Head Lopper: The Fantasy Comic You Should be Reading
By Evan Maroun
A couple issues into Head Lopper, there is a small sequence where the white-haired viking hero, Norgal, along with his decapitated witch companion, Agatha, come to the border of The Silent Wood, one of the world’s many mystical locations. As they walk up, the rocks alert them to danger. Not because of broken bits or blood drippings resting upon them, but quite literally, the rocks start murmuring: “Turn back” and “Leave this place” amongst other worrisome warnings.
“These stones are older than any living man! Their wisdom is beyond understanding!” cries Agatha. Despite her behest, Norgal continues over what would be in any other comic, normal pebbles. It is even in small moments like these that the series manages to shape and mold the vision of this weird and fantastical island realm called Barra.
Both written and drawn by Andrew Maclean, Head Lopper is the spiritual and stylistic equivalent of Mike Mignola fist-bumping Genndy Tartakovsky while talking dungeons and dragons at a Viking metal concert. It’s epic, dark, often funny, but always 100% bad-ass. Now if that doesn’t make a future pull-quote, I’m quitting. Originally started as a costly self-published comic, Maclean went to Kickstarter to fund the second issue in 2013. Two years later, Image picked up Head Lopper as a quarterly book, allowing Maclean to triple the number of pages per issue in comparison to a monthly comic.
Issue #1 doesn’t begin with an origin story. It begins with Norgal arriving in Barra on a ship when it immediately gets attacked by a monstrous purple sea creature. Norgal kills it with ease, slicing off its head in bloody fashion. The sequence is dialogue-free but immediately sets the tone for the kind of world Barra is and shows the level of confidence and skill that Norgal holds in these lands. From here on, Maclean proves that he has more up his sleeve than just some fun action. As it turns out, he also has intriguing characters to boot. I mentioned Agatha earlier, the purple decapitated witch head. Probably a confusing thing to skim over in retrospect. Norgal carries her with him out of both fear and necessity. As the series continues on, that initial fact seems to deteriorate. Agatha possesses powerful magic within her, while Norgal doesn’t mess with sorcery himself. He justifies this as such:
As you can imagine, just from this panel, their dynamic is one that delivers on the banter front. Because Maclean makes the conscious decision to not provide a big exposition-filled backstory for their characters, while continuously adding to the lore of the world every issue, it results in Barra feeling lived in– which is how all great fantasy worlds should feel. As if you’re peering into events that would unfold regardless if you flipped the next page or not. Maclean also takes a page from many expansive novels by including a map of the world every issue–showing where our heroes are and the path they have taken. This is something we don’t see much in comics, but it works to great effect here. Actually seeing Norgal traveling (with Agatha in tow) through various environments with distinctive qualities helps to complement the provided map for a more in-depth view of the realm.
The first trade, titled Head Lopper & The Island or A Plague of Beasts, collects the first 4 issues. At 280 pages, it does not skimp on the goods. We follow the unlikely heroes as they are hired by the Queen to find and kill the sorcerer responsible for Barra being overrun with beasts, hence the title. Mike Spicer handles the colors here and his vivid approach not only fits Maclean’s style but is a nice contrast to the dark elements of the adventure. In combination, it gives the whole book a personality unlike any out there. Delivering nice flowing action, and a deeper plot than initially expected, it makes for an impressive first run.
Volume 2 titled Head Lopper & The Crimson Tower is the latest adventure. Maclean ditches the map here, but it makes sense for the straightforward, one-location story that it contains. Alongside some faces, new and old, Norgal and Agatha take on the daunting challenge of the Crimson Tower. It is a deadly gauntlet open to warriors, many seeking different things. While we don’t get to travel the realm this time around, the Crimson Tower provides an exciting change-up. While you would expect for most of this volume to be reliant on action, Maclean balances out each issue with character exchanges and developments, particularly those of side characters. On board for colors this time, Jordie Bellaire joins the fray. While she mostly stays consistent with Spicer, she also brings some much-appreciated flavor to the tower. Opting for tonal lighting on occasion, she helps in differentiating each challenge while making each one an aesthetically delectable feast for the eyeballs.
Admittedly, the first thing that drew me to Head Lopper was its artwork. It’s undeniably striking, especially the covers and variants. It wasn’t until I sat down and started reading that I really understood: an ass-kicking hero is always fun, but it’s within the world in which he travels where he is molded and given life. Maclean understands this. He allows the qualities and nuances of the realm to assist him in crafting a journey for Norgal. In September, his next adventure starts. There is not much in the way of plot details yet, but issue #9 starts a new arc titled The Knights of Venoriah.
In other words, there is still plenty of time to get acquainted with Barra and it’s colorful inhabitants. May they welcome you with open arms. So what if they have a few extra? Just don’t make it weird.