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Apol Sta. Maria X Rob Cham

by Owel Alvero
31 Jul 2017 | 2:10 PM

"We keep drawing 'til it's over," says Rob Cham. The chatty yin to Apol Sta. Maria's soft-spoken yang, Cham often assumes the role of de facto explainer in the Secrets of the Universe camp. An exquisite corpse-based comic where the two illustrators and their friends trade panels en route to the great reveal, Secrets of the Universe finds Cham and Sta. Maria on the verge of something big, a collaborative peak atop a pair of already exceptional bodies of work.

"There's no big story behind it, people make it up as they go along," Cham downplays. No stranger to ad-libbed creativity, Apol Sta. Maria has been working on the premise of little-to-no-editing, and his recent output (Komik X, released October 2012, and Isang Pahina, which he published last December) has seen him making single page riffs about the most random things. Cham's work is free flowing compared to Sta. Maria's rigid outbursts, employing rule-based constraints such as "this comic has to be done in 24 hours", and the aforementioned exquisite corpse methodology of generating sequenced images on a page. The dynamic between our two heroes is what makes their collaboration so special – Sta. Maria's drunken poet humor is given warmth by Cham's naiveté; Cham's feels are set in the theater of the absurd by Sta. Maria's ululation. This dynamic, of course, is flattened on the page, their inked stories achieving a kind of coherence that might lead one to ask who drew what panel. Analogy seemed like a good way to better understand the magic.

When asked to provide a pop culture duo that best represented their partnership, Sta. Maria supposed that he and Cham were like Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in the golden years of their short-lived Laker dynasty. Sta. Maria was O'Neal, of course, because of seniority. Slowly becoming a go-to answer for Sta. Maria, he considers his age to be the "secret to his craft," saying that he's wanted to make the comics that he's made since he was a child; that his creative triumphs have "come with age."

Cham's analogy might prove more prescient: "Doraemon and Nobita. With Apol as Doraemon." The classic tale of a sentient robotic feline from the future traveling back in time to aid a pre-teen boy, the parallel is funnily accurate, Sta. Maria playing the role of enabler to Cham's adventurous whims.

"We came up with the concept that somehow we should sneak the secrets of the universe into each story, to try and come up with the answer to everything. But since it's exquisite corpse, we try to box each other into a corner until the other person has to explain what the Secret of the Universe is", Ultimately, this is Cham giving us the key to understanding the comic. Panels that previously seemed to be out of place are now revealed to be strategic ways of stalling, the illustrator biding time until the comic has to end. It is an entertaining battle of chess and checkers on the printed page, Cham and Sta. Maria facing each other in a battle of wit and one-upsmanship. But wait. There's more.

We have, thus far, been ignoring a considerable part of the premise of Apol Sta. Maria and Rob Cham's Secrets of the Universe comic. It is indeed a collaboration between the two comic aces, but further developments in this story necessitate the mention of their growing circle of friends – further expanding the circle of collaboration, increasing the wrinkles in the already-wrinkly exquisite corpse.

"The plan was, every Sunday, Rob would come over, and he or I would invite a friend. If only Rob could go, then it'll just be the two of us working on it. Ideally, we'd finish one issue. For the second issue, there were a lot of people at my place and it was kind of chaotic, which is why the story was also chaotic. I was also able to corner Manix to do a panel for that comic but he had to leave so we just left his spaces blank", Sta. Maria explained.

The first run of Secrets of the Universe sold out at Art in the Park 2013. It was an anthology of three issues, the first one by Sta. Maria and Cham, the second featuring Josel Nicolas and Manix Abrera, and the third featuring Celina De Guzman. "We plan on making a thicker anthology every quarter. By June we should have three new stories, making it six issues", said Sta. Maria.

When asked who they plan to collaborate with next, our two heroes had a lively conversation that went like this:

Rob: "It would be fun if we could convince Gerry Alanguilan Or Leinil Yu."

Apol: (laughs) "Yes. And then maybe Mike Allred."

Rob: (also laughing) "Yeah!"

Apol: "Pen Ward."

Rob: "Genndy Tartakovsky."

Apol: "Matt Groening. Wayne White. That's all."

Rob: "Jeffrey Brown. Adrian Tomine. All my dream collaborators." (laughing)

Apol: "Frank Quitely, ahh."

Rob: "Daniel Clowes! But the list of realistic, just friends collaborators, are secret for now."

Apol: "Yes, there are also a lot of real people on the secret list."

Rob: "Secrets...of the Universe."