I will say that sometimes there is nothing more satisfying than going to a comic con show and getting to meet an indie comic creator in person that is putting out a terrific series that I had previously not heard of. In fact, I’ve met some wonderful people over the years in this way such as K. Lynn Smith, Mikey Wood, and Dirk Manning.
That was also true of Ted Sikora, who I had the pleasure to meet at a Pittsburgh pop culture/toy show two summers ago. As a fellow former independent film maker, I definitely felt some kinship with Ted as he talked about the series that he had developed with fellow Cleveland resident, Milo Miller, about a Hungarian ice cream truck driver named, Ilyia Zjarsky, who discovers an ancient scroll and transforms into a being with ferocious animal like super strength.
That series entitled Apama, The Undiscovered Animal immediately scratched an itch for me thanks to the Bronze age style art and the main character’s resemblance to Casey Jones, one of my favorite parts of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle franchise.
In fact, without even reading a single page of the comic, I immediately purchased not only the first trade worth of stories, but also a poster print of the cover of issue 9 entitled “Ten Cent Beer Night“. I won’t lie that I bought the print because it reminded me immediately of the stories my Dad told me about the night at Cleveland Stadium where fans got so drunk off cheap beer that they started a riot in the ninth inning forcing the Indians to forfeit the game. To him, only Disco Demolition Night at his beloved White Sox home of Comiskey Park was a better baseball story (mainly because they blew up chunks of the field).
Regardless, you know me and my love of all things retro so I definitely thought it was an interesting piece to liven up the walls of the Ghosts of the Stratosphere recording office.
However, the trade has sat in my read pile since, being one of those books I’ve picked up several times saying “We’re going to do this on the next show” or “I really should do an article on this next”. However, something else always came up and through no fault of its own this book got slowly shuffled deeper into the stack.
BUT NO MORE! It’s time to finally do a review of this local Indie comic darling with its absolutely amazing art by Benito Gallego. So without further ado, let’s take a deeper look into volume 1 of Apama, the Undiscovered Animal!
10 Cent Synopsis:
The series again deals with a Hungarian ice cream truck driver named, Ilyia Zjarsky, who in hopes of escaping from his dead end job and life of quiet despair one day discovers an ancient scroll and strange suit of animal hide in a cave in the woods outside Cleveland.
Upon perfecting this strange contorted yoga pose he finds outlined on the scroll, he has strange mysterious visions of an previously unheard of ancient animal called the Apama, whose fierce spirit and immense strength now resides within his body. Ilyia can then afterwards talk to animals, has increased speed and physicality, and an overwhelming urge to battle which Ilyia decides to use to fight crime vigilante style.
Over the course of the next several issues, Apama’s legend grows in and around the city of Cleveland as he encounters even more bizarre threats including a psychotic groundskeeper, an insatiable interstellar jellyfish, and a tattooed cult leading witch!
Well, I gotta say this book definitely scratched an itch of mine. In some interviews I’ve read with series writers Ted Sikora and Milo Miller, they often cite comic books from the bronze age at Marvel as one of their bigger influences on this particular series. Those 70s style stories written by the likes of Doug Moench, Jim Starlin, and of course the late great Steve Gerber. And I really feel in particular that the Steve Gerber influence looms large over the pages of Apama.
The series weaves traditional super heroics that you might see in any other comic with additional layers of both social commentary and a celebration of the strange and unique, just like you might read in the pages of Man-Thing, Omega the Unknown, or Howard the Duck.
Apama is definitely not a traditional super hero. He drives an ice cream truck by day, he talks with rats, and he rips bags of cocaine open Lebron James style on a crowd amassed to watch him take down a drug dealer. There is such an innate awkwardness about him in both is real life persona and his masked self, that it makes it interesting from a story perspective because you really don’t know if he’s going to succeed in defeating the “bad guys” at all. It feels as if you are reading about a real person, a fella who found an old dirty costume in a cave, put it on, and decided “well it makes sense that now I beat up muggers”. It’s true that real people wouldn’t follow that exact train of thought most times, but they might if they were unhinged to begin with.
And that’s the second big thing that reminds me so much of Gerber’s work in this. In addition to being awkward, Apama is also screwier than an outhouse rat at times. And I don’t mean that from a Deadpool perspective where he’s breaking the fourth wall or landing zany one-liners as he beats up a host of thugs. I mean he seems mentally ill.
Like despite the fact that the book definitely alludes to the fact that he has to have some extraordinary powers with his ability to fall 9 stories and land on his feet or talk with bears, as a reader, you aren’t exactly sure. He could just be a delusional loon running around Cleveland in dirty leather pajamas, and any successes he has could just be the result of forces beyond his control, like dumb luck for example.
It’s that dichotomy from a meta-fictional perspective of reading a super hero story through the lens of almost being satirical in nature which again was a hallmark of Steve Gerber’s writing.
In his books, Steve never flat out said to the reader: “Look I’m challenging your preconceived notions of super hero comics by practically making fun of these tropes”.
To do so, I feel, in Steve’s mind, would be just doing a parody or something for some cheap laughs. And that’s wasn’t his intent. He was trying to raise the intellectual level of the discourse about the super hero story genre to something much higher, and through humor challenge us to think about them differently.
I can see the same intent here with Apama. This isn’t a book making fun of other super hero comics through cheap puns and sight gags. It’s a book that celebrates the super hero genre while at the same time having fun with it and at times pointing out how silly some of the conventions actually are, without expressly saying it. That my friends, is an extremely hard line to walk, and I give complete credit to the creative team here because they do it quite well.
The perfect example of this is issue #2 highlighting an early battle between Apama and the first of his budding rogues gallery, Lawnmower Man.
The sad sack story about a down on his luck landscaper that crashes this riding lawnmower into a secret underground research facility while drunk and becomes queen bee as it were of a swarm of invisible super bugs. From the exposition about how his wife left him and took his faithful dog, to his outrageous ability to fire lawn mower blades like supersonic projectiles, to the climatic “showdown” with Apama in the backyard of a suburban neighborhood which seems more like a drunken altercation than a superhero battle, everything is presented as deadly serious but at the same time ridiculously absurd.
I mean the battle ends when the Lawnmower Man’s Ex gives him back his dog, despite the fact that he just killed some innocent people in cold blood just a few pages before. It’s a mix of contrasts between life/death stakes and almost ironic situational comedy. That’s very difficult to pull off in my opinion, but it’s done very well here.
Oh and did I mention the establishment of a Rogues Gallery? Yeah, we’ll get to that in my closing thoughts…
For those of you looking to pick up the trade paperback of the first 5 issues of Apama, let me say that definitely one of my favorite parts of that book is the additional artist renderings of the character done by a slew of very talented folks.
In particular I was a huge fan of the entries to the “cover gallery” by the likes of terrific comic book artists Ron Frenz, Fred Hembeck, and Flaming Carrot comics creator, Bob Burden.
In fact, as an additional bonus Easter Egg for all of you Flaming Carrot fans out there, in the first issue, Apama wrecks the filming of a Flaming Carrot comic book movie adaptation, which trust me would be box office gold if it was ever really done.
Hollywood! You are missing out!
Okay, although I talked a lot about my overall thoughts of the series above, it’s time to get into the nitty gritty of the actual first trade. I will say I like the fact that they again went old school taking a page out of the Amazing Spider-man playbook in that you have to establish a Rogues Gallery for your hero and you have to establish them quick. As in Boom! Here’s one! Next Issue! Here’s Another one! Pow! Here’s a Third!
I can’t stress how important that is because it helps fill in the hero’s world so dramatically and fuels future stories. You can’t just sit on your hands and spend the first 4 issues building up one villain when you are trying to get something off the ground. It never works, mainly because once that villain is defeated regardless of how cool he/she was at the time, you don’t have anywhere else to go narratively. But if you establish an interesting gallery, even if there are one or two clunkers in there, you have so many directions in which you can go from there.
Case in point, although I enjoyed the Lawnmower man from a true Steve Gerber-esque writing perspective, he wasn’t that great of a villain in his first outing. In fact, the series really doesn’t pick up until Apama faces his first “dragon in the cave” in the sincerely menacing “Hunger” alien. This is immediately followed by the super interesting villainess, Psycho-Delic, and you can really see the series start to snowball from there.
However, at the same time, because the creative team had the wherewithal to throw out as many bad guys out of the gates as it could, it’s okay that the Lawnmower man didn’t have that great of first outing. He still was established as a part of the universe and perhaps his second appearance will build on that.
Another thing I want to point out as critical to the success of this book in my mind is the art by Benito Gallego. Let me be frank in saying, I have no doubt that I would not have liked this book as much I did if it had not been for Benito’s art. Everyone here at GotS knows what a huge fan of John Buscema I am, and sincerely I can say with Benito’s work on this book, it was like the second coming of John. And that was extremely important to a book that was so rooted in stirring up the feelings of the comics of my youth.
Benito Gallego, you sir, are an absolute gem. Continue to carry on that tradition of John Buscema-esque work, and I know at least you’ll have one fan in this cowboy. I would sincerely buy a hundred books of yours with that terrific throwback graphic style.
In closing, the first trade of Apama reminded me so much of the comics I grew up with in the 70s and 80s, and for that I give it high marks on all counts. Not just simply because of a nostalgia factor, but because I feel like it takes a lot of skill to recreate the same feeling that I got when I would read old bronze age Marvel. Especially in regards to telling pretty self contained 1 to 2 issue stories which have to introduce new villains, drive sub plots forward, flesh out the hero and a supporting cast, and finish in a satisfying enough manner that you could literally not read another issue and still have enjoyed yourself for the time you spent with that comic.
I’ve said it on our show. In a world of multi issue story arcs that go on for 25 issues without any sort of resolution, it’s a lost art to tell one issue stories and tell them well enough that you bring the audience back for the next.
Apama may be an undiscovered animal, but I can say the creative team behind him definitely discovered how to do that well. And I again applaud them for it.