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Legends of the Dark Knight: Jim Aparo, Vol. 1 (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises, July is “Batman month” here at the m0vie blog. Check back daily for comics, movies and television reviews and discussion of the Caped Crusader.

The game was old and alluring… but when the Batman and his beautiful ally, Wonder Woman, buy into a sweep stakes of danger and double-cross, they learn too late that their tickets are punched…

– introduction to Play Now… Die Later!

I’ll freely concede that older comics are a mixed bag, and that they’re certainly an acquired taste. As much as I might recognise the importance of certain classic runs on iconic character, reading comics even a decade or two old is a strange experience for me. I can appreciate the care and craftsmanship going into them, but I’m frequently distracted by the redundant thought balloons, the bizarre logic and quaint characterisation. I know that’s my problem, and I freely concede that. Sometimes, however, I come across a piece of pure old-fashioned awesomeness that almost makes my feel that nostalgia many comic book readers recognise.

Legends of the Dark Knight: Jim Aparo, Volume 1 is such a book, collecting a portion of the iconic Brave and Bold run featuring art by Jim Aparo and scripts by Bob Haney. It is insane. It is awesome. It is fun. It is incredible. I was reluctant to put down these delightful unrestrained Batman stories, and I frequently found myself pumping my fist in the air with excitement and… well, awe. It’s never going to be considered high literature, but Jim Aparo and Bob Haney may have mastered the old-school “comic book” artform.

This isn’t even the craziest thing that happens this run…

Some of the more wonderful “comic book moments” captured here include:

  • the Joker forcing Batman and a friend to fight to the death… or he’ll shoot a puppy!
  • Batman accidentally selling his soul… to Hitler!
  • the Atom climbing inside Batman’s skull… and operating his body like a JCB!
  • Batman saving the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence… while tied to the cowcatcher on a train!
  • Batman teaming up with Kamandi… in a future dominated by talking animals and modelled on Planet of the Apes!

If none of these produce even a hint of childish glee, I don’t know what to say to you.

Even this image cannot capture the awesomeness of this comic… They left out the bit where the Joker is coercing them to do this by threatening to shoot a puppy… that has life-saving anti-virals in its blood for a plague the Joker started… to kill off a henchman who might testify against him…

Note: the ever-wonderful Bat-guru Chris Sims has done a whole slew of posts about the awesomeness of this comic. Here, here and here are some highlights.

This is, as with a lot of DC’s recent classic Batman collections, an artist-centric volume. While I’ve enjoyed the books featuring the works of Gene Colan and Don Newton, they collect artwork from a range of different authors, and thus containing many different iterations of the same central character. I feel much more comfortable discussing Legends of the Dark Knight: Marshall Rogers, which features a collection of work with iconic Batman writer Steve Englehart. And so this collaboration between Bob Haney and Jim Aparo allows me to explore a wonderfully consistent run of classic comics, presenting a fairly well-formed image of the Dark Knight.

Aparo doesn’t really get as much respect as he deserves, when it comes to Batman. It’s generally conceded that the author’s most lasting contribution to DC comics was as the defining artist on Aquaman. He is somewhat overshadowed by other artists working on Batman and Detective Comics during the seventies. Of course, I’m talking about Neal Adams or Gene Colan or even Marshall Rogers.

Na na na na na na na… Man-Bat!

However, it’s stunning to look at Jim Aparo’s longevity as an artist on the Batman line. As late as the nineties, the artist was regularly contributing to such iconic modern Batman stories as Knightfall. I was pleasantly surprised to find “Volume 1” appended to the title, as I believe the book was advertised and sold as a complete set. There’s a lot of Aparo’s work to draw on, but I do hope that DC makes an effort to collect the rest of his work with Bob Haney, as it is well and truly awesome.

While Aparo’s visual style isn’t as distinctive as Adams’ or Rogers’ or even Colan, he does have his own unique way of rendering Batman and his iconic foes. I love the way that Aparo draws the Caped Crusader’s cape, so it sort of bellows out a bit near the bottom, even when he’s standing still. Or the way that Aparo’s Joker manages to look both amusing and deeply sinister at the same time, due to that uncanny extended jaw and the way his cheekbones seem to mirror his eyebrows.

He’s got the Atom on the brain…

However, what defines Aparo as an artist – and what makes him a perfect fit for Haney, is that the guy draws absolutely incredible action. His figures are just dynamic, which is perfectly in keeping with Haney’s style of storytelling. Haney will typically drop us into the middle of an action sequence with little context, and Aparo will just pick up the ball to the point where we don’t mind that Haney won’t explain what’s happening for several pages (if he ever does). Aparo’s figures typically hit each other so hard that they are liable to explode… which is, again, perfectly in keeping with Haney’s way of telling a Batman story.

I honestly believe, based on the evidence presented here, that Haney and Aparo have a rare artistic synergy, up there with the very best creative teams. They just seem to operate on the same wavelength, and there’s seldom a moment where either lets the other down. There’s never a moment Haney’s script doesn’t work infinitely better than it really should, and even the dullest story has at least one brilliantly bizarre image for Aparo to lovingly render. I do believe they work as well together as Morrison and Quitely, or Moore and Gibbons.

Deadman walking…

And so, what we have here, are 500 pages of the most gloriously insane and ridiculous and awesome Batman stories ever to see the light of day. Sure, Grant Morrison’s The Return of Bruce Wayne might have sent the character on a whirlwind trip through history, and there are classic stories that see Batman travelling through time and space, but there’s something bizarrely pulpy about the way that Haney and Aparo blend these ridiculous high-concepts with a relatively grounded iteration of Batman.

The things that happen to him and the world that he inhabits might be more than a little surreal, but Haney writes Batman as a bad-ass mortal. There’s never any existential angst about being a mere man in a world of wacky super-science and gods and demons, but Batman himself serves as something on an anchor in these stories, exuding the sort of machismo that man associate with the seventies. He’s like a cross between Chuck Norris and Ron Burgandy, with a hint of Diedrich Bader’s version of the character from The Brave & The Bold.

Yesterday’s news…

This is quintessential seventies Batman, distilled into its purest possible form. Under Haney and Aparo, The Brave and the Bold is a firm rebuke to fans who argue about consistent characterisation of seventy-year-old icons. While Haney’s Batman always sounds like Haney’s Batman, he sounds quite distinct from all other iterations, while still being recognisable. In many ways, he seems like something of a half-way point between Adam West’s bright and cheerful iteration and Frank Miller’s somewhat edgier version of the Dark Knight.

Haney gives the Caped Crusader the most stereotypical seventies dialogue. Batman is fond of remarks like “answer me that, lawyer-man!” or “check you later, Mr Vice Prez!” When one character offers their version of events, Batman is on hand to offer his opinion. “Far out story, Voss! Can you prove it?” Ted Grant emerges from retirement, declaring “Wildcat rides again!” Batman gives the hero his staunchest support, “Right on!” It’s strange, but Aparo’s artwork makes it work somehow.

He’s a plant!

Haney’s Batman seems to operate with the same legitimacy that Adam West had. He parades around in broad daylight, has surgery done while wearing his cowl, flies as a passenger on aeroplanes and seems to hang out as a deputised law-man. “Batman… I know how you feel,” Gordon tells him after a brutal Joker murder, “but remember, we represent the law… not our personal emotions or hatreds! No vigilante stuff!” There’s something delightfully absurd about Gordon telling a grown man dressed as a bat to avenge the loss of his parents that there’s “no vigilante stuff.”

At one point, Gotham City even fires Batman, serving him with a “cease and desist” to put an end to his career. What’s surreal is that it works. Evidently, a man who’d rather dress up in tights and have a secret identity than join the police force respects the rule of law so much he’d let Gotham tell him to cut it out. Although the same issue does feature this delightful internal monologue, on discovering Gordon has been given forced retirement:

Poor Gordon! He really is getting too old! They did him a favor — retiring him before he becomes decrepit! Hope someone does the same for me when my time comes! Wait a minute! I hope I’m not going to be offered his job!

The life aquatic…

Yes, Bob Haney writes stories in which Batman sees himself as a legitimate successor to James Gordon as Police Commissioner. Not Bruce Wayne, but Batman. I don’t know about you, but I would watch the hell out of Law & Order: SVU if Batman were to sub in as the Chief. By the way, I do love how Haney makes Batman just a little bit of a dick, with dialogue like that, and remarking about how his recently deceased friend’s wife is a “fabulous female.”

It’s that bizarre blend of prim and proper with a slightly harder edge that makes the stories here such a joy to read. Although he’s nowhere near as psychologically complex as Frank Miller’s Batman, Bob Haney’s Dark Knight seems almost as borderline psychotic at times. For example, this version of Batman is one of the very few who will readily wield firearms. Apparently his stance against guns doesn’t apply to tear gas grenade launchers, while one of my favourite openings has Batman charging a group of drug dealers armed with a machine gun.

He’s gone batty!

To be fair, Haney tries to rationalise it away after the fact, obviously keen to get Jim Aparo to draw the image of Batman charging a group of thugs armed with a semi-automatic. “Sure,” Gordon muses, “because those creeps didn’t know it was loaded with blanks — just to humour your personal prejudice against killing and using a gun!” It still makes it sound like Gordon and Batman had a meeting a few days earlier where Batman offered, “You know what’d really freak criminals out? Me charging at ’em firing a machine gun! I bet they’d wet themselves!” It’s just as crazy as Miller’s Batman, and yet far more fun.

Indeed, all of Haney’s characters seem remarkably kill-happy. At one point, Batman doesn’t bat at an eye at Deadman’s calculated murder of a woman he fell in love with. “If Lilly kills Batman, she’ll rot in prison!” Deadman rationalises. “She may as well be dead! But if I kill her, she’ll be free of this crummy life…” Yes, he sounds just a little like a serial killer. Rumour has it (although O’Neil denies it) that Denny O’Neil and/or Neal Adams were unhappy with Haney’s kill-happy Green Arrow and even wrote a subsequent story as a response. When Man-Bat’s half-thought-out scheme kills two CIA Agents, Batman seems fairly blasé about it. “That’s a big chunk of guilt you can lug around! Now let’s move on… before we meet the same end!” (I am not paraphrasing, that’s the quote.)

Keep on truckin’…

Hell, Batman seems especially cold here, fond of post-mortem one-liners before Gilbert Grissom made it cool. Of the death of an audit department employee, he remarks, “You better believe he checked his last column of figures–!” Later on, he dismisses Gordon’s assertion that Gotham is victim to a rake of random stranglings, as he insists, “Or maybe all connected, Commissioner Gordon — by a cord of circumstance!”

Haney’s Batman even seems like a bit of ladies’ man, remarking on a dead friend’s widow at one point, and eager to get back to a pretty lady he saved from an attack. “Now I’ve got an unfinished date, Commish — with a beautiful senorita!” It seems a little cold, given that the woman’s mother is in hospital, but that’s how he rolls. This version of the character isn’t a creature of the night, but even takes the opportunity to sign autographs.

The brains of the operation…

While these moments don’t really fit with most interpretations of the character, Haney actually gets a lot of the essence of Batman right. Most obviously, Haney’s Batman is a guy who simply doesn’t know when to quit. Facing dangerous surgery, he laments that he didn’t get to topple one last drug kingpin. “If I die… my only regret is not having stopped Belknap!” That’s a pretty decent life, if that’s the only regret you have on your deathbed. In fact, Haney’s Batman seems preoccupied with whatever case he is working on, and simply won’t stop until he’s resolved it.

When a gunshot puts him in a wheelchair, Batman doesn’t seem too preoccupied with the idea that he may never walk again. He’s more concerned that he’s missing a big drugs shipment. “The one time in my life I need these hands… these legs… every ounce and inch, every fiber of my being… I’m a cripple!” he declares. “A crippled Bat doesn’t fly, Alfred!” Even in the middle of what seems to be a pretty serious recovery (not based on anything in the comic, more in the process I assume follows being put in wheelchair), Batman conspires to bring Green Arrow, Black Canary and Green Lantern to Gotham to act as his playthings.

Joke’s on him…

Almost foreshadowing the contempt Frank Miller’s Batman would show for his fellow costumed heroes, Batman proceeds to play the team like a drum as “Mr. Arachnid.” And, even facing life-threatening surgery, Batman remains completely in control of everything. The other heroes are completely dependent on him, so much so that they can’t function without him during his operation. Green Lantern declares, “Batman was our brains… our nerve centre! Let’s get to the hospital!” Not to wish a friend well, but because the three can’t foil a simple drug ring without him.

Even a “clinically dead” Batman is still a force to be reckoned with during a later story. Piloting the hero from inside his brain, the Atom encounter resistance when he tries to redirect zombie!Batman away from the front door of an enemy’s hideout. “He’s going right up to the front door –! No! Got to race back to the cerebrum… give him another idea! Yeeow! Hot electric current hitting my feet! It’s like he’s fighting my idea… sticking to his own! I’d better cooperate!” Brain-dead or not, there’s no way anyone is going to stop Bob Haney’s Batman from beating up some bad guys.

A gas time…

At the end of the story, after the Atom uses his body to foil the villains, Batman simply returns to life. There’s no reason given for why Batman suddenly recovers (the Atom theorises that the activity inside his head might have helped), but Gordon seems to fully believe that Batman wasn’t dead any more simply because Batman didn’t want to be dead any more. “Dead, you said?” the Commissioner asks the doctors. “I told you, you sawbones make mistakes! Nothing was impossible for the Batman! Nothing!” I’m inclined, based on the evidence here, to believe him.

Haney’s Batman appears to have transcended mere mortality. Several times throughout the run, Batman references his “Bat-sense”, like something Adam West might have kept on his utility belt. I initially thought that it might be just a turn of phrase, but it seems to be an actual thing that Haney’s Batman has, like a third eye or something. “Can hardly see in this place… but my Bat-sense tells me something’s about to happen!” he remarks at one point. Avoiding misfortune, her remarks, “Luckily my Bat-sense warned me!” The Atom refers to Batman’s “subconscious crimefighter’s instinct”, and maybe that’s what it is, but Haney’s Batman is the very epitome of bad-ass Batman.

Snow escape for Batman!

This might sound like I’m being ironic, but I’m not. I’m not mocking the stories, or laughing at them. I loved reading them, and I tore through the book faster than any I can remember, it was an absolute joy to read, and I think that Haney and Aparo have a rare gift for reconciling the two halves of Batman – the light pop culture icon with the dark avenger of the night. The Joker goes on a brutal killing spree in the issues contained here, even sneaking into the morgue to defile the bodies, while later on he threatens to shoot a puppy after unleashing a deadly virus. There’s absurdity, but there’s also a hint of sophistication on darkness – enough to shade the story without overwhelming the sense of fun.

That’s the key here, I think. On initial inspection, the covers evoke the age-old marketing tactic of affectionately known as “super-dickery”, where editors would show something bizarre that could only be explained by the lead acting wildly out of character. It’s so called because the most iconic of these covers featured Superman being… well… They are the kinds of covers that make you want to read the book, but you suspect the only way the author could reach that plot point was by (a.) having the lead act wildly out of character, or (b.) throwing in a completely left-field plot device.

A knockout…

What separates these covers from most of the Silver and Bronze Age magazines with a similar approach is that Haney and Aparo actually managed to construct internal coherent narratives. Don’t get me wrong, there are strange plot points scattered everywhere, to set up various storylines. However, once Haney starts telling a story, he’s relatively coherent. Or, at least, he can generally foster enough crazy awesome ideas to prevent the audience from dwelling on the internal mechanics.

When Haney promises you Batman selling his soul to Hitler, Batman sells his soul to Hitler. When Haney promises you Batman protecting the Joker from the police, you better believe that Batman protects the Joker from the police. There’s no crazy superhero prank or practical joke at play here, even if Haney might resort to the occasional crazy don’t-think-about-it-too-hard plot point in order to play out whatever the cover promised, but he and Aparo are remarkably awesome at playing out these crazy scenarios without a hint of self-awareness or cynicism.

There will be Blood…

There are moments you don’t want to spend too long thinking about, for sure. However, they all exist to serve Haney’s story, and are easy enough to accept at face value. It’s only if you dwell on them that your head might explode. Batman has an out of body experience that takes him to the distant future, for example, or he warns Sgt. Rock “and there’s no such thing as ghosts–!” despite hanging out with the Phantom Stranger and the Spectre in this collection. Batman can phone Aquaman using a regular landline, by ringing “an unlisted number, and, in moments, the call is re-routed through a secret cable to a glimmering under-sea city.”

Batman even seems to maintain a pretty active social life. Not Bruce Wayne, but Batman. The guy in the cowl. The first story, Mansion of the Misbegotten, introduces us to a character on his death bed. We’re told that he and Batman are “oldest and best of friends.” Asked to take care of the man’s child, Batman responds, “I’m Enoch’s godfather.” I imagine that was the best Baptism ever. It doesn’t even seem like Batman just popped in every once in a while either, he seems put out that he doesn’t recognise anybody at the funeral. “These are friends of Clorina’s and Roger’s… Odd I never met any them before…”

A demonic ritual through a seventies lens…

Haney’s writing makes it easy to forgive these somewhat bizarre elements. Telling a single story in each issue, structured into three acts, it’s amazing how much the writer can fit into a comic book adventure. And it’s never too confusing and dense, even when he whips out the absurd plot points like “a coven for witches and warlocks” operating from Batman’s best friend’s house. By the end of the first story collected here, I actually didn’t find it especially strange to hear the Phantom Stranger declare, “Yes, your godson’s pure evil — the mystic source of the coven’s power!”

I think at least part of the reason that Haney and Aparo’s stories are such fun to read is because of the rich pulpy atmosphere they evoke. Sure, there are demons and aliens, but they’re all filtered through the lens of genre fiction – detective stories, mysteries, adventures, all tinged with a hint of the bizarre. It’s the willingness with which Haney seems to seize those strange elements that infuses the series with a sense of joy.

Haney’s really got Bruce tied down…

There is room for cheesy fatalistic noir plotting, such as in Second Chance for Deadman, where the eponymous spook falls in love with a criminal. When he tells her he’s a disembodied spirit occupying her lover’s body, she takes it rather well “It… it explains so much!” she declares. “I love you — Boston Brand — the tender lover who lives in Richie Wandrus’ body!” It’s a curious cocktail, and I’m hard pushed to think of anything quite like it, and it epitimises the sheer joy of Haney’s plotting.

Even in this world of Metal Men and Phantom Strangers, Batman is still a detective, always sharp and always picking holes in the stories of villains and crooks. This is a version of the character who can hunt down a fugitive with the Spirit of God’s Wrath and recognise a classic long con. Haney gives the stories a rich international atmosphere, as Batman seems to cross the globe in pursuit of justice, which lends the stories a somewhat novel air.

A good heart these days…

At one point, Haney even casts Batman as an old-fashioned adventurer exploring the tombs of Egypt. “When you’re in Egypt, investigating the Mastaba’s sale, Batman,” an archeologist begs him, “how about the world’s greatest detective looking for the world’s greatest secret?” This is a version of the character who simply won’t say no to an adventure like that, even if it’s a little outside his expertise or a strange request.

Haney draws on a wealth of genres and ideas popular during the seventies to help expand the character’s horizons. In keeping with the topical issues of the time, Batman seems to be waging a one-man war on drugs. There are repeated hints of intrigue in Latin America. One story sees Batman meddling in a skyjacking, while another tackles the seventies energy crisis and  the possibility of alternative fuels.

God(father) help us…

Haney even makes a point to embrace new-age counter-culture, casting the mysterious Egyptian god Atun as an ancient astronaut, while Batman seems to use astral projection to connect with Kamandi’s distant future. It’s very eclectic stew, to be honest, but it keeps everything fresh. Nothing is too heavy-handed, even if several of the plot points do scream “seventies!” quite loudly. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The book wears its pop culture influences on its sleeve, and they seem to be the right ones. Haney returns time and again to the  image of the sinister one-armed men, evoking the classic television show The Fugitive. One adventure even has Batman jumping a stockade on a military motorbike, as if to suggest that The Great Escape might have gone a bit differently had it been Batman who was captured by the Nazis.

Para-shooting…

All of this is washed down by a glorious sense that neither Haney nor Aparo are taking any of this too seriously. “Astoundimg! Trailblazing! Sensational!” opens one story. Then, immediately, “None of these describes our latest Brave and Bold saga, wherein the heroes of two different worlds, Batman and Kamandi, pass across the gulf of time itself, the torch of the future, and let loose the defiant cry… This Earth is Mine.” It’s charmingly self-deprecating. And there’s something endearing about Haney’s fascination referring to the character by the title of “bat hombre!” It turns up surprisingly frequently.

Witness the sheer unadulterated exuberance of perhaps my favourite issue of the run, which was a tough choice. The Night Batman Sold His Soul! features Batman accidentally selling his soul to the devil… who is also Hitler. Drowning after a failed attempt to resolve a kidnapping, Bruce promises, “I’d give my soul to get out of here! I don’t want to die! Batman wants to live!” On cure, an old man pulls him out the well. Later on, he meets Sgt. Rock, who explains how grave the situation is. “Brucie-boy… you think you’re making a joke — but that old weirdo is Hitler!”

An arch(er) planner…

(Continuity nerds will lament the appearance of Sgt. Rock here. The character, a staple of DC’s war comics line, was often described as being killed by the last bullet fired during the Second World War. Bob Haney is one of very few writers to contradict this aspect of the mythos, but I honestly don’t mind. I’ve never seen continuity as too important – and Haney’s stories are fun enough to justify their own existence. After all, there are significant differences between just about all characters in the DC universe and how Haney chooses to present them.)

Because that devil-Hitler reveal is simply too awesome not to delve into, Sgt. Rock jumps into it again in the second act. “Brucie-boy, I tell you that old guy who claims you sold him your ever-living soul is the biggest Nazi of ’em all… Der Fuehrer… Adolf Hitler!” You can tell that Haney was having the time of his life writing this from the caption at the end of the first act. “And you Brave and Bold ones feel your minds being blown, the shock waves get bigger in Part 2 which follows immediately.” My mind was blown.

Gunning for crooks…

Sure, I’ll concede that the pair do miss once or twice. In particular, there’s a cringe-worthy story towards the end of the volume that sees some Native American terrorists trying to hijack the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution on a train touring the country with Batman guarding them. It would have been bad enough without Batman uttering “Now to ambush myself a few Injuns.” I know it’s marginally less insane than some of the other plot points, but I’ll confess that I really disliked the resolution – the coincidence of another terrorist attack. Still, these misses are few and far between.

Jim Aparo and Bob Haney’s run on The Brave and the Bold is easily one of the most fun comic books I have ever read. It’s gloriously unhinged, and yet strangely engaging. It’s illogical and insane, but it’s always fascinating. It makes a wonderfully compelling argument for the versatility of the character of Batman, who can almost be anything that he needs to be. There’s no “right” way to do Batman, and Haney and Aparo manage to take an approach that seems ridiculous on paper, but just works because the pair have tremendous synergy.

A grave matter…

It won’t be for anybody, but I think that these stories feature a wonderfully surreal blend of the more modern and darker Batman with the footloose-and-fancy-free high camp of the sixties television show. Part of the appeal is undoubtedly the novelty of seeing these two distinct approaches playing off each other, but there’s no denying that Haney and Aparo fuse the two sensibilities far better than anybody could have expected. I should also praise DC for keeping most of the covers intact. Some volumes in this collection omit the covers to the issues, because the cover isn’t always done by the internal artist. This collection omits cover artwork not done by Aparo, but retains his covers from the series. I like to have the covers if only to serve as “chapter breaks” between these sorts of done-in-one classic stories.

I’ll be waiting for Legends of the Dark Knight: Jim Aparo, Volume 2, collecting the rest of their collaboration.

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2 Responses

  1. You do a great job of teasing out the wacky, free-wheelin’, hard-boiled essence of these tales. Haney has a bad rap in some quarters, but he’s always been one of my fave comics writers–inventive, intricate, off-the-wall, devil-may-care, and so on. He can pull off a de-powered Wonder Woman getting saved by her Amazonian guardian angel in the midst of an otherwise pretty gritty and almost-realistic story about gangs and revolutionaries. Or I should say, he can do with Aparo, who next to Neal Adams is my fave Batman artist. Yeah, this is definitely *my* Batman here, first and foremost a detective, with more than a bit of Philip Marlowe and even a little Sherlock Holmes about him. I can’t recognize the “real” Batman in later iterations where he’s bulked up and way out of his street-level league. Give me this gritty no-nonsense guy and *these* guys writing and drawing him with real style, flair, and fun. It’s hard to go back over this stuff without a big grin. Excellent collection as well as comments on it.

    • Thanks!

      Haney and Aparo really are a fantastic combination and sorely underrated. I really can’t wait to have a proper read through the second and third volumes of the set.

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