Axel-In-Charge: Waid & Samnee on "Black Widow" and the Dawn of the All-New, All-Different Era
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Jim Aparo, and the issue is Batman #420, which was published by DC and is cover dated June 1988. Enjoy!
Aparo was working on Batman around the time the hero turned 50, meaning he got to draw quite a bunch of “important” stories. His first big one was “Ten Nights of the Beast,” which Jim Starlin wrote. Later, he drew Robin getting killed, and then he drew John Byrne’s “Many Deaths of the Batman” story and he was around when DC introduced Tim Drake. This is also when I started reading comics, so Aparo was the artist on the first comic I ever bought. I took an instant dislike to his artwork that didn’t recede for many years. I bought up back issues because that was the thing to do (and DC, in its infinite wisdom, still hasn’t collected a lot of the comics from around this period, or if they did, they’ve been out of print for years), and most of them were drawn by Aparo. Could I never escape his insidious artwork?!?!? Of course, as the years went by, I began to appreciate his art more and more. I still think this period of Aparo’s work isn’t his best, and part of that is Mike DeCarlo’s inking. DeCarlo isn’t a bad inker, and as I was looking through these issues for a good example of what I don’t like about this artwork, I noticed that it’s better than I thought when I was 17. I thought a lot of kooky things when I was 17. Who doesn’t? But I wanted to show some things that I don’t think make Aparo’s pencil work better, and Batman #420, the notorious final issue of “Ten Nights of the Beast,” is a good issue to use.
This is one of those pages that I just don’t like. In Panel 1, Reagan looks like a mannequin, and Batman’s scoop of him is awkwardly drawn. In Panel 5, we see Aparo’s late-era Batman, who’s a bit portlier than his 1970s version. A few days ago, I looked at The Brave and the Bold #98, and while you don’t get a great view of Bats in those scans, his torso was a bit thinner and less … sculpted, I guess? It’s not that Aparo didn’t draw him with muscles, it’s just that in the late 1980s/early 1990s he drew him a bit stockier. One thing I noticed about Aparo when I started buying comics is that all his men look very, very similar. You can see that on this page, as Batman, Gordon, Parker, Bundy, and even Reagan have similar facial structures. Bundy is heavier, of course, but the structure is the same. As I noted yesterday with Bill Wray, inkers who don’t add roughness to Aparo’s line work aren’t doing him any favors. DeCarlo is better than Wray, but he still seems to keep Aparo’s work too smooth. The emphasis on motion lines is a bit odd, too. But that’s just me being nitpicky.
Another thing that bugged me about this artwork (and still does, to a far lesser degree) is the way DeCarlo (I assume) inks Batman’s cowl. The black below his eyes and only below his eyes is weird. It just bothers me. I know it’s a minor thing, but when these issues were coming out and I was buying them, that bugged the crap out of me.
Anyway, this isn’t a bad sequence, although it shows, once again, why I don’t love this artwork. The first panel, despite the rain and the blackness, gives too much definition to the black – there’s a clear border between the spot blacks and the blues. This is, for me, an issue when Aparo doesn’t ink himself. Aparo was good at nuance in his inking, so that Batman straddled a morally gray area that, as a vigilante, felt more “realistic.” Even in these issues, in which a Soviet assassin is trying to kill the president of the U.S. and is therefore highly “realistic,” the fact that Batman looks more like a superhero than a vigilante makes this, oddly, less “realistic.” If that makes any sense. It probably doesn’t.
Another thing I didn’t like about Aparo was the stiffness of his characters. I noted this yesterday, and while it’s not too bad on his Batman work, this is an odd sequence that doesn’t work very well. Aparo moves our eyes across the page well, but Bundy’s use of the gun makes no sense. We don’t know where he is in relation to MacDonald – in Panel 2, it appears that the bullets that kill MacDonald are coming from the front, but Bundy is shooting to the left. This is especially strange because in a panel above this on the same page, Bundy is running directly toward MacDonald from the front. So why is he shooting to the side? And man, those hands in Panels 1-3 are weird. Sorry, I just noticed it. I’ve owned this issue for almost 25 years and I just now noticed how weird those hands are. They’re freaking me out.
Obviously, the art isn’t terrible, and some of it is quite nice. I love the first image, with Batman and the Beast fighting in the sewer and the artists somehow putting their shadows on the wall. I don’t know if Aparo drew this in and then DeCarlo inked it, or if DeCarlo just inked it without the benefit of pencils. It’s quite cool, though. I like the way Batman and the Beast face each other in the other two panels, but again, notice the sleekness of the blacks in the Beast’s costume. It makes the Beast more of a supervillain than a cold-blooded assassin. Actually, based on what the Beast chooses to wear, it makes him look like a dominatrix.
Ah, the famous showdown. Aparo does a very nice job moving our eye across the page, first coming over the Beast’s shoulder to show Batman like a wraith in the doorway. In Panel 2, Batman’s shadow falls across him as he challenges him, and Aparo makes it look bigger than Bats himself, slowly engulfing the Beast. In Panel 3 the Beast looks directly at the reader, challenging us as much as he’s challenging Batman. Then, in Panel 4, Aparo once again begins with the Beast in the foreground, pointing us back to Batman, who asks his chilling question. This is before an advert page (for The Killing Joke, incidentally), so we have to wait to turn the page to find out what Batman means by that question. The inks are a bit rougher, but while I still don’t love the clarity of the spot blacks, DeCarlo uses them really effectively, as Batman really does look like an angel of death. This is a great scene, even if it breaks the Big Rule Batman has always (well, mostly – he still liked to snap a neck or two back in the 1930s) kept. Yes, I know the Beast doesn’t die because DC retconned it, but you know Batman stone cold leaves him to die here. It’s very disturbing, and it’s meant to be.
When I go back and look at these issues, they don’t bother me as much as they used to. I still think Aparo’s designs feel old-fashioned, but that’s not a comment on his skills, just that he was slowly becoming out of touch with the way comics art looked and he didn’t feel like changing. I still think it’s not as good as his earlier work, but that might be because I still can’t shake my initial impressions of it. Remember, this is when Norm Breyfogle was drawing Detective, and his work was, to me, mind-blowing. So poor Jim Aparo couldn’t compete.
Tomorrow, for the final day of Jim Aparo’s art, I want to look at another example of someone else inking his work, but this someone is a much stronger inker than Wray or DeCarlo, so the art looks quite different. Be here to see what’s what! And never forget about … the archives!
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