A Different Kind of World
Comics artist Joe Kubert talks about his life as it was and as it might have been
The hero of Yossel: April 19, 1943 is a 15-year-old who loves to draw, particularly the muscled adventurers of the comic strips: Tarzan, Flash Gordon, the Phantom. The young man has the makings of a great artist, but he lives in occupied Poland, where his fate is sealed by the Nazis. His talent amuses the Germans, enough so that they spare him from the concentration camps, even as they send his parents and sister away. Alone in the Warsaw ghetto, the teenager records in his sketchbook the ruin of the world around him and the resistance that eventually strikes back at the Nazi oppressors.
That might have been the life of Joe Kubert had his parents not emigrated from Poland in 1926, just two months after his birth. Because they did, Kubert was able to grow up in Brooklyn and, at just 11 years old, get in on the ground floor of the American comic book industry, where he quickly established himself as a major artist. Kubert's work on the superheroes Hawkman and the Flash in the 1940s, his Stone Age hero Tor in the Fifties, the war heroes Sgt. Rock and Enemy Ace in the Sixties, DC Comics' adaptation of Tarzan in the Seventies, and his self-penned graphic novels Abraham Stone and Fax From Sarajevo in the Nineties have made him a legend in the industry, one of a handful of artists whose longevity is surpassed only by their uncanny grasp of the medium's storytelling potential and by the fact that they just keep getting better and better. His only peers today may be Will Eisner and Alex Toth, and even those extraordinary gentlemen haven't reared two sons who are great artists in their own right or founded a school that's been teaching the craft of graphic storytelling to aspiring artists for 28 years.
Kubert is nothing if not mindful of his good fortune; in interview upon interview, he proclaims himself "the luckiest man in the world." Perhaps because of that, he turned to the past to explore an alternate history for himself, the tale of what might have happened to him had he not been so fortunate. That story, Yossel, released in 2003 and nominated for a Harvey Award for Best Graphic Album of Original Work and an Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album New, has a special place in the storied career of Joe Kubert and has struck a special chord with readers. Kubert visits Austin next week to discuss the book as part of the 2004 Jewish Book Fair. He spoke to the Chronicle by phone from the Joe Kubert School of Cartooning and Illustration in Dover, N.J.
Austin Chronicle: Eleven years old?! Do you ever look back and wonder how you had the gumption to take a stack of drawings into a grownup publisher's office?
Joe Kubert: It's hard, of course, to step back into that kind of a mindset that many years ago, but it just seemed like a natural thing for me to do. I didn't have any hesitation about it. I guess I was so naive and innocent that the fact that my stuff looked like junk and didn't anywhere near resemble anything at the professional level just didn't stop me from doing it. Also, this was in the late Thirties. It was a different kind of world. Guys like me and this included my friends and the people that I hung with whatever we wanted to do, we felt we could do it. Or at least take a good shot at it.
The way this happened: I'd been drawing since I was 2, since I could hold a pencil. I loved Tarzan and Flash Gordon, things of that nature, and I tried to emulate those things that I admired. So I was going to junior high school, and this friend of mine saw my stuff it's a strange thing but people who draw are looked upon as if they're magicians, especially in school so this fella said, "I have a relative who's doing comic books, why don't you go up there? Maybe you could get a job doing that stuff."
I got on a subway in the middle of Brooklyn and went into New York. The place was on Canal Street. It was called MLJ it was the forerunner of Archie Comics. I went up there, and the guys were extremely nice and allowed me to go into the area where the artists were working, and the artists themselves showed me the kind of paper they used. I had no idea what this stuff looked like before it went to print. They showed me the kinds of pencils I should be using, the kinds of brushes and ink and stuff. They gave me paper to take home to work on. When I left the place, the editor was extremely kind and said, "If you got some more stuff, Joe, bring it up and we'll look at it again." That was the beginning of it.
AC: It was a different time and a different time for that industry. It was still young, and a lot of artists got their start at an earlier age than you see today.
JK: That is very true. The reason I was able to do it was not because I was so good but because the business was so new and there were so many books and so many publishers a publisher could open up a business in an office the size of a closet. All he had to do was put a sign on the door and go out and get a writer to do some stuff, an artist to do some stuff, go to the printer and get some plates made, and he's a publisher! And the whole thing was just starting to burgeon when I came up there.
So I got my first job when I was 12 years old. They gave me a script, I illustrated the story. It was a five-page story, and they gave me five bucks a page. I should have paid them. They never should have paid me. But at that time the books were 64 pages, and they were looking to fill those 64 pages with anything. So that gave me an opportunity to learn on the job. And that's what I did. It was just a different kind of world. To do that today: impossible.
AC: What did your parents think when you actually turned this hobby into a paying gig?
JK: They were amazed that I was bringing home money. This was during the Depression. My dad was a kosher butcher, and it was hard for him to rub two nickels together, much less make a living. Matter of fact, within a year or two of starting, I was making more money than my father. But I have to tell you, [it wouldn't have happened] if it wasn't for the encouragement from my parents, which was at that time very unusual, especially with parents from the old country. My father and mother saw that I loved to draw, and they always encouraged me, never dreaming that I'd be able to make a living at it. I'm probably one of the luckiest guys in the world, and that's only part of the proof of it.
AC: As a kid, I used to copy drawings out of comics, and I know you start out just wanting to get the bodies to look like the ones drawn by the artists you admire. But you were in the studios with all these experienced artists who are sharing the lessons they've learned with you. At what point did you begin to absorb the idea of storytelling?
JK: That's a damn good question. At first, all I was interested in was pretty pictures. I didn't start until some time later to analyze what it took to put a proper figure together, anatomically, proportionately, and so on. I would be so fascinated with a piece of line work, I would get a brush and feather it to the finest line that I could and then work on each feathered line that I put down to make that absolutely perfect, not realizing that that is not what makes the picture look good. It's the basics, it's the underneath part, it's the skeleton of putting a drawing together that makes it look right or wrong. It was only years later that I stopped to look at [Hal] Foster's stuff and thought, "Geez, this guy is not an inker, he's an artist!" He can draw figures so that when the guy is standing, not only do you feel that the character's feet are planted on the ground but his toes are actually gripping the ground. Now that comes from a great knowledge of the human figure. There's a certain amount of stuff that you can learn from other artists, but you gotta go to base one, that is, go to life drawing. Draw the things that are around you: tables, textures, lamps, dirt, trees, everything, then transpose that into what you're doing in terms of illustration.
It wasn't until I started working with Will Eisner I shouldn't say with, for Will Eisner [laughs] [that I learned about storytelling]. When I was a kid, still going to high school, during summer vacation he was kind enough to hire me to work up in his office in Tudor City, when he was doing The Spirit. This was just before the war started. And it was after reading his stuff that I started to understand how important it was to tell a story. That's what it's all about. Being a cartoonist is being able to tell a story in a graphic form. I don't care how pretty your pictures are, if you're not telling a story with those pictures, you're not a cartoonist. The other guy that was really heavy on me was Sheldon Mayer, when I started doing Hawkman and The Flash and stuff like that. He was a cartoonist's cartoonist. He could tell a story with pictures that just knocked me out.
AC: Now you've been teaching that craft to young comics artists all these years. What's the first lesson you want artists at your school to understand?
JK: The basic thing that is more important than anything, what I tell each one of the students is: If this is what you want to do as a career, you make sure you have the proper motivation to do it. There are a lot of people who draw and draw very well but don't want to do it to make a living. You've got to sit at that drawing table and draw, and, in all probability, you'll be sitting there six, seven, eight hours a day, maybe six, seven days a week. If that is antithetical to what you want to do, I don't care how well you can draw, forget it. You're not going to be able to do this. You have to feel that you want to draw all the time. It has to be a commitment. It's an obsession. That's what it is. It's something over which you have no control. I think the greatest percentage of the students attending the school here have that. In fact, we interview them to make sure they have it. Because unless they feel that way, they ain't gonna make it.
AC: Were you surprised by the reception to Yossel?
JK: I was very, very pleasantly and very happily surprised. Something that took a long time for me to understand is how the stuff I was doing was affecting people who were picking up the books. When I started out, I figured maybe somebody on the next block would have seen the stuff that I did, and it came as kind of a shock when I suddenly realized people are reading this not only all over the United States but in Europe and South America and virtually all over the world and are affected by it in ways that I never dreamed of. When we were doing the Sgt. Rock book, we used to get letters from guys in the Army who thought that there was a real Sgt. Rock. Well, that to me was the greatest compliment that could be handed to us, because what we tried to do was to make the characters as credible as possible, and I guess with a lot of people who read the book we achieved that.
It's great the things that have been said about [Yossel] and that people have written me and said to me about how it affected them. It really got to me. I certainly didn't expect it. And the kinds of people who have had these reactions come from all stripes: people who experienced the Holocaust themselves or had family [in Poland], those who are not Jewish at all and had perhaps had a passing interest in what had gone on during World War II, the Holocaust, and so on. I've heard from people not only in the United States, but in Canada, South America, and Europe.
I had planned the book so that it would kind of look like reportage, as if somebody were looking over my shoulder while I was doing the sketches. That was why I did the whole thing in pencil and as sketches rather than finished illustrations. Fortunately, I think I achieved what I set out to do, and that kind of immediacy that I tried to inject in the stuff came across. I guess people felt that.
Now, what I tried to do in the book is not a Holocaust story per se. It's a story about people who were caught in that Holocaust that interested me. I mean, everybody knows about what happened. Everybody knows, I would think, about World War II and the genocide that occurred, but I felt that for this story to really be effective, it had to be focused on people.
AC: Was your exploration of this alternate history cathartic? Did you feel any release on finishing it?
JK: Yes, I did. I don't know whether it was the story itself or just doing the story. You have to understand, while I'm working on it, I'm working on perhaps two, three, or four different projects at the same time. I prefer to work in that way. It helps me not go stale on anything that I'm working on. In that kind of process, it took me two, 21é2 years to finish the book. So I'm not sure if the cathartic effect was the fact that I had finished the particular subject or just finished the damn book. [Laughs]
Joe Kubert appears at the Jewish Book Fair on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 7:30pm, at the Dell Jewish Community Center, 7300 Hart. For information, call 735-8076 or visit www.jcaaonline.org/bookfair.