Head Lopper (Vol. 1): The Island or a Plague of Beasts by Andrew MacLean
Head Lopper (2016) by Andrew MacLean is about a master swordsman and his journeys. By his side is his trusty sword and his less trusty head in a sack. The head belongs to Agatha, the Blue Witch, and though we know the Head Lopper, Norgal, is the one responsible for cutting off her head, we do not know for what purpose he carries her head with him wherever he goes. But a lot of the fun and humor of the comic comes from the dialogue between Norgal and Agatha. Norgal is reticent to speak most the time, and Agatha just won’t keep quiet, so it is an interesting dynamic that exists between the two.
When the comic opens, we are witness to Norgal in action: Coming into Castlebay by boat, Norgal comes aboard just as the boat comes into the bay and is attacked by a giant monster, which Head Lopper dispatches in a fairly grotesque, but expected, fashion given his name: He takes the head off the monster. He then comes ashore to claim his reward for dispatching the monster, as he was apparently hired to come here for precisely this reason. But when the “holy men,” led by the Abbot, refuse payment, Norgal rips the expensive jewel-decorated necklace from the Abbot’s neck for payment, setting into motion a series of events that draw Norgal into the troubles of the land: The king is dead, and his very young son, a little boy, is left as king with his still young mother acting as queen. The Abbot comes to plead his case to the king and his mother the queen, claiming that there is a thief in Castlebay, setting up Norgal as an enemy of the people he has just saved.
We soon learn that the corrupt Steward, Servin Lulach, is in league with the holy men to overthrow the young king and his mother, so the intricate plans of the Steward, combined with the corruption of the Abbot, are a threat both to Norgal and the young king and trusting queen. We then meet the Steward, who was not present in the court when the Abbot went seeking justice for his “stolen” necklace; instead, we see the Steward of Bara when he goes to visit the Sorcerer of Black Bog for shady reasons of his own. Basically, he is in service to the Sorcerer, who seeks the witch’s head to gain the power to escape the Black Bog where he has been imprisoned for many years. The Sorcerer tells the Steward: “At long last, this head will bring me the power, the strength, to break the bonds that tie me to this plot of wasted land. I will leave this pathetic island and the meek will make sacrifice in my name once more, or drown in rivers of blood.” Meanwhile, Norgal seeks out the local Armorer to have his blade honed to prepare him for his many adventures to come as he survives the treachery of those around him.
I love this book for several reasons. First, the story is a great adventure tale with Kings and Queens and Stewards and Sorcerers and Swordsmen and Witches, all in place for the perfect tale of secret machinations in high court and magic as an often-corrupting force. The story strikes all the right chords for this kind of fiction. Secondly, the art is first-rate. To be honest, though, it took a little bit for the art to grow on me, because I initially did not like the design for the Head Lopper himself. But once I got used to his larger-than-life image, I realized that all the other art did appeal to me, including the coloring and lettering. But what really sticks out as attention-worthy in the art are the settings. The Black Bog alone is a good example of the level of art of which Andrew MacLean is capable. Third, the dialogue is funny and over-the-top. For example, Norgal, almost always serious, yells at the Armorer: “Speak plainly, Armorer! My patience wanes!” Norgal’s patience is always waning, and that’s part of the fun — to see how different characters react to his seriousness that only occasionally slips into lightheartedness.
MacLean has picked an interesting publishing schedule: Instead of coming out with a twenty-page monthly comic, he releases one issue every three months, and each issue, priced at $6, contains well over forty pages of story (this first issue, however, is closer to ninety pages, for example). Each story arc is made up of four issues, so this first volume is over 200 pages long. These long issues allow MacLean to have long scenes without dialogue, particularly action sequences. This changes the pacing of Head Lopper in comparison to the typical twenty-page monthly issues that comic fans are used to. MacLean has currently finished three four-issue story arcs and is two issues in to his fourth story arc. Each story arc is released as a standalone volume with a complete story told, but there is an overarching storyline connecting all the volumes together as Norgal goes on multiple adventures, meeting new people and picking up strange new companions. I cannot recommend this series highly enough. Don’t put it off like I first did because of the image of Head Lopper. He’ll grow on you visually, and all the other art is impressive right from the start.