Sunday morning, August 12, 2012, we lost Joe Kubert. I haven’t really been able to think about much beyond that this week. How do you comprehend losing someone who has impacted virtually every aspect of your life over the last decade? Role Model. Teacher. Employeer. Peer. Friend. Family. Patriarch.
Joe’s career in comics spans virtually the entire existence of the medium. He was a direct link to all the great cartoonists of years past. Joe got his first job in comics as a twelve year-old, just a few months after Action Comics #1—first appearance of Superman and really the book that kick-started the industry as we know it—came out in 1938. He’s been working in comics since the invention of superheroes. And really, only Superman, the very first superhero beat him. Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and all the other Golden Age heroes came after Joe entered the industry. He started out at all the old studios like Chesler’s, Eisner & Iger’s and MLJ. Working his way up, learning from the likes of Jack Cole, Irv Novick, Mort Meskin, Lou Fine, Nick Cardy and Tex Blaisdell. His first big solo gig (not assisting someone else) was Hawkman for DC Comics in the fall of 1944. Joe had just turned eighteen. He made comics in the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, 00’s, and 10’s. That’s parts of nine decades.
Joe was a very humble man. He didn’t brag about what he’d done or who he knew. Didn’t bring up how he spent his high school summer vacation working at Will Eisner’s studio inking The Spirit over Lou Fine’s pencils. Or the time he posed as editor of his high school newspaper so he could go up to to Alex Raymond’s Connecticut home to meet one of his heroes for a day. Never mentioned how the first time he inked Jack Kirby was on Newsboy Legion in ’43, when Joe was just sixteen years-old. Or how he shared a Park Ave. studio with Alex Toth and Stan Drake. (The idea of those three sharing a studio is one my favorite things in the world, but I could never get Joe to elaborate on what it was like much more than to scoff at the idea of it being a “studio” and comparing it more to a closet). Or how he was friends with all the greats like Frank Frazetta, Gill Kane, Mort Drucker, John Romita, John Severin, Jack Davis, Russ Heath, Harvey Kurtzman, Carmine Infantino, Stan Lee and hundreds of others. Or talk about being friendly with the Three Stooges. (which has little to do with comics—except the Three Stooges comic he did—but knowing them is totally awesome in my book). Or his forty year friendship with Moebius.
I can remember coming into the school one day (maybe 2007?) and talking to Pete Carlsson (Joe’s right-hand-man, running Joe’s studio, Tell-A-Graphics, for him) who mentioned offhandedly, “Yeah, so Joe said the funniest thing to Moebius last night…” Wait, what?!? Moebius had been in New York on business and wanted to visit with Joe. So Joe and Pete drove into NYC, picked him up and brought him back to the school. This is in the evening after school had been dismissed for the day and all the faculty and students are gone. They talked, visited and caught up on things while drawing sketches for each other, and then they whisked Moebius back to the airport and he was gone. To them it was just two friends catching up. To me (and anyone else) the idea of those two titans hanging out, especially in our building, blew my mind. They never told anyone else at school. So the next day, no student had the faintest idea that Moebius had been hanging out in the building just hours before.
[Update – Pete just sent me this bit about that story: Moebius wanted to talk to Paul Pope but didn’t have his phone number. Pete called up Will Dennis (Vertigo editor) and said, “So, I’m sitting in a car with Joe Kubert and Moebius and I need Paul Pope’s phone number.” Will just started laughing, not because he didn’t believe Pete, but because of the awesome absurdity of it.]
Joe wasn’t one to dwell on the past, but through him, you had a link to everyone and everything that had ever happened in the industry. It was a wealth of knowledge he’d gained from all these people and experiences over the years, and you had access to it. So I always loved that academic side of it—that I was learning not just from Joe, but from almost every artist that had come before. But let’s be honest. I didn’t love all that history that Joe had just for the academic benefits it brought me. That history was the stuff of fanboy dreams and you couldn’t help but geek out a little at how cool it all was.
I spent thirteen years involved with the Kubert School (1999-2011). First as a student, then an artist for Joe’s Tell-A-Graphics studio working on the Army’s PS Magazine, then as a teacher, and later an administrator helping with program development and convention coordination. Each of those positions involved a different kind of interaction with Joe. Sometimes it meant Joe was going over your work, pointing out everything you were doing right and wrong, providing invaluable insight into the craft. And sometimes that meant you found yourself in a meeting with Joe, Adam and Andy as they debated some school matter, and when Adam tried to recruit you to his side, Joe looked at you, pounded the table and said, “If you open your mouth, I’m gonna punch your two front teeth RIIGGHHTTT out!” Thankfully, that was said in jest.
Other times you found yourself collaborating with him. The indescribable thrill when he’d ink something of yours. The surreal idea of inking him! The silly projects like coloring a Harry Potter spoof he did. Or the pride you felt when Joe inked a Batman splash over you for DC Comics.
My second favorite thing Joe ever said to me—after the teeth-punching comment—was after I’d just showed him and Adam a double-page spread I was working on. Joe just looked at Adam, shook his head and said, “… that Gabe.” Best compliment I ever got.
One of my favorite experiences in life was traveling the world with Joe. No, seriously. In the summer of 2010, as part of my duties at the school, I accompanied Joe to Australia for two weeks to do the Supanova Convention in Sydney and Perth. Just the two of us.
We had a great talk about our families over noodles at a little restaurant in Sydney’s chinatown. He asked me about my family and I remember taking a strange pride in his interest in me growing up working with my father and seeing his work ethic. There are a lot of parallels between my father and Joe and it meant something special to me to talk to him about it.
He told me stories about family vacations him and Muriel had taken the kids on when they were growing up. A road trip to California in early 70’s when they stopped by Jack Kirby’s house, where a young Adam and Andy went swimming in the King’s pool. And the time Joe was in his office at DC talking about his upcoming trip to Mexico when Sergio Aragonés stuck his head in the door, said if you wanted to go to the “real” Mexico you had to go to the Yucatan peninsula, pulled out a piece of paper and started drawing a Sergio-esque map on how to get there from Joe’s house in New Jersey. As Joe said they followed that map EXACTLY and had a terrific trip, I could see by his smile and the glint in his eye just how amused he was by Sergio and the whole idea of that map. No surprise that to this day, in the hall outside of Joe’s studio, two pages of Sergio’s Groo still hang.
One of Joe obligations at the Australia conventions involved appearing at a special VIP party along with other guests of the show. The event was sponsored by Red Bull or some other energy drink and they had a table full of these huge glasses of vodka and red bull. Before I knew what was going on, Joe had downed two of them. I don’t even think he knew what he was drinking, but I started freaking out, wondering what Vodka and Red Bull do to an 83 year-old man, and then wondering what Adam and Andy were going to do to me if something did happen. Truthfully. I think Joe was too tough to even be fazed by them.
One thing that might’ve fazed him on that trip though was when he decided to joke around with Lou Ferrigno. All the guests of the show travel, eat, stay at the same hotel and hang out together, so you get to know each other a little bit. We were riding the shuttle to the show and Joe was sitting across the aisle from Lou. Joe was making small talk and cracked some joke that really amused himself. Joe starts smiling and laughing, thinking it was a shared joke. But Lou is not laughing. He’s not even the slightest bit amused, but Joe doesn’t quite seem to pick up on that. Joe keeps laughing, trying to get Lou to join in, “Ahahahahahaha, right Lou?” And now Lou is boiling. I’m soooo uncomfortable at this moment—total Larry Sanders feeling. Then Joe pulls out his patented move, and smacks Lou on the back (of his colossal deltoids) with the full force of the Kubert-Slap. I’m POSITIVE this contact is going to cause Lou to explode into full-on Hulk-Rage at this moment. Instead, Joe’s back-slap has the same effect on the Hulk it does on everyone else. Instead of explosive-rage, it catches Lou so off-guard it knocks the wind out of him, averting disaster. Joe turns back to me, still laughing, “That Lou. Hahahahahah. What a character!” It’s one of those stories that makes me smile every time I think of it.
I’ve got all these great, specific memories of Joe, but when I really think about it, the one thing that comes to mind when trying to describe him is “Patriarch.” Joe always used to say that the school was a family-run business. And it is—in many ways probably more than Joe ever realized. Joe and Muriel opened and ran the school. Sons, Adam and Andy, attended, have their studios in the building and have taught there for years. At various points, wives, sons, daughters, in-laws, cousins and grandkids all have worked there. And (partly) because his family is always present and treat him in a fatherly/grandfatherly way, so too did everyone else on the staff and faculty. He was basically a grandfather to everyone that worked there. I don’t know if that was something he was aware of, but he certainly assumed that role—offering advice, support, encouragement and of course, setting you straight when needed. Think that’s one of the reasons why I feel like the entire staff at the school is my extended family—Joe, Adam, Andy, Carol, Mike, Louise, Dorothy, Terry, Richie, Pete, Joe P., Kate, Theresa and even that lovable rascal, Tanner.
Obviously another group Joe was patriarch to was the thousands of students who came through the doors in the 37 years since the school opened. He taught for so long that he was teaching the children of former students who’d met while they attended the school. His students weren’t just limited to those he had in class either. He taught thousands more through his correspondence courses, offering advice and lessons to people from all over the world (actually the modern Kubert School correspondence course is the second one Joe started. The first one was back in the 50’s, so obviously teaching has been a passion for decades).
But labeling him just a “teacher” to his students doesn’t even scratch the surface of what he was. Drawing comics isn’t just another job or hobby to anyone that comes to the school. It’s a passion. It’s a calling. It really is your life. And the person that creates a haven for you, mentors you, teaches you the craft, inspires you to be better and enables you to pursue the career you’ve always dreamed about. You call that person something more.
And what did all those students do after they graduated? They went off and worked in every corner of comics and entertainment you could imagine—pencilers, inkers, colorists, writers, directors, story boarders, editors, art directors letterers, production artists and publishers, just to name a few.
Don’t forget that Joe was an editor at DC Comics from the late 60’s to 70’s, hiring and giving breaks to editors like Marv Wolfman, Karen Berger and Paul Levitz, and countless artists like Michael Kaluta and Doug Wildey.
So with Joe, it’s not “Six Degrees of Separation” in the comic book industry. It’s like two. From his role as creator to editor to teacher he’s got connections to 75% of the industry. And if you think that’s an exaggeration, then you’re probably just unaware how many people he’s had some sort of relationship with.
Patriarch to his family.
Patriarch to his students.
Patriarch to the entire comics industry.
Joe Kubert was one of the best men I’ve ever known, in every sense of the word. He always made time when you had a question, setting aside whatever he was working on to talk. He’d always ask how things were going, what you were working on, offering any help or advice he could. He was the best possible role-model I can think of for young artists to emulate. The epitome of “lead by example.”
Joe had a passion for drawing like no one I’ve ever met before. How much did he love drawing comics? During Joe’s two years serving in the Army during the Korean War—first stationed at Fort Dix in New Jersey and then later in Germany—Joe never stopped drawing comics. He’d send them back to Muriel in New Jersey who’d drive them into New York to drop them off at publishers for him.
He showed up at the school every day, rain or shine. He’d work a half day on Saturday (and sometimes Sunday). Not because he was staring down a deadline, but because he wanted to draw. Half days because Muriel made him : ) For the last ten years he juggled producing 60 pages of PS Magazine a month, generally working on two simultaneous projects for DC, doing correspondence course critiques and teaching every Tuesday.
He was one of the hardest working, most vitale men you’d ever meet. Remember that trip to Australia? After a 30+ hour day of travel (Perth to Sydney to Los Angeles to New York to Dover), 35 year-old me slept the entire following day. 83 year-old Joe was at his drawing board the following morning at 8 am.
And the work he was doing this year at 85 was just as good as anything anyone’s ever done. It’s staggering to think how good he was, for how long. He just drew and drew and never stopped. Even up to his last days in the hospital, he was still drawing when he had the strength to.
In the days since he passed, you’ve probably heard dozens of people talk about how they thought Joe would outlive us all.
And he will.
Joe Kubert has left behind he greatest legacy the history of comics will ever know.