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Farewell, Joe Kubert: An Interview with the Great Comic Book Artist

The influential comic book artist Joe Kubert died on August 12. Kubert was one of the pioneering golden-age artists that contributed to the comics art form right up to the present. Remarkably, he began his career when he was barely in his teens, when he inked his first story, for Archie (although his exact age would vary from telling to telling.) Best known for Hawkman and Sgt. Rock, Kubert also created such popular characters as Tor, Viking Prince, his interpretation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan, and the comic strip Tales of the Green Beret with writer Robin Moore.

Kubert was born in Poland, the son of a kosher butcher, and his family soon relocated to Brooklyn. He attended the High School of Music and Art in Harlem. While there he began working for the premier comic book company National (now DC). In the 1950s, he became the managing editor of St. John Publications, where he pioneered 3-D comics. He returned to DC in 1955 and later served as editor and director of publications. In 1976, he founded the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, now the Kubert School, in Dover, New Jersey, to teach future generations of comics artists. In later years, Kubert explored more personal themes, such as in the 2003 graphic novel Yossel, which imagined his life had his family not left Poland before World War II.

Fantagraphics recently published both a biography of Kubert, Man of Rock by Bill Schelly, and an art book, The Art of Joe Kubert. I interviewed Kubert in 2008 for my book on the comic book artist Mort Meskin, From Shadow to Light. Here, Kubert discusses the beginnings of his long career at the very dawn of the golden age.

You met Mort when you were 12 years old?

He was the first guy, one of the first guys that I met the first time I ever went to a comic book house. I was perhaps 12—I doubt if I was 12 years old, because I lived in East New York, in Brooklyn, and I had a friend who went to junior high school with me, and one of his relatives, he said, was a comic book publisher. This guy that I went to school with knew that I was doing muscle-guy cartoons since I was a kid. He said, “Joe, you do all this stuff all the time, why don’t you go up and get a job? You’re doing all this funny comic book stuff, you could do that.”

That place happened to be MLJ, before Archie Comics. And I found out where their office was, in downtown New York, on Canal. And I packed my stuff up, sketches and so on that I did with pencil or whatever, and wrapped it up in a newspaper and I took the subway from Brooklyn into Manhattan. The subway was a nickel at the time; I could just swing that. And I went up and, jeez, the guys that were there were terrific. I remember what the office looked like. There was a banister that separated the entranceway, inside the office, from where the artists were working, and there was a row of art desks. I had never seen anything like that; it was brand-new to me.

One of the guys up there was Mort [Meskin]. Mort was sitting at a table. Charlie Biro [later the creator of Daredevil and Crime comics] was up there at the time. And (soon to be Superman artist Al) Pastino—a whole bunch of guys were there. I had never met them or knew anything about them. They allowed me to come into the bullpen area and watch the guys work. It was the first time I saw the size of the paper, the kind of paper that was being used, that fact that it was being inked. I had no knowledge of that at all. Mort was shy; I think he was even more shy than he was later in life. The drawings that he was doing just knocked me out. What really impressed me more than anything else was his ability to do foreshortening. You must understand, for anyone starting to draw, you can do a stick figure, you can do them straight up and down. But when you take a figure and have a guy jumping out at you, and he has his leg in front of the other one, in a foreshortened position, that is a difficult thing for a novice artist to do. That was an impossibility for me. Those things just amazed me, even at that point, and I loved the stuff that Mort was doing.

A little bit of an aside: Mort was sitting in a corner, next to the window looking over Canal Street. I said, “Gee, I love the work you are doing,” and he said, “You know, kid, why don’t you go over and tell the editor.” So I went over and tried to do it as innocuously as possible . I said, “Gee, I love that guy’s work.” The editor, I’ve forgotten his name, shouted out, “Mort, thanks for sending the kid over.” So that was my first meeting with Mort and the guys, all of them. I don’t remember precisely who it was, but they gave me brushes to work with, they gave me the kind of paper to use. Jeez, they were so kind to me, this obnoxious kid that came from no place. That was the opening, that was my beginning.

You took your friend’s advice, because you started very young in the business.

I started my work within a year or so of that time. The first job, I was about 12 or 13, something like that, and I’ve been working ever since.

Did you ever work with Mort directly after that?

I inked on his Vigilante when he was penciling for DC. I guess I was maybe 16, 17, something like that. One of the jobs I came across was Johnny Quick. I inked on Johnny Quick, which Mort was doing at the time. And I inked his Vigilante, which was incredible because his penciling was so beautiful. He worked in an entirely different way than most artists do. He would first smug the whole paper in a kind of a gray patina over the whole entire page, and then he would pencil on top of that. Then, with a kneaded eraser, he would pick up the highlights, so that he had a dimensionality in his work that I had not seen in any other work.

I was really impressed with him and when they gave me this stuff to ink, I felt kind of intimidated. But when I brought it in and showed it to Mort, he said “It looks fine.” I asked him to tell me if I can improve it. He said, “No, you’re doing good, kid. Just go ahead and do what you’re doing.” This was after the beautiful work that he had done, and I’m sure I loused the hell out of it. I loused up some of his best stuff. This also was a terrific learning experience for me.

Did he influence your work?

Oh, absolutely. When I inked it especially, I learned quite a bit about composition. In fact, one of the things that he told me early on, I noticed that on every page he did, he would have one large illustration. I asked him about that. I said, “ How do you decide which drawing you want to focus on and give more size to, more space to on the page?” And he said, “Well, when I read the script, I figure out which is the most dramatic, most impactful way and I concentrate around that. I build my whole page around that.” Which was a terrific idea, for several reasons: Number one, it makes a more interesting page, a more interesting drawing. And most young people who pick up a comic book, if they haven’t seen it before, will usually flip through the pages. And a larger panel, a more dramatic panel catches their eye. That may be the book that they’ll buy, just because of that illustration.

Those are some of the things that I learned from him, but there was a great deal. He was a terrific artist, a terrific storyteller. Beyond just being able to draw, he was able to communicate. And his characterization was so believable that he made the whole story that much more credible.

. See also: The Insider’s Guide To Creating Comics And Graphic Novels and 1000 Comic Books You Must Read, available at MyDesignShop.com.

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