Head Lopper, Vol 1: The Island or A Plague of Beasts
Written by Andrew MacLean
Art by Andrew MacLean, Mike Spicer, Lin Visel and Joseph Bergin III
Lettering by Andrew MacLean
Published by Image Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10
Rarely has high fantasy looked this stylish or been this fun of a read. Collecting all four issues as well as an epilogue to the epic tale, Head Lopper is the story of Norgal, a reluctant but deadly warrior drawn into a kingdom’s monster problem and tasked with killing the sorcerer responsible for a plague of beasts.
Though the set up is a familiar one, cartoonist Andrew MacLean fills each issue with fast-paced action and sharp, down-to-earth humor that sets this story apart from the usual dour sword-and-sorcery fare we are used to seeing. MacLean’s art also is wildly impressive as his block style invokes comparisons to Mike Mignola and Dan Hipp as Norgal cut his way through the story. While there is no shortage of warriors wielding cold steel in comic books, Head Lopper quickly proves that it is one of a kind.
Though the cover suggests a Conan-style violence-fest, Head Lopper’s real strength lies in the comedy Andrew MacLean peppers throughout. Quickly readers are introduced to Norgal and his aptitude for decapitation in the book’s opening battle with a sea monster, but after the dust has settled, MacLean debuts the title’s co-lead, a severed sentient head named Agatha BlueWitch.
Agatha is the perfect foil for the grim Norgal and provides some of the title’s best jokes, including a running gag involving her incessant need to eat things and people despite not having a stomach anymore. MacLean really delivers on the usual narrative beats of high fantasy like the epic main story and a side-plot involving the title’s B-villain that includes plenty of court intrigue and regicide, but I cannot stress how much better this story is thanks to his random punches of comedy.
It's these gags that provide the story an interesting mix of high and low language that sets it apart from other fantasy stories. While other titles tend to lean heavily one way or another, MacLean splits the difference. For example, in one issue Norgal and Agatha are warned by a set of magical stones as to the danger they face should they keep going. As they walk the stones deliver their warnings in dark but flowery dialogue. However, once Norgal insults them and moves on on his quest the final stone simply utters a terse “jerk” before they move on to the next scene. This is just one of many, many examples of Head Lopper’s hilarity - MacLean’s sporadic use of F-bombs also provide the story some of its biggest laughs, but after book after book of grim blood-letting, it is nice to take in one that knows how to have fun like this one does.
And speaking of fun, Head Lopper also provides some beautifully-rendered action scenes highlighted by simple panel construction and vibrant colors. Each issue of volume one is brought to a head with an epic battle between Norgal and Agatha and whatever hell beast they have been faced with, but MacLean and colorist Mike Spicer approach each set pieces with a different tactic in order to keep each battle feeling fresh.
For instance in the opening issue’s battle, the pair frame the battle in mostly wordless vertical panels, drawing attention to the sea monster’s height and Norgal’s relative size. But as the story goes on, MacLean and Spicer frame each fight differently, ranging from heavy shadowed double-page splashes to tightly focused four-panel grids, ratcheting up the tension of each blow. This fluidity in style allows plays to the pair’s strengths and also allows the action beats to offer something different style wise instead of just repeating angles and formats until the finale. If Andrew MacLean wasn’t on your list of favorite artists before, Head Lopper will certainly put him at the top of the list.
Armed with a suitably epic scope and a razor-sharp wit, Head Lopper, Vol. 1: The Island or A Plague of Beasts stands as a massively entertaining collection. Andrew MacLean, Mike Spicer, Lin Visel, and Joseph Bergin III take the conventions of fantasy and not only work within them to deliver a rousing yarn, but also playfully toy with them, making this story a true singular work. Fantasy books are a dime a dozen in comics, but Head Lopper stands above the pack with both style and substance, making it well worth your time and money.