Joe Kubert 1926-2012
I’ve been meaning to sit down and write something about the passing of Joe Kubert for awhile now. I hate that I’ve not been able to do this sooner due to a pressing deadline. Now I’m finished and can actually concentrate, though I question whether I can truly sort out my thoughts about the passing of someone so important to comics and to my own life.
One of my most powerful memories of growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s was of sitting on the passenger side of my mother’s car (yep, the old bench seat) having just returned from the grocery store. It was a typical sweltering Texas summer day. In the blazing Texas heat, pulling in to the driveway with the radio playing “Heart of Gold” by Neil Young, I stared at Sgt. Rock’s Prize Battle Tales with a Joe Kubert cover. Joe Kubert was synonymous to me with the best of the best comics work in the world. I was so excited to have that comic in my hot little hands and knew without a doubt that the promise of great stories and art inside was a given. That memory is a wonderfully warm place I still go to now and again. It sumps up perfectly what comics meant to me then. They were everything, and Joe’s work was one of the reasons why.
There was a time when I was very young in my comic reading that the characters were everything to me. I started reading comic books because I was in the Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston having open heart surgery. I was there a long, long time. The Batman television show was on and I was hooked. This was first run stuff. I didn’t know what comics were, I don’t think. But everyone in my family saw how much I loved the Batman show and started bringing me the Batman comics. Little did they know they were igniting a very big fire!
So I became addicted to comic books and began collecting in earnest. Batman was huge, and so was Sgt. Rock. Texas in my childhood was full of little boys playing guns. All our fathers were World War II vets and Audie Murphy was our hero. And we all read Sgt. Rock (Our Army at War), The Haunted Tank (G.I. Combat), The Unknown Soldier (Star Spangled War Stories), Enemy Ace, The Losers, etc. All DC Comics books on war.
As I mentioned, those characters were huge to me. They might as well have been real people for the amount of emotional investment I had in them. I followed their exploits like crazy. But at some point I experienced a shift. I must have been about eight years old or so, and though I still loved the characters and couldn’t wait to see what each issue brought, the artists who drew the books, and the writers who wrote them, became real people to me and they became the real heroes, especially the artists. Their work infused me with so much energy, so much love of the graphic arts, even at that tender age. They were teaching me hw to compose, how to see, and, more importantly, how drawings could emote.
They became like the crazy Uncle that everyone loves. There were many for me throughout my childhood: Jack Kirby, Bob Kane, Marshall Rogers, Sam Glanzman, Ric Estrada, Russ Heath, Roy Crane, Frank Frazetta, Jeff Jones, Bernie Wrightson, Mike Kaluta, Barry Windsor-Smith, Richard Corben, John Severin, Neal Adams, Charles Schulz, Stan Lynde, the list is endless.
And there was Joe Kubert.
Joe was the most prolific, or at least the one name that seemed to be forever and always in my face. Those covers! He did so, so many! I’d buy a comic just for his covers, and did, many, many times. His line, his compositions, everything! He nailed me. I wanted to BE Joe Kubert. He was the place in comics that was the ultimate comfort zone for me. I knew I was home. I knew that there was little better, for me, than where I was right then with Joe leading the way. I copied Joe’s work endlessly, struggling to achieve that incredible effortless feeling of his work.
Joe was working almost at the very beginning of comic books. He got his first paying job as a comic artist when he was eleven-and-a-half or twelve years old in 1938.
So many issues of Sgt. Rock poured forth from Joe’s brush and pen. I had (have) them all. And they are as fresh to me today as they were when I first saw them. I can still get lost in his storytelling. Easy as pie.
And his Tarzan is for me the best ever done in comics. I know there’s a lot of Jesse Marsh fans out there and that’s great. But Joe defined that character for me. I can’t even begin to describe the emotions that ran through me then, and still hit me where I live now. They encapsulate more than just Tarzan to me. So… what can I say?
I remember the day I was sitting on my parents’ sofa reading through the newest issue of Sgt. Rock and seeing this curious advertisement about the Kubert School! My jaw dropped. I got sick to my stomach I was so excited. Here was a school created by one of the people I admired most in comics! I would have killed to have been able to attend that school. But beyond my own gnawing desire I didn’t believe it was something I would be allowed to do. So I didn’t pursue it. But it killed me knowing it was out there.
And of course, comics wise, there was Enemy Ace. Ace was unique to me and in many ways, it seems, to Joe as well. Those stories seem more open, more full of air and light than many others he did. And they’re iconic of reading comics at a time when the Vietnam war was constantly on the news. Rock was too. All those comics. But Ace sticks out. And in the end, years later became my ticket to meet Joe Kubert.
After getting my project green-lighted at DC (Thanks to Scott Hampton and Andy Helfer) I probed about and asked if I could get Joe Kubert’s phone number to show him all the work and to pick his brain about the character. And to my amazement they agreed!
Joe was one of the nicest people I think I’ve ever met in my life. Meeting one’s hero’s is a dicey business. It could go two ways. One could never be sure of what one would find. Joe was incredibly nice, warm and friendly. He was so humble about his work and all that he accomplished. That definitely made a huge impact on me. He looked through the work that I was doing and gave me many, many pointers about how to improve the storytelling and panel arrangements. He talked to me about how he had approached the character and how long he would spend laying out his stories and how long it took him to produce the finals. I was, of course, in heaven.
Joe took lots of time from his hectic schedule to help a newcomer. So gracious with his time and his talent.
Surprisingly, Joe asked me to teach at his school. That was a mind bender for me. I leapt at the chance! Just to be near Joe, really. To be that close to greatness! I would take a bus to my friend John VanFleet’s home in New Jersey where I’d spend the night and we’d catch a movie with his sister. The next morning John would drive me to the train station where I’d ride to Dover, New Jersey. There Joe would pick me up in his truck and we’d head to the school. I was so proud to be able to ride with Joe to the school and to actually be sitting next to him and be able to talk to him about whatever. It was a rare, unforgettable experience.
I loved the meetings all the teachers would have in the office, loved seeing the folders each of the classes were kept in and the doodles that Joe would have sketched on them: Cowboys on horseback, cavemen, etc. Loved seeing the Joe Kubert originals on the walls of the school — Everything about it. The students were wonderful and getting to meet Joe’s family was an honor as well. All sincerely gracious, honest people.
Having lost my father in 1995 I know exactly what the Kubert children are going through. But I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been to share their dad with the world as they did. My heart goes out to them. If their personalities are any indication, and I think they are, Joe and his wife Muriel did an incredible job as parents. And it shows the kind of people they were as well.
I miss Joe Kubert.
I miss his bear hugs, I miss his crushing handshake, his ready smile, his kind words of wisdom, and of course, the work. What an enduring legacy he leaves behind, not only in his work, but in his children who are a living testament to the true qualities of the man.
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