I don't always enjoy light, humorous action adventure comics. More often than not I find that the focus on action masks a lack of structural ambition. After all, these stories are often on their face devoid of any deep meaning (or at least, any deep intellectual complexity) leaving them in the unenviable position of having to nail their action and comedy aspects to feel substantive and original. Despite this, 'Head Lopper', which is hard to describe as anything but humorous action adventure, works in every imaginable way and is shaping up to be one of the year's best comics. What makes Head Lopper work where others have failed (beyond generally excellent craftsmanship--more on that in a minute), is its sincerity. 'Head Lopper' never makes fun of itself or the fantasy genre, and hence never comes off as smug or gimmicky. Where other books like 'Rat Queens' and 'Saga' would make a joke based on their audience's knowledge of the pop-culture rules of adventure stories, 'Head Lopper' simply tells an adventure story. While there's comedy happening throughout the book, Norgal, Agatha, and the host of other characters are locked in a real conflict with seemingly real stakes. And while the sparse dialogue and focus on action would rob many books of their forward momentum, creator Andrew Maclean wisely chose to release the story in four mega-sized chapters.
Issue three presents the ongoing machinations of Barra the Bog Sorcerer through a flashback to show yet another part of his apparently massive scheme. This flashback opening is a complex action scene involving bat monsters with Mike Mignola-esque robotic arms (Maclean wears his Mignola influence proudly). The downside to this is we don't get to Norgal and Agatha who are the books only real emotionally-involving characters. But the wait is worth it as the remainder of the issue follows Head Lopper as he is captured and forced to fight a monster terrifying the local blue-skinned natives.
Special note needs to be made of the designs present in Maclean's art. It's easy to get too caught up in comparing his work to that of his influences (like Mike Mignola and John Arcudi), but Maclean's world has a stylized, chunky vibrancy that brings to mind ancient Mayan and Aztec art (one new character's design makes this aspect particularly pronounced). Small details like uniquely shaped knife blade and visual action effects bring me endless delight while the creature designs are effortlessly charismatic (I find it hard to pick a favorite, but this issue's dreadlocked blue warriors are perhaps the best yet).
I would be remiss if I did not mention issue three's most valuable player: Agatha the bodiless blue witch. A number of running gags involving her skewed view of life and what it means to be decapitated provide the bulk of the issues humor. One sequence sees Agatha holding a spirited, if completely one-sided, conversation with skull. As the skull (whose blank word balloons imply he is at least listening) looks on hollowly, Agatha alternatively berates and envies his apparent methods for having no body. It's a scene that, as with the best comedy routines, builds upon itself going from merely funny to raucously hilarious.
I could easily double the length of this review singing the praises of 'Head Lopper' or even just Agatha ('What about my weevil paste?'). Andrew Maclean is, piece by piece, crafting an epic comedy story that makes me smile whenever I think about it. I sincerely hope that when this series wraps up in June, some sort of sequel will follow as I do not feel ready to say goodbye to the central duo, but whether it does or doesn't, Head Lopper is shaping up to be a masterpiece.
Head Lopper #3 Writer/Artist: Andrew Maclean Publisher: Image Comics Price: $5.99 Release Date: 3/9/16 Format: Mini-Series; Print/Digital