Bill Schelly: Joe Kubert's Art is Like the Difference Between a Pop Song and a Symphony

A other interview article by: Jason Sacks

Joe Kubert is one of the titans of the comics industry. He's done decades of amazing comics work on such titles as "Hawkman" in All-Star Comics, Sgt. Rock, Tarzan, Fax from Sarajevo and many, many more. He also started the Kubert School, perhaps the most important and influential schools of comic art in the world. I had the honor of speaking of super-fan Bill Schelly about his new biography of the great Mr. Kubert, while at San Diego Comic Con this year. Schelley has great insight into Kubert's career and influence in the comics world, making for a thoroughly interesting interview.


Jason Sacks: I'm here with Bill Schelly, who recently finished a new biography of Joe Kubert, published by Fantagraphics. It’s a beautiful book, obviously a labor of love.

Bill Schelly: Yes, and the thing about it is that the first biography I wrote, the first book on Kubert, Man of Rock, was a biography about his life -- the man, his family and all the things that went into his career. This is a book that's kind of the other side; it's focusing on his art and how it evolved from 1938, when he started in comics, to the present day, because his work has changed dramatically over the years. That was my theme. The book has color art all the way through it, whereas my Man of Rock was all black and white.

Sacks: It's hard to find someone who's had a stronger influence on comics than Kubert. Not just his work in comics themselves, but his school has been a phenomenal place to create artists.

Schelly: Think of the effect he's had. It's like an amplifier. He's used amplification through all his students. His philosophy about good storytelling techniques, solid drawing fundamentals and all those things he's imbued in all those students who go out to every field of artistic endeavor and, in fact, internationally. So his effect is really international.

Sacks: He's clearly a person whom everyone loves, too. He must have been a fantastic person to work with and interview, from what I understand.

Schelly: Yeah, he's actually a really humble guy. And he was kind of surprised about some of the things I asked him, because he said no-one's really ever asked him about him folks, what it was like growing up where he did in Brooklyn in the Jewish ghetto in the 1930s, particularly about his parents, his family life, the places where he worked. I mean, I found out that he drew most of his great Golden Age comics in the attic in the roof of his house, all by himself with just a radio on a table nearby with the glow of the dial and a lamp over his little drawing board, just listening to the radio and drawing comics late into the night.

These comics then were being printed. This 16-year-old boy, 17-year-old boy, his comics were being printed and distributed to PXs during World War II all over the world.

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Sacks: I thought it was interesting, too. He started when he was 18, right? And he was immediately working professionally from that age. I thought of Jim Shooter, who started as a teenager because his parents needed the money. But Kubert's parents were both relatively successful. They were small business owners. The family was doing reasonably well at that time.

Schelly: I think [I have to say] a couple things, though. He actually started when he was younger. His first published work happened in 1942, which was when he was about 15. So he started even younger. And, secondly, his parents were doing okay, but only okay.

They bought a house; I don't know how they could have afforded it, basically. His father really didn't have a profession, so he ran a butcher store and he never liked it. I don't think the butcher store made him a lot of money. So Joe's income did contribute to the family. It's just that he wasn't the sole provider, and I think in Jim Shooter's case, he was [the sole provider] because his father was a steelworker who was out of work.

It's really quite a story because Joe was really the first comic book fan who became a comic book pro.

Sacks: He was literally the only one who was the right age to move that direction.

Schelly: Yeah, because Action #1 came out when he was 12 years old. He bought it. Within a year he was starting to work in a comic book production shop, erasing lines and sweeping up and doing stuff like that. He went from being a fan of comic books to being a comic book artist. I don't think there's anyone who could have done it any earlier, that particular transition.

Sacks: He came at the right time, too, during World War II. There was a need of men to do the artwork, so he hit the industry at the right time to find work and build his portfolio. When artists came back from the war, Kubert already had entrée.

Schelly: Yes, and, you know, just about anybody who could draw could get a job in comics at that point, when so many people were in the military.

You can imagine working in a comic book shop and then suddenly somebody disappears here, somebody's gone there. There's an empty desk there. Someone's got to fill those slots, and comics were selling better than ever.

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Sacks: And he was lucky to get on with DC pretty early on.

Schelly: That was the big thing. To get to work for the number one publisher. You certainly can argue that Dell Comics were a number one publisher, too. But DC/National was the number one publisher, and for him to be doing Hawkman, actually for All-American, which became part of DC, he was at the top of his profession, really, at 18. He really was.

When you do a regular feature of a character who's the chairman of the Justice Society, and you're doing a chapter in every issue of All-Star, you've kind of arrived.

Sacks: I was surprised when looking at your book. Even at a young age, all the characteristics that made him a great cartoonist were there.

Schelly: It’s very interesting to watch his evolution. You can see the influence of some of his mentors and how he made that influence into his own style. You can really see his style evolve then. Particularly a dramatic and slightly dark quality was there almost from the beginning.

Sacks: Who would you say his main mentors were?

Schelly: Certainly one was Will Eisner, because he started out working at Will Eisner's shop as an assistant, inking backgrounds. He worked on The Spirit. Another one was Sheldon Mayer, who was the legendary editor of All-American Comics. Sheldon Mayer taught him, really, about storytelling. How to position characters. How to make dramatic effects more emphatic. How to orchestrate your visuals. Mayer really impressed on him, and even to this day, when Joe talks about it, he always talks about how you've gotta tell the story. You've got to tell the story. That is what it's all about. And that comes from Sheldon Mayer drilling that into his head.

Sacks: It's interesting, because Kubert is a great storyteller but, at the same time, the first thing I think of when I think about Kubert are his covers. Nobody drew more immediately exciting dramatic covers than Kubert, especially on the war books.

Schelly: Oh yeah, they're unbelievable. And particularly the wonderful wash tone books, where you have the gray tone that gives added grit and added drama.

Sacks: Oh yeah on Sea Devils  -- oh, he didn't do Sea Devils.

Schelly: Well, he did a couple of interiors for issues of Sea Devils, but, no, that was generally Russ Heath.

But, no, his stuff is incredibly dramatic, but also with a sense of mature emotion. You look at the other artists who tried to do Sgt. Rock early, people like Irv Novick and Ross Andru, Jerry Grandenetti, and then you compare it to Kubert. It's like the difference between a pop song and a symphony. It’s like, yes, they were good comic book artists. But Sgt. Rock when Kubert did it, Sgt. Rock was a man with emotions. You could just feel it.

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Sacks: And yet, he conjured emotions with a minimal number of lines. One of the things I thought was really interesting was when they went from 200% to 150% up and Kubert simplified his style. It actually became more dramatic.

Schelly: That's what happened with Tarzan. When he was approaching Tarzan you'd think [that] by being the editor you could do things and control the process to make it exactly how you want. But, in one sense, it worked against him because he was so busy [and] he didn't really have time to really do detailed drawing to put in all the details. So he developed a technique where he suggested details and where he would create the image with the fewest lines possible and allow the reader to fill in and participate visually, if you know what I mean.

Sacks: That's really an interesting thought. The reader was a participant in the story. Did he consciously try to embrace that, or was it something that, in part, came as a side effect of his style?

Schelly: He talked about that when he was interviewed about Tarzan. He specifically talked about that. He likened it to how radio listeners would fill in the visual of the story they were listening to. They were just hearing it, but they had a picture in their mind.

In the same way, he felt that this would allow readers to maybe participate more. At least he stated that, and I think it's true.

Sacks: The Dark Horse collections are really interesting. Of course, they're fantastic work and it's engaging in a whole different kind of way than any of the other Tarzan series. Even the John Buscema work on Tarzan was almost too literal, too specific to a particular vision of the character versus a vision that you're able to put yourself into.

Schelly: Yes, put yourself into. Kubert's Tarzan was wilder and fiercer and had a more animalistic quality that would explode suddenly. He would be wearing a suit and seem civilized in certain scenes where he went to Europe. But, basically, when he got back in the jungle, that fierceness –- he captured that in a way that I don't think any of the other Tarzan artists captured.

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Sacks: It's wonderful work. I think it really stands up now, today. Unfortunately, it only lasted, what, two or three years before he got too busy?

Schelly: Well, what happened was they had had to pay a licensing fee to Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., so they had to reach a higher bar in terms of sales to make a profit. In order for him to continue doing the books, he had to lower the budget for each book. And so he began using Philippine artists to do the finished work and he had to just do layouts in order to justify the continued publication.

What happened is that he only did the full artwork for about three years, and then he continued writing, working with other artists to do work from his layouts. That was disappointing.

Sacks: To him as well as to the readers.

Schelly: That's what he told me. He said, "You know, it just wasn't the way I saw it."

Sacks: Was that really one of his dream projects?

Schelly: Absolutely. Tarzan was the strip that was almost singly responsible for making him an obsessed comic book artist for the rest of his life.

Sacks: Really?

Schelly: Absolutely. That was the strip that completely grabbed his imagination more than anything when he was a boy, because it started when he was about eight years old. The very beginning of his reading in comics. When you read something and you get involved in something that early, it goes deep. It went really deep in him. For him to get to do Tarzan is something that he'd been dreaming about. It brought him to comics. It inspired him to get into comics. And then he finally got to do it.

He did produce a good body of work and certainly, in my opinion, he's at least the second best Tarzan artist of all time. I think you have to say that Hal Foster was perhaps the greatest. I actually prefer Kubert. But I think that Kubert is right up there with Foster.

Sacks: But, at the same time, his style is so different from Foster's. I find that fascinating. He really blazed his own trail in his art style.

Schelly: He did. There's nobody like Kubert, is there?

Sacks: You know, I was  at the Gene Colan tribute panel yesterday, and that was a comment they made about Colan and I was thinking how many cartoonists you can say that about. Despite his incredible influence, the only people who drew like Kubert -- or draw like Kubert -- are his sons.

Schelly: They've moved off in other directions. He's had influences on others, but certainly I think his influence is not so much his style in terms of how he draws but his approach, the emotionalism and the way he creates impact with the scenes. Neal Adams said that he gets almost all of the grit in his style from Joe Kubert. Because that's what he picked up from Joe. Not the way Joe drew, but this sense of power.

Sacks: He has this way with the single, strong, bold stroke that would make the story come together.

Schelly: Absolutely.

Sacks: He's also unique because he was one of the very few cartoonists who were never inked by anybody. He always did his own inks.

Schelly: Almost always. He was really interesting that way. He would ink others from time to time. Of course, he inked Showcase #4, the first appearance of the Flash in the Silver Age. And, by the way, I talk about that in The Art of Joe Kubert and how his inks brought a slight noirish twinge to those first stories. It was so much more interesting than what came a little bit later with very able inkers like Joe Giella and Frank Giacoia.

Kubert's inks on Infantino made the Flash just so interesting and I kind of wish it could have continued, but that was just not meant to be.

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Sacks: I wrote a chapter about those issues for the TwoMorrows book The Flash Companion, so they're real favorites of mine. It's interesting how the Flash became a bit different from how he was in his early issues.

Schelly: There's a noirish quality that became more apparent in Kubert's work as the '50s went on that influenced other people that came later -- like Frank Miller. I think in the end credits of Sin City, Miller cites Joe Kubert –- thanks Joe Kubert. I think a lot of people would say he's the grandfather of comic book noir in some sense.

Sacks: I can see that. There's a very dark feel to some of the Sgt. Rock stories.

Schelly: Yes, there is. And how his eyes are in shadow, how it's from a deeply psychological point of view. You're into Rock's psyche because he tells the story from a first person standpoint. So many film noir movies have the voice-over in first person and they're very psychological.

Sacks: Clearly with those books, he had a clear vision of what he wanted to do. It was impressive how well he worked with Kanigher to produce these stories that hit you in an emotional gut level.

Schelly: And that’s why when he did Fax from Sarajevo, Kubert was the perfect artist for this incredibly emotional story, this very dark story about a family trapped in a war zone.

Sacks: I find it fascinating that he did all the books for DC, especially, but aside from his early career he never did super-hero stuff. That, in a way, gave him free reign to explore other sides of his work. Do you feel that kind of informed him doing books like Fax from Sarajevo and Abraham Stone and some of the books that are kind of outside the comfort zone of creators who just draw stories about good and evil?

Schelly: I think so. I think Joe's work -- if you think about the war comics -- these were stories about people. They were not people – yes they have uniforms on – but they weren't fantasy stories per se. Yes, you might say there is a fantasy about World War II, but basically these were an attempt to tell stories that were quasi-realistic and they weren't about people in spandex flying around and things like that. His focus was always on the emotion of the story and it made a very easy transition for him to get into graphic novels. And to get into things like Fax from Sarajevo and Yossel and some of the books that dealt with really serious issues like the Holocaust.

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Sacks: Yossel was incredibly moving, and Kubert's art style wwas really well suited to the story because there was so much implicit in those sharp, bold lines.

Schelly: And of course, this was the story of what would have happened to him if his family had not immigrated to America. And as you read it, you realize that this is likely what would have happened to Joe. We would have lost an artist as great as Joe Kubert. Think of all the other great artists we lost in the Holocaust.

Sacks: The thing I think struck me the most about your book is that the guy had a dream when he was 15 years old, and he literally lived his dream.

Schelly: And he's still living it today. His work today is very vital. He is undiminished. I asked him about that. I asked, how is your hand-eye coordination? How steady is your hand? He said, it's just the same as ever, Bill.  In fact, sometimes I think my vision is improving.

Sacks: How old is he now?

Schelly: 86, I think, or almost. He's easily –- knock on wood -- but he's someone who could easily work into his nineties, and be very vital and creative. I hope he is.

Sacks: I talked to Jerry Robinson about a year ago. And he struck me the same way. He talked my coworker and me to death. We were beat, but he could have gone two hours, telling stories about things he remembered really clearly from 1940, the creation of the Joker. And I was amazed that he seemed so vital and so full of energy and so positive. It sounds like Kubert has the same attitude.

Schelly: Oh yeah, and when you talk to Joe, you’re not talking to an old man. You're talking to a vital man. He's not like someone you make allowances for. He's someone who's right there with you and there's no question about it. That even comes down to his handshake, which kind of goes with the title of Man of Rock. He's got this firm handshake and it's still there.

Sacks: The Kubert School obviously is continuing to do incredibly well.

Schelly: They changed the name of it. Recent they went from The Joe Kubert School of Cartooning to just The Kubert School. And that's because it’s a tri-part effort now. It’s Joe, Adam and Andy all running the school. And, of course, they will continue when Joe is no longer a part of it. The school will continue, so they changed the title to the Kubert School.

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Sacks: How did the school come about?

Schelly: Well, I think what happened was that Joe wanted that to happen because he felt that the kids weren't getting their recognition for their part in it.

Sacks: And how did he make the leap to opening the school?

Schelly: Joe was very grateful for all the help that other comic book artists gave him. The tutoring, the kindness, the patience that he got. Because there was nowhere to learn it, except next to another comic book artist who would teach him. He always felt like when he went to conventions, people would ask him to critique their portfolios and things. He realized there was a real need and a hunger and a niche that wasn't being filled. Which was a place where you could really learn from working professionals on a street level -- a street-smart level -- how to become what it takes to be a successful comic book artist.

And, in fact, in the early '50s he even created a correspondence course, which I have excerpts from in the book. He was doing it then. So he's always had that in mind. So finally what happened was, his daughter had a friend who had this great big old house in the town that they lived in, that they were trying to sell, and it was like a perfect setting to start a school.

It was like suddenly, within nine months, the school was open and students were coming. Within a year, at least, they were up and running.

Sacks: He had an incredible group of students, all of whom had very different visions and came to the school and produced very unique comics of their own. They're unique creators, and they all have their own visions.

Schelly: I don't think you can say he was turning out cookie cutter Kuberts at all. The sons seemed to have some of those characteristics at first, as you will when you’re young. Some people start out young and they do imitate others at first. Other artists come out of the gate highly original and idiosyncratic.

Sacks: Did you want to talk about any of your other books?

Schelly: Well, I've kind of taken a dual path now. I write about the history of fandom in Alter Ego magazine, then I write about comic book artists as kind of a general historian. Because I have enough energy to do both, is what it comes down to. And I really think that there's a lack of good biographies and books that really make you think and books that probe a little more deeply into this stuff, rather than just covering it superficially.

My goal when I write books about Kubert or Otto Binder is I want to get beneath the surface. I want to write something that is a little better than just OK. I want to write something that's more than just acceptable. I want to write something that's really good.

Sacks: You're part of a wave of people doing that. The Mort Meskin book was fantastic. Of course, Genius Isolated, the book about Toth, was amazing.

Schelly: There really is. It’s wonderful. Finally, it's happening. There are a number of biographies in the works of major figures, as I understand it. I think we can look forward to that finally happening on a wider scale. Of course, some of these people are still alive and some of them aren't. Jerry Robinson's book was very good. I'm hoping to write more biographies in the future. I have some things going on now that I can't talk about.

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