Leaving a trail of bloody bodies in its wake, Andrew MacLean and Mike Spicer’s “Head Lopper” recently wrapped up its first run with Image Comics, resulting in four issues and more than 200 pages of story. While MacLean has received plenty of accolades for “Apocalyptigirl,” his sci-fi graphic novel, I personally prefer the revival of “Head Lopper” and its approach to fantasy adventure comics. Since the first story arc won’t be out for quite a while, this is the perfect time to get to know the series.
“Head Lopper” takes fantasy adventure at face value, as a genre that lets you be weird and get away with it. The laws and physics of death don’t apply, nonsense creatures live everywhere, kings and sorcerers do battle — it’s all as archetypal as it is oddball. While many of my favorite fantasy titles push at the limits of the genre, stretching and expanding it, “Head Lopper” leans into all of the genre’s trappings — hard. MacLean doesn’t feel the need to explain how magic works, or why giant bats are working as mercenaries — they just do, and readers can either strap in or get out. As a result, “Head Lopper” has a confidence and ease that’s won me over, issue-to-issue — and it doesn’t hurt that it’s just so, so pretty!
The title character, who prefers to be called Norgal, is on a mission from Queen Abigail, accompanied by his opinionated, unwilling companion: the severed head of the witch Agatha. When she’s not cackling, shouting “Boo!” or blasting green lasers from her mouth, Agatha is demanding food and spitting opinions. There’s a lovely balance between Norgal’s lack of personality and Agatha’s excess of it, but MacLean resists the temptation to make them friends rather than enemies. When Norgal asks for her assistance, for example, Agatha laughs, “I’m not helping you! You cut my freakin’ head off!”
MacLean also gives these characters a super-cool world to work in. His light, simple style grants the characters’ battles a combination of grace and cutesiness that’s just a delight to follow. They’re made even more delightful by the pacing, as “Head Lopper” seriously takes its time in letting the story unfold. The first issue has more than 80 pages in it, and MacLean takes advantage of this larger than normal page count not to cram in more stories, but to tell slower, more detailed ones. Fights expand over multiple pages. Landscapes are drawn in big, wonderful panels that make the wilderness look empty and clean. The first issue opens with two pages of scene-setting, showcasing a village and the ship in its bay across eleven different panels before the story gets going. The first arc’s collected edition, which arrives in September, is going to be massive.
Most importantly, “Head Lopper” is a profoundly funny comic. Which isn’t to say it’s loaded with laugh-out-loud moments; it’s not so much a send-up of adventure comics as it is a celebration of their built-in absurdity. MacLean includes bats with eye patches, well-mannered rivers of the dead, and stone lizards who keep repeating “manflesh.” When Norgal is in the midst of battle, his head is often drawn as one giant white beard. This sort of straightforward nonsense makes for a stimulating, entertaining read.
The importance of humor is particularly apparent in MacLean’s approach to violence. Severed heads and blood-gushing neck stumps are everywhere in this book; there’s red on practically every page. However, MacLean’s style is less about hyper-violence and more like Looney Tunes taken to the next logical level. He delights in the cartoonishness and ease of it. For example, when Agatha swallows a character whole, he pops back out the other side of her severed neck. In another artist’s hands, it could be show-offishly gory. In “Head Lopper,” it looks unexpected, funny, strange — and almost sort of cute.
Lastly and most mercenary (ha-ha pun intended), readers get a whole lot of adventure for their money. The first two volumes of “Head Lopper” are $3.99 on comiXology right now, and each one is more than 50 pages. one of the best deals in comics. If you haven’t already checked out “Head Lopper,” be sure to snatch it up.
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