The Artist’s Artist: Jim Aparo

When you’re a little kid, standing at the comic-book spinner rack with a dollar in your hand to choose a couple of comics, you’ve gotta get the most for your buck. This was a situation Li’l Scott was very familiar with down at the Quik Stop back in the day. Sometimes, the decision was easy, though – for example, whenever there was a copy of THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD on the rack. It wasn’t just that it was a Batman team-up book, featuring the Caped Crusader teaming up with a different superhero in every issue (although that was certainly a big part of the appeal). Even back then, when I had little to no cognizance of the role of writers and artists in comic books, I just knew that when Batman was in THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD, he just felt creepier, cooler and more real than when I would read his stories in BATMAN or DETECTIVE.

About the same time, (maybe at the age of 8 or 9) I can remember getting a big poster book of DC Superheroes, full of different posters of the various DC characters. The two I chose to go up on the wall? Aquaman and a shot of Batman’s Rogues Gallery.

What I didn’t realize until years later was that both posters were the work of the same man who had been responsible for the Batman stories I loved so much in THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD: artist Jim Aparo.

Jim Aparo drew comics for almost four decades, until his passing in 2005. I thought we’d stop this week and take an all-too-brief look at some of the man’s work from an amazingly prodigious and full career in comics.

James N. Aparo was born in 1932, and was primarily a self-taught artist, with only a semester of art school to his credit. Aparo began his artistic career working in advertising at a Connecticut ad agency, and a lifelong love of comics inspired him to try his hand at getting comics work, starting with the publisher Charlton, a smaller publishing house that was close to Aparo’s Connecticut home. Finding a steady flow of work from Charlton’s then-editor Dick Giordano, Aparo soon quit his job as the ad agency and devoted himself to comics full-time. At Charlton, Aparo worked on books like the teen strip BIKINI LUV, the “Nightshade” backup feature in CAPTAIN ATOM and Charlton’s version of Lee Falk’s THE PHANTOM.

When Giordano moved uptown to DC Comics, he took Aparo with him, and soon Aparo was working on AQUAMAN and THE PHANTOM STRANGER.

Aparo’s work on THE PHANTOM STRANGER prompted editor Murray Boltinoff to use him on a Batman/Phantom Stranger team-up for THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD #98, and it was such a good fit that Aparo stayed on the title for much of the series’ remaining 102 bimonthly issues. Let’s take a look at a few of my favorite moments from Aparo’s amazing 12-year stint on THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD.

One of the more frequent guest-stars in B&B; was Green Arrow, and probably my favorite GA appearance comes in THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD #129, by Aparo and longtime B&B; writer Bob Haney: “The Claws of the Emperor Eagle!”

Let’s start off by examining this gorgeous splash page:

Unlike most other comic-book artists, Aparo was a triple-threat, in that he served as not only the penciller, but also the inker and letterer as well. This provided him with an unprecedented level of control over page layout and design, as he was able to decide precisely where the captions and word balloons would go (in fact, according to an interview, he would do the lettering first, and rarely had to go back and adjust). Aparo’s motive here was not merely artistic, however, although that undoubtedly appealed to him; by tripling his workload, Aparo was tripling his paycheck as well. As Mark Evanier once remarked in his weblog, Aparo’s work habits were greatly appealing to his DC editors, as he could complete a finished page of pencils, inks and letters in a day, like clockwork, and if you gave him a script, you knew that in 22 workdays, you’d be getting back a finished book ready for the printer. It’s very telling that in his entire career in comics, Jim Aparo never worked anywhere but DC once they’d discovered what a treasure they’d found. (Which is also a bit sad, as I’d have loved to have seen Aparo versions of Marvel’s characters at least once.)

I’ve often thought that Aparo’s obviously first-rate work as an artist overshadowed his marvelous work as a letterer. Subtleties like giving the words emphasized in bold a slight italic tilt, or the way he would incorporate sound effects into the panel, were uniquely Aparo lettering devices found nowhere else, and they were tremendously effective.

In the aforementioned B&B #129, Batman and Green Arrow face off against the Joker, Two-Face and an eastern European dictator for possession of an ancient relic rumored to bring bad luck to its owners. Aparo’s Joker was among the creepiest ever drawn, with a head and jawline so exaggerated as to appear almost inhuman (a tendency we’ll see Aparo continue to exaggerate in his later Batman work).

As for Batman, Aparo seemed to take inspiration from Neal Adams’ redesign of the Dark Knight in the early 1970s, then continued to develop his own style. Trademarks of an Aparo Batman included the longer, almost blade-like pointed ears on the cowl, a smooth, unbroken transition between the mask and the cloaked neck and shoulders, a smaller, oval-shaped bat-insignia, the furrowed brow appearing through the cowl, the squarest of square chins, and narrower, slightly curved bat-scallops on the gloves.

Probably the strangest B&B; issue Aparo ever did was THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD #124, “Small War of the Super Rifles,” in which Batman and an older Sgt. Rock try to recover a shipment of high-tech assault rifles from the hands of a terrorist group calling themselves “The Thousand.”

However, in order to stop Batman and Rock, The Thousand decides to kidnap Jim Aparo, who’s drawing the story, and make him draw Batman and Rock getting killed. Whaat? It’s like a bizarre mixture of Chuck Jones’ Duck Amuck and Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of a Story,” and truth be told, as a narrative, it really doesn’t work that well, as precisely how, metaphysically, the terrorists appear in both Batman’s world and Aparo’s, or how Aparo’s pencil was affecting Batman, for that matter, is never explained by writer Bob Haney. In fact, years later, Aparo confessed that he found the story “corny,” but his disdain doesn’t show at all in the finished work, and it’s a kick to see Aparo save Batman’s life by breaking his pencil…

I could bore you for pages with more great BRAVE AND THE BOLD moments, so here’s just a few, like B&B #177, which featured a truly unique deathtrap in Batman being hanged by the Elongated Man’s neck by a villain appropriately named “The Hangman”…

Aparo’s favorite B&B story, a Batman/Creeper teamup from B&B #178, in which Batman and the Creeper face off against the menace of… the Origami Man…

Sentimental sucker that I am, I’ve still got a soft spot for B&B #184, “The Batman’s Last Christmas!”, a Batman/Huntress team-up in which the Huntress makes the journey from Earth-2 to Earth-1 to spend the holidays with her “Uncle” Bruce (the Huntress’ father being the decades-older Batman of Earth-2, who had only recently died).

During the visit, Batman discovers that his father had secretly been a gangster, and resolves to give up being his career as the Caped Crusader. The story is a fairly typical whodunit, as Batman and the Huntress eventually discover the real culprit, but the emotional subtext is both charming and a touch disturbing. I always really liked the surrogate father/daughter relationship between the Earth-1 Bruce Wayne and his “niece” Selina, not only because it was usually pretty well characterized, but also because it was a refreshing change to see Bruce Wayne relate on an emotional level with anyone. On the other hand, it was always a little odd to see the Huntress relate emotionally on a familial level with someone who looked to be roughly the same age. Aparo’s illustrations show the two being rather physically affectionate, and it’s a little weird, almost incestuous. Not to mention the psychological ramifications of mourning your father by going to hang out with his younger self.

Regardless, Aparo’s art is excellent as ever here, both in conveying Batman’s distress at learning everything he thought he knew about his father was a lie, and in getting across the emotional toll all this plays on the Huntress. Speaking of the Huntress, I think I like Aparo’s rendering of the character even better than creator Joe Staton’s, as he brought (as he did to most all of his female characters) a solid, muscular (yet still feminine) form to the body and an appealing angularity to the facial features.

Another favorite of mine is B&B #191, “Only Angels Have Wings!”, in which the Joker is forced to turn to Batman for assistance, having been framed for the murder of the Penguin. Aparo’s exaggerated version of the Joker has progressed even further here, as seen here, with the Joker’s chin having elongated to completely unrealistic proportions.

What was great about the issue was the new emotional depths to which it took the Joker character (courtesy of a fine script by Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn), as he seeks Batman’s help not because he cares about being framed for murder, but because he wants to find the Penguin’s real murderer himself:

The good thing about THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD’s bimonthly schedule was that it freed Aparo up to take on other jobs for the company as well, such as his famous 1974-1975 series of Spectre stories in the pages of ADVENTURE COMICS with writer Michael Fleisher. Fleisher went back to basics with his version of the Spectre, casting the ghost of Jim Corrigan as the true Spirit of Vengeance, fatally striking down evil men in manners gruesome and outlandish. For example, take this moment from the team’s first issue, in which a murderer find his machine gun melting like wax in his hands, only to find it doesn’t stop with the gun…

Not gory enough? How about this scene from ADVENTURE #432, in which a murderous hairdresser finds it’s time for a trim…

Then there’s this scene from ADVENTURE #435, in which a cop killer is holed up in a sawmill, only to find himself turned into a block of wood and – oh, you can figure it out…

The issues also gave Aparo the opportunity to show off some outstanding splash pages, as seen here:

The Fleisher/Aparo Spectre run has been collected in trade a couple of times as WRATH OF THE SPECTRE. Highly recommended.

Another Aparo project done at the same time as THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD was the DC miniseries THE UNTOLD LEGEND OF THE BATMAN, which sought to coordinate and retell the origins and backstory of Batman and all his friends and foes, in the framework of an intriguing little mystery (written by Len Wein). While the first issue was the combined work of Jim Aparo and John Byrne, issues 2 and 3 were pure Aparo goodness. Here Aparo got to retell such famous BATMAN moments as Robin’s origin…

…take a larger look at all the potential suspects in the mystery of who was after Batman’s secrets…

…and even show for the first time anywhere the first meeting of Batman and Commissioner Gordon:

THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD ended with issue #200, not so much because of declining sales as because of changing trends. With team books (like UNCANNY X-MEN and THE NEW TEEN TITANS) outselling everything else on the shelf, the decision was made to cancel B&B and replace it with a new team book, with Batman in the lead role. The B&B; creative team of writer Mike W. Barr and Jim Aparo was chosen to create the new team book, which saw its premiere in August 1983 with BATMAN AND THE OUTSIDERS #1.

Barr and Aparo manned their team with a clever mix of existing characters and new creations. With Batman having quit the Justice League in favor of running his own team, it was only salt in the wound for him to induct as his new teammates the two heroes to have previously turned down JLA membership, Black Lightning and Metamorpho. The three new characters created by Barr and designed by Aparo included Geo-Force, the Markovian prince with the power to control rock and earth; Katana, a Japanese samurai whose blade and honor is pledged to Batman’s service; and Halo, an amnesiac teenage blonde with glowing energy powers.

To face off against their new team, Barr and Aparo hatched up some of the most outlandish and downright goofy supervillains, including Agent Orange, the One-Man Meltdown, the Force of July and the Masters of Disaster. Plenty of folks have made fun of BATMAN AND THE OUTSIDERS for this (present company included), but here’s the thing: it sold. It sold like mad. So much so, in fact, that after just over two years, the Outsiders were given a second monthly book, with the second, more expensive direct-market-only series taking place a year or so after the events of the original book.

In THE OUTSIDERS, the team had taken off to Los Angeles on their own, leaving Batman’s leadership behind, and gaining a new member, Looker, a gorgeous redhead with psionic powers and (sorry, Jim) one of the no-argument ugliest costumes ever to grace a superhero comic. Giant lapels, a shortie cape, eye-shadow applied by the cubic inch, and, in case you didn’t get that she’s supposed to be feminine, a giant floppy bow at the hip. And get this – what was Looker in her secret identity? A fashion model. Ay yi yi.

Barr and Aparo kept up with the madcap supervillains in the new series, coming up with two of my personal favorites. First was a group of atomic-powered androids created by an insane scientist in the form of his own wife and children, lost to radiation poisoning. Enter the Nuclear Family:

They followed that up with a Texan oil magnate whose brain was transplanted into a robotic body following a terrible petroleum fire. Naturally, he was known as the Duke of Oil:

The Outsiders only lasted another couple of years after that, their second series ending in February 1988 with the 28th issue. Aparo’s talents remained in demand, though, taking over the art duties on DETECTIVE COMICS and BATMAN just in time for probably the most infamous Batman story of the 1980s: “A Death in the Family.”

This famous publishing experiment let DC’s readers decide the fate of Jason Todd, Dick Grayson’s increasingly unlikable replacement as Robin the Boy Wonder. As it turned out, readers phoned in by the thousands, and by a mere 74 votes, voted for Robin to take a permanent sod siesta. I’ve written here in the past about how distasteful I found the storyline, and I’ll stand by that. But it’s also got to be said that part of the reason the story had as much power as it did was that it was drawn by the man I most closely associated with the Batman of my childhood – Jim Aparo. Here Aparo drew the Joker at his most grotesque, looking nearly inhuman, as if to accentuate the monster the character would become in this story where he would truly cross the line.

And as for the famous scenes of Batman discovering Jason’s body, as much as I dislike this story, I’ll say this: if it had to be done, I’m glad it was Aparo who did it. As exploitative as the moment is, he manages to infuse it with at least a modicum of dignity and emotion.

Aparo continued to work for DC throughout the early 1990s, including a nice little run on GREEN ARROW, but his workload slowed down throughout the decade as he slowly moved into retirement. I believe his last published work appeared in 2004, on the cover of the trade paperback BATMAN IN THE EIGHTIES.

Jim Aparo was never a comics superstar like so many of the flashes in the pan of the 1990s and today, who catapult to riches and fame and then vanish, taking their bucks and notoriety and leaving behind a mere handful of comics that seem dated only a few years later. No, Aparo was the artist’s artist, turning in page after page, book after book, year after year, continually striving to improve his craft, and leaving behind a real legacy, of countless readers who literally grew up with his work, and find themselves, like me, wishing they’d had an opportunity to thank him for it.

Thanks, Jim. Rest easy.


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