There are few names in comics as iconic as that of Joe Kubert.
Part of that is because two of his children, Andy Kubert (“Flashpoint,” “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?”) and Adam Kubert (“Superman: Last Son,” “Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine”), have been and continue to be two of the biggest artists in mainstream comics. Part of it is because of the Kubert School, which for thirty-five years has educated a generation of artists who number among the best in comics.
None of that would mean anything if Mr. Kubert weren’t one of the most iconic artists of the Silver Age, and also a noted writer and editor. His work is closely associated with characters like Sgt. Rock, Hawkman and Tor in addition to his work on titles including “Tarzan” and “Tales of the Green Berets.” Beyond working in so many genres, Kubert is also an extremely skilled storyteller. His war stories are different from his superhero stories which have a different flavor from his adventure tales. While the character of Sgt. Rock, created by writer Robert Kanigher, has become such a comics icon, Kubert rarely rendered the character in a heroic fashion. Rock was a reluctant hero who, like many soldiers, was defined by his actions.
Over the past two decades, Kubert has produced an exceptional body of work. He’s returned to “Tor” in two miniseries. He completed the graphic novel “Fax From Sarajevo.” In the Sgt. Rock books “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” and “The Prophecy,” Kubert and his collaborators took the reality of WWII that sat in the background of his earlier stories and forced the characters to face the events they were involved in.
This month DC Comics is publishing the paperback edition of “Dong Xoai,” released last year exclusively in hardcover, as well as reviving two older books back into print. “Jew Gangster” and “Yossel: April 19, 1943” which were originally published by ibooks and tell stories about Depression era New York and the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. CBR News reached Kubert at his drawing table in New Jersey.
CBR News: What are you doing today, Mr. Kubert?
Joe Kubert: Well, like most of every day, I’m busily working. I’m at my drawing table right now as we speak and I have about three or four different things that I’m working on at the same time.
Is having three or four projects at a time how you’ve pretty much always worked?
Pretty much, yes. I find, for myself, that putting my head into different gears and changing from one thing to another, not too quickly, but quickly enough, gives me a fresh outlook. I find it very helpful for me.
I would imagine that’s just the freelancer lifestyle.
I hadn’t thought of that, but I think it’s true. It is a freelancer’s lifestyle. In order to have any sort of assurance that you’re having a steady income, that’s the way you’ve got to work.
We were hoping to talk you because a number of books are coming back into print this month, “Yossel” and “Jew Gangster,” in addition to a new paperback edition of last year’s “Dong Xoai.” What was the impetus for “Yossel?”
I guess it was something that was festering in the back of my head for a long time. After accumulating the stories of what had happened in Europe during the War, I had thought quite a bit about the fact that had I been there — had my father and mother not decided to come to America when they did — what might have happened. What might I have experienced as a result of that. I thought it might make an interesting story.
I’m in the most fortunate position where, if an idea of that sort hits me, my first worry is not so much finding a publisher for it. My first query to myself is, how the hell will I get this thing done? And so I sat down and cut out the time to do it, because I felt that it was something I just wanted to put down on paper just to see it for myself. I really don’t think that I consider working for an audience. I’m in constant hope that whoever reads my stuff will find it as interesting as I did in drawing it, but primarily I’m doing it for myself. I love to draw. I love to tell the stories that are in my head. I love to see them come out in a pictorial form, in an illustrated form, just fermenting with those ideas in the back of my mind actually seeing them on paper solidifies it for me. That’s my gratification anyhow.
You were born in Poland. Was the Warsaw Ghetto uprising something that you were familiar with?
You’ve got to remember that during the war, none of us really knew what the heck was happening. At the beginning of the war I was thirteen or fourteen years old. During that time, people would come from the old country to visit my folks. Some were friends, some had been neighbors, just to tell them what was happening in Europe. As a kid I was listening with half an ear, noticing every once in a while that one of the people who came to the house would have some tattoos of numbers of their arms. Never taking any deep notice of it. It was only later on when all these stories were coming together and as happened to many many other people, I really came to know the terrible things that did happen. I’ve read a lot. For this book, I researched a lot. I got as many pictures as I could of the places that these events happened to make them to make the whole book as credible as I possibly could.
“Yossel,” like last year’s “Dong Xoai,” is done in rough pencil, and it works beautifully because there’s something rushed, but also essential about the lines.
You nailed it. That was precisely what I tried to do. I did it in pencil because I wanted the reader to feel like they were looking over my shoulder while I was drawing that stuff as it happened.
Do you enjoy working in pencils rather than the finished work most readers associate with you?
No. I try to apply myself and my drawings in the way that I think they would work the best in any particular instance. I felt that “Dong Xoai” worked best that way. I felt that “Yossel” worked best that way. This kid running around the different areas in Poland in the ghetto, grabbing any kind of pencil or hunk of paper that he could to do whatever drawings that he saw. What would I do under those circumstances? I projected that. I’ve used wash, color, black and white, anything. I would use a garbage can if I felt it would do the job properly. [Laughs] I think that whatever it calls for is what I’ve tried to use. I know it makes it more interesting for me.
In “Yossel,” more than just looking over the shoulder of you the artist, Joe Kubert, it felt like something the character was drawing.
That’s precisely what I was trying to do. I tried to get a sense of the horrors that occurred at that time. How it would affect a fifteen or sixteen year-old like I was at that time, still loving to draw, still loving to put down on paper the ideas and feelings that I had in my head. I imagined that I would still feel that way, even under those circumstances, if for no other reason than to inscribe it in my own mind. That was the whole idea behind it.
Last year in “DC Legacies,” you drew the death of one of DC’s iconic characters and one of the characters most associated with you, Sgt. Rock. His death and the circumstances around it has been mentioned numerous times over the years by Robert Kanigher and others. How did this tale end up happening?
So far I’ve done two stories where Sgt Rock has died and what were the results. One was done by Len Wein, the one that you saw. I enjoyed doing that. Bob Kanigher, the initiator, and actually the creator of the Sgt. Rock character — I just drew whatever he described — Bob had always promised that he would kill off Sgt Rock. Almost jokingly he said to me he would do that when the series ended.
The second story, the second death of Sgt. Rock, was written by Paul Levitz and that hasn’t been published yet. It’s going to be in one of the books that I’m packaging for DC. It’s an anthology that will be coming out in six issues. I’m just finishing off the fourth one now and Paul did a story at my request. He did a Sgt. Rock, that was his choice, about what happened after he died, and I illustrated that. I had a lot of fun doing that.
You’ve done a few Sgt. Rock stories in recent years. “The Prophecy” was a really interesting one, and then before that, “A Rock and a Hard Place.”
“The Prophecy” was the one I wrote. The one before that was “A Rock and Hard Place,” which [Brian] Azzarello wrote. Working with a guy like Azzarello was terrific for me. I had always admired him and they asked me if I’d to do a book with him and I jumped at it. It was great. I thought it was a terrific story that he wrote.
What is it about the character of Sgt. Rock that keep you returning to him, or is it just because people ask?
[Laughs] Yes, that’s one reason. Thank god. And an important one. Bob Kanigher, who was the writer, and as I say the initiator of the character, described and designed someone who etched so deeply into my head that I think of him very often as a real person. When I put him in the context of different kinds of stories or situations, my first question is, how would a normal person react under those circumstances. Which gives him even more credibility, I think. He’s just a character I’m very comfortable with.
One of the things that stands out is that while Sgt. Rock’s actions are heroic, you take care not to portray him in a heroic fashion, the way you rendered Hawkman or Tor or other characters you’ve worked on.
I appreciate you noticing that. I find him the kind of guy who’s in a situation that he’s not crazy about. He doesn’t like being in the army. He doesn’t like being responsible for the lives of other people. Yet he does because he’s been given that responsibility, and so he doesn’t shine as a hero or a big shot. He does what he has to do. That was the character that Bob put together and that’s what I try to align myself with.
You were drafted and served in the army.
Me and a bunch of other people [Laughs]
You served during the Korean War. Did your time in the service have any influence on Sgt. Rock?
Everything that you and I or anybody else goes through or experiences has an effect on us and we learn something from that, I’m sure. I was in the army for two years. I was drafted. I did what I was supposed to do. I met guys there who are still my dear friends. Even if it doesn’t involve actual combat, being in the army and doing what the hell you have to do you meet people who are in exactly the same kind of situation. Where they came from, what they were, what they did before, really doesn’t matter. Friendships have a tendency, I think, to be so binding under those circumstances that it gives you a little bit of a true insight into what people are like.
I guess that follows through to the work that I do. It influences me, I’m sure because just as anything that we experience influences us in one way or another. It all worked out very positive for me. I was drafted, so it wasn’t something that I walked into or did freely. [Laughs] I swore that when I got out after the two years that the next time they drafted me it would be four guys who would go in. Me and the three guys that would have to drag me. [Laughs]
I know you’re involved in the Army publication “PS Magazine.” How did that happen?
As you probably know, Will [Eisner] started this sixty years ago when he was in the Army. He started it because he felt that and was told that these manuals that describe how to take care of materials and equipment are never read by the guys. He told his commanding officer, “Look, I can do this stuff so it’ll be interesting, entertaining, and the guys will read it not even realizing that they’re learning what they need to know.” So he did that very successfully and it’s still going on after sixty years. Every five to ten years, this contract to do the magazine comes up for bid and about ten years ago, it came up for bid again. I knew nothing about this.
Neal Adams, who happens to be a very dear friend — I don’t use the term friend loosely, believe me, but this guy is a friend — had somebody come to his office looking to hire Neal and his outfit to illustrate some stuff so he could put a bid in for “PS Magazine.” Nealtold the guy, “Look, I just can’t do that.” The guy left. Immediately Neal called me. As I said, I knew nothing about this. I knew Will had done it for years. I knew Will. He was a dear friend. Neal said, I think this might be a good thing for you. You’ve got people that are coming out of school. You’ve got the know how. Why don’t you put a bid in? So I did. I put the bid in about ten years ago and this was a five year contract and I won that bid. Five years later the contract came up again. This time they insisted it be for ten years. By the time I’m about one hundred twenty five I’ll complete this damn contract. [Laughs] It worked out to be a terrific thing. It’s been helpful to me, helpful to the school, to the young people coming out, who are able to have an intermediate area where they can break into the business. It’s worked out real well.
You were hired as an editor at DC by Carmine Infantino in the 1960s. I spoke with Rick Veitch last year and he mentioned that when he was at the Kubert school you would sometimes hire students to illustrate backup stories for books you were editing.
I made arrangements with DC so that I could insert a story by some of the students that I felt were competent enough in some of the books I was editing.
It’s not the same as having the chance to draw short stories for DC books, but does overseeing “PS” serve a similar function for current students and recent graduates?
Up to a certain degree it does, but not really. When I was editing the DC books I was able to get an entire story for the students to do. For “PS,” we turn out sixty-four pages a month twelve times a year. Most of the books, I think perhaps eighty percent or better, are technical works. There are editors down in Redstone Arsenal in Alabama who supply all this work to us. They supply us the technical details of the equipment that we need to be drawing, but most of the pictures are not in any kind of detailed storyline, but rather contain within one or two or three pages of material. There’s not an opportunity for any of the students or any of the people who are working for “PS Magazine” to be able to do any kind of extended work.
It serves several purposes. One is where a young artist coming out of the school can actually break in doing some professional work. The other thing is there are young people who get their first jobs but are not employed steadily. Here they can make a couple of bucks while waiting for that next job to come in. I tell every one of the students that work on “PS,” “I don’t want you to stay here. I don’t want you to keep doing this stuff. You’re way better than doing this second tier material. You can use this when you need it, but I want you to get out here, keep on doing your samples and get that job in the profession.” It’s worked out very well that way.
This year you’re turning 85. The Kubert School is turning 35. Do you have any plans to celebrate either milestone?
Well, I plan to reach eighty-six. [Laughs] No, I have no defined plans. My two sons Adam and Andy, for whom I have an incredible amount of respect and whose work I really enjoy, are doing well. They have made me happier than they’ll ever believe by saying they really want to be part of the school and they have been for the last ten years. Eventually they’ll be taking over. As far as I myself am concerned, I’m looking forward to being less involved with the school and more involved in doing what I really love to do, which is sit and draw crazy pictures.
DC has released a lot of your older work in the Showcase black and white volumes in recent years. Do you enjoy how they came out?
It’s funny you should ask me because I don’t like looking at any of my old stuff. I shouldn’t say that I don’t like what I did, ’cause that wouldn’t be true, but I can see so many ways that I would have done it differently than I did at that time. I guess that’s a good thing because hopefully there’s growth and change and improvement that comes with age and experience. But when you ask me how I like looking at these, I don’t like looking at them. [Laughs]
Fair enough. Do you enjoy that they’re being reprinted in black and white and that’s how people are seeing them?
Yes. In a lot of ways I think I prefer it. The stuff that was printed at that time bore no resemblance at all to the kind of printing we have today and their color especially was really raw at that time. The color was so raw and the paper, the paper stock itself was one step above toilet paper and today it’s completely different. Nobody ever dreamed during those years that the quality of comic books would come up to what they are today.
What else do you want to do? What are your goals and plans for the future?
Well, I’m at my table drawing virtually every day, seven days a week. It’s my favorite place. It’s the place where I enjoy myself the most. I have ideas and thoughts and things I want to do. For instance, “Jew Gangster.” My plan for that is a trilogy rather than just one book. I have the second book already written out and broken down, dialogue and everything. That was done five years ago. I haven’t been able to get back into again. As long as I can continue sitting at the table and drawing, I’m a happy guy.
You mentioned earlier the six issue anthology you’re in the midst of. Can you talk about the book?
I mentioned the anthology book when Paul [Levitz] was still President and Publisher of DC. I suggested to him that I’d like to do a book that would reflect what I feel comic books should look like. I wasn’t and I still am not too happy about the fact that the books look beautiful today — the artwork is absolutely excellent — but a lot of them I just can’t read. They’re hard to follow. I think that the storytelling is almost gone. I said, “Paul, rather than talk about it, let me put something together to show you what I mean.” My intent was to get ahold of guys like Sam Glanzman and other people whose work I admire and put out this book. Paul said, “Go ahead and do it.” I said okay. I won’t let them publish the first one until I have at least four completed. I’m just completing the fourth one now. Hopefully the first one will be coming out, depending on how their schedules run, probably towards the end of this year.
In addition to that on my table right now, I just finished a series of comic books on Sgt. Rock. There will be six books and rather than focus on Sgt. Rock, this time I’ve told the stories of how a lot of the Easy guys like Bulldozer and Sure Shot got their names. So the stories are about Easy Company rather than specifically Sgt Rock. I finished the writing of the sixth book and now I’m going to start drawing them.
Sam Glanzman, who you mentioned, is an amazing artist, but we haven’t seen anything from him in years, unfortunately.
That’s exactly the way I felt about it. Here’s a guy who, I think, is one of the most talented men I know living in Upstate New York. Nobody even knows he’s alive anymore. He is my age. Terrific guy. Terrific artist. And I got ahold of him after I spoke with Paul about putting out this anthology. I said, “Sam I want you to do this stuff. You’re sitting up there in the woods doing nothing. You’re still doing sketching and things. Come back to work.” “Joe, I can’t,” he said. I said, “I won’t hear of it. I want you to put this together.” So he did. He did half a dozen stories on the USS Stevens about his experiences on the ship. I colored them myself and I think they’re great. That’s the stuff I wanted to show in the anthology books.
In closing, you awarded the Al Williamson Scholarship at the Kubert School the other day. I was wondering if you wanted to talk about Williamson and the role he played at the school?
Al was one of the most talented guys. Al taught here at the school for a couple years. I had some of the greatest arguments with him that you could think of. [Laughs] He was a great guy. He had an incredible sense of humor and he was just a nice guy. I met his son for the first time when we gave out the scholarship the other day to the person who won it here at the school.
Al and I would discuss in front of the class what our approaches were to drawing for comic books. My point has always been, nobody sees your original. Everybody sees the printed stuff, so you’ve got to do your drawings but keeping always in mind what it’s going to look like when it’s printed. Because if you work too fine, if you use too fine a line in your original work, it’s going to break up and look terrible because that’s what it’s going to look like in the book. “Right, Al,” I’d say? He’d say, no. He said, “I get too much gratification out of doing as fine a line as I possibly can on the originals. I don’t give a damn what they look like when it’s printed.” [Laughs] Those were the kinds of things that went on at the school.
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