By the 1960s, most mainstream comics artists were specialists, focusing on either penciling or inking. There were some who did both, but very few who also did their own lettering. Jim Aparo penciled, inked, and lettered his comics stories from his debut at Charlton in 1967 until the late 1980s, when he began doing only pencils. The last example I could find of his lettering is from 1993, but Aparo worked steadily all those years, producing about one page of penciled, lettered, and inked art a day, and it makes his work unique and personal. Aparo also always signed the first page of his stories, again not common at the time. His lettering above shows style and variety, and is creative and appealing. Also unusual is that he always lettered with a fountain pen.
James N. Aparo (August 24, 1932 – July 19, 2005) was raised in New Britain, Connecticut, and took art classes in high school, but was largely self-taught, using favorite comic strips and comic books as examples to learn from. He tried breaking into comics in New York City in the early 1960s, but had no success, so he worked in advertising close to home in Connecticut for a number of years. In 1967 he met with editor Dick Giordano at Charlton Comics in nearby Derby, CT, showing him samples of his work. Giordano liked it and gave him is first assignment, the feature “Miss Bikini Luv,” as seen at the top of this article. In an interview with Jim Amash for Comic Book Artist #9 (TwoMorrows, Aug 2000), Aparo said about doing the whole job himself:
At the ad agency, I used to do layout work that was in pencil for the client and then they would turn it over to the typesetter to do the paste-up for the mechanical to shoot the ads. Then if there was any fancy script lettering or a special type of lettering that the typesetter didn’t have, I would do it. I was always fascinated with lettering; I liked to letter. [For comics] I used to do the lettering first. I kept it far away from the art area. Very seldom would I have to re-letter something. I did it pretty well. When I started at Charlton, I was still working at the ad agency; I worked for Charlton on a part-time basis. Dick gave me a script to do and with a lot of time to do it.
Aparo’s first superhero work was on Nightshade backups in CAPTAIN ATOM, as seen here. Looking at his lettering in the large panel image, you can see it’s a bit lighter than some of the brushed ink areas in the art. Aparo lettered with a Shaeffer fountain pen. That meant the ink had to be a little thinner and paler than the usual India ink used to letter comics in order to flow through the pen, but Jim made it work perfectly for about 30 years. He also used the same pen for thinner lines in his art, and since he was inking, he could make sure the slightly paler lettering wasn’t made even lighter when he erased his pencils. Note that the character name The Image has a serif I, something I think he stopped doing later. In general, Aparo’s lettering is professional, consistent, and easy to read.
Aparo’s titles were always strong open letters that sometimes ran together, I think he penciled them and then went straight to ink with his fountain pen. They usually have an informal look, though he might have used a straight edge on this one, it’s a bit more regular. Due to Charlton’s notoriously uneven in-house printing, some of the letters are incomplete or missing on this page. Aparo’s balloons are well-formed freehand ovals with lots of air around the lettering.
In April 1968, Dick Giordano moved from Charlton to DC Comics as an editor, taking a few of his creators with him. In the Amash interview, Jim remembered:
He took Steve Skeates, Pat Boyette, and me. And Dick took us out and I met them and Ditko. Dick told me that Aquaman was going to need a new artist since Nick Cardy was leaving and had I heard of the character? I said sure, and he said the book would be mine, and I said, “Cool.” I had to pencil the first job. Carmine [Infantino, editorial director] wanted to make sure; he wanted to see it in pencil. Dick said, “This guy does it all right off.” Charlton didn’t see my work until the job was completed. Carmine was happy with my work and then I started turning in the jobs complete. [Pencils, inks and lettering]
Above is a page from Aparo’s third AQUAMAN issue, and the title here is looser, more typical for him. I like the Aquaman feature logo he did, with the letters running together. While Aparo also did many covers for DC, as far as I know he never did the cover lettering for those. I think the cover copy was often written after the art was turned in. At first Jim continued to work on THE PHANTOM for Charlton as well as AQUAMAN, but after a year or two he left Charlton, and thereafter did almost all his work for DC. He was popular with fans, and he had no trouble meeting deadlines at his regular page-a-day schedule, so it worked well for him and for the company.
For a while, Aparo had two bi-monthly books, doing THE PHANTOM STRANGER in between issues of AQUAMAN. His story title here is very typical, and like Ben Oda, done freehand. The lighter lines of his fountain pen can be seen in the close-up, but they reproduced fine. It looks to me like the emphasized words are done with double strokes of his pen, which would take a bit longer, but at least he didn’t have to change pens. Or possibly the thicker lines were made by pressing harder. I confess I’ve never lettered with a fountain pen, but that also seems possible. His letters have gotten wider at this point, and he continued to use this style of lettering for many years.
By 1971, THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD was a Batman team-up book, and when Batman teamed with Phantom Stranger in this issue, they asked Aparo to draw it. His style seemed a perfect fit for Batman, and editor Murray Boltinoff soon asked him to become the regular artist on the book, moving over from AQUAMAN. He missed only a few issues from #100 to the final one, #200. Though writer and artist credits were not yet common at DC, Aparo always included them. Readers probably didn’t know he was also the letterer. Here every bit of the lettering is organic, there are no perfectly straight lines, and it works well. Aparo follows a common style at DC of making the first letter of a caption a little larger and bolder. The larger words of the title are probably double-lined.
Aparo’s style seems well suited to creepy costumed characters, he handled The Spectre for a run in this book. I love the way the story title swoops around the plane, and the askew thought balloon also adds to the unease.
Aparo’s sound effects were as organic as his lettering. Not flashy, but just the right size to make an impact, and sometimes with a thin drop shadow to help them read.
A tombstone caption on this splash page gave Jim a chance to do larger display lettering that works well in perspective. The story title is effective, and I like the joined letters.
THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD presented an extra challenge: having to draw a different team-up character or group in each issue, and Aparo did it all with apparent ease. His lettering was up to anything the script asked for, like the large open letters on this page. As with his art, Jim’s lettering was consistently good.
The final issue of TB&TB included a preview of Aparo’s next project, BATMAN AND THE OUTSIDERS, for which he created the visual aspects of several new characters.
It’s kind of a shame that Aparo didn’t credit himself as letterer for most of his career. Here he shows versatility with a well-designed Old English title. By 1978, all DC comics had lettering credits, so some readers must have figured it out.
By this time, most of Aparo’s work was being inked and lettered by others, but he was still occasionally doing everything once in a while, as on his pages for this book.
Aparo became the regular artist on BATMAN for a while starting in 1993, and at first was doing the inking and lettering. For the first time that I can find, he gives himself credit for lettering here. His title is large and effective. But after a few issues, he was only doing pencils. Perhaps that was his choice, I don’t know.
Aparo continued to work sporadically for DC until about 2000. I was privileged to letter this one page he did returning to The Phantom Stranger as part of a Neil Gaiman story. Aparo passed in 2005 at the age of 72. His work will long be remembered by fans, his lettering will long be appreciated by lettering fans like me.