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  • Joe Kubert

    The news came down yesterday that the great Joe Kubert has passed on. I didn’t feel down about it because I can’t think of many cartoonists who lived life on their own terms as well as he did. He was still producing masterful comics all the way up to the end of a long life, with absolutely no drop in quality.

    Others can best talk about all the high water marks of Kubert’s career (here’s the Washington Post on him), I just want to talk about the impact his work had for me early on. While I read hundreds of Sgt. Rock comics (the one comic of mine my dad would always borrow to read too), the one that looms largest in my past is his adaptation of Burrough’s TARZAN. That, and his run on the monthly book for DC were treasured books for me first as a reader and later when I got serious about drawing. For a long time, I would not begin a work day without pulling out one of those books and drinking in Joe’s compositions to get me in the right frame of mind. He could suggest the scale of an environment and get across powerful actions with so few lines, but it wasn’t minimalism for its own sake. Kubert simply didn’t waste lines- he drew only the right ones that were needed.

    Like most young artists I went through a phase in my teens where I was enamored of a polished look with slick inking and useless detail only put in to dazzle. But even then when I was briefly ignoring genius work that was rougher, I still knew Joe Kubert’s art was the real deal. I would see him easily solve scenarios I was struggling with; it would look so clear and obvious in his art that I usually thought something along the lines of “oh- he just… drew it.” That’s the way it is with much brilliant work, the artist makes it look easy but you’ll go through an ordeal trying to achieve that ‘simple’ execution. Kubert was very fast, but it came from a lifetime of producing a mountain of stories. Cartoonists of his generation (and if we’re being honest, most generations) had to create constantly to make a living.

    I was lucky to meet Joe once at San Diego Comicon. He was walking by Artist Alley and stopped to say hi to his former student Steve Lieber. (Read Steve’s memories of Joe) Steve knew I was doing backflips inwardly at the chance to meet Joe, and introduced us (it’s probably worth pointing out that at some point my signature morphed into a derivation of his). I got the famous iron handshake that I assumed Joe used to weed out the competition and he looked through some of the pages I had out on the table. I wish I had kept a recorder near. With Joe speaking deep and low in the loud din of the convention center, it was very hard to get everything he was saying. Also inside my brain was repeating “Joe Kubert is talking to me!” which made it even harder to actually listen.

    But I did hear one clear bit of advice that stuck. He acknowledged that my art approach wasn’t currently in vogue- which it wasn’t in the late 90′s- but said I would be better off to keep on my path than to try to adapt to whatever style was being hired for at the time. It was a vote of confidence from a titan and personal hero. More importantly he took the time to look at and really assess my work, when he didn’t have to. As someone running a comics school for many years, he was laser precise at sizing up a portfolio and well aware of market realities that we were facing. I think I told him that I did a short story homage to his DC era work (Ape Company) and though he invited me to send him a copy I never did, probably because I was afraid he wouldn’t find it funny, or that it would get lost in the tons of stuff he must have received.

    Maybe later this week I’ll put up some Kubert art I particularly enjoy. Today I’m putting up one of my favorite covers because Tarzan trying to steer a rampaging rhino is more or less everything I want out of a comics cover. I don’t see how you could have seen that sitting on a spinner rack and not immediately pick up that book.


    Comment from Bret Bernal
    Time: August 14, 2012, 4:14 am

    Jeff, thanks for sharing your story. I can relate to it.

    When I was a younger dude I had the privilege of being at a weekend Kubert School cartooning seminar. I was so afraid of Joe that I could barely speak when asking him questions. He was such a legend/pure talent and his presence intimidated everyone in the room.

    And that Tarzan cover is just perfect.