A small group of us who were really motivated to break into professional comics, Tom Yeates, Steve Bissette, John Totleben and myself, decided to rent a place to share expenses, inspiration and contacts. Joe let us stay in the school dorms until we got set up. He also continued to feed us work through a small graphics studio he opened in downtown Dover. He paid a fair hourly wage for us to do ad production and such. We also jammed on comics with Joe; completing some of the back-up stories that for whatever reason had gone unfinished during the school year.
Joe gave Steve Bissette the Scholastic account, a very good one that kept Steve’s rent paid for years. John Totleben had been unable to enroll for his second year at the school. So Joe reached out and found him a patron; Harry “A” Chesler, who had ramrodded a comic book production studios at the birth of the industry. Harry hired John to illustrate the Rubaiyat which served as a perfect training ground for John’s maturing pen and ink style.
All of us were from the hinterlands and greatly benefited from Kubert School’s location of a forty minute bus ride to downtown Manhattan. After graduation we were hustling the New York publishing world for whatever comics or illustration work we could get. Joe arranged meetings for us with editors at DC Comics but the company had recently cancelled a dozen new titles and there wasn’t enough work for their regular people. It looked a little grim that summer and autumn so the paying jobs Joe fed us were a lifeline. Then, miraculously, things broke our way.
The comics industry was changing radically, both in content and distribution, and we found our skills and vision in demand. We were all proud to present Joe with our early successes and I fondly remember how delighted he was to see the stuff. I may not have understood it at the time, but I know it now: our coming to fruition as artists was his coming to fruition as a teacher. And therein lies the bond between us all.
My calling had always been to do comics and live in Vermont, and once I’d attained the career part, I headed back to the transcendental beauty of Green Mountains. Unfortunately that meant I didn’t see Joe as much. But he was always on the other end of the telephone line if I needed advice and he always wrote back a lovely note if I sent him a stack of my comics. When I was in New Jersey I’d make a point of dropping in on Joe and talking to a class or two. I helped organize the school’s ten year reunion which brought a couple hundred graduates back to the old stomping grounds in 1988.
The most fun was running into Joe on the convention and festival circuit. He was often at San Diego or New York showing the amazing new direction his work was taking. We did Angouleme the same year, then took the bullet train to Paris. And in 2010 we spent a week in Granada, Spain where he was guest of honor and we both spoke at the University. We ate boiled octopus.
It was the last time I saw Joe and he was as vibrant as ever, although still mourning for Muriel who had died the year before. These pictures are from the festival.
Joe Kubert was a very physical guy. He was built solidly and moved like a natural athlete. The few times I played touch football with him, he could hit anyone on the field with a perfect spiral. In the winter he wore a forty pound whale skin parka to build his strength. He was a ferocious racket ball competitor into his late 70’s. When I saw him two years ago he looked like he could wrestle a tiger and pin it three out of three.
I think this physical side of Joe was an essential part of his drawing. He lived four-square inside his body and knew exactly how it moved and this translated into exciting anatomy and action scenes in his comics. (Two other great anatomists in comics were also physical guys: Frank Frazetta and Jack Kirby).
He tooled around in a cool yellow Triumph TR6 convertible. Not because he was a show off but because he loved being at the wheel of a taut little roadster with the top down. I could relate because my first cars had been British two seaters and these days I keep a Miata as my summer driver.
He was a man of tremendous moral character. It wasn’t a morality born out of conservatism or liberalism, but from his heritage and life experience. He saw value in everyone. He believed hard work should be rewarded. He understood the creative buzz and fostered it in others.
But it wasn’t just give, give, give, with Joe. There were things Joe wanted back out of the Kubert School experience and one of those was the opportunity to learn what made my generation tick. By 1976, the old way of telling stories wasn’t working in the marketplace. Tastes in humor and fantasy were changing and we students engaged Joe in a lively cross-cultural debate. He related to our geeky fascination with horror and violence but questioned if commercial publishers in America could ever embrace that kind of material. He introduced us to the European masters like Pratt, Moebius and Druillet. He started his own over-sized self published comic to explore the form.
I’ve always thought his brilliant cover to SOJOURN #2, reflected what he was inhaling from us that first year. It’s stranger and scarier than what he was doing in the mainstream at the time and seems to revel in the “monster for monster’s sake” esthetic which we lived by.
If on-the-job training was the second key to the kingdom that Joe handed me, the third key was getting in print and that one opened the door into the New York comics industry. The business was a slow motion train wreck in 1977 but Joe somehow got DC to buy an inventory of “back-up” stories done by the students. The one title he still edited was SGT. ROCK, so these were to be war comics done under Joe’s watchful eye. Steve Bissette and I received one of the coveted first scripts, a 5-pager called A SONG FOR SAIGON SALLY. But soon everyone who wanted a shot (and was up to date on assignments) got one. This included the big-foot stylists among us, who had the chance to do gag pages and spot cartoons. There were lettering and coloring gigs as well. (That’s Bissette and I collaborating on “BIG HOWIE” above).
War comics are notoriously difficult to pull off convincingly. Many of us were plugged into the superhero genre, so the sudden stylistic switch to gritty battle realism wasn’t easy. But here was the acknowledged master of the form firmly guiding us every step of the way. We’d begin with a discussion about the story; how Joe saw the staging and what elements he wanted to see pulled out. Perhaps he might make a small thumbnail to get an idea across. Then we’d go off to break down and tightly lay out the story. Back to Joe who would critique and direct, sometimes making his own tracings. Often it would take a couple sessions going over layouts before a story went on to the full pencilling, lettering and inking stages. Working through these stories, Joe was much more blunt than he was in the classroom. There was lots of reworking and more than one story of mine that went to press with panels and figures patched by him. Sometimes after demolishing my stuff, he’d give me that sly smile and say “Not too hard on ya’, am I?” and I’d reply “Keep it up, Joe!”. I knew I really needed that kind of no-bullshit approach to make the grade as real comic book man.
Things started to gel for me on my fourth or fifth script. Joe made no changes to the pencils! That charged me up so much I inked the whole job that night. When I showed it to him the next morning I got the sly smile again: “Looks like you’re on a roll, kiddo.” It was the first back-up he let me sign my name to. He encouraged me to experiment with different methods and material, like airbrush, then to write my own scripts. Doing these back-ups while at Kubert School, was like going for your Bachelors and Masters degrees at the same time. And all of us who worked on them appreciated the paying jobs. But most amazing was seeing our stuff in print. I’d been published in black and white a couple times, but nothing compares to that first time you see your work in a color comic book. Only marred by the fact that you see how crummy it looks!
But that is the evolutionary path to improvement for the commercial artist and Joe knew it. How he found time in his life to follow through, and ride herd on us, I’ll never know. But I, and many others, are eternally grateful to the guy.
That’s me solo on a Kanigher script “Rendezvous”, below.
That first semester at Kubert School in 1976 was a complete buzz. Not just for me and the other twenty-two students, but also for Joe and Muriel and the brace of professional artists they’d brought in to teach us. The curriculum was surprisingly well developed for a first year school. The facility, an old brick mansion set on private park-like grounds was gorgeous and utilitarian. At the center of it was Joe; the human dynamo.
Joe was teaching four days a week, editing books for DC Comics on the fifth day and knocking out covers and stories evenings and weekends. He would often work at a board he had set up in his office which opened out into the studio rooms where we students did our assignments. He was always patient with our general goofy behavior and the many interruptions we presented him with.
I was struck by the incredible focus he brought to the act of drawing. All the nuttiness a group of young people can generate going on around him never broke the powerful attention Joe gave his drawings; his pen and brush flying over near-imaginary pencils. He had rolls of wide white tape that he used for corrections; razoring a patch and laying new ink-work over old viewed through the light-box built into his board. He was insanely fast; able to turn out a 24 page story over a weekend. And you don’t need me to tell you the work was always extraordinary.
On top of everything he had going, Joe set-up and ran a busy work-study program. There was paying studio work for everyone who was caught up on their assignments, beginning with a big paste-up and relettering project for SRA; an educational publisher repackaging silver age comics. We painted a life size mural of a gaggle of superheroes for a comic book shop. We did covers and illustrations for local magazines and papers. We cranked out a number of catalogs for a company that sold superhero toys. We did advertisements that ran in the back of Marvel and DC comics. A few of us began to assist Joe on higher end promotional comics like SPARKY THE FIREDOG and MAGAZINELAND USA. These jobs brought in much-needed coin for the students and a real-world hands-on experience that was invaluable. There were many, many sessions that went into the early morning hours and we students would drag into class the next day to find a Joe who was bright-eyed and bushy tailed.
I understood, even then, what a sacrifice this gifted cartoonist was making for us. He was at the top of his field yet spent his precious board time on things like catalogs and ads to help train a bunch of kids.
And in the second semester he worked a deal with DC for us to do back-up stories to SGT. ROCK comics! More on that next time.
Joe Kubert passed away yesterday and I’ve been thinking about the times we shared and the profound influence he had on my life. I was twenty-five when I met him (and yes, his handshake is rightfully legendary). It was 1976 and I was interviewing for Joe’s soon to open cartooning school. Knowing he was a golden age artist, I guess I expected an older gentleman but Joe was in his early fifties and looked like he was thirty-five. He welcomed me warmly and spoke passionately about his hopes and plans for the school. He explained how fortunate he had been to come up under a studio system where older cartoonists had made time to teach him the tricks of the trade. His goal was to give back by keeping that tradition alive.
I was terrified that my portfolio wouldn’t make the grade but when he saw the printed copy of TWO-FISTED ZOMBIES he responded with grinning amazement. I tried to explain it was a couple years old and not my best stuff and the content was a little *kof* undergroundy but he didn’t care. He was seeking out young artists for whom comic books were a “calling” and I think he recognized this quality in me on our first meeting. He carefully went through my other samples and showed me French magazines with Drulliet and Moebius. He looked me right in the eye and said “You are just the kind of guy this school wants.”
I didn’t have a pot to piss in, much less the money for tuition. But Joe’s wife, Muriel, told me about a new government job training program called CETA. That summer I talked my way up the Vermont CETA hierarchy trying to convince them to pay for cartooning college. They were skeptical and couldn’t provide a decision before school went into session. I called Joe to let him know and he said “Come down anyway. I’ve spoken with Muriel and we’ll make it work somehow.”
Right there, the two of them handed me the first key to the kingdom.