Last month, Fantagraphics released "The Art of Joe Kubert," a wonderful oversized art book that traces the career of the comics legend who has worked successfully in all the major "Ages" of comics. While seeing the art in a larger format is nice, it's the text that winds through the book that opened my eyes to a lot of new things in comics that I had never known before. For starters, I knew surprisingly little about Kubert. I thought I knew enough about Kubert: Sgt. Rock, an art school about a half hour south of where I live and, uhm, Hawkman, right?
How does anyone become a legend in comics off of Hawkman?!?
Author Bill Schelly's text takes us through Kubert's entire life in comics. And, sure enough, Kubert's entire life has been comics, influenced by the classic adventure comic strips. He worked in the Golden Age as a teenager, learning his chops from the New York City and Connecticut studios that produced the raw material (stories) for the publishers in New York. It's a classic all-American story of a kid working his way up, from studio helper to background inker to full-fledged artist to the manager of his own studio and then his own school. And now, as a man in his 80s, he's still going at it, producing critically acclaimed comics and jumpstarting young artists' careers. It's an impressive achievement and an impressive life.
Kubert's art is featured throughout the book, always carefully tied into the topics Schelly is discussing. It's not just a random "Sgt. Rock" cover, for example, sandwiched in between paragraphs. It's a cover Schelly dissects first, showing a new art style Kubert was experimenting with, or a high point in his run on the title. While reading the book, I often found myself wishing I could see the exact cover or story page Schelly mentioned, only to look over to the side or on the next page and see it there. That's smart editing.
The large dimensions of the book allow for generous panel and cover reproductions, even when the text dominates the page. Agreeable chunks of white space keep things from bunching up together. There's a nice selection of public domain short stories included in the middle of the book, produced at a size larger than modern comics. Schelly's text directly talks about those stories well before they're seen, so you have some context to view them in. The stories aren't restored with fancy gradient colors and white backgrounds. These are the down and dirty yellow-page reproductions of the art straight from the comics. They feel real.
Schelly's words opened up a new world of art critique for me. While analyzing Kubert's art's evolution, Schelly does a strong job explaining why comics looked the way they did, how some inkers made for better Golden Age comics than others and how the tools the artist used affected the final job. He has a lot of explaining to do, too, since Kubert experimented so much on the page, effectively learning on the job. His experiments in storytelling weren't over the top, but did contribute some nice storytelling techniques and reproduction styles. Some were influenced by the production schedule, some by Kubert's own artistic curiosity.
Quick aside: The late Jack Adler had a hand in creating the softer painterly style that Kubert used at DC in the 50s, for example. It was an ink wash technique, but Adler had the know how to make it show up properly in print. Adler passed away last month, and Mark Evanier pointed toward those skills in his writeup.
Schelly pays particular attention to Kubert's earliest days, which makes sense since those were his formative and most productive, comics page-wise. Having grown up in the studio system, we see Kubert's business sense awaken alongside his art skills, to the point where he sets up his own studio and contracts out to DC comics. He published a wildly successful small 3D line of comic, which got swept away by the end of the fad and a host of imitators doing poor examples of the format and souring potential customers. He had a long run with "Sgt. Rock" before turning his attention to starting an art school of his own. And, then, when most artists would be content to retire and fade away, Kubert embarked on some of his most ambitious work, most notably "Fax from Sarajevo." "Art of Joe Kubert" covers the last twenty years fairly quickly.
Those past two decades have been productive, in different ways from his first thirty years, perhaps. While he hasn't exactly followed Will Eisner's model for graphic novels, he does pursue such work and has slowly built up a library that's to be admired, from "Fax from Sarajevo" to "Yossel" to "Tor" to two Sgt. Rock works and more. Schelly is honest in his assessments of where those works had weaknesses and where they showed strength, which gives you a good feeling as a reader that the book isn't just a 300 page pat on the back to a guy who agreed to do an interview.
And I can't help but look at a lot of that work from the last twenty years and see all of the influences on Kubert's two comic artist sons, Andy and Adam. You can't possibly look at their work after this and not see their father's. As a more modern comics reader, I found that interesting.
"The Art of Joe Kubert" is probably the best DC book I read in September, and DC didn't even publish it. Fantagraphics did, and a wonderful job they did, from the raw materials to the book design and packaging. It's available today for $39.99.
One last thing: My favorite passage is this one from fairly early on. Joe Kubert had a lot to learn about telling stories. This was a weakness that even Kubert acknowledges, but one he also worked on and learned quickly by analyzing the work of others. He paid attention to the best of the comic storytellers around him:
"Later, Kubert claimed to have gained a great deal by reading Carl Barks's "Donald Duck" stories in Walt Disney's Comics & Stories in the 1940s. "I appreciated for years the work he was doing in comic books…. His stuff was so legible and intelligible. I learned a whole lot about storytelling [from Barks]."
It's not just my favorite paragraph, it's also my best segue:
It's been too long since I was in a Duck mood. Back in the 1990s and even the early 2000s, you couldn't find reviews of the Duck books alongside superhero titles on the English-speaking internet -- except right here in Pipeline. I cornered a very clearly defined niche market that led to some of the least-read columns I've ever written. But I enjoy and love those comics enough to laugh in the face of lower readership to write about them again today. Maybe, perhaps, at last, the time is right for a mass re-evaluation of the Duck comics, as Fantagraphics steps into the breach to produce a definitive library of Carl Barks' oeuvre. Not only do they step in, but they do so fearlessly, reprinting a tale that's been effectively banned (or, at the very least, censored) for the last 60 years. We'll get to that in a moment.
The series starts in November with "Walt Disney's Donald Duck: Lost in the Andes," an impressively affordable $25 hardcover collecting over 200 pages of full color classic Barks Donald Duck stories from 1948 and 1949. Happily, the stories look great and the book is a wonder to hold in your hand. If there's any chance for a mass appreciation of these stories in this day and age of classic reprints, this is a strong one.
An eight page biography of Barks by Donald Ault kicks things off. It's a good overview of Barks' life, up to and including the maddening chapter at the end with the "Carl Barks Studio" debacle that makes most Duck fans want to scream, punch and generally make certain people's live miserable for what they did to Barks. Sadly, that wasn't the only low point in Barks' life, who had three marriages and lost a child, all while telling these much-beloved and often humorous stories of Ducks travelling the globe and having cute hijinks. Barks wasn't quite as philosophical with his work as Charles Schulz, but I bet a more scholarly person than myself might have a field day interpreting Barks' stories for the comparisons.
After that come the comics. Having grown up on a steady diet of Duck books colored in a more modern (gradient-happy) style of Gladstone II, Gemstone and Disney, itself, I was a little concerned at first that the new coloring style would look flat and dull. It is flat, mostly. But it's not dull. It's hard to describe, because I'm not sure my reaction to it is scientific. It's more "warm and fuzzy." These comics look like direct reprints of the original comics, but on better paper with perfect registration. You're going to get the original colors without the Ben-Day dots pattern. It will look monotone from time to time, but if you put yourself into the mindframe of a comics reader from 1948 or 1949, you'll feel like it's right. The book is more interested in being faithful to the original look of the stories than in "reinterpreting" or "reimaging" what might have been, had there been Photoshop 40 or 50 years earlier.
As to the content, itself, it's just as remarkable an achievement in comics as I remembered. In fact, I think I appreciate these stories more today than I originally did, and this presentation is no doubt part of it. Sure, there's a bit of over-analyzing and over-thinking going on in the "Story Notes" section at the end of the book, where Duck scholars are invited to contribute a small summary and cultural background to explain the stories. But the guts of the book are just as impressive as ever. It's a shame they're so often ignored in North America today.
The stories in this volume were picked out to lead the first collection because they're from a time period that most people would agree Barks was peaking. You can't go wrong with stories like "Lost in the Andes," which tells the story of a hidden civilization that survives on square eggs. Barks' line work is as technically proficient and awe-inspiring as anything he ever did with the Ducks. Check out the half-page splash introducing us to the lost world, or the pages leading up to it where Donald and the boys are lost in the fog. The readers see only the ducks in silhouettes as a series of straight lines. It's an impressive bit of draftsmanship for Barks, whose stories were often ambitious, but whose storytelling wasn't necessarily bleeding edge. He told as solid a story as anyone ever could, but he held back from splashy images and tricky storytelling techniques. You won't find Eisneresque tricks in these stories. Barks was writing for a younger audience than Eisner, though, so I suppose keeping things so straightforward and easy to read was of paramount importance.
That half-page splash of the lost world, by the way, is reprinted in the "Story Notes" in black and white form. For the first time in my life, I wished this reprint series was done without any color, period. Seeing Barks' detailed line work like that, without the golds and yellows mixed in, was a delight. I like that the notes are illustrated with such lifted panels, but I'd like to see even more. I'm greedy.
The stories aren't ordered strictly chronologically here, though there is a key at the end of the book to outline where each story was originally printed, and in which month. Fantagraphics went in and bunched up the longer adventure-length stories first, then the shorter 10 page humor tales, followed by the single page gags. It's an effective technique for an anthology book that doesn't need continuity.
The big surprise of the book is that Fantagraphics, without heralding the fact and making it part of their promotion for the book, includes the adventurous "Voodoo Hoodoo." This is the story where a zombie comes after Donald Duck. Seems innocent enough, until you see the zombie. And are introduced to Duckburg's first black character. And read his dialogue. And then visit Africa and see what the rest of the zombie's tribe looks like. Yikes!
If you can put that part aside, the lilly white Ducks have their usual adventures, running around the globe, chasing adventure and stumbling into a deus ex machine of a game show so that the nephews can afford it all (temporarily.)
Oddly enough, due to a layout issue, I'm guessing, the notes on this story in the back of the book are unsigned. I don't know who wrote them, but they do a good job in framing the story in its cultural context, noting specifically the origins of the zombie story and owning up to Barks' questionable portrayal of race. This is one that Gladstone/Gemstone never ran in their monthly titles and that caused some fear, I imagine, when the zombie character showed up in a Don Rosa "Uncle Scrooge" story later down the line. (In "Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck" Chapter 11, Rosa fills in the background only hinted at in this story. It's not pretty for imperialist Scrooge, and should be considered must reading after this volume.)
Disney effectively banned the story for decades. It was reprinted in the higher-end album format popular in the 90s for Duck books, but those were aimed at an older collector's audience. Even then, the coloring was changed to smooth over some of the rougher visual edges, such as the ridiculously large lips. You can see the changes as well as scans of pages from the original story at this "Barks Censored" webpage. As a bonus, you can compare the colors there to the final colors in this reproduction, and can see how closely the originals are followed. Fantagraphics appears to be reprinting it and coloring it completely uncensored. Duck fans should be very happy about that.
The other adventure-length stories in this volume include "The Golden Christmas Tree," in which Donald and the boys stave off a pre-Magica De Spell witch to save Christmas while everything that could possibly be colored yellow is, and "Race to the South Seas," a fun ship race between Donald and his lucky relative, Gladstone Gander.
The contents of the book are as good as they're going to get, produced with an eye towards recapturing as much of the look of the original printings as possible, without sacrificing clarity or design. The quality of the black and white line work is top notch, too. I have nothing to complain about here. I only hope these reprints last long enough to give us everything in the Carl Barks library, and that they draw the attention of some new audiences. The book represents a good value for the money, I think. While it might not be the most accessible $2.99 for a monthly comic format that would represent an impulse purchase for a parent at the newsstand, we also all have to live with the reality that that format isn't a consideration anymore. $25 for a well-annotated and restored set of stories checking in at over 200 pages, though, works.
"Donald Duck: Lost in the Andes" is due out in bookstores this November. Its official size is 7.25" x 10", 240 pages in total and $24.99 for a list price. Pre-order today. Just do it. You can thank me later.
ME, STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF GIANTS
Next week: I'm heading to the New York Comic-Con on Sunday only. Hope to see some of you there!
I have a photography blog, AugieShoots.com, where I'm posting all sorts of pictures, including some from a recent street fair. I have a concert shoot later in the week I hope to be adding to the site next week. VariousandSundry.com hasn't been updated in a little while, but that's where I go to vent on all the other topics in my life.