I’ve read quite a few graphic novels this last week. Some of them – Thor: Goddess of Thunder, the second volume of Sex Criminals, and the second and third volumes of Ms. Marvel – are likely to have plenty of advocates come next year’s Hugo nominations. But there was another book that I thought a pleasant break from the usual run of superhero comics, both in story and in visual style.
Andrew MacLean’s Apocalyptigirl: An Aria for the End Times is the story of Aria, a solitary survivor in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, accompanied only by her cat Jelly Beans and a rusty nonfunctioning mech named Gus.
I thought MacLean’s writing demonstrates an admirable range of register and tone, switching effortlessly, for example, between Aria’s casual dialog with herself and some almost poetic explication of the mythology of Aria’s world. And MacLean also does an excellent job of building up, within only a couple scenes from Aria’s post-apocalyptic life, a character of surprising complexity.
I was initially a little disturbed, though, by how MacLean handles the other humans in the book. The area’s two warring tribes, the Blue Stripes and the Grey Beards, both speak in “garbled-up languages” that are unintelligible to Aria and represented in the book only with dingbat-like characters. This language barrier seems intended to emphasize Aria’s isolation, but it also has the consequence of helping render the tribes as dehumanized, undifferentiated others that can subsequently be shot, dismembered, and otherwise dispatched by Aria with casual ease.
But the more I mull it over, the more I suspect the discomfort I felt was no accident. One minute, Aria is singing opera, playing “gotcha nose” with her cat, reveling in freshly picked apples; the next, she’s slaughtering her enemies in exaggerated and slightly comical fashion. She even insists, early in the book, that she’s no killer, and yet, it soon becomes clear that she’s more than capable of killing, and doing so with practiced skill and expertise.
MacLean highlights these internal contradictions, in fact, by setting off Aria’s narration in two ways that are distinct in both content and visual appearance: the first, set off in speech bubbles, is her breezy casual banter with herself and her cat; the second, in internal monologue captions, her more sophisticated reflections on her world, with the two sometimes coming into conflict and Aria quite literally arguing with herself.
Stories of kickass heroines struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic world are hardly new territory – indeed, it’s been a recurrent theme of late – but I suspect there’s also something subtler here, a subtext about the psychology of violence and survival and the things we tell ourselves to keep ourselves sane in horrible circumstances.
And in that respect, I think this is really a standout book, despite appearing at first to be visiting well-trodden ground. It’s not a perfect book by any means – the conclusion of the book felt rushed, with several twists that I found less than wholly satisfying – but it was certainly a nice break, both in terms of subject matter and in visual style, from the superhero comics that I expect will feature strongly in next year’s Hugo nominations.