Joe Kubert: From Shtetl to Grand Master - Part One
When you enter The Joe Kubert School of Comic Art, the first thing that tags you is demographic vertigo as you plod out of sleepy-town Dover and into a new dimension of artistic dynamism. The century-old building (erected in 1901 as a high school) spent its last three decades as a breeding ground for comics best new talent. The three-year program has honed the likes of such stars as Steve Bissette, Dave Dorman, Jan Duursema, Kim DeMulder, Steve Lieber, Tom Mandrake, Rags Morales, Bart Sears, John Totleben, Tim Truman, Rick Veitch and Lee Weeks, to say nothing of Joe Kubert’s own superstar sons Adam and Andy.
I was standing in the lobby vacillating between originals by Hal Foster and Milt Caniff when Joe came out to greet me. Then we headed down the hall to his spacious, art-covered studio. Now I’ve known Joe for years and even had the good fortune of having one of his covers on a book of mine (Crawling From the Wreckage, Aardwolf Publishing, 1996) but this was the first time we ever sat back in his digs with a tape recorder running. What an afternoon, folks.
Clifford Meth: Neal Adams always holds you up to me as the industry’s quintessential mensch. You’re one of those rare industry people who have carried it on all fronts—family, business, health.
Joe Kubert: I’ve been lucky.
Cliff: Maybe when it came to health, but you did something right when it came to family and to business.
Joe: There was a need—there were people who wanted to learn to draw for comics, and it was something I’d thought about doing for a long time. If I’d had to do the business end of it, though, I never would have gotten started. My wife had a business degree from Rider and I said to her, “If you’ll take care of business, I can oversee the teaching.” And she agreed. Our kids were already grown, so the timing was right.
Cliff: Let’s talk about the new Western, Tex. Actually, it’s not so new, is it?
Joe: The publication is actually three or four years old now—it was originally published in Italy [by Planeta DeAgostini] but it’s now being published for the first time in the United States. People can buy it right from us or through Diamond. The guy who is publishing this is the guy who I wrote Fax from Sarajevo for—that’s why we’re doing it. Ervin Rustemagic is my very good friend and he’s doing this in Slovenia. He has the contract with Italian publisher, which was the reason I did that in the first place. It took me about five or six years and I think I finished it about four years ago.
Cliff: Besides Tex, which characters do you own?
Joe: I own Tor, Abraham Stone, Yaakov & Isaac, which is being reprinted by an Israeli publisher—
Cliff: Mahwood Press. Eric Mahr’s company.
Joe: Yes. Helluva nice guy. You know him?
Cliff: Sure. I like him a lot—very sweet, gung-ho comics guy. He has certain Israeli rights on DC publishing, which is an interesting play, though I’m skeptical about that market. Not a lot of discretionary income in the Middle-East.
Cliff: Speaking of Tor, I thought they did an impressive job with the recent hardcover [note: The final volume of Joe Kubert's Tor is an oversized archive-quality volume that collects the remaining Tor material produced for DC and Marvel, as well as Kubert's self-published Sojourn].
Joe: I thought so, too. The book looks good.
Cliff: I see your drawing board over there in the corner. How much of your drawing time was taken away by the school?
Joe: None of it. Oh, what a horrible thought! I don’t even like teaching—I like to draw. I like what I do as a cartoonist. That’s where I get my greatest enjoyment. I draw everyday. Everyday, seven days a week. I do it right here. I’ve got a studio at home but I do most of my work here. I teach here one day a week, and I get an overview of what’s happening at the school all the time, but my daughter-in-law is the one who really runs the school, and my wife takes care of all the business at home. So I can really just sit and draw. Thank God for that!
Cliff: I don’t think most people know that about you.
Joe: If starting the school meant that I’d have to sacrifice doing what I do, I never would have started the school.
Cliff: What are your main publishing relationships these days?
Joe: I’m pretty much on a freelance basis, so it changes. I’m doing a big project for DC now—Sgt. Rock. I’ll be doing six issues worth of a new adventure turned into a graphic novel.
[Please note, the illustration to the right is SGT. ROCK: BETWEEN HELL AND A HARD PLACE, written by Brian Azzarello, and not the new project being discussed by Cliff and Joe.]
Cliff: That’s all you, right?
Joe: Yes. Writing it, penciling, inking, coloring, lettering. Everything. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise. I was writing Sgt. Rock when I was editing the book. I had done some of the writing, but Bob Kanigher was the guy who did the major portion of all the writing even when I was editing it.
Cliff: Did you have a favorite project?
Joe: Not really. The tendency that I have is to be so focused on what I’m doing that I kind of block everything else out of my head. I’m completely involved in the job that’s on the table, and that’s generally what I would consider my favorite.
Cliff: I would imagine that Fax from Sarajevo still has a special place in your heart.
Joe: It does. That particular book was important to me simply because I felt that the story and what happened to my buddy was so incredible! I hadn’t contracted with a publisher for that at all—I just sat down and did the damn book. And I was quite surprised when four or five publishers were interested in publishing it. I felt that it was a story that should be told and I wanted to record it. I wanted to see it on paper.
Cliff: The other project that was terribly personal was Yossel.
Joe: Sure. That was really important to me because I found—and I didn’t think I’d be doing it that was—but I found that I was getting my mother and father involved with the book. A lot of their family—a lot of uncles and aunts, as well as my father’s mother and father—were killed by the Nazis in Europe. They came here to the U.S. in 1926, which was about 10 or 12 years before the Holocaust really began.
Cliff: My father arrived here six years earlier, in 1920.
Joe: From where?
Joe: I was also born in Poland. I was two or three months old when my parents left Europe.
Cliff: Do you recall the name of the shtetle?
Joe: Yzeran, on the south-eastern end of Poland. Where was your father?
Cliff: Radawa, near Jaroslaw. Then they settled in Brooklyn. Williamsburg section.
Joe: We settled in East New York. That’s where I grew up. Not far from your father.
Cliff: Was your family traditional?
Joe: Yes. Very much so. My father was a kosher butcher and a chazon. On the High Holidays he sang and made a couple of extra bucks that way.
Cliff: Do you remember the name of the shul.
Joe: Hmm. Well, I went to the Ashford Street Talmud Torah, which was on Sutter Avenue in East New York. I went to Hebrew school there and when I complained to my father that the rabbi hit me for whatever the reason was, my father hit me twice as hard and said, “You probably deserved it!” [laughs]
Cliff: You’ve maintained public ties to large Jewish organizations.
Joe: I’ve been involved with the Lubavitchers for a number of years. As a matter of fact, the book that Israeli publisher put out, Yaakov & Isaac, was a compilation of the strips I did for their magazine.
Cliff: I recall when you were doing those for Tzivos Hashem, the Lubavitch children’s organization.
Joe: You have a good memory.
Cliff: Were you first approached by Shmuel Butman?
Joe: No, it was David Pate.
Cliff: Did you ever meet The Lubavitcher Rebbe?
Joe: I was asked to a number of times but I haven’t.
Cliff: Well, he’s gone now.
Joe: Well, you can never tell [laughs]! These guys were absolutely amazing. They came to the house with a contingent of half-a-dozen rabbis, and I introduced them to my wife. They wouldn’t even shake her hand. They brought mezuzahs for the door and they asked me if I’d take on this project. I told them, “I can’t do this. I’m busy up to here,” and the one rabbi kept saying, “You can do it! You can do it!” So I did it. The stories in Yaakov & Isaac were things that I did over a period of about ten years. I was not sorry for it. We had an understanding that I’m not orthodox, I’m not extreme—I explained that I wouldn’t do anything in terms of the story that I didn’t believe myself. I didn’t want to sell it as somebody who just came down from the mountain and “got religion” and so-on and so-forth. But the rabbi and I worked together—he was the one who did all the research. He would come to me with all of the stories from the Bible or from The Mishna or wherever the heck those stories came from and I would adapt them to current times. And that’s the way we worked.
Cliff: Did you experience any anti-Semitism as a kid?
Joe: None at all. None that I can remember. And I lived in a neighborhood where if there was any we’d have seen it. There were Black neighborhoods, Italian neighborhoods, and I lived in a Jewish neighborhood, and I didn’t really see any. Even when I was in the army.
Cliff: When were you in the army?
Joe: From 1950 to 1952. The only time I ever came anywhere near it was when somebody was picking on a Jewish guy and I asked him to please stop in a nice way.
Cliff: Tell me how you got into the comics industry. Did you want to work in comics or did you expect to eventually end up as a commercial artist?
Joe: No, I wanted to be a comic book artist all my life. I wanted to be a newspaper comic artist first and foremost, and later on after I got into the business, I did some syndication, but I loved comic books. I’ve always loved comic books.
Cliff: What was your first comics job?
Joe: It was something called Volton and it was published by Cat Comics. I got paid $5.00 per page for it. I was about twelve years old.
Cliff: Twelve. That’s mind-boggling. How’d you get that gig?
Joe: It wasn’t really that remarkable. The stuff I did was terrible—it was awful looking stuff—but they were putting out 64-page magazines for 10-cents a shot, and they had a lot of pages to fill, so it was an opportunity for a guy like me to get five pages published and paid for.
Cliff: But you were twelve, Joe! You had the moxxy to walk into a business office and try to get work?
Joe: Oh, I did it before that! I went up to what was originally MLJ on Canal Street—they were the original Archie Group.
Cliff: Let me get my bearings here: You were born in 1926. So we’re talking about 1938 now?
Joe: That right.
Cliff: The year Action Comics #1 appeared.
Joe: That’s right. Superman had just come out in a comic book.
[To be continued…]
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© 2004-, Clifford Meth