Rich Heldenfels

A fictional creature is proving a real-life boon to its creators.

The comic-story series Apama: The Undiscovered Animal has released four well-received stories in digital form via the Comixology website. Now it is nearing the end of a successful Kickstarter campaign that has so far raised more than $12,000 to help finance a hardcover edition to be released in February, including those four tales and a pivotal fifth story.

The original goal was $10,000 to cover the basic printing costs. But the additional money is very good news for Ted Sikora of Akron, who created Apama along with Milo Miller of Cleveland, with artwork by Spanish artist Benito Gallego. The digital comics have not made a profit yet, and the campaign has offered additional goodies to people who help meet “stretch goals” — fundraising levels beyond the basic need. The Apama effort has actually passed four of those stretches, with a fifth in sight before the campaign ends at 11:59 p.m. Friday.

Beyond money, with stories set in Northeast Ohio, Apama adds to the region’s rich comic-book history. In fact, one of the premiums in the campaign is a pinup homage to the first issue of Action Comics, in which Superman — created by Cleveland’s Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster — made his debut. Where the Action cover showed the Man of Steel smashing a car into a large rock, the tribute shows Apama smashing an ice cream truck into another vehicle in Cleveland’s Public Square.

Sikora dropped the rock from the Action image, because “a rock in Public Square makes no sense.”

And the Apama story has a history of its own, going back more than a dozen years, when Sikora and Miller began working on Hero Tomorrow, a dark comedy about an unsuccessful comic-book creator who takes on the identity of his creation. After seven years of work, the movie — shot in Northeast Ohio — made the rounds of film festivals and is now on DVD and Blu-ray.

“When that was done, we thought it would be really cool to do this book that was in his head, this story that he was trying to pitch in the movie,” Sikora said, although you do not need to have seen the movie to appreciate the comics.

“The premise of the book is that, there are so many great characters that are based on creatures of nature — spiders, wolverine, you know. What if there was this other creature that was so powerful in stealth that mankind had never discovered it? So that’s what the undiscovered animal is. And this ice cream truck driver from Cleveland obtains the spirit force of this animal …

“He’s hiking in Metroparks and gets lost, and ends up seeing this sort of shamanic spirit and chases it,” Sikora said. The encounter leads finally to a dream, and a mummified body, and the truck driver, Ilyia Zjarsky, eventually takes on the animal spirit.

“He doesn’t turn into an animal,” Sikora said. “His senses are enhanced, and his strength. But he’s still learning exactly what he can do.”

And the learning is part of the story. Zjarsky “is a very definite kind of alter ego,” Sikora said. “He doesn’t have this amazing resource collection like Bruce Wayne. He’s not rich. He’s not brilliant like Reed Richards or Peter Parker. And he’s not this honed warrior. He’s based on guys I used to change tires with in my father’s shop.” (Edward Sikora Sr. owned Falls Wholesale Tire in Cuyahoga Falls before his death in 2000.)

“I just thought it would be really cool to take that kind of person and put this in that situation,” he said.

Then there’s the Cleveland location. The city and its environs have had a veiled place in comic history, whether through Siegel and Shuster’s creation of Metropolis, or the Marvel movie shoots using the Cleveland area as New York City and Washington, D.C., in films including The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. As should be clear from the nods to Public Square and Metroparks, Apama is explicitly part of this region.

“Setting it in Cleveland has proven to be a wonderful opportunity,” he added. “There is this blank canvas for this kind of a story. We can start from the ground up. … It’s really nice to see a story given birth before you. The heroes are created, the villains created, and there’s not all this back story and baggage. And the citizens aren’t used to this. It’s not like New York or Metropolis or Gotham where this happens on every street corner,” Sikora said with a laugh. “There’s a little bit of the wonder of the citizens. And the architecture of Cleveland has this different feel.”

Indeed, the process is so invigorating for all concerned that there are plans well beyond the first five issues. Sikora said Gallego is currently doing the art for the ninth issue, and the team has enough ideas to keep going for more than 20 stories. In fact, the fifth issue introduces a new villain who is the leader of Helltown, the section of northern Summit County known for eerie doings. And she is “as deep as this hero.”

“One of the benefits of it taking so long to get this [comic] off the ground is that we’ve had time to think about it,” Sikora said. “We would never have put stock into this idea of the undiscovered animal had we not made the movie. [The comic] was intentionally a hard-to-explain idea in the movie, so he wouldn’t get published. But … there’s so much there, I feel we’ve got the foundation for something really unique that we could play off forever.”

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/heldenfels. He is also on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.