Legends of the Dark Knight: Jim Aparo volume 1

By Jim Aparo, Bob Haney & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3375-4

After periods as a historical adventure and try-out vehicle, The Brave and the Bold proceeded to win critical as well as commercial acclaim through team-ups. Pairing regular writer Bob Haney with the best artists available, a succession of DC stars joined forces before the comicbook hit its winning formula.

The winning format – featuring media superstar Batman with other rotating, luminaries of the DC universe in complete stand-alone stories – paid big dividends, especially after the feature finally found a permanent artist to follow a variety of illustrators including Ramona Fradon, Neal Adams, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito, Irv Novick, Nick Cardy, Bob Brown and others…

At this time editors favoured regular if not permanent creative teams, feeling that a sense of visual and even narrative continuity would avoid confusion amongst younger readers and the slickly versatile Jim Aparo was a perfect match for a drawing brief that could encompass the entire DC pantheon and all of time, space and relative dimensions in any single season…

James N. Aparo (August 24, 1932 – July 19, 2005) was a true quiet giant of comicbooks. Self-taught, he grew up in New Britain Connecticut, and after failing to join EC Comics whilst in his 20s, slipped easily into advertising, newspaper and fashion illustration. Even after finally becoming a comics artist he assiduously maintained his links with his first career.

For most of his career Aparo was a triple-threat, pencilling, inking and lettering his pages. In 1963 he began drawing Ralph Kanna’s newspaper strip Stern Wheeler, and three years later began working on a wide range of features for go-getting visionary editor Dick Giordano at Charlton Comics. Aparo especially shone on the minor company’s licensed big gun The Phantom

When Giordano was lured away to National/DC in 1968 he brought his top stars (primarily Steve Ditko, Steve Skeates and Aparo) with him. Aparo began his lengthy, life-long association with DC illustrating and reinvigorating moribund title Aquaman – although he continued with The Phantom until his duties increased with the addition of numerous short stories for the monolith’s burgeoning horror anthologies and revived 1950s supernatural hero The Phantom Stranger

Aparo went on to become an award-winning mainstay of DC’s artistic arsenal, with stellar runs on The Spectre, The Outsiders and Green Arrow but his star was always linked to Batman’s…

Scripted throughout by Bob Haney and reprinting B&B #98, 101-102 and 104-122 (spanning October/November 1971 through October 1975) in a sturdy hardback and/or eBook compilation, this fabulous celebration opens without preamble in debut tale ‘The Mansion of the Misbegotten!’, as the aforementioned Phantom Stranger guests in a truly sinister tale of suburban devil-worship which sees Batman thoroughly out of his depth when his godson seemingly becomes a receptacle for Satan on Earth…

Aparo returned for the anniversary 100th issue as Green Lantern, Green Arrow and Black Canary substituted for a gunshot-riddled Batman on the verge of death and trapped as ‘The Warrior in a Wheel-Chair’ and settled in for outrageous murder-mystery ‘Cold-Blood, Hot Gun’ in the next issue wherein Metamorpho, the Element Man assisted the Caped Crusader in foiling the world’s deadliest hitman.

Brave and the Bold #102 featured a true rarity. The Teen Titans featured in an angry tale of the generation gap ‘Commune of Defiance’ which began as an Aparo job, but in a bizarre turnabout Neal Adams – an artist legendary for blowing deadlines – was called in to finish the story, contributing the last nine pages of the tension-packed thriller of political hardball and civic corruption.

Jim Aparo began an unbroken run of enticing epics with B&B #104 (October/November 1972): deftly picturing a poignant story of love from beyond the grave in ‘Second Chance for a Deadman?’ after which a depowered Wonder Woman returned after a long absence in gripping revolutionary epic ‘Play Now… Die Later!’, wherein martial artist Diana Prince and Batman become pawns in a bloody South American feud exported to the streets of Gotham.

The next issue saw Green Arrow sucked into a murderous get-rich-quick con in ‘Double Your Money… and Die’, featuring a surprise star villain…

Black Canary then popped back in a clever take on the headline-grabbing – and still unsolved – D.B. Cooper hijacking of an airliner in ‘The 3-Million Dollar Sky’ from B&B #107 (June-July 1973. BTW: Inflation sucks. The man known as “Cooper” only got $200,000 when he jumped out of that Boeing 727 in November 1971, never to be see again…

A wonderfully chilling tale of obsession follows as semi-retired war hero Sgt. Rock tries once more to catch the greatest monster in history on ‘The Night Batman Sold his Soul!’

Spooky supernatural shocks were very much the tone of the times as ‘Gotham Bay Be My Grave!’ paired the Caped Crusader and Jack Kirby’s then-latest sensation Etrigan the Demon in battle against an unquiet spirit determined to avenge his own execution after nearly a century. It was followed by a canny Cold War adventure starring semi-regular Wildcat in his civilian guise as Ted Grant, retired heavyweight boxing champion of the world.

Although the veteran Justice Society hero was usually stationed on the alternate Earth 2 at this time, no explanation was ever given for his presence on “our” planet. Haney always chose great plots and stories over choking details and canonical quibbles. It used to drive continuity-conscious fans utterly nuts…

Issue #111 boasted “the strangest team-up in history” as Batman joined forces with his greatest enemy, the Joker, for a brilliantly complex tale of cross and double cross in ‘Death has the Last Laugh!’ – which possibly led to the Harlequin of Hate’s own short-run series a year later.

With the next bimonthly issue B&B became a 100-Page Super Spectacular title: a much missed high-value experiment which offered an expanded page count of new material supplemented by classic reprints that turned many contemporary purchasers into avid fans of “the good old days”.

First to co-star in this new format was Kirby’s super escape artist Mister Miracle who joins the Gotham Guardian (himself regarded as the world’s greatest escapologist until the introduction of Jolly Jack’s Fourth World) in a tale of aliens and ancient Egyptians entitled ‘The Impossible Escape!’ whilst #113 sees the return of robotic misfits the Metal Men in a tense siege situation as the heroes must rescue the population of a hostage skyscraper in ‘The 50-Story Killer!’ before Aquaman helps save Gotham City from atomic annihilation in the gripping terrorist saga ‘Last Jet to Gotham’ in #114.

‘The Corpse that wouldn’t Die!’ is a decidedly different kind of drama as Batman is declared brain-dead after an assault, with size-shifting superhero the Atom compelled to occupy his brain to complete the Caped Crusader’s “last case”.

Needless to say, the Gotham Gangbuster recovers in time for another continuity-crunching supernatural team-up with the Spectre in #116’s ‘Grasp of the Killer Cult’ before embarking on a ‘Nightmare Without End’: a brilliant espionage thriller guest-starring aging World War II legend Sgt. Rock and the survivors of Easy Company, and a fitting end to the 100-page experiment.

The Brave and the Bold#118 returned to standard comic book format, if not content, as both Wildcat and the Joker join Batman in the rugged fight-game drama ‘May the Best Man Die!’. Sometime-villain Man-Bat also had his own short-lived series at his time and he impressively guests in #119’s exotic tale of despots and bounty-hunters ‘Bring Back Killer Krag’.

Possibly the most remarkable, if not uncomfortable, pairing in this volume comes from B&B #120.

Jack Kirby’s biggest hit at DC in the 1970s was Kamandi, Last Boy on Earth. Set in a post-disaster world where animals talk and hunt dumb human brutes, it proved the perfect vehicle for the King’s uncanny imagination, and ‘This Earth is Mine!’ uncomfortably finds Batman mystically sucked into that bestial dystopia to save a band of still-sentient human shamans in a tale more akin to the filmic “Planet of the Apes” franchise than anything found in funnybooks.

The Metal Men bounced back in #121’s heist-on-rails thriller ‘The Doomsday Express’, an early and moving advocacy of Native American rights with as much mayhem as message to it, before this first volume concludes with awesome spectacle as ‘The Hour of the Beast’ depicts Swamp Thing’s return to Gotham City to save it from a monstrous vegetable infestation.

By taking his cues from news headlines, popular films and proven genre-sources, Bob Haney continually produced gripping adventures that thrilled and enticed with no need for more than a cursory nod to an ever-more onerous continuity. Anybody could pick up an issue and be sucked into a world of wonder, and no matter what his scripts demanded Aparo staged and depicted it with veracity, verve and unassailable potency.

Consequently, these tales are just as fresh and welcoming today, their themes and premises are just as immediate now as then and Jim Aparo’s magnificent art is still as compelling and engrossing as it always was. This is a Bat-book literally everybody can enjoy.

These are some of the best and most entertainingly varied yarns from a period of magnificent creativity in the American comics industry. Aimed at a general readership, gloriously free of heavy, cloying continuity baggage and brought to stirring action-packed life by one of the greatest artists in the business, this is a Batman for all seasons and reasons with the added bonus of some of the most fabulous and engaging co-stars a fan could imagine. How could anybody resist? Seriously: can you…?
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