Andrew MacLean On Head Lopper, Apocalyptigirl & Finding A Story In A Sketch

by Hannah Means Shannon

There are few creators who so obviously embody an independent spirit in their art style and subject matter as Andrew MacLean. And it’s richly rewarding for fans to watch creators who follow such a personal path in storytelling to not only meet with success, but to share their vision so widely that the worlds they create become well known.

MacLean’s most well known and long-running project is Head Lopper, a quarterly, over-stuffed comic that leads us into strange countries following a sword and sorcery-style hero. The mysterious beings and endearing entities he encounters, as well as the malevolent threats he inevitably becomes in locked in combat with, all capture the imagination. Meanwhile, the comic conveys so much aesthetic beauty that the it sets the bar high on creator-owned work.

MacLean has also created a stand-alone graphic novel published by Dark Horse, Apocalyptigirl: An Aria for the End Times, which explores different avenues in characterization, and enabled MacLean’s desire to create a “love letter” to science fiction in the same way that Head Lopper functions as his love letter to fantasy. It’s a unique work, at times remarkable and enchanting, but most enduringly, emotionally enaging, as we follow Aria in her struggle to fulfill her mission to find an ancient relic during the post-apocalypse, accompanied only by her cat, Jelly Beans.

I had the opportunity to have a lovely discussion with MacLean at New York Comic Con 2017 courtesy of Dark Horse Comics, and we talked about how much we both love Small Press Expo, creative trends in Head Lopper, and his complex character Aria in Apocalyptigirl, among other things:

Talking about New York Comic Con, Andrew MacLean and myself both felt that there was a tremendous energy surrounding comics this year at the show, what MacLean described as possibly being “on the cusp of something new”, despite reports that sales had been down for single issue comics over the summer.

He commented on the trend in society to binge-watch as something that has direct parallels to comics with “trade waiting”, but said that wasn’t something that bothered him, since he does so himself and “everyone does” to some extent. When fans talk to him and say they are waiting for a trade of his work, he’s not at all offended.

I said that was probably commentary on the quality of his artwork that people wanted a “big chunk” of it to sit down with in a very satisfying way. He hoped so, but wasn’t so sure.

I brought up the quarterly format that he uses for Head Lopper at Image Comics, a format that’s 40 pages in length, prestige format, and paperbound. He said they are basically as big as he can manage to find time to make them. 45 pages is his favorite length, but sometimes he has to cut back a little. It’s a huge amount of work to produce them.

I said I had made the mistake of mentioning the quarterly format of Head Lopper to a friend who makes comics and that my friend’s eyes glazed over as he assured me “I can’t do that. It’s too many pages”. MacLean laughed. He said that it’s less than doing a monthly comic but each issue is a big chunk and a lot of work.

I said the experience of reading one is unique, and reminds me a little of the experience of comics I come across at Small Press Expo. I asked MacLean if he had ever attended that show. He very enthusiastically said that he does attend SPX. It’s his “favorite show”, he assured me. He comes from that background professionally, but he grew up in a small town without a comic shop, so he didn’t really know about indie or alternative comics until he started making them. The first time he went to SPX, he was “tabling”, he said. His mind was blown by the experience of the show.

MacLean said he does the majority of his purchasing, in big piles, at SPX, and TCAF just because he knows, even without a goal in mind, that he will find “way more things to read” than he can “carry home”.

I said that going to SPX feels like a “journey to an exotic planet where every single thing there is interesting and strange”. He agreed that it’s all fascinating. “You don’t know that you need it until you see it”, he laughed.

The textures, materials, and methods you come across at shows like SPX are full of variety, I said, and MacLean commented that these “handmade” comics have a “tactile experience” that’s “personal”.

Talking about Apocalyptigirl, MacLean explained its origin to me. He said that it was conceived as a single story, an original graphic novel, with a beginning and an end. It was planned for Dark Horse, with a specific idea of who the character would be and where she would go. Working with his editor Jim Gibbons, Gibbons suggested he try a 6 by 9 format, and asked what kind of story he’d like to do within that size frame. MacLean was already working on Head Lopper at the time, but knew he could do something shorter and in that format also, since it was the early days of Head Lopper.

MacLean pictured Apocalyptigirl having a more “manga vibe” to it, due to the size also, and focused on that. He was working on two books at the same time, and his “love for genre” carried him through. He feels like many creators avoid genre books because they feel like “everything’s been done”, but that’s not how he feels. MacLean sees genre as a way of creating “love letters”. Head Lopper is his “love letter to fantasy, heavy metal, and 80’s movies” and Apocalyptigirl was his “love letter to science fiction”.

His ideas often start with a drawing that’s just for “fun” or a single piece of art and even if the item is “strictly visual”, he begins to ask himself why he has drawn it that way, and it develops.

I asked him if he meant that he “analyzes” himself, asking “Why was that my weird, subconscious decision to draw this in this way?” He said that’s the case. He starts to wonder “Who is this character. Why are they doing that?” and he starts to “fill in the gaps while drawing”. If it “sticks” with him, he keeps it in mind for future reference. If the answers to his own questions interest him, the idea goes into the “library of if I have time I’ll do this story”.

“You’re mind palace?” I asked, “In the library of your mind palace?” He laughed and said, “Yes”. He “tucks it away” and if he looks back on it and doesn’t feel it’s terrible, he might do it.

I asked MacLean if he ever feels like he’s telling himself the story as he creates it.

He said, “Basically, yes”. He knows where a story starts, but the rest leads on asking who characters are and where they are going. Starting with Aria on Apocalyptigirl, he had an initial drawing, and looking at her, she had kind of an “Amy Winehouse” look and attitude, MacLean said, leaning on a motorcycle with a futuristic style. There were several cats around. He asked himself what kind of world that suggested.

But later, as he started to “figure out” aspects of her nature and her relationships, he became aware that facing the end of the world, her greatest “obstacle” would be her “solitude”, so he pictured her as a “19 year old crazy cat lady” instead.

But he then thought it would be a “sweeter relationship” if there was just one cat, and a particular relationship. And that development made him realize she might be less of a “spiked bat swinging” type of person, and have a softer side. He then came to realize it’s a back and forth for her between the sides of her personality, “who she wants to be” versus the demands of her situation. She’s actually a “sweetheart” but she’s on a mission. She has to “survive the chaos of the world she’s in”.

I commented that she’s not given the freedom to choose her personality as she might otherwise because of the pressures of her environment and situation.

MacLean said “Yes, she’s not really crazy about what she’s forced to do”.

“In another world, she might be quite different?” I asked.

He said he thinks that she “bit off more than she could chew with her mission”. She didn’t think it would take so long or be so difficult. She thought it would be an “adventure” rather than “pure survival”.

I said, “In a weird way, that’s relatable. Because no one is only one thing in their personality. We have these dialogs with ourselves about what we want to be. But the situations in our lives are constantly pushing us around.”

“We’re not always proud of our own actions”, MacLean added. He agreed we “surprise ourselves” and it makes us wonder about ourselves.

MacLean said that Aria is interesting, since she’s not someone who looks back on her mistakes and is troubled by them, but is more someone who “can see her hand is being forced, little by little” and isn’t happy about that.

I asked MacLean what his work life is like right now, and he said that Head Lopper takes up most of his time. Originally, he was “naïve”, he said, and thought he could work on more than one thing at once. I commented that MacLean occasionally does covers, too. He enjoys that, he explained, since “You get to play with other peoples’ toys for a minute” instead. He does them as much as time allows and if they are offered, he said.

I asked him if he still finds the world of Head Lopper to be “expanding” for him, revealing new things to talk about and new things to draw.

He said that is still true, and in a similar way as described above, he comes up with ideas that get put on the shelf. He’s a little bit careful with Head Lopper not to “fill it up” too much, since fantasy is often “filled with tiny little details and artefacts” and sometimes that information is very “up front”. Instead he “hopes” that he grows as a person and as an artist, so he intentionally doesn’t “fill in all the gaps” in Head Lopper to leave room for himself later.

He has ideas, but he lets them remain “as ghosts”, he said. He wants to leave room for “fresh ideas” and to be “excited” as he comes upon room in his work to expand. He tries to keep pushing things toward his “favorite ideas”, and keep in mind that if it goes on the page, it changes the story.

Sometimes the “art informs the story”, with a character making you wonder if you should explore what was otherwise a “throwaway thing”. He mentioned a “map maker” character in the first Head Lopper who he enjoyed drawing, and later in the story’s second part, wondering about that character led to questions of a whole other group of people and culture.

The “fresh ideas” are exciting and important to him, MacLean said, as a comic creator. The idea that “something that you love could get mundane” from “sitting alone working” over long periods of time is scary to him. He doesn’t really fully “write” things until he’s drawing them. He finds if he plans out “too far” in advance, then an idea gets “stagnant” and he loses confidence in it.

If MacLean comes up with an idea where a “surprise” happens, he said you feel excited because you just “surprised yourself”, but as soon as that wears off, you “second guess” whether it’s interesting or not. If you go over it too much in your mind, it gets “fixed in stone”.

I commented that I’ve heard other creators comment on this process. Of course, famously, Mike Mignola’s first drawing of Hellboy was just a sketch that made him wonder what kind of story would surround such a character. It was like a “joke” originally, MacLean agreed, and he definitely follows a similar process of questioning art to find story.