Joe Kubert 1926-2012

Hawkman trying to help Hawkwoman free herself from grip of an elephant’s trunk
Art from cover to Joe Kubert Presents #1 © 2012 DC Comics.

Joe Kubert died three weeks ago yesterday, on Aug. 12th, at the age of 85.

Anyone who follows comics knows this already, thanks to news sites, social networks, etc., and has almost surely seen a fuller portrait of the man than I can provide. I’ve been wanting to put up at least a brief post about him, though, for the benefit of readers who come here mostly for the non-comics stuff I muse upon yet still have some curiosity about this strange demimonde that’s begun spawning billion-dollar movies. Jack Kirby, discussed the other day, may have been the King of Comics — to mix metaphors, perhaps part of American comics’ Holy Trinity, with Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman, in terms of establishing its visual language — but Kubert was at least a Great Duke. Joe Kubert art is, to his eternal credit, as unmistakable as it is beautiful.

Joe Kubert at his drawing board. Photo: Unknown.

I never got to meet Joe. My old compatriot Stefan Blitz did, last year, for a convention panel he moderated — a story he’s told over at Forces of Geek. If I had met Joe, of course, I’d have called him “Mr. Kubert”; I get the sense he’d have asked me to call him Joe, and I’d have done whatever was necessary to hang around him long enough to feel comfortable doing so.

Cover to St. John’s Tor #3 © 1953 Joe Kubert.
Pencils, Inks, Letters, Colors?: Kubert.

Kubert was, like Kirby ( Jacob Kurtzberg) and so many other vital contributors to
the comic-book industry’s Golden Age, the son of immigrants from Eastern Europe and/or one himself. While that may sound grammatically suspect, I mean it literally: Born in a Polish shtetl, Joe was just two months old when he arrived with his family in Brooklyn in late 1926; he, his sister, and his parents were thus all “first-generation” Americans, but he lived here virtually his entire life even as his Jewish heritage was a touchstone for various projects throughout that life.

Cover to Unknown Soldier #247 © 1981 DC Comics, original stat [enlarge] and in color as
published. Pencils, Inks: Joe Kubert. Letters: Gaspar Saladino. Script, Colors: Unknown.

He broke into the business young, although his own accounts vary. Despite significant
work for other publishers — including St. John Publications, where he introduced Tor, the caveman strip he created with childhood friend Norman Maurer — Kubert has been most strongly connected for most of his career with DC Comics. His long association with Hawkman dates to 1945’s Flash Comics #62; it was a measure of both his relative youth and his evolution as an artist that editor Julius Schwartz tapped Kubert, who drew Hawkman’s last solo story to date in 1948, to handle the character’s Silver Age revival in 1960. The constantly refined Kubert style can be seen on a dazzlingly wide variety of features, from Viking Prince in the ’50s to Ragman in the ’70s and beyond, yet his most prominent contributions, apart from (if not alongside — heck, in the scheme of things, probably above) his tenure on Hawkman, were for DC’s war titles and Sgt. Rock in particular, not only via his pencil but as editor and guiding light.

Original page from “Stone-Age War” in Our Army at War #220 © 1970 DC Comics.
Script, Pencils, Inks: Joe Kubert. Letters: Gaspar Saladino. [enlarge]

I’ve already written more than I meant to and it’s nothing that you can’t find elsewhere. Mark Evanier posted one remembrance of Kubert on the day he passed and another the day after. The Comics Reporter’s Tom Spurgeon followed his obituary with a great survey post full of links. You can take in a trove of sketches, commissions, and original comic-book art over at the Joe Kubert Never Dies blog, which will give you a better idea of Kubert’s panel-to-panel composition in addition to his figure work and cover illustration (much of the latter featuring the unmistakable genius of longtime DC staff letterer Gaspar Saladino).

Double-page spread, original art, from “The Magic Herb” in DC’s Tarzan #235 © 1974
Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. Script, Pencils, Inks: Joe Kubert. Letters: Unknown.[enlarge]

Had Kubert merely sustained a legendary 70-year career in drawing comics, dayenu — it would have been enough for us. Joe increased his already inestimable contribution to the medium countless times over, however, through The Kubert School in Dover, New Jersey. Graduates include Rick Veitch, Tom Yeates, Steve Lieber, Jan Duursema, Tom Mandrake, Dave Dorman, Rags Morales, and Steve Bissette. Bissette’s memorial to Joe the day after his passing is quite moving — if you only click one link I’ve given, I recommend it be this — and he followed it up with further thoughts, including links to other tributes, several days later. One of my favorite creative hands, Ty Templeton, has shared an anecdote about Kubert in a delightful little strip.

While I never met Kubert, I’ve met a number of Kubert School alumni; in the short time that I spent making my own comics before my career turned largely to writing about them — with a bit of freelance graphic design and cartooning too — Bissette and Veitch were very supportive, and it’s clear that anyone mentored by Joe feels a dedication to paying things forward. Adam and Andy Kubert, two of Joe’s four children, followed their father into the comics business as well to great acclaim.

Cover to All-Star Squadron #13 © 1982 DC Comics. Pencils, Inks:
Joe Kubert. Letters: Gaspar Saladino. Colors: Tatjana Wood?

I’m loathe to admit that, his Silver Age Hawkman work excepted, in my childhood I wasn’t much of a Kubert fan. He was doing Sgt. Rock and the like, which just wasn’t my cup of tea — I was laser-focused on superheroes; war and jungle action and even broader fantasy were all in the also-ran position, although I did enjoy the occasional issue of his 1972-1975 run on Tarzan as a diversion from my usual diversions. Kubert began a stint as cover artist in 1981 on my beloved All-Star Squadron, and while I can appreciate his work more now than I did then I still think he was rather mismatched with the material. What I’ve long since come to know as a loose, easy, fluid style — one that to my eyes, at least on work that inspired him, unfailingly possessed a certain haunting, almost mournful quality — struck the younger me as unappealingly sketchy. That’s certainly the phrase that I would use for the old Heroes World catalogs that I devoured, illustrated by Kubert and his students in the days when it was somehow more practical to run inexact drawings of Mego action figures and such than actual photographs.

Art from 1977 Super DC Calendar © 1977 DC Comics. Pencils, Inks: Joe Kubert. Colors: Unknown.

Having long since been schooled in Kubert’s mastery, I pricked up my ears when DC announced last month that it would be releasing a six-issue anthology curated by him called Joe Kubert Presents. I’m reading few periodical comics these days, hesitant to add more, and not particularly enamored of DC’s general direction outside of its surprisingly welcome collected editions, but my immediate reaction to this project — to include Hawkman, Kubert’s infamously long-unpublished The Redeemer, and the return of Sam Glanzman’s USS Stevens feature — was pure enthusiasm. Kubert’s creative vitality continued right up through his hospitalization for multiple myeloma; in recent years he’d returned to Sgt. Rock, Hawkman, and other DC properties, sometimes collaborating with his sons, and was continuing to produce the kind of personal work that began in earnest with the 1996 graphic novel Fax from Sarajevo, based on correspondence from his friend and European agent Ervin Rustemagić during the siege of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Oddly enough given my disappointment with his All-Star Squadron covers, Kubert rendered one of my favorite illustrations of that series’ inspiration, the Justice Society of America, for The Steranko History of Comics. I’m closing things out with that piece, a fitting bookend to both the Joe Kubert Presents art that leads off this post and the above Kubert entry in my precious 1977 Super DC Calendar, which I can next reuse 10 years from now... when I suspect we’ll all still be missing Joe Kubert.

Mike’s Amazing World of Comics and The Grand Comics Database have chronological listings of Kubert’s work for perusal. Donations can be made in Kubert’s name, per the Kubert family’s request, to The Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation.

Art from Supergraphics’ The Steranko History of Comics © 1970 Joe  
Kubert and/or Jim Steranko. Pencils, Inks, Letters: Joe Kubert.

Characters and logos
TM/® DC Comics, except Tor ® Joe  
Kubert Estate and Tarzan ® Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc.

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