Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today's artist is Joe Kubert, and the graphic novel is Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965, which was published by DC and is cover dated May 2010. Enjoy!
Two years ago, when I did the first pages of comics, I had a plan for December and for the final week or so, I picked some of my favorite comics. Obviously, this year I'm doing something different, so there's no grand wrap-up here, just the final day of Joe Kubert with one of his last projects, before I just ... stop. I like this graphic novel quite a bit, but it's not one of my favorite comics ever or anything. But I did try to finish up with a bunch of "classic" artists, so I hope you've enjoyed them. Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965 wasn't Kubert's last project (that would be Joe Kubert Presents, which is well worth your time), and it shows that, at 83/84 years old, he was still doing interesting things with his art. Let's see what's what!
The big thing you notice about the art is that Kubert, of course, is not inking it, using only pencils and gouache for the white highlights. His pencil work is amazing, as he varies the line weight throughout to make certain things stand out. The ground on this page is lighter, naturally, while the figure in the upper left is heavily shaded, as we're "closest" to him. The perspective is tremendous, too, as Kubert - working, I have to think, from some photographs, because the relationships between the figures is so good - puts us right in the middle of the paratroopers as they float through the air. I love the shadow on the first paragraph, as it's thrown by the soldier in the upper left - it's just a nice attention to detail from Kubert.
Kubert doesn't use traditional panels in this book, preferring instead to just scatter different drawings across the page and put some space in between them to distinguish different "scenes" from each other. We'll see it better below, but here's one way he does it, as the soldiers approach a burned village and then Kubert goes in for a close-up as they look at the carnage. There's just so little to say about this, because it's so powerful. He uses the paint for fire throughout, which makes it stand out just a little, and his sketchy pencils work very well for this kind of story, where there's a lot of destruction. Even Kubert's almost haphazard shadows of the soldiers are, in reality, carefully done, as we can see their weapons in the shadows where they should be. He uses the paint to add a bit of definition to the figures, as we see in the lower right, and he carefully draws things that are more "concrete" - the rifle, for instance - while still using broad strokes to fill in some of the other areas. It's amazing how such "sloppiness" can turn out so wonderfully specific.
Kubert draws the jungle a lot in this book, and he does it really well, with a lot of thick vertical lines to add gloominess and the gouache dripping off the leaves wetly. He draws vague leaf-life things, making the jungle even more impressionistic, and in the deep background, we get circles with some thick pencil shapes to imply the large mass of the Viet Cong coming through the trees. He's a bit more detailed in the foreground, of course, but still not too much. The jungle threatens to swallow them all!
Man. Kubert uses thick pencils in the background to show that it's nighttime, and then he uses blacker pencils to show the explosion, dabbling in the paint to make it pop a bit. He just uses broad, curved lines to suggest the roof blowing apart and just fills in the rest with short vertical lines. In the middle distance, Kubert just uses scratchy, patterned lines to imply a field, while on the ridge, he just sketches in loops to show the way the dirt falls away from the top. The fact that Kubert does this only with pencils and a little bit of paint staggers me.
The Viet Cong are attacking Dong Xoai because it's the key to the area, which is why the Special Forces guys are trying to hold it. Kubert does this kind of thing a lot in the book - he gives us a bird's-eye view of the action so we can appreciate the scale before focusing on the soldiers' individual plights. On this page, he's using slanted lines in the sky to push us to the right, which is the way the VC is attacking and the way the flames are moving, as the camp is in a great deal of distress. The jagged gouache is very nice here, as Kubert uses it to highlight the flamethrowers and show how dire the situation is. Once again, the sketchiness of the pencils, while obvious when you focus on discrete parts, forms a tremendous gestalt.
Here's an example of how Kubert uses the "panels" in the book - he just puts space in between each drawing, and that makes two panels. In the first panel, the soldiers are firing at the VC, and Kubert does a nice job showing the stress on their faces as they frantically defend the town. In the second panel, he uses a blunt tip to draw the smoke around the soldiers as they explode, and he uses frantic strokes to show them getting blown apart. Just a little difference in the size of the pencils is enough to add nice nuance to the scene. That's why Kubert was a master, I guess.
As the Viet Cong are finally driven back, Kubert gives us this nice, chaotic drawing. His background is even sketchier, implying the destruction left behind by the battle. The helicopters are as basic as you can get, but they're still recognizable as helicopters, making the presence of the Americans even more ubiquitous. I love the foreground, as it looks like something you'd see in a Renaissance painting of peasants getting crushed under a nobleman's horse or people trying to escape Satan. It's very dramatic and full of pathos, and I wonder if Kubert was thinking the same way I am (probably not). It's different from the drama on other pages, which is why I think Kubert had something else in mind when he drew it. It's the last stand of the Viet Cong, and Kubert definitely gets the terror of war with the men in the foreground. As usual, the "sloppiness" of his art belies the tremendous details on the page, as Kubert draws in their gear very well and does a marvelous job with the terror on that one dude's face.
Kubert, of course, used this style in some of his stories for Joe Kubert Presents, so he obviously dug it. Of course, he didn't get to mess around with it too much, as he died in August 2012 after a 70-year career in comics. His legacy lives on, of course, with his kids and the school, and I think he's a fitting place to end this year. If you want to catch up with all the artists I've featured this year, I encourage you to check out the archives!
It's Monday, 22 December as I type this, and I can see in our old posts that I began the first Jack Kirby post on 3 October 2013, so I've been working on these "Year of the Artist" posts for over 14 months. It's been a lot of fun, but I'm going to be happy for a break. I began the year with a 42-day buffer, which I didn't keep up with, as you can tell. It shrank to less than a week a few times, but I managed to stay about 7-8 days ahead of schedule for most of the second half of the year. Unfortunately, that meant not doing much else for the blog recently - I had to stop doing weekly reviews of my comics, I could only review a few books that creators sent me and I felt that I really needed to get to them (and I'm even behind on those!), I'm about six months behind on trades and graphic novels, and I finished reading the latest Comic You Should Own in May but haven't had a chance to write it up yet (and, of course, now I'm going to have to re-read it, or at least skim it). So I'm taking a bit of a break - I'm going to read some of the comics I've been sent by creators, because I do feel like I'm letting them down, but other than that, I think I'm going to take January off and catch up on reading. I want to get back to weekly reviews, but I'll wait until February to do that.
I'd like to thank everyone who was reading along with these, and I hope you enjoyed them. I hope I got better at writing about art, too, because that was part of the point of this - I think there's a bigger focus on art in comics reviewing these days, but for me, at least, I still need to learn more about it. Thanks to all the excellent commenters who added some cool knowledge about the comics or pointed out mistakes I made - I really do appreciate it! And thanks to the artists and other creators - Ron Marz, Mike Mignola, Steve Niles, Francesco Francavilla, Jill Thompson, Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Steve Pugh, Yildiray Cinar, Mahmud Asrar, Dylan Meconis, Mike Deodato, Juan Ferreyra, Chris Burnham, Tony Harris, Norm Breyfogle (get well soon, Norm!), Steve Mannion, Frank Forte, Jason Copland, Tim Vigil, Greg Ruth, Lee Moder, Ted Naifeh, Joëlle Jones, Jamie S. Rich, Nick Dragotta, Erik Larsen, Adam Kubert (and I'm sure I missed plenty of others, so forgive me!) - who either tweeted about the series, put it on their Facebook pages, left comments in the posts, contacted me directly (whether to say thanks or to correct something I screwed up, which I'm happy to fix), or were nice enough to answer questions I had about their art. And special thanks to Lucy Bellwood, who put up with me asking her questions for over an hour about her work. I hope the creators who hoped their work was lost to the mists of time and never wanted to see it again realize that we were all just appreciating the journey they had to go on to get to where they are now! I apologize for not getting to some of the artists that people wanted to see - honestly, I could go one for another year or five and not get to all the great artists out there, but if I do this again (because I'm just that crazy), I will, of course, get to do a lot more artists! So thanks again for reading!