Sunday, March 22, 2009

Keeping current with Joe Kubert

Joe Kubert gets up from the art table in his office at the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, a warm and bright room that features a long table in the center, and framed artwork of Joe’s on the far wall. On the wall alongside the door, and to the left, are a flat file, and Joe’s art table. Wearing a long-sleeved gray polo shirt and blue jeans, Kubert’s youthfulness belies his age of 82.

Kubert, the cartoonist who started at about twelve years of age in the 1940s (his first strip, Volton, was a superhero strip for small publisher Holyoke), truly grew up, artistically speaking, in the comics industry. Looking at his old Hawkman work from the 1940s for DC Comics, heads were out of proportion and overly large and figures seemed crammed in, yet viewing his later Hawkman and Sergeant Rock artwork in the ‘60s, one sees the work of a comics master, fluid pen and brush lines giving winged men the same realistic gravitas of grizzled soldiers. Kubert’s more recent work includes his graphic novels Yossel, Jew Gangster, and Fax from Sarajevo and marry an artistic maturity with a youthful energy for visual experimentation. I would soon get a glimpse into what separates Joe Kubert from many of his Silver Age contemporaries.

Joe Kubert’s parents and sister tried to flee Poland in 1926, but his mother, pregnant with Joe, was denied passage. Only after Joe’s birth were they able to board the boat and avoid the Nazi regime’s rise, and come to America. Settling in the East Side of Brooklyn, Joe’s father became a local butcher, while Joe and his sister grew up during the Great Depression.

“I think that people now have a difficulty understanding what was going on at that time, compared to today,” Joe explains. “It was a simpler time, money was more difficult to come by, values were quite different, there were less people around, but competition was heavier…It’s like trying to describe what’s going on on Mars. It was a different world.”

The world of Jew Gangster, Kubert’s 2005 graphic novel based on his childhood environment, follows the initiation of a teenager into the world of organized crime, eager to make something of himself to provide for his family…no matter the cost to his conscience or soul. Kubert admits that the family in the book is “closely aligned” to his own, a departure point for the more dangerous childhood that he might have had.

“In fact, in the neighborhood where I grew up, it was not unusual to see who would be considered a crime figure today, walking around and looked at him in terms of being a kind of hero,” Kubert reflects. “Here was somebody who, through his own endeavors and efforts (what was described by other civilians) had the guts to go ahead and do what it was he felt he had to do in order to make a buck. Everybody else would have loved to do the same thing to make that kind of an income, but were never willing to overstep the bounds for whatever reason.”

I ask him if he was ever tempted to overstep those bounds, and there is an awkward pause.

“Not really,” he answers, breaking the silence. “But the question is a provocative one, and I’m not sure if you really expect me to answer that honestly.”

The awkwardness gives way to a laugh, and he goes into a story that has stayed with him since he was a kid:

“But what it provokes right now is that I think of the reasons a lot of us stayed straight. Some of my friends ran into a lot of problems, in terms of the law and so forth, and it wasn’t a difficult thing to do. I was lucky in the fact that my parents were strict when it came to stuff like that, I recall, when I was six or seven years old.

“When people bought newspapers, they’d put the pennies on the newsstand, take the newspaper, and just walk away. One time, I took the pennies off the newsstand and put them in my pocket. I was with my kid sister, who was three years younger than I, and the moment we walked into my father’s store (my father owned a butcher store at the time), she told my father I took the pennies off of the stand. She immediately reported it to my father. My father, who was quite a disciplinarian, instead of making a big to-do about it, took me by the hand and walked me back to the newsstand, and made me give the pennies to the owner. I was mortified. That was quite a lesson to me, but that was the kind of thing that happened, and one of the things that kept me straight. It was not because I wasn’t tempted, but because that’s how it worked out.

“Another thing was that I was occupied, and drawing all of the time, and it helped me not get into a heck of a lot of trouble.”

Like a lot of kids during the Depression, Joe also had his nose in the daily comics that, back then carried a lot more weight and credibility than their staple-bound comic book counterparts.
“The newspaper strips at that time were really what everybody strove for,” Joe said. “Every artist that was working for comic books was looking to do that. It was an adult media because it was read in the newspapers and used by the papers in a competitive effort to get readers, and it also paid a helluva lot better.”

Like all kids reading comics, he undoubtedly dreamed himself in his heroes’ shoes. That ability to transport himself into another time and situation is still at play in two of his more recent graphic novels: the aforementioned Jew Gangster (where the main family are unmistakable ciphers for Joe’s own), and Yossel: April 19, 1943.

In Yossel, Kubert speculates what would have happened to him, had his parents given up on coming to America after that first rejection during his mother’s pregnancy. What follows is the telling of a fifteen year-old Kubert’s life, a poor boy gifted with the ability to draw his heroes on whatever scrap of attainable paper. Yossel transports Joe/Yossel and his family into the Jewish ghettoes, with the spectre of the concentration camps looming over. Finally, orphaned, Yossel joins the resistance to fight the Nazis to the death. The artwork, like Yossel’s journey into manhood, remains incomplete, quick and loose linework with even the artist’s guide lines still intact.

“I felt that the character himself, the kid, is evolving as an artist,” Kubert says. The interesting thing about Joe Kubert is that, like his graphic novel’s counterpart, he continues to evolve, styles changing from project to project. His apathy towards glorifying his past achievements, as well as his inability to look at artists aged twenty-something to eighty as “new” or “old” – keeps him as current an artist as his sons, Adam and Andy, despite the reverence of fans and professionals alike.

Kubert neither romanticizes the past (“To try to analyze what was going on at the time?” he answers. “It never entered my head.”), nor is he stuck there. His contemporaries are the ones now drawing comics and telling stories, and he’s right up there with them.

Kubert grew into the comics industry at a young age, eventually landing work drawing Hawkman for DC Comics. He revisited Hawkman in the 1950s to reinvent him (with writer Gardner Fox) for the Silver Age of comics, and also took war comics by storm when he teamed up with writer Robert Kanigher on Sergeant Rock in the ‘60s.

In the ‘70s, artist Carmine Infantino became head editorial cheese at DC Comics, and he recruited Kubert as one of his “artist-as-editors”.

“I made a lot of mistakes, sure,” Joe admits. “I know that I benefited by learning things, but they weren’t things I set out to learn. It was just a job, and I did it, that’s all. I think that time has separated and clarified this business of being a professional, instead of just doing the work. The guys that I worked with were my friends, and people that I worked with all of the time. Very often that became a problem, simply because I knew them so well that if they were late on a deadline, it was something that made difficulties for me. I knew they were just playing games, we all did. I’d done the same thing. We all knew what one another was doing.

“It was difficult separating and making it clear to my friends that were working with me, people that I had a great deal of respect for in terms of their abilities, to sit on them and tell them ‘Look, this isn’t a game now; this is for real. You’ve got to get the stuff in on time and, if you can’t, tell me. Our private relationship will remain the same and won’t be affected at all. But we can’t work together if you can’t get the stuff in on time.’ That was a rough lesson to learn.”

The editorial stint preceded Kubert’s next, even more long-lasting stage in his career: the founding of the Joe Kubert School in Dover, New Jersey. It all hearkens back to his days as a kid going from comics company to company, meeting as many of his creative heroes as possible.

“When I was a kid, … the people who were in the business were very kind and would help you in many ways,” Joe says. “But when I talked to these guys, they told me what I needed to do and so on. I always felt that if there was one place for someone who was seriously into this work to gather all of that information that would be a very good thing. I had the idea in the back of my head for a very long time, but that I would never be prepared to give up doing my own work for the sake of starting a school.

“About thirty years ago, our five kids were all out of the house and married, [and moved out,] and my wife, who was a graduate of a business school, would be at home. I said ‘Look, if we find a place locally (because I wouldn’t commute, I live in town, just five minutes away) where we could start something like this, would you be ready to run the business end of it? If I had to run the business end, forget it, I don’t even want to discuss it.’

“I wasn’t looking for a substitute for my own career. If it were ever a question of running the school or doing my own work, the school would not exist. My wife felt that this was something that we could start. A piece of property came up for sale, a mansion not far from the house, and we started up the school.”

The Kubert School, in a recently renovated building that was once Adam and Andy’s high school, is a three-year program that started with twenty-five students, and now averages around 120. The students endure a rigorous curriculum, with thirty hours of course work and about that much in homework, all designed to hone a sense of discipline while enforcing a work ethic. If they really are serious, they’ll stick it out and become professional artists. Joe teaches one class a week, and pulls from his experience as both an artist and an editor, with a mind for his students’ development.

“I explain this to the students: if I’m dealing with a guy who’s working for me, as his editor, I have the last word,” he explains. “As editor, it’s my responsibility to make sure that what’s coming out in that book reflects my ideas. The people who I worked with as editor are those whose ideas coincide with mine, so there’s no conflict, and it’s a matter of sharpening whatever ideas they may have. This school is different. It’s a learning situation as opposed to the professional thing that goes on in the profession itself. There are allowances that have to be made in teaching, where a student is allowed to make mistakes. I think it’s important for a student to be allowed to make mistakes, so he can see where he went wrong and then change his mind. You can’t really do that by telling them: it has to be seen and experienced.

“Sometimes, despite the fact that students are told very clearly in the discussions they have prior to coming in, that it’s tough and so forth. The commitment that they make is a tough one, and sometimes feelings can be hurt…if you hit them where they live, so to speak. Where they live is their artwork. Artwork is an important and integral thing in their lives. If you criticize the way they’re doing things in terms of personalizing it…”

He stops for a minute and goes more in depth:

“Look, the students have a certain amount of respect for the instructors because they’ve made it, and they are professionals. If an instructor tells you that your stuff is lousy and that you’re doing terrible work, to some it can kill their incentive and hurt them. It’s got to be tempered with a lot of things, and you have to know the individual with whom you’re dealing.”

The Kubert School has turned out a virtual army of comics pros, including Stephen Bissette, Mike Cavallaro, Dave Dorman, Tom Mandrake, Alex Maleev, and John Totleben, as well as Joe’s son, Adam and Andy.

“They’re now teaching here,” Joe states. “I’m very proud of what they’re doing. As far as I’m concerned, what Adam and Andy are doing, and the fact that they enjoy the same things that I do, is nothing short of a miracle. I don’t think anybody can tell or suggest to you that you’re going to get into a profession like this. But, once you’re into it, it’s very difficult to talk you out of it. It gets you and becomes a really strong part of your life and, to me, the fact that Adam and Andy have the same feeling towards it that I do, is nothing short of a miracle.”

The Kubert School feels more like a community high school, with the kind ladies in the main office bringing a cup of coffee in, and the sense of calm in the halls. Yet, there’s still a family-run business feel, a lot of which came from Joe’s late wife, Muriel, who was the heart of the school.

“The school wouldn’t be here if not for her,” he says. “After the first twenty or more years, she was present at the school every day, and probably had more to do individually with the students than I. She took a personal interest in them, and that’s the way she was.”

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