It’s spooky season, so there’s no better time for DC Comics to launch a new imprint for only the spookiest comics on the stands. Overseen by horror writer Joe Hill (Locke & Key), Hill House kicks off this week with Basketful of Heads.
And Basketful of Heads #1, written by Hill and drawn by the artist known as Leomacs, is simply a great comic. It follows the story of a lone teen girl (of course) outwitting several home invaders to rescue her boyfriend — with an ancient Norse ax that can lop off a man’s head in one hand, and a basketful of the infernally still living, talking, arguing, pleading, wheedling severed heads of her attackers in the other.
Having read the first two issues of the seven-issue series, Basketful of Heads is sitting comfortably in the shadow of horror comics houses like Vertigo and EC Comics. And when I sat down with Joe Hill for an interview, that was the first thing I wanted to ask about.
Polygon: There’s a long legacy of horror comics in American comics that is often eclipsed by superheroes.
Joe Hill: Yeah! Horror comics were there in the early 1950s, all the top selling comics were horror titles — and to sell a comic or a book or any published work in the kind of volume that EC was selling Tales from the Crypt would be really astonishing [in this day and age]. The top-selling titles in comics today don’t even sell one tenth of what Vault of Fear was selling. But then of course they all disappeared because in the 1950s, Congress and psychologists teamed up to make comics boring again.
Why did you want to come to DC Comics specifically to do this imprint?
Well, for me the desire to come work for DC and make scary horror comics with them probably comes a little further down the line. It’s less about what EC was publishing in the ’50s and more about what DC was publishing in the ’90s. So much of the basic bricks of my imagination, the sort of foundational units, so many of them are the comics DC was publishing that later became the nucleus of Vertigo. All the British invasion titles.
You had Neil Gaiman, who was writing Sandman; and Alan Moore, who did an astonishing run on Swamp Thing; you had Grant Morrison who did a Batman comic called Arkham Asylum, which is one of the scariest comics ever published and is absolutely a horror title. Hellblazer, also, had both feet firmly planted in the tradition of supernatural storytelling. That was what I read in my teens and twenties; Vertigo was my go-to reading.
A few years ago, the final editor at Vertigo, Mark Doyle, and I started talking about horror comics in general and the state of the genre as a whole. The genre is in a bit of a second golden age right now, and one of the big cornerstones that golden age has been Blumhouse Studios. Blumhouse has been a factory for producing intelligent, high concept, and really witty horror for about a decade now. Every year they managed to produce a couple pictures that really stand out; films like The Conjuring and Paranormal Activity and Purge, Get Out. Even their Oscar-bait film, Whiplash, I would argue, is sort of a horror film.
I said to Mark, “Why don’t we try doing that for comic books?” Can we have a studio for comic books that essentially does the same sort of thing that Blumhouse is doing for the screen? And he thought it was a pretty good idea, so we decided to go for it.
I once heard a horror novelist say that horror doesn’t work in comics because they are visual, so you have to show the monster. How would you argue against that?
Yeah, there’s also this notion that there’s no soundtrack and so without the aural experience it’s harder to scare people. I will agree that it’s harder to pull off a jump scare in horror comics, but are jump scares really something to aspire to? Is that really a very high form of horror? I mean, if I’m working on the kitchen and someone drops a stack of pans behind me, I’m going to jump, but that doesn’t necessarily make it high art.
The equation for good horror is always the same. You have some characters that we can fall in love with — and who are maybe intriguing, a little mysterious to us, and we want to find out what makes them tick. And then they have to face just about the worst imaginable. And because we care about them and more invested in them, we want to see them fight their way out of the basement. We want to see them fight their way out of the darkness.
I always say horror fiction, in a way, is as simple as walking along the street and you look up and you see a man on a ledge, 10 stories above the ground, crawling to rescue a kitten. That’s a scene you’re going to stay and watch. How can you not? And my job as a horror writer is to get a hero we care about out on the ledge crawling for the kitten and then when he or she gets to the kitten, it has to scratch them in the face.
Let’s talk about your protagonist.
Juney, June Branch, was great fun to write about. Basketful of Heads runs seven issues and she was a great companion to all of them.
Basketful of Heads is the story of a young woman named June Branch in her last year of college, and she goes to Brody Island to spend the weekend with her boyfriend, a summer cop named Liam. Basically, he’s been directing traffic all summer and the two of them wind up housesitting the police chief’s mansion, which is loaded with all these Viking artifacts that celebrate his Norse heritage. And then that evening four home invaders turn up and June finds herself fighting for her life with this occult ax that she’s lifted out of the collection of Viking artifacts.
When you swing it can lop a man’s head off in one stroke, and then afterwards the head remains alive; talking, bargaining, pleading, screaming, accusing. And she has to use this weapon and her wit to find out what these home invaders are after and to rescue her boyfriend, Liam.
June was just fun to be with. She’s got a sense of humor, she’s very sunny and open. I don’t think anyone would describe her as a badass, but at the same time she’s as resilient and flexible as a fencing blade. I admired her kind of sinewy resourcefulness, mixed with her very open curiosity about people and why things are the way they are and why people make the choices they make.
I have to be honest, for the whole first issue, I was expecting her boyfriend to be the main character, so I was very excited when she picked up the ax immediately. You expect the girl in the horror movie to pick up the knife maybe at the end of it, but not this.
Yeah, she’s less like a Final Girl, more like the First Girl. One of the things that I love about the horror genre is that it has often made heroes out of marginalized characters. It’s always taken the of the underdog, and I think that’s partly because the underdog has less defenses when terror comes stalking.
There are a lot of contemporary horror stories that are playing with the past, and specifically the 1980s. Was there something that specifically made you want it to put it slightly in the past. Is it just that there are no cell phones? [laughs].
Yeah, I mean I’ve actually said that to a couple people — the joke is that cell phones ruin everything for the modern writer of thrillers. Think about how much harder it is for a killer to get away with murder in a modern storytelling setting, because your cell phone is also a tracking device and someone can do electronic forensics on it; see at the scene of the crime when the killing went down. And also if you’re in danger it’s not enough for the power lines to go down, for the telephone lines to go down, because everyone can just whip a cell phone out of their pocket. So part of it was about moving us back to a time when we weren’t all of us embedded in a cat’s cradle of technology. That’s one aspect.
Another aspect is so much of the of the horror of that inspires me came out between 1975 and 1985. It starts with Jaws and goes through maybe to James Cameron’s Aliens film. And without binging on nostalgia, my imagination sort of lives in that time period. There is also a structural plot reason that I can’t give away for why it’s set in September 1983. A very firm, absolutely essential plot reason why it takes place that month and that year.
Interesting! Without giving anything away, I have to say that I was very intrigued by the last page reveal in the second issue.
[laughs] Yeah, it’s pretty good, isn’t it? The second issue was one of the best times I’ve ever had writing any issue ever.
Correction: A previous version of this piece stated that all of EC Comics’ properties are now owned by DC Comics. This is incorrect, and we regret the error.