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8 The Art of Joe Kubert

INTRODUCTION

An Artists Evolution

Given that he began in the field in the late 1930s and is still writing and draw-
ing comics now, Joe Kubert is the long distance runner of comic book artists.
Before his bar mitzvah, this son of Jewish immigrants was earning $5.00 a
week (then a goodly sum) in the first comic book production shop. His extraor-
dinary career has encompassed the entire history of the medium in America.
Kubert has drawn some of the most exciting, distinctive, and memorable
comics in each decade of his career, from the Golden Age in the 1940s to the
present day. Mike Richardson, the publisher of Dark Horse Comics, recently
stated, Joes work stands the test of time, because his style is original. Its all
his own. Although he had his influences like anyone else, his work has never
looked derivative. Those are the artists we look to for inspiration.
Yet Kuberts fully-developed style, instantly recognizable as it is, didnt
spring forth fully formed. To a greater extent than most artists, his work has
undergone pronounced changes over the years. Most summaries of Kuberts
greatest accomplishments focus on his efforts in the 1960s on the Sgt. Rock
of Easy Company, Hawkman, and Enemy Ace series, on his 1970s run on
the Tarzan comic book, or the graphic novels of more recent years, such as his
award-winning Fax from Sarajevo. But if one takes the time to explore Kuberts
artistic evolution from its inception, through a succession of distinct stages,
one gains enhanced appreciation for his mature style.
Such an investigation naturally begins with his years as a student artist,
the cartoonists who influenced him, the extent of his formal training, and
the effect his early experiences in the comic book production shops had on
his work. Then, one gains perspective on the development of a recognizable
Kubert style as he became a journeyman artist, when he began receiving
assignments on his own. One can also see the impact of the tutelage he received
from Sheldon Mayer, the legendary All-American Comics editor, when Kubert OPPOSITE: Kubert covers from 1945 (Flash
began drawing the Hawkman series while still in high school: It was Mayer Comics #63), 1959 (G. I. Combat #78),
who awakened the youths understanding of the medium itself and taught him 1975 (Tarzan #236), and 2006 (Sgt. Rock:
to become a full-fledged professional. The Prophecy #6).

The Art of Joe Kubert 9


10 The Art of Joe Kubert
Kuberts subsequent stint as a comic book
entrepreneur, mainly in conjunction with the pub-
lisher Archer St. John, highlights another facet of
his approach to the medium: The romantic, color-
ful side of his creative personality. Also evident is
the innovative spirit that led to the introduction of
3-D comic books, and the creative intelligence that
resulted in Tor the Hunter, his caveman with a con-
science, which showed what Kubert could do when
he was both writing and drawing.
Then follows the great variety of genres
Kubert handled in the mid-to-late 1950s after the
3-D experiment crashed and burned. With his
auteurist aspirations now on hold, how would his
art develop as he toiled for a variety of publishers,
all of whose editors had different requirements and
expectations? Kubert shuttled among many of them,
including Harvey Kurtzman at EC, Stan Lee at Atlas,
Charles Biro on the last issues of Crime Does Not
Pay, and Robert Kanigher on the DC war comics.
Having achieved a reputation for professionalism,
versatility, and unstinting commitment to the work,
Kubert unsurprisingly became one of DCs top-tier
artists by the decades end.
Yet if one were to stop with the heights his
art reached on Rock, Hawkman, and Enemy
Ace, as Kubert approached his 40th year, one would
miss the further growth that came when he drew
the Tales of the Green Beret newspaper comic strip,
or when he became the editor, writer, and artist of
DCs relaunch of Edgar Rice Burroughss Tarzan in
the 1970s. These accomplishments reveal new fac-
ets of the Kubert aesthetic. Similarly, the curriculum
of the Joe Kubert School of Cartooning and Graphic
Art, founded in 1976, tells a great deal about his
personal approach to telling stories in sequential art
form. The way Kubert dealt with the multitude of changes that came to the ABOVE: Weird War #38 (6/75).
comic book industry in the 1980s and 1990s, both technical and creative, is
also illuminating. OPPOSITE: An almost op-art effect amplifies
Throughout his career, Joe Kubert has shown a questing creative spirit, Sgt. Rocks anguish, Our Army at War #196
remarkable energy and commitment to the work, and an exceptional ability to (8/68).
evoke all the excitement and emotional potentialities the four color medium
can offer. Thus his work is deservedly ranked with other writer-artists who NEXT SPREAD: Artwork for Tarzan #235
loom largest in the history of comics. (2-3/75). Courtesy of Heritage Auctions.
Bill Schelly

Joes drawings seemed, from the very first, to come from a very primitive place. Like Frazetta,
he ignored the boring and mundane and went directly to the powerful and dramatic. As Joe
matured, he never lost that gut-level powerful style. In a world of technically proficient artists,
Joes gristle stands out and hits you in the face. My own style gains its grit almost totally from
Joe Kubert.
Neal Adams

The Art of Joe Kubert 11


12 The Art of Joe Kubert
The Art of Joe Kubert 13
14 The Art of Joe Kubert
CHAPTER ONE

Student Artist

Joe Kubert has often been called a first generation comic book artist. Since
he began working in comics in the late 1930s, he would at first glance appear
to fit within the group of artists who were there at the start of the industry.
But when one looks closely at Joe Kuberts influences and artistic evolution,
its both more accurate and more useful to place him in the second wave of
such artists.
The cartoonists whom Harry A Chesler and Will Eisner rounded up
in 1936 to produce original material for comic books were generally twenty-
somethings who had been born before the United States entered World War
I. Charles Biro was born in 1911; Jack Cole in 1914. Irv Novick, Bob Powell,
and Mort Meskin were all born in 1916. When they were growing up, comic
books as they are now known did not exist. There werent even adventure
comic strips in the newspapers. Syndicated funnies existed, but when it came
to serious fare, this generation of young artists looked to the illustrators of
the 1920s. They were inspired by the work of J. Allen St. John, N. C. Wyeth,
Joseph Clement Coll, James Montgomery Flagg, and J. C. Leyendecker. Joe
Kubert, on the other hand, was born a full decade later, and had a whole
new world of four-color wonders to inspire and influence him.

Joe Kubert was born Yosaif Kubert on September 18th, 1926 in Ozeryany
(or alternately Yzeran), a small shtetl (village) in what was then southern
Poland. (Today, that village still exists, but a re-drawing of borders after
World War II places it in southern Ukraine.) Historically, it had been a
destination for many of the Jews who had been driven from Jerusalem after
the Romans destruction of the city in 135 A.D. Kuberts parents, Jakob and
Etta (b. Reisenberg), left a comfortable life in the fertile plains of Southern
Europe to emigrate to America because Jakob was convinced America OPPOSITE: Art from Kuberts graphic novel
offered a better future for his family. Yosaif was but a babe during the Jew Gangster (2005), semi-autobiographically
Atlantic crossing, passing through Ellis Island into the welcoming arms of depicting his familys emigration to America
waiting relatives. through Ellis Island.

The Art of Joe Kubert 15


While his parents were country folks adjusting to city life in Brooklyn,
New York, Yosaif (and his sister Ida, two years older) grew up as city kids.
Concrete was their grassy field, the sounds of automobiles their nocturnal
crickets. No city in the United States was more congested than the five bor-
oughs of New York City at the dawn of the 1930s, and no city could be as dark
and frightening, especially during those desperate Depression-era days when
so many were unemployed. Survival was a challenge for the penniless Kuberts,
because Jakobnow Jacob, and soon just Jackhad no trade. Eventually Jack
opened a butcher shop (with the help of his father-in-law Leib Reisenberg)
and Etta opened a small restaurant. To economize, the family lived in the back
of that restaurant. Yussie (as preschooler Yosaif was nicknamed) soon had two
more sisters, Roslyn and Eva. (Sheila, the fifth and final sibling, was born in
the 1940s.)
In 1933, when Maxwell C. Gaines (born Maxwell Ginsburg or Ginzberg)
was pasting ten-cent price tags on copies of his promotional comic book
Funnies on Parade and putting them on newsstands in New York City as an
experiment, Yosaif Kubert was six years old and just beginning elementary
school. When the first comic production shops were being formed, he was
nine, and finishing up fourth grade. He was too young to be among the earliest
comic book artists, but the perfect age to be drawn to the colorful covers of
the comic books that had by then gained a substantial presence on drug and
candy store display racks. While Kubert was too young to qualify as a first
generation comic book artist, he became a first generation comic book fan.
Yussies interest in comics was instantaneous and intense from the
moment he saw the four-color strips in the Sunday newspaper. Sunday funnies
had been a popular adjunct to American newspapers since the turn of the cen-
tury, when the giant presses became sophisticated enough to print in multiple
colors with sufficient precision. Immigrant families like the Kuberts especially
loved the medium, which didnt require a strong grasp of the English language
to enjoy.
The comics captured Joes imagination and inspired him to pick up a pen-
cil before he could read. He exhibited a prodigious desire to draw, and glimmers
of talent when he did so. If the roots of an artists style begin with the work that
inspired him, Kuberts beginnings were born of admiration for the great adven-
ture strips that appeared in the early 1930s. He later wrote, I guess I always
wanted to be a cartoonist. I knew it the first time I picked up the New York
Daily Mirror and saw Tarzan, done by Hal Foster. Only to be reinforced by Flash
Gordon and Jungle Jim (Alex Raymond) in the New York Journal-American, and
Milt Caniffs Terry and the Pirates in the New York Daily News.
Sunday Tarzan strips began in 1931; Flash Gordon and Terry and the
Pirates in 1934. Foster, Raymond, and Caniff were Kuberts idols. He was
largely unaware of the illustrators who were still riding high in the popular
books and magazines of the day. Whatever illustrative values he absorbed
came to him secondhand, through the work of older cartoonists.
From interviews Kubert has given over the years, and directions his
later career took, its clear that Harold Fosters art on Tarzan made the deepest
impression on him. This may partly have been a function of how young he
was when he discovered the four-color adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughss
feral ape man, because such early impressions go deep. Yosaif turned five
years old just eleven days before Hal Fosters first Tarzan Sunday strips began
appearing in the Mirror. He wouldnt enter first grade for another year.
Kubert later expressed that youthful wonderment, recalling,

[There] in those beautifully rendered yet deceptively simple draw-


ings, Tarzan, the Ape-Man, became a living, breathing entity. The
figures were real and alive. The credibility of characters and back-
ground transported a kid living on Sutter Avenue in East New
York Brooklyn into the mysterious green and vibrant world of the
African jungles. When the huge black-maned lion challenged the
Lord of the Jungle, I could feel the strength of the Ape-Mans legs

16 The Art of Joe Kubert


circle the great cats body, while he drove his blade again and
again into the raging beasts heart. The ability with which Hal
Foster was able to engender that sense of total realism and believ-
ability was magic.

Despite Kuberts intense admiration for Fosters artwork, its influence


wouldnt become apparent in his own drawings until much later. Perhaps
because Fosters formal art training and illustrative approach may have been
too difficult for the boy to emulate, the influence of the Tarzan artists work
wouldnt become obvious until Kubert had not only reached adulthood, but
found a subject matter that called for a more sophisticated approach to comic
art. Until then, its as if Fosters influence remained locked somewhere in
Kuberts psyche until he could understand and make use of it. Its primary
impact on Kubert the boy was that it enthralled him with the comic strip
medium to such a degree that it literally set his lifes direction.
By the time Caniffs Terry and the Pirates and Raymonds Flash Gordon
arrived, Yosaif was well along in grammar school, and his nickname had
become Anglicized into Joseph or Joe. These newspaper features were
three among many that Kubert admired and imitated, including The Phantom,
Dick Tracy, and Little Orphan Annie. He covered any blank sheet of paper with
doodles and sketches. His artistic ability was recognized first by his family,
and then his neighbors, who gave him chalk to draw on the black macadam
of the streets of East New York. Once in grammar school, being a good artist
gave Joseph an identity and reputation. Teachers enlisted him when a poster
or sign was needed. His peers asked that he draw on their arms, often a comic
strip character. Kubert found acceptance and a sense of identity this way, and
dreamed of one day creating his own newspaper strip. Earliest known drawing by Joe Kubert, 1938.
Comic strips werent the only form of entertainment that fascinated the boy. From Man of Rock (2008), courtesy of Joe
He went to the movies whenever he could. Like most kids, he enjoyed the serials Kubert.
and B-Westerns, the prime fodder of Saturday matinees.
While the imaginative elements of Tarzan the Ape Man
(1932) and King Kong (1933) thrilled young Kubert, it
was the darker films of the era (which he probably saw
in re-releases) that he later said were particular favor-
ites. Foremost among them were Public Enemy with
James Cagney, Scarface starring Paul Muni, and most
influential of all, Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff,
whom Kubert would forever cite as his favorite screen
actor. Frankenstein influenced his later aesthetic both
in terms of the dark, evocative visuals achieved by
director James Whale, and the images of the Monster
himself.
The new comic books were like manna from
heaven to young Kubert. Famous Funnies and the
other early titles that followed reprinted the comic
strips, giving readers access to large helpings of fea-
tures that werent necessarily in the familys news-
paper of choice. When new material rather than
reprints began appearing in the pages of these comic
books, Joe was a ten-year-old fifth-grader. This was
exciting not only because the characters werent in
any newspaper, but because of the generally wilder,
more fantastic adventures they lived, making them
especially appealing to younger readers.
If Kubert wanted to draw comics for a living
some day, a determination that he had no doubt
expressed by this timejust as his friends talked of
wanting to become firemen, cowboys, or pilotsthis
new comics medium kicked the desire into high gear.
Moreover, every comic book was required to include

The Art of Joe Kubert 17


the name and address of its publisher, and most of them had editorial offices in
New York City. It wasnt long before Kubert realized that he might visit those
offices for the mere price of a subway token.
So far, the budding cartoonists teachers had been the comics them-
selves. None of his grammar school instructors could help, and his parents
could offer nothing more than encouragement. Jack Kuberts comment after
examining his sons latest drawing was always, Its about ninety percent
perfect. This was his way of both giving praise and suggesting there was
room for improvement. One can almost hear him make that comment about
a certain early drawing by his son: a portrait of Joes matriarchal grandfather,
Leib Reisenberg. The piece demonstrates considerable ability (the resemblance
to images of the man in existing photographs is strong), especially if it was
done circa 1938 as indicated in a notation near the signature, which would
mean Kubert was 11 or 12 years old when he drew it. Jack and Etta never
tried to discourage their sons artistic aspirations, as many another parent born
in the Old Country might have done. They bought him a professional-type,
freestanding drawing board with a tilting surface, though they could ill afford
the eleven-dollar price tag. Joes portrait of his grandfather was likely drawn
on that board.
Joe Kubert made his first forays to Manhattan to knock on publishers
doors before he was a teenager. Not only did he have to leave his insular
ghetto, but he had to summon up the nerve to show his early sketches and
cartoons to whoever was on the other side of those doors. He later explained,
It just seemed like a natural thing for me to do. I didnt have any hesitation
about it. I guess I was so nave and innocent that the fact that my stuff looked
like junk and didnt anywhere near resemble anything at the professional level
just didnt stop me from doing it. Kubert added, Also, this was in the late
Thirties. It was a different kind of world. Guys like meand this included

18 The Art of Joe Kubert


OPPOSITE: Kuberts Bar Mitzvah. Back row:
Jacobs uncle, Jacobs aunt, Jacobs great aunt,
Ida Kubert, Aunt Helen Eisner. Front row: Eva
Kubert, Jacob Kubert, Etta Kubert, Joe Kubert,
Kuberts maternal grandmother Reisenberg,
maternal grandfather Leib Reisenberg, and
Roslyn Kubert.

ABOVE: Joe Kubert at the age of thirtreen.


Photos from Man of Rock (2008) courtesy of
Joe Kubert.

my friends and the people that I hung withwhatever we wanted to do, we


felt we could do it. Or at least take a good shot at it. At that point, the lad
was looking for suggestions on how to improve, rather than hoping for an
actual assignment.
Some confusion exists with regard to the exact time frame of these early
events. It has been thought that Kubert first appeared in the Harry A Chesler
comic book production shop in the summer of 1938, not long after Action
Comics #1 introduced Superman to the world. He would have been eleven
years old, just finished with sixth grade. Kubert himself has often dated his
first trip to Manhattan (for this purpose) in that year, at that age. However,
in other accounts, he has stated with certainty that his first visit was to the
offices of MLJ Publications, at the behest of a young relative of one of the
firms owners. His memories of that initial visit are clear and detailed. But
if that was really his first such visit, then it had to be in 1939 when he was
twelve years old, because MLJ didnt publish its first comic books until the
latter part of that year. Moreover, the first MLJ comics were products of the
Chesler shop, rather than being written and drawn by MLJs own hired hands;
it was only later, after a pay dispute, that much of Cheslers staff moved to
MLJ to form an in-house bullpen. It seems most likely that Joe first got to
Manhattan in 1939not 1938and upon showing up at the MLJ office, he
was referred to Harry A Chesler where their staff was ensconced (though
they were still working for Chesler). This squares best with Kuberts memory
and the facts of the day, meaning he entered the industry only a year later than
has been previously supposed. The date may never be able to be pinned down
with a hundred percent certainty.
Certainly Kuberts first stint in a comics shop was with Harry Chesler,
though it only amounted to being paid to sit at a table in the large studio and
practice. For this, Chesler paid Kubert $5 a week. He recognized the boys

The Art of Joe Kubert 19


enthusiasm, and figured he was an up-and-comer who would eventually be
able to produce acceptable material. Thus the fledgling cartoonist found him-
self in a room full of men at drawing boards, where he could look over their
shoulders, ask questions about drawing tools and techniques, and receive sug-
gestions. A high percentage of these men became major figures in the field.
Jack Cole would create Plastic Man, Charles Biro originated the crime comics
genre with Crime Does Not Pay, and Bob Powell produced some of the fin-
est visuals in comic books throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Mort Meskins
work, which earned him a spot as one of DCs top artists during World War II,
became one of the most important influences on Kuberts style.
These comic book artists were weaned on the illustrators and comic
strips of the 1920s and early 1930s. They wanted to create their own syndi-
cated newspaper strips (many of them succeeded) or work as illustrators, or in
some other type of commercial or fine art. Yet they found themselves toiling in
a whole new medium to make a dollar until their big break.
For all of comic books similarities to newspaper comic strips, they pre-
sented a different set of challenges for their creators. Some of the new material
for comics initially aped Sunday newspaper formats, devoting only a half page
or a page for each feature. Gradually, the strips grew in length, as the editors
realized that there was no reason to operate in such constricted space, and
the splash panel was developed. Of course, such stories would not need to
be continued to the next issue, because there was plenty of room in the sixty-
four-pages-plus-covers format which became standard. It turned out comic
books had a structure and syntax of their own, and offered almost unlimited
freedom, as opposed to the rigid dictates of daily and Sunday newspaper strips.
Kubert has always said that not only did Chesler make him welcome,
but the men in the loft studio on 23rd Street (just
west of Broadway) patiently answered his ques-
tions and critiqued his efforts. He saw what the
artwork looked like before it went to print, as
well as the kinds of pencils, brushes, and ink that
were being used. Before long, Kubert realized cre-
ating comic art wasnt easy.
It was one thing to be able to produce a
drawing that would impress his buddies and
schoolmates, and quite another to fill up eight
or nine panels on a page. A young artist may be
able to draw a face in a full shot or a profile
but what about all the other angles the human
face might assume in the course of a story? Or
the many positions, both expressive and utilitar-
ian, that hands must take? What about drawing
cars, womens clothing, city buildings, and so on?
Then there was the technical aspect, the ability
to use a pen or brush to apply the ink over the
pencil drawings. One generally had to execute
the lettering of the captions and balloons as well,
placing them in the panels so that the strip read
easily and correctly. These were things the twelve-
and thirteen-year-old Joe Kubert became aware of
when he entered the arena where professional
comic book art was crafted.

By the summer of 1939, the comic book field had


established itself fairly well, and the number of
publishers was growing steadily. When Superman
#1 went on sale on May 18th, 1939, it was clear
to all that the public wanted more of the Man
of Tomorrow. Other colorful costumed heroes
appeared, some of them out-and-out copies of

20 The Art of Joe Kubert


Jerry Siegel and Joe Shusters character: DC brought out the mysterious Bat- ABOVE: Lou Fines Stormy Foster in Hit
Man in Detective Comics #27 (May 1939) and toward the years end, Captain Comics #22 (6/42). Fine was comics first
Marvel leapt forth in the pages of Fawcetts Whiz Comics. Kubert loved the cos- great star artist.
tumed heroes in the same way as most other boys his age, but he also began
to recognize certain artists that he particularly admired. His earliest favorite OPPOSITE: The Flame on the cover of
from the comic books themselves was Lou Fine, whom comics historian Greg Wonderworld Comics #11 (3/40), also by
Theakston has called comics first great star. Lou Fine.
Perhaps Kubert saw the features Fine had done in Fiction Houses Jumbo
Comics, which began reprinting his The Diary of Dr. Hayward, Count of
Monte Cristo, and Wilton of the West, originally produced for overseas cus-
tomers of the Eisner and Iger shop. Fine was an admirer of the famed illustra-
tors J. C. Leyendecker, Saul Tepper, Joseph Clement Coll, and Dean Cornwell,
as well as the great German pen artist Heinrich Kley. He had received formal
art training at the Pratt Institute and the Art Students League in New York
City. His figures showed excellent knowledge of anatomy and attention to
detail, which made the material in Jumbo and his covers for Mystery Men
and Fantastic Comics stand out from the rest. (Some of the covers were drawn
over layouts by Will Eisner.) Lou Fines early strip work on The Flame in
Wonderworld Comics and Doll Man in Feature Comics was much admired
and studied by his colleagues. Hal Foster was Kuberts original favorite, but
Lou Fine became his idol when he began seriously applying himself to his
own work.
Much has been written about Lou Fines mastery of human anatomy,
especially when compared to many of the other progenitors of comic art from
this time period (or, really, any time period). While its true that Fine learned
anatomy from life-drawing and formal study, one finds that his style developed
from 1940 to 1942, moving away from the strictly accurate. Bodies became
attenuated, with limbs twisting and often contorting into unnatural positions.
Faces grew grotesque, often ape-like or with other kinds of exaggerated fea-
tures. Still, Fines attention to detail remained constant, and his inking with
the Japanese brush superb, qualities that would serve him well after he left
comics in 1946 to go into advertising and other forms of illustration.
The Lou Fine influence can be found in Kuberts first published stories
of Volton, the Human Generator, four brief episodes in Holyokes Cat-Man
Comics. In late 1939, editor William Z. Temerson gave the thirteen-year-old
Kubert a real, honest-to-goodness comic book assignment. He was paid $5 to
letter, pencil and ink each page. The first of them appeared over two years
later, in Cat-Man #8, dated March 1942; three more six-page Volton adventures
by Kubert followed. The long delay between these strips execution and their
appearance in print is probably due to the vagaries of the publishing schedule

The Art of Joe Kubert 21


ABOVE: Kubert managed a heroic stance for of a hole-in-the-wall outfit like Holyoke. It would be Kuberts only solo assign-
Volton in Cat-Man #8 (3/42), but grotesquery ment until two years later, after he had paid his dues as part of three more
ruled in the splash page in that same issue. production shops.
Volton was a character neither better nor worse than many of the day,
OPPOSITE, TOP: Already improving in Cat- lacking an origin storyagain, not unusualbut the victim of scripts that bor-
Man #10 (5/42). dered on incoherent. The stories consist of nothing but brief narrative captions
and quippy dialogue balloons, featuring stock hero-versus-villain melodrama
OPPOSITE, BELOW: The High School of Music of the most rudimentary kind. Voltons costume, which Kubert was allowed
and Art. Image from Benjamin M. Steigmans to design, changed from issue to issue. The gimmick was that Volton could
Accent on Talent, New Yorks High School of manipulate electricity to do his will: He was able to travel along telephone
Music and Art (1964). wires and emerge from telephone receivers on the other end (shades of the
Silver Age Atom), shoot electrical bolts from his hands, and so on. Its only
worth describing to convey the types of visual concepts Kubert was trying to
portray. The art itself is clearly that of a very young cartoonist: enthusiastic,
displaying evidence of concentrated effort, yet deficient in just about every
way. Later, Kubert would deem it the crudest possible, most juvenile comic
book artwork imaginable. It was, as with his summer with Chesler, more or
less a situation where he was being paid to practice. The Volton strips are
interesting only because they are the starting point of the career that followed.
The Lou Fine influence can be found in the attention to detail on the
figures and the grotesquery of the faces. Apparently Kubert was fascinated
with contorted faces and physiques, though he would occasionally give his
protagonist a heroic profile or stance. One notices incremental improvement
from issue to issue. By Cat-Man #11, the design work in the panels has become
somewhat more imaginative and varied. Panel shapes change to suit the action
at times, and there are more reasonably effective panels. As the starting point
of Kuberts creative growth, Volton repays study for the artists serious fans.

22 The Art of Joe Kubert


The Art of Joe Kubert 23
Shortly after Harry Chesler formed his shop in 1936, another entrepre-
neur, named Will Eisner, started a shop in partnership with Jerry Iger. Eisner
was not only a good businessman, but a gifted writer-artist who set the cre-
ative tone for the pages produced by Eisner and Iger. Yet, in March of 1940,
less than four years later, Eisner broke from his successful operation with Iger
to form his own production operation in Tudor City. It was located at 202 East
44th Street on Manhattan Island. The new shop was formed to produce The
Spirit in special newspaper sections that were set to debut on June 2nd, as
well as to turn out material for Busy Arnold at Quality Comics. Eisner took
with him the cream of the Eisner and Iger art staff: Bob Powell, Lou Fine, Reed
Crandall, Jack Cole, Nick Viscardi, Bob Fugitani, Alex Kotzky, Chuck Guidera,
Chuck Mazoujian, and Tex Blaisdell. One day Tex Blaisdell showed up in Tudor
City with the thirteen-year-old Joe Kubert: This kid wants to be a cartoonist.
Can he hang around in the afternoons here?
Kubert had just finished eighth grade at Winthrop Junior High. He was
hired at $12 a week, though he wasnt initially permitted to do any actual
artwork. Instead, he was kept busy erasing pencil lines, inking panel borders,
sweeping the floor and, perhaps, filling in solid black areas in the artwork
as a time-saver for Lou Fine and the others. When these tasks were done, he
practiced. Kubert had the precious opportunity to observe his idol, Lou Fine,
doing the last of his Doll Man stories for Feature Comics. This constituted
Kuberts school that heady summer.
In the fall of 1940, Kubert entered a new phase of his formal educa-
tion, one which would have an important formative influence on his artistic
development. The New York School of Music and Art (M&A), established
in 1936 in the castle-like building on 135th Street in upper Manhattan, was
a four-year high school for artistically-talented students from the citys five
boroughs. Its curriculum combined course study in the arts with a roster of
normal academic classes. To gain admittance, students who wished to study
art were required to submit a portfolio and take an entrance examination.
Kubert was accepted, henceforth riding ninety minutes on the subway to and
from school each day.
At M&A, Kubert received his only formal art training. In the well-
appointed and well-supplied classes, he studied life drawing, painting, design,
and art history. There he met a slender, short-of-stature fellow named Norman
Maurer who became Kuberts best friend. Kubert and Maurer were both fix-
ated on the idea of breaking into comic books, and often skipped classes to
show their latest stuff to downtown publishers.
If Volton was an example of what Kubert was capable of doing before
he entered M&A, he clearly needed to gain a better understanding of human
anatomy. The life-drawing classes at M&A were probably the most important
and immediately useful in the curriculum. He was also exposed to some of
the great artists of the past in classes held by the schools art history instruc-
tor, George Patterson. Kubert later recalled, While I was attending the High
School of Music and Art, I would go up to the library and grab hold of a book
of Michelangelos painting. The art impressed me so that Id keep looking and
examining the work at every opportunity. Those things that really impressed
me, rubbed off just a little, and never disappeared from my minds eye. They
gave me the impetus to find out how I could improve my own work.

During the summer of 1941, Kubert was employed by Will Eisner again, under
different circumstances. Eisner had opened yet another studio, this time
located in Stamford, Connecticut. It was a smaller operation set up to produce
just The Spirit while the boss would be in the military. The United States
OPPOSITE: Kubert gained valuable experience wouldnt declare war on the Axis until the attack on Pearl Harbor some six
in the Iger comics production shop. Clockwise: months later, but the handwriting was on the wall. A peacetime draft had been
Spark Stevens (Blue Beetle #13, 8/42 and adopted by Congress, and Eisner knew it was only a matter of time before he
Blue Beetle #19, 3/43), Espionage (Smash was called up for service. He rented space in the Gurley Building in Stamford
Comics #41, 3/43), and Phantom Lady for the new operation. Once again, the key man was Lou Fine, whose child-
(Police Comics #16, 2/43). hood polio exempted him from the military. Fine was to pencil most of the

24 The Art of Joe Kubert


The Art of Joe Kubert 25
An atmospheric panel from a six-page strips featuring The Spirit. Jack Cole, Gil Fox, Alex Kotzky, Joe Kubert, and a
Phantom Lady assignment (Police Comics #14, letterer made up the rest of the team.
12/42). That summer in Connecticut was a different experience than Tudor City
for Kubert. A year older, with a year of art study at M&A under his belt, Joe
was now considered the apprentice of the operation. He continued to erase
pages, white-out mistakes, rule the panel borders and perform other strictly
mechanical tasks, but he was now allowed to ink backgrounds in the panels.
Over the course of the summer, he acquitted himself well enough to be given
an enlarged scope of inking, including background figures and even main
charactersthough not faces. Alex Kotzky, the lead inker, would be called
upon to make sure the look of The Spirits face and those of the other key
characters was right.
Will Eisner was not yet gone, though he was mostly focused on building
up an inventory of scripts and layouts for the artists to follow in his absence.
Nevertheless, Kubert heard many discussions between Eisner and his crew,
and at the same time studied his work. This was when Kubert gained his
first understanding of the importance of storytelling to the medium. He later
recalled, At first, all I was interested in was pretty pictures. It was after read-
ing [Eisners] stuff that I started to understand how important it was to tell a
story. Thats what its all about. Being a cartoonist is being able to tell a story
in a graphic form. I dont care how pretty your pictures are, if youre not telling
a story with those pictures, youre not a cartoonist.
Did he consider comics an art form at the time? No, Kubert responded
in a later interview. I know that I loved and enjoyed what I was doing. I got a
thrill out of seeing a good piece of artwork. When I saw stuff that Lou Fine or
Will Eisner did, it would raise the hair on the back of my neck. But an art form,
or a lower form of art? I never thought of that. I just loved to do it.
Kubert studied the way chief inker Alex Kotzsky embellished Lou Fines
pencils, and tried to emulate Kotzskys stylebased on Eisnersas much as
possible. Later, the backgrounds he did on his own strips as a young journey-
man artist showed a pronounced similarity to the backgrounds of The Spirit.
He also liked the creative splash panels which integrated the features title into
the artwork, and came up with his own versions in later assignments. Kuberts
inking began showing up in the August 1941 Spirit Sections, though its not
possible to identify his contributions. He may also have done a little inking
on the first Spirit daily strips, which began appearing on October 13th, 1941.
Kubert was just fourteen years old.
At years end, Kubert experienced the simultaneous exaltation and cha-
grin when the first of the Volton strips appeared in Cat-Man Comics #8 after
a two-year delay. Such was his artistic growth that he must have been morti-
fied to show these crude efforts to his classmates at M&A.

26 The Art of Joe Kubert


By the time Kubert completed his stint in the Stamford shop, hav-
ing brushed shoulders with some of the best artists in the business, he had
picked up just enough craftsmanship to draw comic book stories on his own,
as opposed to assisting others. Both Norman Maurer and he were hired by
Emmanuel Demby to work in his studio after school each day. By January or
February of 1942, Maurer was drawing Bombshell starring in Lev Gleasons
Boy Comics, and Kubert was doing Alias X and Flagman for Holyokes
Captain Aero Comics. An improvement over Volton, Kuberts efforts appar-
ently impressed Demby less than Maurers, because Kubert didnt receive a
raise when Maurer did. Incensed, Kubert quit, only to quickly beat a path to
another production mill.
Will Eisners former partner Jerry Iger had continued to operate the
shop on his own and had prospered. His operation was bigger than Dembys
place, in a nicer building, was receiving orders for hundreds of pages a month
from Quality, Fiction House, Fox, and Harvey. Iger assigned Kubert to Spark
Stevens, a light-hearted, semi-humorous sailor feature that carried the blurb
Spark Stevens and his happy-go-lucky pals bring you fun, thrills, and high
adventure in every issue of Blue Beetle Comics! Spark, his pal Chuck and
their talking parrot Squawk appeared in short backup strips. The young art-
ists work was rudimentary but just good enough to deliver the basics: The
stories were readable, the faces were no longer so grotesque, and the overall
appearance was reasonably appealing. Kuberts handling of facial structure
and anatomy had improved, but still left a lot to be desired. He occasionally
cheated, for example avoiding drawing an entire tiger by showing only the
beasts head in a silhouetted (all black) profile.
But Kubert was also a fast learner, as evidenced by the strips he was
producing by summers end. Stuart Taylor (Jumbo Comics), Phantom Lady
(Police Comics), and Espionage (Smash Comics) were much more elaborate,
and far better executed. Kubert began showing faces with chiaroscuro-type
shading in some shots, or created shadow effects that give a back-lit quality
to some of the figures. The splash panel to Spark Stevens in Blue Beetle #19
(March 1943), drawn in the fall of 1942, demonstrated a level of sophistication
that is astonishing compared to his efforts only a few months earlier.
Identifying Kuberts work on these strips is tricky, as Kubert jumped
around a lot, and nearly all of it is unsigned. According to Al Dellinges, a
lifelong Kubert fan,

Kubert definitely drew episodes of Phantom Lady, Espionage,


Stuart Taylor, and others. Having studied Joes work for many
years, I recognize certain aspects of his early style, such as repeated
panel compositions and figure placement. Of course, this can
become especially difficult because in the comic production shops,
it was not uncommon for artists to assist others, to help with the
inks, or to pencil some figures, to expedite the process if a strip
was needed by a certain deadline.

While Kubert primarily penciled and inked his own material in his stu-
dent/shop period, it would not be unheard of for other hands to work on his
pages.
Kuberts key influences up to this point (Fine and Eisner) are appar-
ent in these early jobs, which sometimes changed significantly from assign-
ment to assignment. He was doing what was necessary to complete the work,
including using occasional swipes where he was uncertain and needed help,
just as one would expect from any neophyte artist. But as his apprentice
period ended, the beginnings of what would become the recognizable Kubert
style were about to emerge.

The Art of Joe Kubert 27