Born October 12, 1926 (Yzerin, Poland)
American author, illustrator
Joe Kubert is a legendary comic book artist: "One of the old masters of the comic book," as New York Times contributor Dana Jennings wrote in 2003. Kubert established himself by drawing such comic book superheroes as Hawkman, Batman, and The Flash. But his most representative work—Sgt. Rock and, in particular, the graphic novels Fax from Sarajevo: A Story of Survival and Yossel: April 19, 1943—include vivid portrayals of how war impacts the individual. Kubert's sixty-plus-year career spans the history and evolution of the comic book and the rise of the graphic novel. His work as an artist and illustrator, writer, director at DC Comics, and as a pioneering cartoon art instructor has, according to Jennings, "helped define American comic books."
"I've always felt that the job I have is not so much drawing as telling a story in a graphic form—in other words, drawing to communicate."
From the Old World to the New
Joe Kubert was born on October 12, 1926, in Yzerin, Poland. When he was two months old, his parents immigrated with him to the United States. They settled in the East New York borough of Brooklyn, where Kubert's father, Jacob, worked as a kosher butcher and his mother, Etta, managed a small restaurant.
Captivated by comic strips at a young age, Kubert determined early in life that he would become an artist. "I never wanted to do anything else," he recalled in an interview with Graphic Novelists. "The first time I saw Tarzan and Flash Gordon, that was it for me. I'd draw on the brown paper bags in my father's store. People would buy me penny chalk, so that I could draw [on the street pavement]. Back then, when people saw you could draw, it was viewed as being like some kind of magic." Kubert's father was one of the budding artist's most ardent supporters. On one occasion, Jacob Kubert purchased an art table for his son, even though he had little money and the eleven-dollar price tag seemed excessive. The table remained in Joe Kubert's possession, many decades later.
Works from early age
Kubert came of age during the Great Depression (1929–41; period of severe economic hardship in the United States), when young people were counted on to take jobs to help support their families. He combined this expectation with his fascination with comic books and illustrating. Kubert had not yet entered his teens when, in 1938, he secured a job as an apprentice inker at Harry "A" Chesler Comics, a comic book production house. (The "A" was claimed by Chesler to stand for "Anything.") It was an invaluable experience. In his early adolescence, he spent summer vacations apprenticing with the legendary Will Eisner (1917–2005; see entry), whom he considered a mentor.
"It was a very happy, exciting time," Kubert remembered. "The guys I met in the business were so friendly and accommodating." But he was quick to add that, "The business is quite different today. It's much more sophisticated, and it involves much more money. Back then, you could learn the job on the job. This does not exist today. Publishers can't afford to hire young people who don't know what they're doing."
Kubert eventually enrolled in Manhattan's High School of Music and Art. "Going there got me out of East New York," he noted. "It gave me the ability to begin seeing the different publishers. Often, I'd play hooky from school or get out as early as I could, and then make the rounds of the publishers. Going to school in Manhattan allowed me to do this."
Builds a solid career
In 1942, when Kubert was sixteen, Cat Comics agreed to publish Volton, his five-page comic creation. Through the end of the decade, he inked and drew for a variety of comic book houses. In 1945, he began drawing Hawkman for DC comics, a series he continued into the 1960s. Other of his early superhero credits include Batman and The Flash. During this period, Kubert primarily illustrated stories conjured up by other writers, but he also started penning his own narratives.
At the time, Kubert explained, many of his colleagues "became cartoonists or drew comic strips because they could find no other jobs in the art profession. Being a comic book artist was considered to be kind of demeaning. So many artists who drew comic books referred to themselves as 'commercial artists.' Today, it's very different. Today, it's become a very respectable profession."
Abraham Stone: Country Mouse, City Rat (1992).
Fax from Sarajevo: A Story of Survival (1996).
Superheroes: Joe Kubert's Wonderful World of Comics (1999).
The Hawkman Archives (with Gardner Fox and others) (2000).
Enemy Ace: War in Heaven (with Garth Ennis) (2001).
Tor, Vol. 1 (2001).
Tor, Vol. 2 (2002).
The Sgt. Rock Archives, Vol. 1 (with Robert Kanigher, Bob Haney) (2002).
The Sgt. Rock Archives, Vol. 2 (with Robert Kanigher, Bob Haney) (2002).
The Enemy Ace Archives (with Robert Kanigher) (2002).
Yossel: April 19, 1943 (2003).
Sgt. Rock: Between Hell and a Hard Place (with Brian Azzarello) (2003).
Jew Gangster (2005).
Tarzan: The Joe Kubert Years, Vol. 1 (2005).
Joe Kubert's Comic Book Studio (2002).
Kubert has also written and illustrated numerous comics, including Hawkman, Batman, The Flash, Our Army at War (which eventually became Sgt. Rock), Star-Spangled War Stories, Our Fighting Forces, GI Combat, Mighty Mouse, Tor, Tarzan, and the comic strips Tales of the Green Berets, Winnie Winkle, and Big Ben Bolt.
Soaks up military influence
Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1950, Kubert's two years of military service would strongly impact his career. Some of his service was
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spent in Germany not long after its loss in World War II (1939–45; war in which Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, and their allied forces defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan). After his discharge in 1952, he began drawing a series for DC
Comics titled Our Army at War. Issue #81, published in 1959, saw the debut of the character with whom he is most strongly identified: U.S. Army sergeant Frank Rock, the leader of a band of soldiers who are attached to Easy Company and who battle the Nazis across Europe during World War II. In "Sgt. Rock," Kubert and Robert Kanigher, who penned most of the stories, deemphasized battlefield glory. They instead examined the characters of Rock and his underlings, and how combat experiences impacted their lives. The popularity of the storyline resulted in its becoming a regular attraction in Our Army at War, the title of which was changed to Sgt. Rock in 1977.
Kubert credited his time spent in the army with allowing him to understand the military way of life. "It gave me insight into how guys in the military relate to each other," he explained. "It's not only about the uniform and the details of the equipment; it's important to accurately show how a soldier would wear a uniform and carry his equipment." His deep knowledge of the life of soldiers enabled him to create compelling stories both in words and pictures.
Kubert illustrated and occasionally authored Sgt. Rock stories for three decades. In addition, he drew stories and created characters for such war-oriented comics series as Star-Spangled War Stories, Our Fighting Forces, and GI Combat. Other popular Kubert characters were Hans von Hammer (AKA Enemy Ace), a strong World War I (1914–18; war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies) German fighter pilot, and Unknown Soldier, a disfigured World War II–era American GI.
In 1952, Kubert and Norman Maurer introduced the innovative Three Dimension Comics series with the publication of Mighty Mouse, the first 3-D comic book. Two years later Kubert created Tor, a comic book series whose Tarzan-like title character existed in prehistoric times and battled dinosaurs. Both were issued by the St. John Publishing Company.
Between 1965 and 1967, Kubert authored the comic strip Tales of the Green Berets, based on the book by Robin Moore and distributed by the Chicago Tribune-New York News syndicate. Two other strips, Winnie Winkle and Big Ben Bolt, were distributed respectively by Chicago Tribune-New York News and King Features. From 1967 through 1976, Kubert was the director of publications
Passing On Knowledge
In 1976, Kubert and his wife, Muriel, opened the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art. Initially it was located in the twenty-three-room Baker Mansion in Dover, New Jersey. Eventually, as the school expanded, it was relocated to a former public high school in Dover. Students embark on a rigorous three-year, ten-course core curriculum in which they learn the basics of cartoon art, studying everything from drawing, inking, layout, and design to the school's signature course, narrative art (the manner in which art may be employed to tell a story). Students take approximately twenty-eight hours of classes per week. They are expected to draw for eight to ten hours per day, six and even seven days per week. During the school's first year, 22 students were enrolled; by 2004 the school had 125 students and was able to be selective, picking that year's freshman class of 45 from a list of 300 candidates from across the globe.
"I didn't [establish the school] to open up a new career for myself," Kubert noted. "I felt there was a need for such a school. There were no courses being given regarding the dos and don'ts of how to get into the business. I was lucky, with regard to how I broke in. But that opportunity for young people doesn't exist anymore." Kubert has reported that between 80 and 90 percent of the school's graduates secure work in the cartoon/comic book/graphic novel industry. In 1998, he established an offshoot venture: Joe Kubert's World of Cartooning, a correspondence school.
for DC Comics. In the 1970s, he worked on DC Comics' new Tarzan series, writing, drawing, and editing Tarzan of the Apes and other Edgar Rice Burroughs stories. And he continued to work as he began teaching students at his own school in 1976. In 1992, Kubert published his first graphic novel, Abraham Stone: Country Mouse City Rat.
Kubert's drawing style changed from project to project, depending on his subject. "If I'm drawing a story about the ocean, my approach would be different than if I'm drawing a story about people in caves," he noted to Graphic Novelists. "If I'm drawing something humorous, or if I'm dealing with a work meant for kids, I will simplify my drawing and exaggerate the action. And there are different degrees of simplification. If I'm drawing a war story, it has to be darker, heavier. I'm going to want to show the emotional impact of the situation by the facial expressions, the body language." He explained that "The drawing itself is not as important as the way in which it is used. I'm not a wallpaper designer. My main purpose is to use my drawings to tell a story clearly, effectively, and dramatically."
Depicts horrors of war
In 1996, Kubert's career took on a new dimension with the release of Fax from Sarajevo: A Story of Survival. Set between 1992 and 1994, during the Serbian-Croatian Civil War, the graphic novel depicts the Serbian takeover of the title city. The graphic novel was inspired by the hundreds of faxes Kubert received during the ordeal from Ervin Rustemagic, his Serbian-born friend. In 1992, Rustemagic, a literary agent, was living and working in Holland; he chose to resettle to Dobrinja, a Sarajevo suburb, because his wife and children were homesick and the political situation appeared to have eased. Instead, the hostilities escalated, Rustemagic's home was destroyed by a bomb blast, and he and his family were trapped in the war zone. Eventually, Rustemagic's media credentials allowed him to escape into neighboring Slovenia. His family was able to follow him.
In his faxes, Rustemagic reported on life amid the exploding bombs and constant terror, charted the atrocities he witnessed, and expressed his fears regarding his and his family's survival—all of which comprises Fax from Sarajevo: A Story of Survival. The novel unfolds in twelve chapters and includes a number of the actual faxes Rustemagic sent Kubert. "My motivation for this project was what happened to my friend," Kubert explained to GraphicNovelists. "I felt this should be noted somewhere; I did it because I felt I just wanted to tell this story. I did the entire book before contacting a publisher, and was surprised by the number of people who wanted to publish it. I also was very pleasantly surprised by [its] acceptance and recognition."
Kubert envisioned a different war in his next graphic novel, Yossel: April 19, 1943, published in 2003. Here, Kubert concocts a fiction about what might have been his plight and fate had his parents not settled in the United States. During the 1930s, after Adolph Hitler (1889–1945) came to power in Germany, the clouds of war hung over Europe. On September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, plunging Europe into the World War II. Had Kubert grown up as a Jew in Poland, he and his family likely would have ended up, and probably perished, in a concentration camp.
In Yossel: April 19, 1943, Kubert envisions himself as the title character, a Jewish teenager coming of age in Poland during the war. Yossel and his family are stripped of their civil rights and possessions and relocated to the Warsaw ghetto, but his flair for art makes him a favorite among the Nazi hierarchy and renders him privileges not afforded other Jews. Yossel's status allows him to avoid being dispatched to the Auschwitz concentration camp, along with the rest of his family. Eventually, he becomes an active member of the Jewish resistance that battles the Nazis in the historic 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Kubert's story may be linked to his childhood memories of Polish Jews visiting his Brooklyn neighborhood and describing the horrors then unfolding in Europe. Decades later, after visiting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., he realized that the time had arrived for him to create Yossel. "That wasn't just a visit—it was an experience," Kubert explained. "Walking through the museum was incredible. You got the feeling that you were actually there. There's a wall that shows the towns in Poland that no longer exist, that were wiped out during the war. My own home town was one of them."
Yossel: April 19, 1943 offers an unsparingly graphic account of Nazi atrocities. Kubert's uncolored pencil drawings are more like unfinished sketches. They are not polished, but rather rough and loose, which is appropriate to the nature of the material. The novel received excellent reviews, with the New York Times's Dana Jennings observing that it "may be the capstone of Mr. Kubert's career."
Does not abandon early work
In 2003, Kubert returned to familiar territory with Sgt. Rock: Between Hell and a Hard Place, in which he and writer Brian Azzarello revisit the men of Easy Company. The time is November, 1944, the place is the German-Belgium border, and the sergeant and his men sneak behind enemy lines to nab a quartet of German SS officers. After the ensuing fighting, the sergeant discovers that all but one of the officers has been murdered. Rock must locate the survivor, as well as unearth the officers' killer. Sgt. Rock: Between Hell and a Hard Place is not merely a combination murder mystery/action-adventure tale; it also spotlights the manner in which Rock and his underlings respond to their situation, and the moral choices soldiers must make amid the high-intensity pressure of battle.
It seemed that Kubert never tired of his work. As he neared his eightieth birthday, he published yet another graphic novel, Jew Gangster, in which he charts the plight of Ruby, a young man coming of age in Depression-era Brooklyn, who becomes involved in organized crime. Kubert told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "At this stage of the game, to still be in demand and still be having fun, it makes me count my blessings every day."
For More Information
Bewley, Joel. "Doodle in Class, Sure?" Philadelphia Inquirer (November 7, 2005).
Jennings, Dana. "Paper, Pencil and a Dream." New York Times (December 14, 2003).
Joe Kubert's World of Cartooning.http://www.kubertsworld.com (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Joe Kubert on September 28, 2005.