the pages with a mixture of white and red – or white and blue, depending on the timeline – is a genius. If I loved one thing other than being let down every three panels by the story, continuing to move my eyes from panel to panel in order to absorb more and more of this aesthetic was it. Just a shame that the book seemed to be nothing more than a collection of boomers fighting for the family land during Christmas dinner featuring a ghost.
“I’ll Be Back”, He Warned Us…
You know, I lied to you in the beginning. It didn’t take me three days to read Headless Vol. 1. It took me four. That’s because I need to include the 10-minute-lapse of time before I started writing this review where I had to ask myself “did I actually read the ending? I have no recollection of the ending!”
Despite closing the book one day before, I had completely wiped out the last five pages from my memory. After a plot twist that was both interesting and spoiled in the cover, I was all like “well, well, well, playing with expectations, eh? Didn’t see that one coming right the— oh, another wall of text explaining things. Alright…” And then, just as I was ready to have the book attack me with a cliffhanger that’d left me wondering how the hell they were supposed to solve the whole thing… the staff just got tired of working on this comic book and rushed an ending in a matter of two pages where all “loose knots were tied”. Poorly, but tied.
I was ready to revise my ambivalent opinion of this piece with the ending alone. The plot twist was honestly a breath of fresh air. Once again, for the people in the back, the ideas and premises of this book are awesome. It’s the execution that leaves so much to be desired. Unsatisfaction hits hard, especially when you’ve been trained to expect it. I would love to read a reimagining of this very comic book, is what I’m saying.
As I laid down, trying to sum up my feelings of the comic book I had just read, thinking about how a story featuring a demon wearing sunglasses could let me down so hard, I kept looking at the ceiling, feeling mirrored by its color.
“I should’ve seen Serendipity, the movie, instead of reading this thing. Might’ve left me equally ambivalent about it but it would’ve taken less of my time…”
You can get the Headless Vol. 1 at Scout Comics’ website and your local comic book store. Leave your thoughts in the comments below.