The color palette of the apocalypse is sorely out of date. Think about the end times fiction you’ve consumed and chances are it screens in your head in dusty yellows and browns, blackness around the edges, shadows run rampant from desert heat. This is because the apocalypse we used to fear was man-made in a different sense than it is now– missiles flying overhead, mushroom clouds on the forecast. Today that isn’t the truth, though, is it? Now we think of melting glaciers, bees gone extinct, floods and rain and humid heat. We image New York submerged, LA an island. So why is our fiction so far behind?
No one person can push back the tidal wave of accepted apocalypse fiction tropes, but give Andrew MacLean credit for trying. Apocalyptigirl: An Aria for the End Times has its fair share of yellows and dirt browns, but they’re doled out in fair doses, punctuation in paragraphs of lush greens, vivid reds, somber blues. A graphic novel about life lurking beneath the surface of finales, Apocalyptigirl explores the landscape of a doomsday, the way human interaction remains cynically unchanged, yet hope also remains. MacLean is still out to impart a lesson about the destruction we cause, but he does it with grace and beauty, his iconic linework perfectly suited to this end time fable about a downed pilot, a cat, a mech and a savage, fertile “wasteland.”
Through the eyes of Aria, a “Tracker” tasked with finding a lifegiving “photon” hidden on what remains of Earth, Apocalyptigirl is a story of adventure and danger, not too dissimilar in tone to Kirby’s Kamandi or even Wall-e. Aria tries her best to avoid conflict with the “Blue Stripes” and the “Grey Beards,” warring factions of survivors who have been killing each other for so long they don’t even remember why they started. But she’s been stuck looking for the photon for so long, she’s becoming distraught and anxious, talking to her cat like he’s a boyfriend, refreshing her e-mail every other minute in hopes that word from home will come, all while steadily realizing maybe this is her home now.
The strong point of Apocalyptigirl isn’t its plot, the story mostly existing as an excuse for MacLean to serve as a guide for the reader through this enchanting post-post-apocalypse world he has created. Nonetheless, Aria is an intriguing figure, youthful but hardened, capable of dismembering foes yet unlike most grim doomsday heroes, she’d take exploration and relaxation over battles with mutants any day. She’s a tinkerer by nature, toying around with the brokedown shell of an old robot she’s cheerfully named Grampa Gus when she isn’t hunting down weak tracking signals, and that tinkering nature extends to her creator, too. The bulk of Apocalyptigirl is spent in paradoxically forested wastelands, but MacLean finds room to display dazzling myth sequences influenced by Greek iconography, subbing in white space flooded pages for terracotta, manga mechs and Pixar-like robot forces for Spartans and Athenians.
Unlike some of his similarly minimalist peers, MacLean’s secret strength his strong grasp of motion. That’s particularly vital in an adventure comic and MacLean does not disappoint; that’s easiest to spot in the fight scenes, where Aria shows off her inner Samurai Jack, but it’s there in the not-so-obvious places too, like the breath leaving Aria’s lungs after she gets the wind knocked out of her during a fall:
MacLean gets the rhythm of the panel grid like few others, elongating slow moments and breaking down others to perfect square beats, ratatat snare hits to the sustained cymbal crashes of the falls Aria takes. Ditto MacLean’s coloring, which has its own rhythmic builds and climaxes, slow declines to cooled greens and blues waking up through bursts of white that morph into anxious stretches of yellow, shocking reds pulling at eyes that have been lulled into earthtone complacency. Under MacLean’s confident penwork, Apocalyptigirl flows as smoothly as the nature it depicts, making the story unfold almost in real time, so that fall and gasp above leads directly into this gorgeously choreographed, claustrophobic battle:
Simple as Apocalyptigirl’s story may be, MacLean’s storytelling is anything but. MacLean’s previous work Head Lopper was a straightforward action narrative, fun and clever, but Apocalyptigirl is a major step up in evolution for MacLean, far more self-assured and inventive– it’s a work that shows off MacLean’s mastery of the rhythms of comics storytelling while also remaining a fluid, intuitive experience. On first read, it’s a simple story where you can’t help but rush through, caught up in Aria’s mission and love of her newfound home. Subsequent reads only make it a richer experience, as you can pace yourself and drink in the smaller details, grooving to a rhythm you now know and can thus improvise with. Initially you may have been thrown off by the colorful end times Aria is caught up in, confused by how different they are from what you’ve been taught to expect. But it makes sense, doesn’t it? We’re not living in a nuclear era anymore, there are no missiles overhead that we’re on the lookout for. Instead, we’re expecting a slow submersion into a doomsday that may be full of wildflowers and repopulated deserts, a song of life singing its own aria as it heads towards some kind of climax.
Apocalyptigirl is out now from Dark Horse.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover