May 20, 2015

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ApocalyptiGirl: An Aria for the End Times


ApocalyptiGirl: An Aria for the End Times
Written and Illustrated by Andrew MacLean
Dark Horse Comics

Andrew MacLean has created something distinctive with ApocalyptiGirl: An Aria for the End Times. It's a story that's at turns sad, funny, scary, and hopeful, all the while centered around a great, unique protagonist.

Aria is a girl (or woman, her age is somewhat indeterminate) wandering the streets of the overgrown, decaying remnants of the city, accompanied only by her cat Jellybeans. They have a fairly limited existence, as she mostly moves between her home inside an underground subway car, and throughout the city as she tries to rebuild an ancient Mech that she's named Gus. The city is otherwise inhabited by locals who don't speak a language that she really understands; two tribes known as the Blue Stripes and the Graybeards. They don't have much other then weapons, but they seem to be fighting for what's left of the city.

Aria is an immediately likable protagonist. A lead character doesn't have to be likable to be compelling (see many stories, including the recent Southern Cross), but this one is, and almost instantly. She's surrounded by decay and ruin, and she's singing opera to herself. She pretends to take her cat's nose, and then in a bit of meta-awareness that's very funny without taking the reader out of the story, she begins to argue, in dialogue, with the caption boxes that illustrate her own thoughts. So from the outset she's a distinctive character, and seems to have a rich inner life. She's walking the corpse of a ruined city, but she's not ruined - quite the contrary, she's full of life, self awareness and humor.

MacLean is a gifted visual storyteller and this is his most ambitious work yet.  You can see the Mignola and Guy Davis influence in MacLean's line work (MacLean has cited Mignola as an influence), but there's so much more going on here than some sort of Hellboy homage.  MacLean has been both generally and specifically influenced by Manga in this work.  The compact size of the book, and the look and feel of the story all bear the influence of Manga storytelling (and when I met MacLean at Boston Comic Con last summer, he mentioned the story Tekkonkinkreet as an inspiration).  ApocalyptiGirl is influenced by a number of sources, but feels distinctive and original.  There's a strong element of the lone swords-woman, but the feeling one gets in this story isn't one of grimness; quite the opposite, it's life and humor and resiliency.  MacLean sells that in his art and scripting.
He uses sharp lines and jagged angles to convey this world; the objects have a somewhat realistic, proportional feel but his people and animals have a more angular, exaggerated look to them. Colors are bright and somewhat flat (which works well here; I don't think that given the exaggerated art style, that hyper-detailed, highly realistic coloring would help the story), and are used very effectively from the very beginning of the story, as the gray of the world and buildings is contrasted with the life and color of Aria and her cat Jelly Beans. The coloring makes the sun seem bright, almost oppressive. To tell the mythic origins of this world, MacLean completely changes up his style and uses mostly white space and simple, iconic color images to tell the origins of this world. It gives the pages a larger than life, almost religious feel, like either scripture or an epic poem.

MacLean brings his skill in sequential storytelling to both the quieter moments (like when Aria is alone in her makeshift home, or walking through the city) and the action, as in a powerful sequence where she is attacked by Blue Stripes and she dispatches them with speed, skill and a ready sword. Those sequences give a visceral, kinetic sense of the speed and motion involved.  Aria runs, slides, leaps and then faces her attackers with her motorcycle. You feel the weight and movement, and the art conveys what a highly capable badass Aria is.  Much of the story is told without words, and MacLean gives a clear sense of the action, so you never feel lost or confused (this is one of those stories that could be read and understand pretty much entirely without captions or dialogue).
The theme that keeps coming through in this story is not just one of hope but also of humanity. Aria keeps to a routine, the tries to take care of herself as best she can, she takes care of a pet; these are things that may seem like luxuries in a desperate situation, but they are also ennobling and part of being a civilized person and resisting the descent into barbarism. Ultimately, Aria's skill and capability as a fighter, researcher and mechanic are what save her life, but her humanity and her compassion (particularly shown in the story's end) that make her great (and a compelling character).

If you're looking for a highly entertaining read from a great, up-and-coming comics creator, I'd highly recommend ApocalyptiGirl.