A few years ago, I picked up Andrew MacLean's Head Lopper at a convention, and it was one of the best con purchases I've ever made. For one thing, it's a book that lives up to its title --- heads were in fact lopped with almost alarming frequency --- but more than that, it was an incredible example of compelling visual storytelling that instantly made MacLean a creator I wanted to see more from. Apocalyptigirl: An Aria For The End Times is more in every possible way.

It's one of those rare books that delivers on every expectation that you have for an up-and-coming creator that gets a bigger platform, bringing the same engaging action and beautiful art and adding in some character work that seems almost impossibly difficult to pull off. In short, it's awesome, and just in case you were wondering, yes: heads get lopped in this one, too.

 

 

Apocalyptigirl is, as you might expect from the title, a story set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, and as such, MacLean is dealing with a lot of ground that feels like it's been covered pretty well in other stories. The thing is, that's not really a hindrance for him. Rather than feeling like a retread, the setting gives Apocalyptigirl a common language that lets MacLean work with shorthand and familiar visuals that provide a foundation for what he's doing. It's an impressive structure, especially given how well he handles the almost-mandatory world-building stuff where the main character explains just how the world got to its current sorry state.

To be honest, that's usually the piece of a post-apocalptic story that makes me start to nod off with my eyes glazed over. Even something like the Fallout games, which have years of exceptional history that's well-crafted and interesting on all kinds of levels, has to work really hard to get me to actually slog through finding out what happened before the bombs dropped rather than just focusing on what's happening now. MacLean, on the other hand, has the distinct advantage of, well, being Andrew MacLean and being able to deliver all that stuff in a way that grabs the reader's attention almost immediately just in the way he shifts the look of the story into something that feels less like his usual comic and more like something you'd see on the side of an urn in ancient Greece.

 

 

It also doesn't hurt that the phrase "and they drowned it in blood" is pretty hard to skim over.

It's not the only neat visual that MacLean uses in this story, either. If Head Lopper was great, and it was, then Apocalyptigirl is the book where he's moving up to the next level, taking the space that he has with an 88-page original graphic novel and using it to experiment with some really great stuff.

The story focuses on Aria --- see what he did there? With the subtitle? --- a scavenger combing through the wreckage of a city alongside her cat Jellybean for pieces of forgotten technology. Unfortunately, she runs across a member of an extremely territorial tribe of fellow survivors armed with AK-47s, and when she kills a pack of their hunting dogs in self defense, it all goes straight to hell in a bombed-out handbasket. If that seems like a simple plot, it is, at least in the abstract, but the way MacLean presents it is anything but simple. It feels like there's a lot of influence in here from creators like Frank Miller and Paul Grist, and it's full of storytelling tricks that I love.

This page, for instance --- and just a word of warning before you scroll down, it's the one where the dogs get killed.

 

 

Dividing a panel into smaller sections by using a physical object within the panel is a pretty simple trick --- largely because it's one of those things I've heard they usually tell you not to do in art school --- but when an artist can pull it off well, it's a great way to change the pacing of a scene. MacLean pulls it off so perfectly here that I couldn't stop staring at this panel when I read the book. Aria sets up the idea of the two warring tribes, the Blue Stripes and the Grey Beards, a few scenes before this, but this is the first time that we see one of them, and the way MacLean isolates him in the panel with the bloody tip of her sword before zooming in is perfect. This is the turning point, the moment that you know that this is going to be the rest of the story: Sharp, violent, and extremely bloody.

Except that it's not.

It certainly is those things, and Aria's long-running battle against the Blue Stripes and Grey Beards dominates the last half of the book with some genuinely great action, including a scene where you find out that she's got a lot more than a machete to back her up while she's searching.

 

 

As good as that fight is, though, and as much as I love seeing MacLean take on action, it's not really what the book is about. In the end, weirdly enough, it's about having a pet, and what you do when that pet is threatened or killed. It's not at all what I was expecting going in, but it gives the book a human core that a lot of takes on post-apocalyptic action lack.

It's also worth noting that this is a book in which only one character, Aria herself, ever has a speaking role. It's difficult to pull off, packing this much character into a story when there's only ever one person talking, especially when you consider that most of the conversation is delivered to a cat and there's a good chunk that's also in French because she's singing bits from an opera as she goes about her work, but MacLean manages to do it and do it well. She's instantly likable and engaging, and once that connection is there with the reader, everything else falls into place.

I already knew going into this book that MacLean was great, but every page of Apocalyptigirl confirms that in a fantastic new way. The only problem is that now I have to wait for his next project, and it can't come soon enough.