Zeb Larson reviews Apama: The Undiscovered Animal…
Everyone’s heard stories about a hero based on a spider, a bat, a wolverine, but an apama? Hungarian ice cream truck driver, Iliya Zjarsky, goes hiking one day and discovers the animal spirit of the most powerful creature mankind has never known. Soon he unlocks the powers of the ‘Apama’ and hits the streets of Cleveland in an offbeat series unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
A while back, I was sitting in a bar with a friend talking comic books. We were bemoaning the overrepresentation of New York in the superhero genre (and to a lesser extent, the spiritual influence of Chicago and Los Angeles). The mass media of the Big Apple has gone a long way in obliterating regional color from comic books: dialects, architecture, and even the unique socio-political problems that certain places face. Why wasn’t there a superhero book set in the Rust Belt? Couldn’t you tell a more interesting superhero story in a city that was truly facing decay and blight as opposed to the unbearable proliferation of overpriced coffee?
A few weeks ago, I was perusing the Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo (SPACE) in Columbus, looking for new stuff to pick up. One of the tables I walked by was selling a book called Apama: The Undiscovered Animal. Written by Ted Sikora and Milo Miller, with illustrations by Benito Gallego, it’s about a superhero whose powers are derived from an animal nobody has ever heard of before: the Apama. The comic is actually based off of a short film about a guy trying to create a new animal-themed superhero, but having nothing new to draw on, he creates the Apama (and becomes a bit unhinged in the process). Basically, this is the comic he might have created.
The comic is set in Cleveland in the present-day (though the book has a distinctly retro feel to it; maybe timeless would be more accurate) and follows Iliya Zjarsky, a Hungarian-American ice cream truck driver. Iliya finds a scroll about the Apama, a deadly beast that has disappeared from history, and after some practice he is bestowed with the strength and speed of the creature. Yet Iliya is facing a host of challenges, ranging from the doldrums of ice cream retail or his would-be girlfriend Vica to the Lawnmower Man, a creature from the moon, and the deadly, psychedelic Regina.
Based on the initial description of the series, I honestly assumed that Apama would be a meta-exercise in retro comic book writing with a kind of Cleveland flavor. I was wrong; it’s much, much more than that. To be sure, there is a wonderfully retro flavor to the book. Gallego’s artwork evokes the ‘60s and ‘70s beautifully, and Sikora and Miller do an excellent job in evoking the narrative voice employed by Stan Lee. They also do a clever job in not anchoring the series too firmly in the present. Apart from a reference to Obama, a few digs at organic food, and the bemoaning of the Browns’ fifty years since a championship, very little anchors this book in the present. The psychedelia, particularly in issue #5, brings it right back to the ‘60s. Yet they never focus on any time period to such an extent that it dates the book.
But the book goes beyond an empty imitation of Jack Kirby’s style and tries to recapture some of what made those older comics books so unique: the bizarreness. You’ll laugh at Lawnmower Man, but Stan Lee had plenty of downright pathetic and mediocre supervillains; give me somebody whose abilities are surreal and bizarre any day. The book can veer between the humorous and silly (Iliya’s day-to-day life), the superheroic, the bizarre and psychedelic, and the sinister. It can be joking in one moment and incredibly violent in the next, and it works. It is wildly imaginative.
There’s also a delightful messiness to Iliya’s heroism, because he doesn’t have the foggiest idea what he’s really doing. It grounds the story, which otherwise is so trippy that you could lose the human element. Just because Apama had super-strength doesn’t mean he knows how to throw a punch well. The Lawnmower Man might be able to spin at a high velocity, but he fails to account for what happens when he hits something (Newton’s Third Law is a killer that way). People should not be immediately good at being superheroes, and that’s the case here. As it turns out, the world is a pretty weird place, and Iliya does not just immediately move past the topsy-turvy effect that this has on his world view.
Cleveland is also a real character in this book, though maybe not the way you would expect. It’s easy to treat the city as a punching bag if you’re an outsider (like me), but as somebody who’s now spent some time in Ohio I can also appreciate that Cleveland is not a bad place. It would be easy to write a book focusing on the murders and industrial decay, but Cleveland also has some rich traditions that we obliterate if we focus solely on what’s gone wrong with the city. As the authors remind the reader, the city has a rich comic history. Joe Siegel and Jerry Shuster spent time there, Harvey Pekar spent his life there, and in the present, both Brian Michael Bendis and Brian Vaughan grew up in the city.
Even beyond its comic history though, Cleveland feels like a real place here. There’s that tension between the city’s old-timers and the hipsters who’ve come looking for cheap rent and good pierogis. One of the fights takes place in the city’s famous West Side Market. Iliya’s heritage is a kind of tribute to Cleveland and its large Eastern European population. The book doesn’t focus on Cleveland’s misfortunes in recent years, but I sort of appreciate that. While I like tackling dark socio-economic themes, Cleveland has been hit with a lot of that in recent years, and this book is a good reminder that Cleveland has a lot still going for it.
I was happy to read that the next volume, issues #6 through #11, is going forward, though I don’t believe it’s hit the shelves yet. We need more books like this that are willing to be funny, weird, and violent all at once, on top of being local stories.