Jim Aparo’s Batman Rules (and Other Affiliated Observations) – Batman: A Death in the Family
I’ve been kicking around about doing a Jim Aparo post on this blog forever, and it’s long overdue.
Before I delve into the general aura of magnificence that was the Aparo Batman, I should say a few words about the book whose cover you see scanned above and whose subject matter forms the reference points of this post. This was the first trade that I ever owned. I bought it with allowance money back during the Bat-mania that gripped the known universe after the release of the first Tim Burton Batman, and I’m sure it was the promise of the cover that got me to pick it up. I was a youthful dilettante when it came to my comics reading, and the death of the Jason Todd Robin (if I even knew there was a difference between the “Todd” and “Grayson” brands) had passed me by. But there he was on the cover, in Batman’s arms. Dead! And the cover said it was a bestseller. A comic book a bestseller. And a controversial one at that! How could I have resisted?
The real reason I treasure this book, and why it still has a prized place on my library shelves along with the Faulkner and Tolstoy and such, is the journey it’s been on. I’ve carted this bleeping thing to school with me as a kid, through more moves than I care to count, halfway down the Atlantic seaboard, in backpacks, bags, boxes, and Lord knows what else. It’s been dragged around so much I’m amazed it’s not more worn than it is. And I’ve lent it out to various friends and, most memorably, my sixth-grade teacher. He was a hero of my early youth, a big burly guy who’d take us outside on nice days and — his words — “let us run around like dogs,” tossing a aerodynamic nerf football to us all, and sometimes taking us outside to launch one of those mini-rockets off and lettings us chase after it as it parachuted back to Earth. He had a real Kindergarten Cop thing going on with kids. A few years later he was my high school basketball coach, where he gave me my favorite nickname ever, “Laimbeer,” because I had a penchant for flopping to draw charges like Bill Laimbeer and, like that Detroit Pistons great, was wont to gun it from outside even though I was often the tallest guy on the court.
But I’m getting off track. The reason I’ve brought all this up is because on one of those halcyon sixth grade days he saw this very book poking out of my backpack. “Hey Jared,” he said. Then he got real quiet, like he was embarrassed and didn’t want anyone else to hear. “Can I borrow that over the weekend?”
I was as happy that moment as could be. A pig in, well, you know… A guy I looked up to just asked to borrow my Batman book — not only was he letting me do him a favor, he was revealing himself to be a Bat-fan. He rocketed up the ladder of my estimation, and I lent him the book.
So that’s a big part of why I love this thing so much.
Now about this Aparo guy…
Aparo was to Batman in some ways what Curt Swan was to Superman — both were long-term steady hands on flagship characters. Neither was ever as scintillating to the comics reading public as a Jack Kirby or a Neal Adams, but they did their jobs incredibly well and generated images of icons that defined those characters for generations. They were talented workhorses — they never won Kentucky Derbies, but they got the fields plowed in time for one hell of a harvest year in and year out. Aparo didn’t have the length of association with Batman that Swan had with the Big Blue Banana, and he spent much of his time with Batman on secondary Bat-titles like The Brave and the Bold and Batman and the Outsiders. But instead of lessening his legacy, perhaps that makes the permanence of his iconography more remarkable.
Aparo’s Batman has stood the test of time. It’s been a while since his pencil traced the outline of the Caped Crusader, but I still think his rendition tops all the others I’ve ever seen. That’s my personal opinion, I know, though it’s (justly) shared by many others. We all have our favorites. I’ve waxed nostalgic about Norm Breyfogle’s Batman of my youth, but Aparo’s was the 1A of that time. His was the clear, and I mean CLEAR, numero uno. Batman under his ministrations was grim (isn’t he always?) and ramrod straight, lean and foreboding, with long pointed ears that looked sharp to the touch and had enough length to impale you if you got out of line. And there was that frown — it was a look that could stop you in your tracks and turn you to stone. There was something regal in the Aparo Batman’s bearing, and I always thought I could read the inner workings of that detective mind better when Aparo was on the job.
I could quibble about certain things with his general style. Well, more than a few things. This isn’t pure, unmuddied love we’re dealing with here. His men often looked alike — though that’s a common complaint for many artists, it seemed exacerbated with him. His Bruce Wayne and his Superman were indistinguishable from the neck up. His early work could be a bit dodgy, but it was early work. He was still getting his feet underneath him. And, to be quite frank, I’ve never taken to his style all that much when he’s worked on properties other than the Caped Crusader. He’s like Ron Lim in that regard. Lim drew a spectacular Silver Surfer, one who glistened and glowered like none other ever could, but his non-Sentinel of the Spaceways work left me cold. I’m more tolerant of Aparo’s non-Batman production, but there’s a similar dynamic at play.
Nobody’s perfect, folks. And Aparo drew an incredible Batman, who stands at the top of the comics pyramid, or near it, since I’d put Superman at the apex. But you get the picture. To do such great things with one of the great characters? That counts for a lot.
Let’s have a look at a couple of my favorite Aparo bits.
The Jim-Starlin-penned “A Death in the Family” was a pretty damn big event, so it’s no wonder that it’s widely regarded as the high-water mark of Aparo’s Bat-times. I won’t go into the broader issues that went along with the storyline, how loathed Jason Todd was (though his mother handed him over to the Joker before he was almost beaten to death and then blown up — it’s hard not to feel bad for the guy after all that), how the 900 number (perhaps rigged) sealed his doom, or any of the other associated hoo-ha.
The meat of the series was, of course, this:
What I remember most about the series came at the end of the third issue of the arc, in Batman #428, when Superman showed up. I’ve always loved the quiet moments that Kal and Bruce have shared, especially after their pre-Crisis chumminess went bye-bye and their deep differences (tempered by profound respect) were magnified. All that crystallizes here in a few pages in a couple of issues.
Robin is dead, and the Joker left a message written in blood for Batman to meet him at the United Nations. Then Superman shows up, offering a cryptic warning that Batman isn’t to accost the new Iranian ambassador. Supes is having a hard timing coming out with who the new ambassador is, and Batman gradually loses his temper:
And then there’s this explosion:
Batman. Just punched. Superman. He might as well have decked me, because that pretty much knocked me over in my chair twenty years ago. I still think it’s a great moment, perhaps not a high point in the relationship of the world’s finest duo, but an emotional one. And then there’s this semi-humorous follow-up:
Superman is always rubbing it in. He doesn’t realize he’s rubbing it in, mind you, but he’s still doing it.
The ambassador is, surprise, the Joker, and at the beginning of the next issue our two heroes meet with a flabby State Department flunky. What Aparo did with Batman’s posture and facials in these panels is so great:
He doesn’t get a whole lot cheerier when he learns that he now has a minder:
Then there comes the moment when the bureaucrat leaves and our heroes drop the monikers and become Kal/Clark and Bruce. I adore — adore — how Aparo depicts Batman running the gamut of emotions, from suppressed anger to unspeakable sadness to steely resolve:
For me these bits will always be part of Batman’s core definition, and are a big part of the reason why, when I hear the name Batman, Aparo’s art pops into my head. Who cares that the old blue accents and yellow emblem have fallen out of favor?
I have to make an honorable mention of Mike DeCarlo’s inks, which you can’t ignore with all the dark shading of these rather depressing scenes. For much of Aparo’s time on the main Batman titles they were teamed, and they meshed so well together. You can see that in these scans. Kudos.
In one final addendum, check out the back of my old trade, and more specifically Denny O’Neill’s quote at the bottom. Kind of funny in light of recent history:
I’ve rambled a bit here, but it’s been fun to hash out some of my Aparo love. It makes me very sad that he’s no longer with us, and sometimes I wish that we could “bring him back” like they did with Jason Todd. I wouldn’t care if that resurrection was a “sleazy stunt” or not. I miss his Batman, and it might be nice if he could have one last go around with the cape and cowl. But all things come to an end, I suppose, and the man deserves to rest in peace. He earned it. He gave me “my” Batman. He gave me a lot.