When Joe Kubert passed away in August, he left a sizable hole in the world of comics, by virtue of his lifelong career in the field, his fairly unique role as one of the medium’s first and most influential teachers, and his immense talent.
At the time of his death, many of the obituaries and remembrances mentioned he was still drawing comics at his advanced age, and that, in fact, he had projects on his drawing board.
I suspect a lot of people will be contemplating Kubert’s work this week, and mourning his loss, as Wednesday the major publisher with which he was most associated throughout his career released some of his latest and, sadly, last work, giving readers to chance to see some of that stuff of that was on his drawing board when he passed away: an eerie, unfinished story for a Vertigo anthology and the first issue of a new limited series bearing Kubert’s name.
The Vertigo anthology is Ghosts, and Kubert's piece is “The Boy and the Old Man;” it’s about a brave old warrior on his figurative deathbed, lying there awaiting his end, and, ultimately, vigorously fighting against it when it arrives, in order to save a young man.
“Read into it what you will or read it at face value,” Vertigo Executive Editor Karen Berger wrote in her introduction to the eight-page story. It’s awfully hard to take it simply at face value, given the circumstances, including the title and subject matter of this anthology and the time of its release, but certainly it is the sort of short genre piece Kubert’s career was full of.
He didn’t finish the art for it; although it was completely written and layed out, it’s un-inked and un-colored. Berger calls the artwork “very loosely penciled,” but Kubert’s loose pencils are tighter than the work of far too many of the current generation of artists.
It is lettered, the narration boxes resting atop the space Kubert clearly specified for them, and they are placed so we can see the roughly written, place-holding narration boxes he put on the pages.
As Berger notes, it is “a rare treat to see the work of a master at first blush,” and, in a lot of ways, an ideal last piece from Kubert, highlighting some of great virtues of his work, as the ancient jungle culture setting calls to mind his Tarzan and Tor and some of his Hawkman, and it’s full of the human anatomy he was so gifted at, and the diverse body types of an old man, a young boy and a man in his prime (although that man is here a death spirit of some sort).
It’s great work, yet there’s still more of it to be done before it’s completely finished — I can’t think of a more fitting symbol of Kubert’s career.
It’s but one of nine short stories in the anthology, the bulk of which was edited by Shelly Bond, and, from one perspective, it’s a less-than-ideal venue for Kubert’s last work. But on the other hand, the other contributors include several all-time greats from among the artists who have done solid work for DC’s adult-oriented imprint, including Mark Buckingham, Gilbert Hernandez, Phil Jiminez, Jeff Lemire and Paul Pope, as well as some newer and emerging talents, so perhaps it's ideal company for Kubert after all — he being one of the best and an artist and teacher younger creators were still learning from.
For a fuller Kubert experience, there’s Joe Kubert Presents #1, the first issue of a six-part series that has evidently been in the works for a while. In a three-page prose piece explaining the genesis of the project, he mentions it came about when he started talking to Paul Levitz about how they don’t make the sorts of comics he wants to read any more, and Levitz gave him carte blanche to make one (Levitz stepped down as DC’s president and publisher in 2009).
Kubert, who's best known as an artist and, particularly at the end of his career, a graphic novelist, spent years in an editorial capacity at DC, and this then is a project that touches on facets of everything he’s ever done in comics: There are two Kubert stories beneath a beautiful Kubert cover (which, like the Ghosts story, allows one to see what his pencil work looks like, although it is more finished) and two stories he commissioned from artists he knows and likes. These are a goofy Angel and the Ape story by Brian Buniak, in a style that evokes old-school Mad magazine and grown-up humor comics, and a Sam Glanzman story from World War II, set on the U.S.S. Stevens, where so many of Glanzman’s past works for other publishers were set.
As for the Kubert stories, the first stars Hawkman (and Hawkgirl), yet opens with Kubert himself seated before his drawing board and working on what looks like a Sgt. Rock page (that's it at the top of the post, by the way). He introduces himself and starts talking about the possibility of life on other planets; turn the page, and a thin strip of art stretches across the two-page spread, in which Kubert tells us of the planet Thanagar, and below it, there’s a huge, brilliantly colored spread of winged Hawk-people soaring toward giant, floating cities.
It’s very much a Silver Age Hawkman story, with Thanagarians Katar and Shayera assigned to Earth to try and protect it from some of its many problems, and stop those problems from getting so great they spread to other planets, like Thanagar.
After a leisurely opening showing a bit of their world, they land in Africa and discover a community that is storing various poisons and weapons for unseen malefactors. The Hawks use their ability to communicate with animals — I knew they could talk to birds, but the talking to animals bit is new to me, but whatever — to bury the dangerous stuff.
Mostly it's an opportunity and excuse for Kubert to draw the superhero he’s most commonly associated with for about 22 pages, to draw panel after panel of Katar and Shayera’s perfect, muscled, half-naked forms twisting in mid-air, and to draw lots of exotic wildlife.
His other story is titled “Spit,” and it’s much less fantastical. He says it was inspired by his love of Moby Dick and, in this opening chapter, introduces us to a Dickensian orphan boy named Spit . The art is black-and-white and all pencil, albeit it big, thick pencil lines, with almost all of the extraneous ones removed (either erased or never drawn in the first place). Unlike the Ghosts story, this was presumably always meant to look that way.
We can expect more Kubert work from DC in the future. There are still five issues left of the Joe Kubert Presents, at the very least, but there can't be too much of his work left unpublished — or, at least, there can't possibly enough of it left unpublished.
In addition to offering us an opportunity to meditate on Joe Kubert and his work, I think these books offer us another opportunity that I hope some of us will take — to remember, honor and praise artists of Kubert's generation, and of Kubert's stature and caliber while they're still around (not that there are may artists of Kubert's generation left; not that there are any artists of Kubert's stature and caliber).