By Patrick Larose
Over the last half-decade whenever a comic has tried to tell a fantasy story in a fantasy setting, they’ve almost always strived towards reinvention and deconstruction. We can see this with Princeless’s deconstruction and critical eye towards the damsel-in-distress and princess tropes of classic fantasy, Saga’s visual reinvention of what exactly a Star Wars-fantasy setting can look like, and in Rat Queen’s self-aware Dungeon & Dragon’s campaign of a comic.
In their own ways, these comics try to change our visual-narrative expectations when it comes to the fantasy genre—filling in their own gaps of what they see as wrong or missing from these types of stories.
That’s admirable and often great but sometimes there need to be stories that aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel—stories that are sincerely and honestly playing towards what came before and serve to remind us why we ever came to them in the first place.
Head Lopper is that type of story.
More specifically Head Lopper is a fantasy that pulls the strings of classic pulp like Conan the Barbarian or Elric of Melniboné while still excising the uncomfortable, sexist, and racist elements that drag them down in modern readings.
The titular Head Lopper, or as he prefers, Norgal is a classical nomadic monster slayer in the same vein as Conan. He’s quiet but huge. He swings a mean sword and feels narratively invincible towards every threat that comes his way. Head Lopper itself involves mysterious magic, sinister sorcerers, and a king’s right hand secretly driven by his own dark ulterior motives.
Narratively, Head Lopper shows its own hand. You can accurately guess the broad strokes of its story from the basic tropes MacLean invokes yet this is never to the comic’s detriment. Rather instead the creators here add a certain texture and particular details that dig deep to why these tropes have been effective in the first place.
There are easy comparisons to make here towards the art styles of Mike Mignola and Jeff Smith but what really matters is that Andrew MacLean’s art and Mike Spicer’s colors excel where they need to: in making our world seem strange again. Head Lopper captures perfectly what made our predecessors afraid of the dark swamps and forests and reminds us why were ever afraid of wolves and serpents.
They create demon and creatures that feel truly unique and strange while also adding particularweapon designs and small details that give the different people of this world subtle but unique cultures and histories. There's a world here that always feels bigger than the confines of its pages.
There’s an undeniable quality to Head Lopper despite its fairly basic premise and simple characterization. This is a story that digs deep and relishes in its genres tonal variations ranging from Robert E. Howard to Adventure Time or even Celtic folklore. Yet while fantasy stories always seem to invoke comparison, MacLean cuts himself a unique space here through his brilliant sense of sequential pacing and direction.
The action scenes are tight, visually engaging, and tense. Even though we as readers always know Norgal will win, MacLean pivots around this making the tension not if he’ll win but how and clearly planting the stakes of every fight. This makes every fight, whether it’s Norgal against a pack of giant wolves biting through a cavalry or a character fighting off a surreal clown monster, an exciting spectacle.
MacLean balances this high-flying action with compelling character drama and a sharp sense of humor. He'll lets us quietly stew watching the king’s advisor betray his position and ride off into the swamp against the boy-king playing with his own toy horses, almost mimicking the traitor’s movements. A straight-forward story becomes visually complex and mentally intriguing, which grants these moments with a greater depth and contextual understanding.
Then those moments are equally spaced with levity. MacLean has a brilliant eye for visual comedy especially when it comes to framing Norgal’s sidekick. The Head Lopper travels everywhere with the decapitated but still-living and still-talking head of a witch named Agatha. Agatha is weird and delightfully uncomfortable to watch as she constantly laughs and tries to eat the living things around her. The book is filled with these perfect panels of Norgal throwing her about whether that’s accidentally inside of a wolf’s mouth or into the hands of an unexpecting guard who ends up accidentally holding this cackling head by her tongue.
Yet this humor never comes from parody or satire but instead, is derived straight from the characters because that above all else is the ultimate strength of Head Lopper. Here even brief side characters feel as if they live their own complex and human lives. The characters are funny because people are funny and the drama high because their lives feel fully realized.
They might be characters often drawn from archetypes but MacLean makes cases for those archetypes. The wandering stoic warrior is ultimately just a goofy old guy with a job to do. The traitor’s betrayal feels both substantial and, if not sympathetic, still able to be understood. Agatha’s own disturbed and strange perspective feels reminiscent to the role of the Witches in MacBeth where there’s a clear conscious perspective happening that we just fail to fully understand. MacLean manages to take these typically thin-character types and makes them feel full and engaging again.
Look, guys, this was a lot of words to say Head Lopper is worth your time, worth your money, and worth your attention. This is a fantasy story here to remind us just why we come to these stories in the first place.
Head Lopper, Vol. 1: The Island or the Plague of Beasts
Writer/Artist: Andrew MacLean
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $14.99 Print/ $11.99 Digital
Format: TPB; Print/Digital