Apocalyptigirl: An Aria for the End Times by Andrew Maclean is one of the best graphic novels I’ve read. When folks ask me what my recommendations are for their next read, it is always at the top of the list — especially when those folks have a young adult daughter as there are not enough works out there with relatable strong female leads for both parents and their teens to enjoy together. The 2015 Dark Horse Comics’ graphic novel’s lead, Aria, is one badass boss bitch who’s ready to take on the world in all its forms. Aria is the kind of well-rounded femme role model I think needs to exist more in media and literature.
Aria does everything from kick some bad guy butt, to fix robots, to sit in her feelings for a time when she gets overwhelmed. But Aria always lives to fight another day and to bring her all to the world and chapter of life tomorrow brings. Aria is an impressively complex character and an amazing example of a male author actually rocking a female lead. But her character is also so much more than that. Aria is fully fleshed out and multidimensional in a way one can only properly represent in the comics media.
While the writing and plot of Apocalyptigirl highlight Aria’s strength and capability much of the visual framing Apocalyptigirl suggests a victim story, and once notices the suggestiveness of some of the drawings; it becomes harder to see the hero arch Aria is on. Though her strength exists, the images add in a tragic subtext, and when one becomes lost in the art it becomes tempting to view her in a more helpless light. The juxtaposition between the way the story is framed through its text and overall plot, and the way it’s framed visual was hotly debated on episode 10 of the podcast Three Panel Contrast. The writing and overall plot tell a story of Aria and other femme folks in power, seeding the universe with life. But the visuals undermine this from time to time. At the art level, the story is filled with pussy jokes and gun-shot fume clouds that look like a cum gush. The illustrations especially play with the way Aria’s character is rendered: how soft or hard the lines are; how pronounced feminine features are in the drawing; the tint of the colours; vectoring and juxtaposition all play key roles in suggesting the intended audience and reading for any given panel. There are also shifts in Aria’s cup size and colouring from panel to panel that are paired with moments of vulnerability and loss of control. Aria rendering shifts from endogenous leaning to Lara Croft-style eye candy and back from panel to panel.
When one is used to looking at the dichotomy of the intended reader and picking a side, they miss the true power of this piece though. The real power in Apocalyptigirl is the juxtaposition of both interpretations. The way in which the male and female lens are overlapped in Apocalyptigirl creates a story that is truer to the female experience than most I’ve read. If one assumes that humans are the audience, regardless of gender identity and reads for lessons on how the traditional binaries interact, you get a fuller story on the panel and the commentary on our times that one would expect from MacLean and the science fiction genre. If you read for both, rather than for one or the other, binary, intended audience, then Aria’s story has volumes to say about society in the #MeToo moment, the role of victimhood in rape culture, and calls out the assumptions we make about who the label ‘victim’ can be applied to. Because, if one can apply the label ‘victim’ to the woman whose hands the fate of the world literally rests in, it’s easy to see how any woman, regardless of privilege, can fall into the role of victim in their relationship and our society.
The reader is confronted with this juxtaposition some the very start with the clash of images on the cover, title page, and frontispiece of the work. On the cover we have an image of Aria walking next to her cat, Jelly Beans. Aria is in full military-esque kit, machete, and wrench clearly visible. We’re angled to be looking up at Aria. Despite the low-lying sun in the background, Aria’s character towers over the shadow the character is casting, giving her a size and gravitas. Her power, capability and masculine energy come across clearly.
When the reader turns to the interior title image we see Aria’s softer side cuddling her cat Jelly Beans in her arms, pack dropped but wrench still on hip. Hair blowing in the wind but still the reader’s vantage point places them in a way that places the reader looking up at her as she stands atop one of the giant robots’ legs. This image has a balance to it; an almost yin and yang vibe. The feminine and masculine energies portrayed by the character hitting a balance, soft and yet still capable.
At the final frontispiece, we again have a shift in the way in which Aria is portrayed. This time she is vulnerable and exposed. We see her working on Gus (a giant robot/bodysuit Aria has been trying to fix for a while), from behind. Legs spread. No pack on her back. No visible weapons or wrench. Jelly Beans nowhere to be found. The image is more heavily shaded and darker. The reader becomes the voyeur. Watching from the shadows. Waiting for your moment to pounce. Unlike the other images where we’re looking up at Aria, this image is straight-on, yet which almost feels angled downward due to the established height of the robot she’s standing on top of. We would need to be in a tree or extremely tall to be level with her from the voyeur’s angle.
Throughout the work, Aria continues to be all three personas to the reader: the killer female lead who can take on any foe as she conquers dogs, man and machine throughout the work; the yin and yang balance who breaks down for a beat and feels her emotions fully after a battle; the butt of a voyeuristic joke switch as when Aria’s cat Jelly Beans is placed in front of her pelvis, Aria’s legs spread and Jelly Beans licking himself in a very clear “lick her pussy” joke down through the illustration.
My favourite example of these three viewpoints coming together is in the scene with the hunting dogs. We start on the rooftops with Aria relaxed but in full kit, petting Jelly Beans and enjoying the sunset. Jelly Beans runs, and Aria realizes the hunting dogs are there too. She then breaks out into the most awkward run I have ever seen, in what looks like a front angled shot of brokeback pose, legs spread, somehow running sideways so that we can see her ample cleavage actually strongly outlined and drawn as a feature for the first time in the novel. Until this point, the outlines were looser and only present enough to gender the character, not meant to be eye-catching.
Aria gains a lead and time to think about her escape route and while she has this edge we see less vectoring and definition. Then, as she leaps out a window to escape and loses control, her cleavage, again, is drawn in a more defined light. She hits the ground winded, hair tangled in a tree, and in what may be the most vulnerable and vectored pose in the whole comic before gathering herself (physically and mentally), taking a deep breath, her chest once again drawn as flat as she takes power over the situation and establishes her plan. In the pivotal moment of her plan, as she cuts her hair out of the tree limb we again see vectoring and definition, the combination of fear, anger, and determination coming through in the red tint of the colouring.
Hunting dogs defeated, the next body shot we see has her abs pop through her shirt and her breast drawn more as defined pec muscles than cleavage as Jelly Beans hops back into her kit bag and she claims the space, warding off the hunter who has now shown up. But just as you think we’ll leave this interaction with Aria in her power we get a view of what the scene looks like from over the hunter’s shoulder. Aria is standing awkwardly and off-balance. Her abs have disappeared and breasts are again her defining feature. Something about the swing of her sword is more comical than terrifying.
The chase scene over, Aria then disappears into the subway tunnel that she calls home and falls to pieces for a moment out of view of the hunter against the wall. She’s again rendered flat before breaking into a moment of panic, where the definition and hard lines transfer to her arms and face. We see her feel all the emotions and terror she pushed down during the attack. Aria then rises up, pulls herself together, and goes home to wash off the trials of the day.
These juxtapositions become a metaphor for victimization and the stereotypes around it. In the moments where Aria has lost her power and sense of who she is, we see a more stereotypical victim type, someone who is posed and dressed in a way that “asks for it,” someone vulnerable, someone who is not able to help themselves. In the moments in which Aria has control and the upper hand, we see the strong, empowered female who can take on the patriarchy in all its forms and couldn’t possibly have had anything bad happen to her. In the middle points, we see who Aria truly is, human, a mix of both the power and the weakness depending on the variables in the world that affect us all. Aria is both the victim and the hero in equal measure.
This shift in the way in which Aria is rendered continues throughout the work as power dynamics between the characters are explored. The hunting party explores the tunnels she attempted to warn them off of and attacks Aria in her home during a moment of peak vulnerability when she finds out her handler is, yet again, continuing to leave her in the field with nothing more than a “Keep up the good work.” Shots are fired as Aria is crying on her hands and knees and when she crawls to reach her gun we again see her cleavage outlined. Aria’s positing and placement of the gun on her open crotch when she does fire back is hyper-sexualized. Aria’s face post shootout looking exhausted, sweaty and satisfied while she continues to sit on the floor, legs spread, catching her breath.
The battle destroys Aria’s home and leaves her without Jelly Beans, who it appears has either been shot or ran away in the conflict. After another breakdown and feeling, rightfully, violated, Aria heads out to find and/or avenge Jelly Beans and the destruction of her home. Aria kits up and is fully in her power, rendered as muscular and capable until she is knocked unconscious by the “tears of the sun.” Passed out on the ground, and the most vulnerable she has been yet, we see Aria imagine herself on the beach in a white sundress, hair down, the picture of femininity, her mother calling her from the beach house. The only time we see Aria in a dress or hair down is in this moment of remembering what life was like before and what the world can be like when one is not forced to fight to hold onto one’s power.
This fantasy of the world before the hunters, the war, the world in which Aria now lives is cut short by an image of the hunter who has been victimising her since the start of the novel and his dogs. The memory of the uncomplicated life before and the reality of the way in which the world is thrown against each other in a way that makes Aria’s longing for a simpler time palpable, and yet she is aware of the fantasy of innocence isn’t one she can stay in.
Aria comes to and is again rendered muscularly and in her power, she takes the tracker off the hunter who has been plaguing her and is about to kill him when he is crushed by a robot. Aria puts up the mission accomplished call to her handler and finds Jelly Beans, finally heading home. It’s in this moment where the reader realizes that all the beings Aria has been interacting with on earth are men, whereas the people she belongs to appear to be all women. Aria is saved by women in white who come to protect one of their own.
After Aria’s retrieval and debriefing aboard the ship we find out that the Earth Aria was on is one of many. This one had gone horribly wrong and turned the source that seeds all life, “a grand photon,” into a weapon. Aria, due to the duration of her time on the planet, is asked if it should be spared or terminated. Aria flashbacks in red to the moments of fear, victimization, and vulnerability. Then, in green, to the moments of joy, play, and being in her power. Aria makes the call that only someone who is healing from trauma and the journey it brought them on can. Aria asks “Let Earth27 be. Please.” (pg 87) When her handler asks why Aria states “It’s our home.”
There is power in that statement, in that acceptance of both the pain and pleasure of the past and in the fact that it can still be home even with both. We end the novel with her looking down on Earth27 with Jelly Beans and reminiscing about the past. A sense of peace and safety comes over the scene. The closing thanks page has a midground image, a scene remembered, or maybe on another earth, of Jelly Beans and Aria relaxing, full kit on, and angled down to give the reader some power. The back cover shows Aria and Jelly Beans on, what one assumes, is a new planet as Aria’s hair has grown longer and she’s in the white gear she is given post retrieval on the space station. This image is more vectored and again shows a larger amount of vulnerability, suggesting that the cycle and power struggle continues beyond the pages of this Graphic Novel.
It’s on these thoughts that the reader is left: why let those who make you a victim live? Why do we allow this cycle to continue? How can we stop it? I don’t think the author has any more answers than this reader does. But, these questions are worth considering, especially in the current day and age of “cancel culture” or accountability culture. Is cancellation really the answer, or is the stronger statement to call attention to the wrong but move on in one’s own power? Is there a solution or is this a struggle we have to conquer internally first? Can this cycle even be put to an end?
Sometimes, art suggests an answer. Other times it calls your attention to problems you weren’t even fully sure existed. Apocalyptigirl leans more to the later, showing the reality of the cycle many women and femme folks live through on a daily basis, often struggling to balance their internal realities of who they are with the external expectations and sexism thrust upon them. But, no solutions are truly offered. The reader leaves the work with more questions than we started with, though, maybe feeling seen in their own struggles for the first time. And there is power in that.