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'Apsara Engine' Doesn't Break The Graphic Novel Rules — It Ignores Them

There's something a bit uncanny about Apsara Engine, the new comics collection by Bishakh Som. The world of comics is all about genre — superhero, sci-fi, fantasy, horror — and most of the time it's pretty easy to match any book to its proper slot. Even highbrow graphic novels tend to categorize themselves through the style of art they employ and the types of stories they tell. Not this book, though. Its images and concepts seem to come from a place all their own. Som's imagination is science-fictiony, without being particularly technological, mythic without being particularly traditional, and humanistic without cherishing any particular assumptions about where we, as a species, are headed.

You might classify these comics as "literary," but Som's approach to storytelling is as uncanny as her style and themes. Even the book's structure keeps the reader off-balance. Som intersperses tales of future civilizations and half-human hybrid beasts with vignettes of run-of-the-mill contemporary life, so the reader never knows if something odd is about to happen.

You might classify these comics as "literary," but Som's approach to storytelling is as uncanny as her style and themes.

Intensifying the suspense, Som's people often do and say things that are a bit off-kilter. In "Meena & Aparna," a get-together between two friends is weirdly charged with unspoken tension — tension that remains unexplained even after it erupts. In "I Can See It In You," a woman meets her boyfriend's ex, a mysterious figure who radiates occult strangeness. Or maybe the other woman is just a stalker with a strong personality; it's hard to say.

The cryptic, virtuosic "Swandive" explores trans identity, a theme Som — who is trans herself — has addressed before. But even when Som's not talking specifically about trans issues, Apsara Engine reflects what could be called a trans aesthetic. Evading standard categories and unsettling familiar narrative patterns, the book is a testament to how trans experiences can teach us entirely new ways of imagining our humanity.

Som's artistic style breaks boundaries, too. She'll employ traditional comic-book techniques for page layouts and character designs, then toss them aside with the turn of a page. A character who's drawn iconically, with just a few efficient lines defining her features, will become lushly realistic at a pivotal moment. A story drawn in the usual square panels will suddenly burst forth into a series of flowing, uncontained two-page spreads.

Such moments of explosive transition provide the book's heartbeat. It's a mesmerizing arrythmia. The deceptiveness of what we think of as "ordinary life" is a running motif, one Som explores through unexpected juxtapositions. In "Come Back to Me," a pretty young woman engages in an utterly mundane inner monologue while walking on the beach. Her reminiscences about the time she cheated on her boyfriend, which appear above and below the drawings, continue to unspool implacably even as she's pulled into the ocean by a mermaid.

In "Apsara Engine," we see different views of a lavishly detailed, seductively futuristic world: a gleaming apartment building, an interior warren of curved walls, a modernist cocktail lounge. But we also see the residents' thoughts, and they range from pedestrian to alarming. Even as one character composes a recipe ("Rice — 1/3 cup, Milk — 3 cups, Cardamom pods ...") another is calling friends in search of her daughter ("'Don't worry'? Don't tell me 'Don't worry'! I know where she is! Does she want to be part of a MASSACRE?")

Som isn't always successful in her attempts to find new ways to tell stories, but she's always intriguing.

Even as these snippets of story tug the reader back and forth, there's yet another emotional axis that's expressed purely visually. Throughout Apsara Engine, Som — who has an M.A. in architecture and worked in the field for many years — alternates between geometrical designs and free, curvy linework. The latter is sometimes used to depict figures from Hindu mythology, such as the apsaras (celestial nymphs) of the title. The apsaras appear on the cover, dancing on top of an ornate, rigid tracery.

But while Apsara Engine is marked by such dualities — fluidity vs. geometry, India vs. the West, nymph vs. engine — it's most remarkable when it leaves duality, and other well-worn literary tropes, behind. Som isn't always successful in her attempts to find new ways to tell stories, but she's always intriguing. Best of all, she's uncanny.

Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times. She tweets at @EtelkaL.

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