Joe Kubert: From Shtetl to Grand MasterA comics interview article by: Clifford Meth
When someone advanced in years passes, people often toss the cliche, "They had a full life." With Joe Kubert, it was true.
May 11 was the first genuinely warm, sun-filled day that had blown into New Jersey all spring—the sky was cloudless, both New York baseball teams were on winning streaks, and I was feeling like a million bucks. But spending an afternoon with Joe Kubert made it feel like a million tax-free.
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.
[This was the original break between part one and part two of the interview. Please forgive any redundancy in the second half]
In 1938, as the strange visitor from another planet made his first appearance on ours, Joe Kubert wasn’t even a bar-mitzvah yet. Nevertheless, he had already laid down his first professional lines and was beginning to pull in that vital paycheck which meant so much to his Depression Age family.
But it was more than a paycheck to young Joe. At that impressionable age, he was already smitten with the works of comics pioneers Hal Foster, Alex Raymond, and Milton Caniff—the three men he still regards as his primary influences. “When I was young and became interested in comics, those three were the best,” Joe recalls. “Everybody knew them. They're still my favorites, even today.”
When we last left off, Joe was talking about his very first professional gig. At age twelve. Think about that for a minute. Twelve. Most of today’s teenagers can barely tie their shoes.
Cliff: Tell me about that first job.
Joe: A guy I was going to school with was somehow related to one of the owners of MLJ. He said, “My uncle puts out comic books. I see you do these drawings of all these muscle guys. Why don’t you go over and see him? Maybe you can get a job there?” And I did.
Cliff: Just like that?
Joe: Just like that.
Cliff: By what point were you making a living at it?
Joe: By the time I was 13, I was already making more money than my father. But that was no big deal because no one was making any money back then.
Cliff: This was 1939—the height of The Depression.
Joe: Right. And a person was quite lucky to be making any money. In ’36, ’37, ’38 it was hard for anybody to make a buck. My father was a kosher butcher and it was hard to find two coins to rub together.
Cliff: You had siblings?
Joe: Four sisters. And my sisters all went to work. Things were quite different during those years. When somebody in the family went out to make a living and they lived at home, all the money went right to the treasurer: my mother. If anybody needed money, they’d come to Mama. I never cashed a check until I got married—until I got out of the house.
Cliff: How old were you when you married?
Cliff: So by the time you were married, you were already a veteran. You already had a pretty good career!
Joe: Oh yeah! I have never been unemployed in all the time that I’ve been working. Not since I was 12 or 13 years old. I’ve never had one day of unemployment. How lucky can you get?
Cliff: Johnny Romita told me that in ACTOR meetings, you’re always the one saying, “If this guy is capable of working, he should be working.” Because Joe has always worked. He was impressing upon me how involved you are with ACTOR—how much you dofor ACTOR—but that you are adamantly against handouts to guys who’ve gotten lazy. It’s one thing if a guy is legitimately down on his luck—
Cliff: When did you get involved with ACTOR?
Joe: When they asked me—when they had just started the organization. I think it’s a good cause, but like anything else it can be taken advantage of if it’s not watched.
Cliff: Let’s get back to your career. Do you recall the first regular series that you did?
Joe: I think it was Hawkman. And that’s because Shelly Mayer was a terrific editor—a wonderful, wonderful guy—really great. He had more patience than three saints. Not only did he teach me things, but I was still going to high school at the time and invariably I would come in late as hell—I could never keep a deadline. He’d call my home and my mother would answer and say, “Yosel is upstairs—he’s not feeling well.” (laughs) But he tolerated me and he taught me. He was a really good guy.
Cliff: Julie Schwartz had told how you once dated his gal.
Joe: I dated his wife before he did. Big gadiddle! (laughs)
Cliff: Well, he told that story.
Joe: Julie was another great guy. I learned a lot from him, too. But it was Shelly who taught me about the importance of telling a story—that doing stuff that I always liked to do, drawing certain types of things was not the be-all and end-all. He taught me that the crux of what we do, what I was hired to do, was tell a story. And in order to do that, you have to see what’s going on all around you; you have to see people for what they are—expressions, postures, characters, and so on and so forth—and convey that in picture form in a story. Convey it so that readers can understand what you’re trying to say. That was probably the most important lesson I learned in this business. Storytelling. I remember vividly one time when I did a story about a kid character. Shelly looked it over and said, “This is not a kid. ” I said, “What do you mean? I gave him a little cute nose and a little cute mouth,” and he said, “But still he’s not a child. You have to look at children. The proportions are different, the expressions on the face are different, the movement of the figures. Watch the way a child walks.” And Shelly was so good at that—he was just fantastic. His eye was keen.
Adam and Andy Kubert have announced that Joe's funeral services will be August 14th at Tuttle Funeral Home 272 Rt-10, Randolph, NJ 07869. This is the same place where Muriel's funeral service was held in 2008. The gathering is from 10 AM - 12 PM, and the actual services will commence at noon. Internment will follow afterwards. It's believed that the procession of cars will pass by the Kubert School and then Joe's home before going to the cemetery. Donations can be made to the Multiple Myeloma Foundation in Joe's name. Sympathy cards can be sent to the Kubert family c/o the Kubert School, 37 Myrtle Avenue, Dover, NJ 07801.