Forget, for a minute, his talent. Forget the career that spanned more than 70 years, the countless thousands of pages of gorgeous art and hundreds of breathtaking, eye-catching covers. Forget even the art school he and his wife founded in 1976 which has been responsible for training more comic book artists than I have time to list.
All that aside, Joe Kubert was simply one of the truly good guys.
I was a fan of his art before I knew his name; he worked on so many of the books that shaped my comic book reading experience and influenced me (inking Carmine Infantino on the stories introducing the Flash in Showcase #4, Hawkman from The Brave and the Bold #34 – 36, Sgt. Rock and Enemy Ace), and I became even a bigger fan of the man as soon as I met him.
Joe Kubert could write and he could draw. And he could also edit, a job he undertook with the same skill and keen eye for detail he brought to his art, which I learned firsthand in 1983. A few years before, I had created a back-up strip for Warlord called Arion, Lord of Atlantis. In 1982, Arion was awarded its own monthly title and shortly thereafter was assigned to a new and inexperienced editor who, unable to articulate his wishes for the direction he wanted the book to go in, almost immediately removed me from the book and handed it off to another writer.
Eight months later, I got a telephone call that went something like this:
“Hi, Paul. This is Joe Kubert. I’m editing Arion now. Why the hell is someone else writing the book you created?”
“Ernie couldn’t figure out what he wanted, so he gave it to someone else to write.”
Deep, heavy sigh. “He shouldn’t have done that. It’s your character. We’ll figure it out. You’re back on the book. I need a plot. You’re late.”
Joe remained editor of Arion from #12 (October 1983) through #26 (December 1984), and we did figure it out. It took him (and me) a couple of issues to get back up to speed, but once he did, his one and only bit of editorial direction to me was, “There’s too much magic in the book!” Too much magic, in a sword & sorcery comic about a sorcerer?? What the hell was he talking about?
But Joe was right. I had been using the element of magic as too much of a crutch in the stories, bringing in the hocus pocus to help get myself out of whatever plotting corners I happened to have painted myself into. So we stripped Arion of his magical abilities and made him stand on his own two legs without the magic to pull his fat out of the fire, and the book (and my chops as a writer) were better for it.
My (now) sixteen year old son Max is also a Joe Kubert fan and has been since he was about ten years old and first picked up one of the Sgt. Rock Archives. In fact, his goal at one of his first New York Comicons was to meet Joe Kubert and, if possible, get a sketch from his favorite artist. He figured he had an inside track on this seeing as his dad actually knew the artist, but I warned Max that conventions can be very hectic and someone like Joe probably had a tight schedule so, while we would do our best, he shouldn’t count on it.
Came the show at New York’s Javitts Center, we did, in fact, finally run into Joe on the convention floor. I pointed him out to Max as we walked towards Joe up the aisle, and we hurried over to say hello. Joe saw us coming, his face breaking out into his trademark wide, infectious smile, and greeted me with, “Paul! How the hell are you?” and his famous bone crushing handshake. (Just an aside: No matter how long I have been in this business–approaching 40 years now–and what I’ve done and who I’ve met, I still get a deep fanboy thrill that someone like Joe Kubert actually knows my name!)
We exchanged pleasantries and I introduced Max to Joe. With something approaching the awe I still felt in Joe’s presence, Max extended his little sketchbook and asked if he could please have a sketch of Sgt. Rock…? For a split second, I could see Joe mulling this over in his head: he was standing in the middle of one of the biggest comic conventions in the country, and if he started sketching or signing, the odds of his being overwhelmed by hordes of fans brandishing pencils and sketchbooks of their own was pretty high. But he looked down at the face of the little boy in front of him and you could just see that this father of five and grandfather to I don’t know how many was just never going to be able to say no. His grin grew even bigger as he reached for the pad and said, “You bet!”
The last time I saw Joe was last October at the 2011 NYCC. I was fortunate enough to be there when chance brought about a reunion of the band of young DC Comics employees known as the Junior Woodchucks: Michael Uslan, Allan Asherman, Jack C. Harris, Bob Rozakis, and John Workman. After some schmoozing and picture taking, someone pointed out that Joe Kubert was doing a signing at his table and, seeing as how several of these guys had worked for him as his assistant editor back in the day, we should go over en masse to surprise him.
The line to meet Joe was long and we approached his table from the rear. Joe was busy meeting and greeting and had no clue we were behind him until one of our group, I think it was Jack, said in a disguised voice, “Excuse me, Mr. Kubert, but do you think we’ll ever be able to make it in the comic book business?”
Joe turned and seeing us all there, the “kids” he first met 40 years ago, broke out into a smile, laughed with delight, and said, “If you work hard and give it your best, sure.” Then he pointed at me and said, “But not you.”
I wish I had known Joe Kubert better, but I feel privileged to have known him at all. There have been, to my mind, exactly three towering giants of the comic art field, men whose careers spanned the existence of the art form. These are the artists whose skills didn’t deteriorate with age or time, whose work kept improving as the years and decades passed, and who could still take your breath away with their ability to nail an illustration. There was Alex Toth. There was Will Eisner.
And there was Joe Kubert. As I said on Facebook when I first heard the sad news, “Joe Kubert always seemed to me to be a force of nature who would, I hoped, go on forever.”
Take five, Joe…
Tags: Joe Kubert