Wednesday, July 20, 2005

An Ode to the Brave; An Elegy for the Bold

You'll have to bear with me here, readers, as this is going to be a tough column for me to write. I've always had difficulty in publicly, or even privately, expressing emotion. Except for anger. Oh, yeah, tick me off and you'll know about it, brother. But the emotions I'm struggling with today, a mix of sadness and gratitude upon learning of the death of comic artist Jim Aparo, who passed away on July 19, are a bit more complex and harder to put into words. The sadness, of course, comes from the fact that this immensely talented artist is no longer with us, while the gratitude is for the world that he, along with writer Bob Haney, who himself passed on last November, helped to introduce me to in the pages of The Brave and The Bold, a comic that teamed the Batman with a different super-hero in each issue. That world is what was back then only beginning to be referred to as the DC Universe, the land of fantasy and adventure where Batman, Superman and the like live out their many adventures, and B&B was my first portal into it.
I remember the first time I saw Aparo's art. It was B&B #128, which teamed Batman with super escape artist Mister Miracle. This was also the first time I'd seen Mister Miracle, and, in truth, the first time I'd seen Batman. The real Batman, I should say. Sure, I'd seen the Adam West sitcom Batman of the mid 60's, as well as the old Filmation cartoons and Superfriends, but the Batman I met in the pages of B&B was different and I knew just by looking at him that this is the way the Caped Crusader was meant to be. This Batman would never say, as the Superfriends imposter once did, something as ridiculous as "Let us hie ourselves to the lab, post-haste!" No, this Batman was a grim, determined, tough talking and tough acting urban crime fighter. What impressed me most was the look of the character as rendered by Aparo. This guy was freaking HUGE, totally unlike the slightly flabby West, with a long, flowing cape and improbably long and pointy bat-ears springing from his cowl, all drawn in Aparo's stunningly life-like style that made this Batman seem more real to me than even the live action series.
In subsequent issues of B&B, Batman, through the auspices of Haney and Aparo, introduced me to a pantheon of heroes that included the Metal Men, elemental robots with all too human personalities; size changing physicist Ray Palmer, more widely known as the Atom; the mysterious Creeper, the sexy, fishnet stocking clad heroine Black Canary, and a character who would eventually take Batman's place as my favorite super-hero, Green Arrow; and many others. Eventually, I would follow these characters into other comics, such as Justice League of America, World's Finest Comics, Adventure Comics and others, and a life-long love affair with super-heroes was begun.
In B&B #98, the first issue of the magazine that he illustrated, Jim provided readers with a brief autobiography, stating that he began drawing by copying from comic books when he was eight and sick in bed. He grew up studying art and desiring to be a cartoonist, but was at first unable to find work in comics and spent a decade working in advertising, until Dick Giordano hired him to draw for Charlton Comics. When Giordano left Charlton for industry leader DC Comics, Aparo was one of the many Charlton talents who followed. Over the next three decades he would draw just about every DC character, both in B&B and as illustrator of such features as Aquaman, the Spectre, the Phantom Stranger and Deadman. However, it is Batman with which he is most closely associated, both because of his long association with the character and his distinctive depiction of the Dark Knight. Besides B&B, Aparo chronicled Batman's adventures in the Caped Crusader’s self-titled comic, as well as Detective Comics and Batman Family. After B&B ended its lengthy run with its 200th issue, Aparo and writer Mike W. Barr created Batman and the Outsiders, which found Batman as leader, mentor and teacher to a team of heroes made-up of Barr/Aparo creations such as Geo-Force, Katana and Halo and older, but relatively obscure, characters Black Lightning and Metamorpho. Aparo ended his career in the mid 90's with a run on a character that he and Haney had first introduced me to two decades earlier: Green Arrow.
Though not a writer, Aparo was nonetheless one of the most gifted visual storytellers in comics. He excelled at communicating, without the aid of captions or dialogue, exactly what the story was with clarity all but unmatched by any artist before or since. A perfect example of this is a totally wordless story that appeared in the first issue of a late 70's revival of the science-fiction anthology comic Mystery In Space, which remains the finest story of that type I have ever seen. Additionally, he who did everything; penciling, inking and even lettering his own pages, which served to give any book he worked a truly distinctive look.
I said at the outset that this would be a hard column to write and so it has proven. Even harder than expressing my emotions at Jim Aparo's passing has been trying to summarize his long and distinguished career in a couple of paragraphs. After all, I haven't even mentioned his and Haney's greatest and oddest B&B story, "Small War of the Super-Rifles" in #124, which teamed Batman with World War II hero Sgt. Rock to battle terrorists threatening Gotham City and featured in prominent roles the B&B creative team themselves; Haney, Aparo and editor Murray Boltinoff. Heck, even if I had enough space to describe this delightful but bizarre story, I could never do it justice. That's one you'll just have to read for yourself.

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