Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Head Lopper #2. Written and illustrated by Andrew MacLean (Apocalyptigirl, The Tomorrows) with colors by Michael Spicer (Sons Of Anarchy, Dead Drop), this issue is rollicking action narrative with immersive visuals and a charming central relationship. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
Feel free to judge Head Lopper #2 by its cover. With its hard-edged title font and evocative image of main character Norgal standing atop a pile of giant decapitated heads, it’s a strong representation of the metal attitude that drives cartoonist Andrew MacLean, and the interior contents will satisfy any reader attracted to the prospect of a huge barbarian slashing his way through fantastic opponents. The action is definitely the main appeal of this title, and MacLean dedicates a sizable portion of his story to dynamic fight sequences showing off Norgal’s inventive ways of lopping heads. He has the freedom to make those fights as long as he wants thanks to Head Lopper’s quarterly schedule, and each $5.99 issue features at least double the amount of pages you’d find in the majority of $3.99 monthly comics.
The design elements of this book are especially striking, like the two-page title spread that shows snapshots from the previous issue inside each of the oversized letters. Three months have passed since the first issue of Head Lopper, so it’s understandable if any new readers have forgotten what came before (although it’s also not necessary to know that information to enjoy this issue), and giving those small glimpses of previous events is a concise, effective way of jogging the reader’s memory. The bright red background and severe lettering maintain the aggression of the cover image, which is then amplified by the image of Norgal’s bloody sword in the lower-right corner, gripped in the grinning jaws of Agatha Blue Witch’s severed head. It’s a loud, forceful, very metal way to introduce the story, but then the tone makes a dramatic shift as the story begins and a new influence takes control: Mike Mignola.
MacLean’s high-contrast, minimalist art style is heavily inspired by Mignola’s work on Hellboy, although there’s a clean, animated quality to MacLean’s work that gives it a smoother look than Mignola’s increasingly rough art. (Rough is a compliment in this regard, and the rawness of Mignola’s visuals for Hellboy In Hell fits beautifully with the content of the story.) The first panel of this issue could easily be mistaken for Mignola, with its haunting mood, stark composition, and atmospheric graphic elements in the web of branches above and inky water below, but there’s a roundness to MacLean’s style that makes his art less severe, which is much more appropriate for the lighter tone of his storytelling. There are certainly heavy moments in this issue, particularly the opening sequence revealing the origin of Norgal’s nemesis, Lulach, but this book is really an odd couple action comedy starring a majestically bearded barbarian and the severed head of an evil witch.
The playfully antagonistic dynamic between Norgal and Agatha is the major source of Head Lopper’s charm, and it grounds the heightened story with a strange but lovable central relationship. The two are a study in contrasts: Norgal is stern, aggressive, and visually characterized by his massive body, so much so that MacLean stops detailing Norgal’s facial features when he’s drawing the character from a distance. Agatha is brash, sly, and literally all head, lacking any sort of physical strength but making up for that with patience and magic. There’s very little she can do to hurt Norgal, but she can wait until the right moment to not help him, as she does in this issue when Norgal is ambushed by the ghosts of dead soldiers. She takes this opportunity to damage his pride by forcing him to admit that magic is stronger than steel, and then she gleefully does nothing and shouts, “I hope you die, mother-fucker!”
Norgal and Agatha’s delightfully dysfunctional relationship brings a lot of humor to the story, and one of the best moments of this issue is a quiet page showing the two of them as Norgal sets up their camp for the night. The 15-panel grid alternates between shots of Agatha trying to eat a spider that crawls on her face and shots of their camp site as Norgal creates a fire pit and cooks an animal, and it’s a very clever way of showing how time passes when they’re not dealing with killer ghosts and giants. It functions as a short, self-contained strip in the middle of the narrative, building to a visual punchline where Norgal gets to eat his meal while Agatha says goodbye to hers after a fruitless struggle, and the coloring helps make the page stand out, with a shade of blue in the background that is brighter than the palette used for the rest of Norgal and Agatha’s time in the woods.
The defining characteristic of this issue’s coloring comes from the story’s title, “Into The Silent Wood,” and Michael Spicer focuses on creating a quiet atmosphere with his palette, which is primarily composed of cool blues, greens, and grays. He deviates from this during the few moments when the story is outside the forest, like the opening Lulach flashback that shows him witnessing the death of his parents when he was a young boy. When Lulach’s father tries to fight back against the king that is about to steal his family’s horse, the green background is replaced by hot colors that loudly evoke the father’s emotions, first a bright yellow when he protests the loss of his horse, and then red when he lifts his hand against the king. Those shades of red and yellow combine in the next panel, which shows the king’s guard ramming his sword through Lulach’s father’s chest, and the colors accentuate the impact these formative events have on Lulach’s mind. This opening scene establishes Spicer’s use of color to control the volume of the story beats, and he keeps the volume very low for the entirety of Norgal and Agatha’s trip into the silent wood.
The big action set piece of this issue is the three-way brawl between Norgal, the aforementioned ghost soldiers, and a gang of giants, and it highlights the precise clarity of MacLean’s action storytelling. The scale is huge, but every beat is captured with crisp, but not busy, detail. That clean definition of the artwork makes the motion very fluid on the page, and the transitions in the action are extremely smooth. Norgal hits hard, but he’s also very swift, and you get a great sense of both his force and speed in MacLean’s staging.
MacLean also finds moments of humor in the action, like a giant gargling a ghost before exhaling it through his giant nostrils or the woodland creature Gnym dancing while the battle rages. There’s a badass shot of Norgal in silhouette emerging from the dust after he beheads all the giants, but then MacLean pulls back from that moody visual to show the giants’ bodies flailing at the air now that they have no heads to direct their actions. That moment encapsulates the tonal balance MacLean strikes in Head Lopper, delivering hardcore fantasy action with intense metal-inspired imagery, but never taking himself too seriously.