Jim Aparo’s schlocky Batman

Batman 415Batman #415

For some, it may sound odd to describe Jim Aparo’s Batman comics as ‘schlocky,’ given that not too long ago Aparo came in second at CBR’s poll of greatest Batman artists, right after the immensely talented Neal Adams. But I don’t mean this in a bad way. Although his unmistakable style sometimes fell flat, even at its weakest Aparo’s straightforward, unpretentious storytelling and workmanlike approach were a perfect fit for comics that knew damn well they were disposable junk and weren’t trying to hide it. More than merely acknowledge the material’s status as schlock, though, his strongest work celebrated schlockiness with a fair amount of gusto, as Aparo proved capable of turning the silliest scripts into straight up shit-your-paints horror, outlandish satirical sci-fi, and over-the-top action/adventure. He was the John Carpenter of Batman artists, minus the synths.

In many ways, Jim Aparo had a lot in common with Neal Adams… Their renditions of the Dark Knight were athletic yet drawn with realistic proportions and, in both cases, their artwork really peaked in the 1970s (back when Aparo not only pencilled, but also consistently inked and lettered his own work). Moreover, as in the case of Adams, my all-time favorite Aparo cover is actually from The Phantom Stranger:

Phantom Stranger 21

And yet, while Neal Adams was doing ‘social relevance’ stories featuring Green Lantern and Green Arrow, written by the liberal Denny O’Neil, Jim Aparo was cranking out deranged exploitation horror starring the Spectre, written by the misanthropic Michael Fleisher. If Adams pushed the boundaries of superhero comics and instilled his work with a certain degree of elegance and self-importance, Aparo seemed more like the guy you’d turn to when you wanted your book to scream: ‘trashy entertainment and proud of it!’

Batman 285     Brave and the Bold 121     Brave and the Bold 120

No wonder Jim Aparo felt so at home during his long run on the team-up book The Brave and the Bold (1971-1983), a series with a definitive B-movie spirit, featuring tales with titles such as ‘Gotham Bay, Be My Grave!,’ ‘The Corpse That Wouldn’t Die!,’ and ‘Disco of Death!’

As I pointed out a few of weeks ago, the defining feature of The Brave and the Bold was that writer Bob Haney never let anything get in the way of a good story, particularly not trite things like continuity, or even plain logic. This was perhaps never more so than in the issues pairing up Batman with the gung-ho, all-American, cigar-chewing Sgt. Rock… Haney established in ‘The Angel, the Rock and the Cowl!’ (with art by Neal Adams) that, even though this version of Bruce Wayne looked like he was in his thirties by the late 1960s, Batman had nevertheless met Sgt. Rock while fighting as a spy for the Allies in World War II. Haney then went on to pen several bewildering tales about this unlikely duo. Jim Aparo not only illustrated the one where Batman *literally* sells his soul to Adolf Hitler (The Brave and the Bold #108), but also one in which Aparo himself saves Batman’s and Rock’s life:

Brave and the bold 124The Brave and the Bold #124

It’s so awesome to see Bob Haney throwing all these crazy ideas around, framing them in the most balls-out and hyperbolic terms, and then Jim Aparo just running with it and playing them completely straight. If anything, Aparo’s no-nonsense art seems to work best the more hectic and bizarre the stories get, creating a fascinating contrast.

I don’t mean to imply that Aparo’s draftsmanship was entirely devoid of stylized pyrotechnics. In fact, his art during this period had a vibrant authorial voice. As he points out in this interview, Aparo liked to draw geeky easter eggs in the background, including celebrity cameos and clues about the upcoming guest stars. There was also the occasional experiment in terms of page layout…

Brave and the Bold #115The Brave and the Bold #115

The main thing that stood out in Jim Aparo’s comics, though, was the abundant use of Dutch angles. Seriously, it’s like the ‘camera’ never stopped moving – his predilection for skewed shots, coupled with his rugged inks, helped infuse The Brave and the Bold with an intoxicating brew of grounded grit and dynamic visuals.

Aparo complemented this device by penciling letters in all sorts of counter-intuitive directions, which really pulled your eyes across the page, turning text-heavy sequences into a forceful, energetic reading experience:

Brave and the Bold #112The Brave and the Bold #112

As you can see from the example above, one thing Jim Aparo excelled at was packing tons of details on the first pages of an issue while still delivering a slam-bang opening that drew you in!

Here are another couple of vertiginous, adrenaline-pumping openings, from a classic issue of The Brave and the Bold and from the compelling mini-series The Untold Legend of the Batman:

Brave and the Bold #124The Brave and the Bold #124
The Untold Legend of the Batman #2The Untold Legend of the Batman #2

Gradually, Jim Aparo adopted a slightly more minimalist style, with more negative space and simpler yet powerful images. You got the sense that Aparo had pretty much figured out his standard techniques and wasn’t looking for any new challenges. He became a more meat-and-potatoes kind of artist, with a boilerplate aesthetic, just applying what had worked so far into whatever he was asked to draw.

Batman and the Outsiders 11     Batman 414     Batman 298

This attitude may explain why, unlike Neal Adams (who seemed to take himself more seriously), Jim Aparo stuck around for so long. Notably, in the 1980s he co-created – with Mike W. Barr – Batman and the Outsiders, an uneven superhero series with the schlockiest stories about the nuclear threat this side of Joseph Ruben’s Dreamscape. Later in the decade, he illustrated Jim Starlin’s infamous run on Batman, which included ‘Ten Nights of the Beast’ (a take on the Reaganite action sub-genre that Cannon studios specialized in) and ‘A Death in the Family’ (the story arc in which the Joker beat Robin to death with a crowbar).

By then, Jim Aparo’s art had grown noticeably stiffer. He stopped inking his own pencils, which became way too clean and boring for my taste – they lost much of their appealing roughness and sense of urgency. His limitations were also more apparent. For example, although Aparo had a range of facial expressions…

batman 414Batman #414

…when he was tasked with long stretches of drama, his characters usually felt like they were chewing up the scenery.

Check out all the ‘overacting’ in this scene:

Batman 416Batman #416Batman #416

Regardless, Jim Aparo was acknowledged as a master storyteller and you could see writers trusted him. In Batman #431 (which came out in 1989), written by James Owsley (aka Christopher Priest), Aparo got to illustrate a neatly choreographed eight-page fight scene with ninjas that brings to mind the stylish intensity of those dimly lit fights in the Daredevil show. Shortly thereafter, he drew the quasi-wordless Batman #433, from a script by John Byrne. In this issue – the first part of ‘The Many Deaths of Batman’ story arc – Batman dies and we see the reactions from various characters, with all of the narrative and pathos hinging on Aparo’s mise-en-scène and body language.

With his old-fashioned figures and clear transitions, the man could definitely carry an effective narrative. It was only when he was asked to design new characters that what he came up with tended to be somewhat embarrassing. As if the Masters of Disaster and the KGBeast weren’t bad enough, there was the case of Metalhead:

Batman 486Batman #486

That said, in 1991 someone had the inspired idea of assigning Jim Aparo with bringing to life Peter Milligan’s scripts. With a surrealist streak and a tongue-in-cheek sensibility, Milligan gave Aparo plenty of intentionally offbeat stuff to draw, bringing back some of that Brave and the Bold magic… For example, in ‘And the Executioner Wore Stiletto Heels,’ the Dark Knight found a paraplegic snitch glued to the ceiling:

Detective Comics #630Detective Comics #630

Other than that, throughout the 1990s Aparo remained that reliable artist who, while not expected to produce anything outstanding, was always sure to deliver a competent yarn. After significant contributions to the high-profile ‘A Lonely Place of Dying’ and ‘Knightfall’ storylines, Jim Aparo turned into a fill-in artist for when creators just wanted to tell a solid little one-off, whether it was a crime story (Shadow of the Bat #61), a horror tale (Shadow of the Bat #68), or a mix of both (Detective Comics #716).

By 1998, Aparo’s style had become so identified with the default look of Batman’s world that ‘Sound and Fury’ (Detective Comics #719) used it to visually distinguish fact from fiction in a prisoner’s fanciful account of a heist – the reality was penciled by Aparo and the fantasy sequences by Flint Henry, whose drawings were much more exaggerated and grotesque. That year, Alan Grant and Mark Buckingham sort of paid homage to the veteran artist in Shadow of the Bat #75, where Batman defeated Clayface by crushing the villain with a huge billboard that read ‘Aparo Originals – Need we say more?’

Honestly, I don’t think the 1990s’ inking and coloring trends gelled very well with Jim Aparo’s pencils – the result tended to be passable, but it rarely jumped off the page like it used to do in the old days… That said, there were some interesting exceptions. For example, Bill Sienkiewicz’s inks managed to give Aparo’s work a distinctive look. In 2001, inker John Cebollero and colorist James Sinclair did a stellar job with Aparo’s final Batman comic, ‘The Demon Laughs’ (Legends of the Dark Knight #142-145) – about a twisted team-up between the Joker and Ra’s al Ghul – where his art felt less anachronistic than it had done in years!

All in all, Jim Aparo was a quintessential artist of Batman comics at their schlocky best and worst. I’ll finish by pointing out that Aparo was not just great at crafting alluring opening pages, he also knew how to pull off a moody ending:

The Untold Legend of the Batman #3The Untold Legend of the Batman #3

NEXT: Fantastic adventures.

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2 Responses to Jim Aparo’s schlocky Batman

  1. RubberLotus says:

    An excellent retrospective on one of the greatest workhorses of the Batman franchise, Sir. I’ve never overcared for Aparo’s art even during his “good” period, but whoever thought to team him with Peter Milligan during the ’90s deserves a dozen medals. That said, I beg to differ on one thing – “The Demon Laughs” is one of the ugliest-looking comics I’ve ever seen in my life, due in no small part to the inks. According to Chuck Dixon the thing was originally inked by Graham Nolan, and what I wouldn’t give to have seen *that* version of the story…!

    (I’ve stumbled across this blog quite a lot while doing research for my own blog, but never quite had the inclination to sit down and read the whole thing through. That changes… tomorrow, ’cause I’ll be hitting the hay soon.)

    • I.M. Baytor says:

      I didn’t know ‘The Demon Laughs’ was originally inked by Graham Nolan… I’m sure that would’ve looked nice!
      Still, I love the Joker’s look in that comic – especially in the amusing opening scene and, later, when he briefly regains his sanity. John Cebollero (who also did the tremendous covers) makes the Joker feel like a modern yet rugged incarnation of the classic Aparo design while nailing his various mood swings in the final part of the story.

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