Joe Kubert, the comics artist and educator who died Sunday in Morristown, N.J., at age 85, was never the superstar name — his work didn’t have the necessary bombast or polished edges — but the man who drew ragged, soulful soldiers in “Sgt. Rock,” ”G.I. Combat” and “Star-Spangled War Stories” did something his characters would have admired: Kubert marched further and longer than anyone else and proved himself a natural leader.
Kubert died of multiple myeloma, according to a family statement, and leaves behind a legacy spread across comic books published in eight different decades and built into the walls of the Kubert School, in Dover, N.J., which was founded in 1976. The school is the nation’s only accredited trade school for comic book artists and its inspiration came from Kubert’s earliest days in the business when he was a pre-teen protegé in a comic book production shop in Manhattan in the late 1930s.
By age 13, Kubert was sweeping floors and erasing the pencil lines on pages of inked artwork in Harry Chesler’s bustling production studio, which was handling the demand surge that followed the June 1938 debut of Superman in “Action Comics” No. 1. Kubert’s own artwork was first published in March 1942 with a six-page tale of Volton the Human Generator, who traveled through electrical wires and protected Empire City.
Volton fizzled but, 60 years later, Kubert was still energized and working at a high level — the octogenarian had been working in recent months with his son, Andy Kubert, on the high-profile DC Comics miniseries “Before Watchmen: Nite Owl.” Andy’s brother, Adam Kubert, is also a comic book artist, and both teach at the Dover academy.
“We are saddened to learn of the death of our colleague and friend Joe Kubert,” DC Comics said in a statement . “An absolute legend in the industry, his legacy will not only live on with his sons, but with the many artists who have passed through the storied halls of his celebrated school. An important member of the DC Comics family, Joe made an indelible mark on the entire DC Comics universe including his renowned and award-winning work on iconic characters such as Sgt. Rock, Enemy Ace, Hawkman and most recently Nite Owl. We are so honored to have worked side-by-side with such an unforgettable force in both comics and in life.”
Instead of the majestic and the musclebound, Kubert’s art seemed tattered at the edges and populated by rangy heroes with haunted eyes. That didn’t suit Metropolis or Gotham City but it made him perfect for for jungles of “Tarzan of the Apes,” “Korak” and “Tor” as well as the foxholes of “Sgt. Rock.”
Sgt. Frank Rock, the everyman leader of Easy Company, was introduced in 1959 by Kubert and writer Robert Kanigher, and he would continue fighting World War II on a monthly basis well into the MTV era. Kubert would correct people who mentioned his success in war comics — he considered them “anti-war” comics and that view was pinned to the page starting in 1967 when the words “Make War No More” became a familiar motto on the closing page of Sgt. Rock stories.
“Joe, in his way, was a primitive, he drew from his gut,” said Neal Adams, the artist who shook up comics in the 1960s with a sleek style leaning toward photo-realism and commercial art. ”Joe, because of his gritty style, because of his down-in-the-dirt approach, mixed the heroic with the terribleness of war, and the dirt of war, and the grit of war. He never made it seem appealing, but, to men, the nature of war is that you can be a hero. The cost, however, is one of the things that Joe showed in his work.”
The search for authenticity and the eagerness to stay a student himself led Kubert to challenging work into his 80s. In 2010, Kubert completed and published one of his most celebrated works, “Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965,” a war story based on his interviews with veterans of the U.S. Special Forces. Andrew Farago, curator of the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, said Kubert’s stamina and sustained relevance was amazing to behold.
“He didn’t follow trends and never changed his style to fit in with whatever was popular at the time … the work that Joe created in his 80s was just as strong as the material he produced in his 40s, if not stronger,” Farago said. “There were very few artists in Joe’s league, and fewer still that maintained that level of quality throughout their entire careers. He never stopped learning, and he never stopped pushing himself to be a better artist, and that drive is evident in every page he ever drew.”
Yosaif Kubert was 2 months old in 1926 when he, his older sister and their parents arrived at Ellis Island. The family hailed from a village called Ozeryanym in southern Poland (the map has changed and it now lies inside the borders of the Ukraine). They settled in Brooklyn and one day Kubert’s father, who worked as a kosher butcher, brought home a life-changing treasure: an artist table. By then his son was already obsessed with comic strips, especially Hal Foster’s “Tarzan.”
In 1972, Kubert got to reconnect with that childhood favorite as DC launched a Tarzan series that let him draw the Edgar Rice Burroughs creation himself. Earlier this summer, Kubert reflected on the power of the newsprint images he studied for hours as a youngster.
“Reading Foster’s ‘Tarzan’ back in the stone age was one of the very important things that occurred in my life that pointed me toward the things I do today,” Kubert said in a June phone interview. “When I was a kid I didn’t know why it was so powerful or why I enjoyed it so much but as I got older and I got into the business myself I tried to analyze it…. It was his ability to tell a story and do it with images that were still — they weren’t moving, not animated at all — but they were living. That character was alive and for me those images moved even if they didn’t.”
Walt Simonson, the artist best known for fan-favorite Marvel runs on “Thor” and “X-Factor,” said the Kubert version of Tarzan is dazzling to look back on. ”Joe Kubert’s Tarzan is, for me, the perfect match of artist and subject, my personal favorite graphic version of Burroughs’ character and his world,” Simonson said. “Joe’s drawing is beautiful and wild, and he captures the essence of Tarzan’s adventures the same way Burroughs does, by appealing directly to the heart.”
Kubert’s work often showed his faith, as well, whether it was “The Adventures of Yaakov and Yosef” strip he did for Moshiach Times or tabloid-sized “The Bible” (1975) project he did for DC Comics , which promised “the most exciting tales from the beginning of time” with images of Cain, Adam and Noah’s ark on the cover. There were plenty of superhero comics in his body of work, of course, and his years of drawing Hawkman’s wide, gray wings created the resonant image of the enduring DC hero.
This summer IDW Publishing in San Diego announced a lavish new hardcover reprint of Kubert’s Tarzan comics would be coming in September. For Kubert, that news was a valentine to “a very special highlight” in his career — and he was pleased it would come in the same calendar year as his “Before Watchmen: Nite Owl” collaboration with his son. The father of five (the two artists as well as two other sons, David and Danny, and a daughter, Lisa Zangara) said the only thing better than seeing the name Kubert on a comic book cover was seeing it there twice.
“It’s the cherry on top of the whipped cream,” Kubert said in June. “You know this business is not something you can push people into but once bitten it’s not something you can pull them out of…. The fact that my two boys, Adam and Andy, love what they do as much as I do, well, you know what that is ? That’s purely a miracle.”
– Geoff Boucher
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