Joe Kubert (1926 - 2012): Stylist, Educator & Legend

Mon, August 13th, 2012 at 4:46pm PDT | Updated: August 13th, 2012 at 4:48pm

Comic Books
Kiel Phegley, News Editor
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The comics industry continued today to mourn the loss and celebrate the life of artist Joe Kubert, who passed away Sunday after a brief hospitalization at age 85. Tributes poured in across the web for one of comics earliest and best known stylists, an artist whose career spanned nine decades in both commercial art, personal literary work and academia.

Born Yosaif Kubert on September 18, 1926, the young Kubert came to America shortly after his birth. His parents were delayed in emigrating from where they lived in what was then Southern Poland due to her pregnancy, but once they arrived in New York City, the family settled in to life in the "Jewish ghetto" of East New York, Brooklyn. His parents early escape from a Europe soon to be ravaged by Nazism was not lost on Kubert in his elder years. "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," Kubert told CBR in a 2011 interview.

Like many young Jewish creators of the Golden Age, Kubert took his life experience and turned it into a rapid work ethic. By 1939, a 13-year-old Joe attained his first work in comics, assisting at the Harry "A" Chesler shop. That gig led to a multitude of clean up and ink jobs while Joe attended the High School of Music and Art in New York City for publisher's including Fox, MLJ and work for Will Eisner's "The Spirit" studio.

Kubert's first full credit on a comic came with Holyoke's "Cat-Man Comics" #8 where he drew a backup featuring focusing on heroic robot Volton. Before long, he had made DC Comics his core artistic home – a fact that would remain consistent for the better part of his career – with work in the Seven Soliders of Victory in "Leading Comics" as well as pages for the Hawkman feature in "Flash Comics."

Even at that early phase in his career, Kubert's work displayed stylistic characteristics that would become his cornerstone: long, lithe figure work alongside a brushy line that added texture and grit to nearly every image he created. And, of course, learning alongside established pros (even though they were often only a few years his senior) like Harry Shorten, Irv Novick and Irwin Hasen (who would later work as an instructor at Kubert's school) helped instill the artist with the basics of comics craft and business that served him well as a freelancer and later as a teacher.

Through comics shifting landscape in the 1950s, the deadline-nailing Kubert was rarely at a loss for work and ever building his repertoire of genres and innovations – even during a stint in the military early in the decade. Most famously, Kubert created the first ever 3-D comic book while serving as managing editor of St. Johns Publications. From 1953's "Three Dimension Comics" #1 on, the intervening years saw a number of novelty projects rise alongside the wave of 3-D interest at the movies. And while 3-D comics saw a slight collapse alongside their silver screen counterparts, four-color efforts that came with red and blue glasses never fully went away. Over the ensuing decades, Kubert would often earn credit and praise for his early work in the form, and like so many of his characters and ideas, he'd return to 3-D later in life.

Through the end of the '50s and into the following two decades, Kubert returned to DC where he teamed with writer Robert Kanigher for a vast array of comics and stories that crossed nearly every popular genre. The pair did viking comics, superhero stories, jungle adventures, Westerns and most memorably war comics. It was during this period that the artist drafted career-defining pop culture pages for Hawkman in "The Brave & The Bold" and for space hero Adam Strange where his idiosyncratic style still influences artist portrayals of the character today. And of course, from Sgt. Rock and Easy Company's adventures in the pages of "G.I. Combat" to the more spectral "Haunted Tank" feature to the gritty "Enemy Ace," Kubert rolled his own military service and his interest in history into comics that were every bit as empathetic to the life of the solider as they were entertaining.

From 1967 to '76, Kubert served as Director of Publications for DC where he oversaw a line expansion beyond the best-selling superhero genres. That expansion included many high adventure serials drawn by the artist – most notably a lengthy run with Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Tarzan." The artist's sinewy body types and rugged line were a perfect compliment for the Lord of the Apes, and despite that character's history with the legendary likes of Jesse Marsh and Russ Manning, Kubert's Tarzan remains for many readers the definitive visual interpretation of the hero. His work remains in print to this day.

Never an artist who planned little or planned poorly for his career, Kubert started making plans with his wife Muriel to build a school dedicated to comics art in the mid '70s. Settled in Dover, NJ with their five children (David, Danny, Lisa, Adam and Andy), the husband and wife team opened The Joe Kubert School of Cartoon & Graphic Art. Joe oversaw curriculum alongside a first teaching class that included pros like Hy Eisman and Dick Giordano while Muriel used her business degree and acumen to keep the institution operational and accredited for decades.

Known for years (and now officially) as "The Kubert School," the programs offered grew from the original two-year program to a three-year technical school whose coursework allowed students to gain real, practical experience in all areas of cartooning from comic book pages to comic strip pacing to film and animation storyboarding. Yet despite the wide range of interests and styles of its students, Kubert never let his school's message stray far from what he considered to be the key principal in comics making: story. For years as he traveled the country making appearances at comic conventions, Kubert would impress upon young fans looking for portfolio reviews the need to tell a story in clear and simple terms, and he took an obvious pride in the fact that these principals kept graduates at at least a 95% job placement rate once their program was finished. Well known graduates of The Kubert School include Steve Bissette, Dave Dorman, Karl Kesel, Shane Davis, Eric Shanower and many, many, many more including Joe's sons Adam and Andy. Doubtless, many of the students first learned of The Kubert School via ads that ran in comics featuring his jungle-inspired artwork.

Between his years in commercial comics and his pioneering the teaching of cartooning, Kubert's legend would have been well assured by the 1990s, but over the past three-plus decades, the artist underwent another enormous creative sea change. Starting with a revival of his creator-owned "Tor" jungle hero, Kubert started a run of more standalone works mostly through Marvel's Epic imprint and later at a variety of publishers. Not content to only continue his previous glories, the artist began drafting more personal tales. His Abraham Stone character melded gritty city revenge tales with classical adventure and Hollywood history while "Fax from Sarajevo" took correspondence with his European agent and turned it into an early work of comics journalism showing life inside a war zone. That book won Kubert both the Eisner and Harvey awards.

After the turn of the Millennium, Kubert found a balance between all the varied aspects of his career. He wrote about the Jewish experience both historical in "Yossel" and personal in "Jew Gangster." He returned to DC for new takes on Sgt. Rock and Hawkman. He drafted pages for the U.S. Army's "PS Magazine." And he taught every crop of third year students at The Kubert School while his sons covered years one and two.

After the turn of the Millennium, Kubert found a balance between all the varied aspects of his career. He wrote about the Jewish experience both historical in "Yossel" and personal in "Jew Gangster." He returned to DC for new takes on Sgt. Rock and Hawkman. He drafted pages for the U.S. Army's "PS Magazine." And he taught every crop of third year students at The Kubert School while his sons covered years one and two.

Throughout all this work, Kubert's style remained instantly recognizable as the man himself remained instantly accessible. His dedication to craft, professionalism, story and heart in comics cannot be understated. He will be greatly missed.

For more on Kubert, we recommend excellent obituaries from Tom Spurgeon at The Comics Reporter and Bill Schelly at The Comics Journal, and see all the reactions from around the industry on Robot 6.

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TAGS:  joe kubert, hawkman, adam strange, the kubert school

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