Monday, 13 August 2012

Joe Kubert RIP: cowboys, gangsters and soldiers

I had the pleasure of meeting Joe Kubert two years ago at Sydney Supanova. My mate Craig and I had just seen him give a talk on his career in the industry, followed by a q&a session with the attendees. His energy was undeniable, a charisma that captured attention as he commanded the room. When we approached him on the convention floor his manner was a bit more muted. Instead Joe spoke to us in a charming low tone, smiling gently as he happily signed Craig's Tarzan trade. He spoke of the importance of craft, of taking pride in your work. Whether speaking to a room, or just to a manic Irishman taking snaps as he signed our books, Kubert spoke deliberately and with obvious enthusiasm for the business of making comics. 

I was very sad to learn this morning of Joe Kubert's passing. He leaves behind an incredible legacy of work, his influence measured not only through the echoes that ripple out from Sgt. Rock, Tor, Hawkman, The Haunted Tank, but also through the careers of artists that have crossed the threshold of the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art. Many of the testimonials that have emerged over the past day have described him as a mentor - and some were very lucky to have received instruction directly from him. 

What I find fascinating about Kubert's comics work is its emphasis on hard-won heroism. While not quite realistic, as often his stories feature plentiful - but well developed - notes of melodrama, the degree of detail is such that his protagonists genuinely look battle-weary and scarred from their experiences, whether they are soldiers battling Nazis in Europe, proud viking warriors, daring cowboys, or winged supermen. His art has substance, weight and grit, which makes the emotional impact of the stories hit home all the harder. The Sgt. Rock catchphrase "Nothin's easy in Easy Company" sums up this approach to these exhausted heroes quite neatly.

In his Jesse James stories, a product of his long-time collaboration with Carmine Infantino, Kubert goes to extraordinary, and sometimes comical, lengths to reclaim the notorious outlaw as a hero. The historical hero's fame rests on his feats as a bank robber, but in Kubert and Infantino's eyes his lawlessness is forced upon him by circumstance, with the proceeds of his crimes supporting impoverished families, a regular Robin Hood of the West.  He defends the honour of lonely maidens, revolts against Yankee outlaws and is a friend to Choctaw Indians. Occasionally he finds himself becoming involved in robberies against his better judgement to protect callow friends looking for easy money. James even encounters an evil doppelganger, and at one point becomes a sheriff! The villains are ugly and cruel, whereas James is a dashing outlaw, whose physical handsomeness causes women to go weak at the knees.

What is interesting is how this heroism is both an expression of the fame of James, and after all the vicarious thrill of reading about an outlaw is the reason for his enduring popularity as an icon, but also a recognition of how history is written by the winners. Perhaps it is too convenient that this former Confederate soldier turned criminal should act in such a moral manner, but the hardship suffered by the poor and victimized people he defends does have an aspect of knowing revisionism to it. The West was not won - it was taken. 

Kubert's 2005 work Jew Gangster also dances with this ambivalent notion of the noble criminal. The son of Polish immigrants, like the artist himself, Ruby rejects the life of back-breaking labour his father has endured and attaches himself to a local heavy known as Monk. Unlike Henry Hill in Scorsese's Goodfellas this novice to the Mob enters the life with his eyes wide open, not seduced by the glitz and glamor as is fawningly presented by the film director. Instead Ruby and his friends watch through an alley window as Monk beats a man to death. Nearby a cop cheats a stall-owner out of the cost of a newspaper. Ruby's father lectures his son when he arrives home late on his wasting of the opportunities his parents have provided, though it is clear to the son that there is little hope for him of breaking out of the cycle of poverty. To these young eyes the money flashed by Monk and his friends represents escape - he gladly signs on to become an errand boy for the mob, and later an active sidekick for the brutal killer, in the hopes of providing for his family. 

Superman is often spoken of as a symbol of hope for children growing up in the Depression. This statement has recently become the spine of Grant Morrison's utopian Supergods. The first thing Ruby does with his ill-gotten gains is buy a copy of Action Comics #1. In Kubert's version of history comics are a luxury that could not be afforded when folks were starving and, in a neat little joke at the expense of the speculation industry, our hero announces that he is going to give his copy to a friend. During his talk at Supanova, Kubert even took a moment to express amazement at how much comics cost in Australia - to think that something so disposable as a comic book should cost ten times what it did when he was growing up today obviously puzzled him. When Ruby is ordered to a meeting in a cinema, Ruby has the good fortune to attend a screening of King Kong, only for Monk to spoil the ending. In a world of savage street crime, union busting and the trading of lives on a balance sheet between rival gangs, there is no room for fantasies. The earnest young teen of the story's opening, staring open-eyed from hiding at an act of savagery, is soon indistinguishable from the thugs in the pool-hall.

Yossel april 19.1943 also contains this theme of the cold comfort of comic book heroes in a time of unending horror. It is a startling work, an alternate history of the life of Kubert himself, where he imagines what might have been if his parents had failed to emigrate to the United States when he was an infant and instead stayed in their hometown of Yzeran in Poland. In his introduction Kubert discusses his own childhood growing up in Brooklyn - 

I started to draw as soon as I was old enough to hold anything that would make a mark. When I was three or four, neighbours would buy boxes of penny chalk for me to draw pictures in the streets. In the gutters, actually. The sidewalks were rough concrete, but the gutters were smooth black macadam. Better than a slate blackboard for chalk.

Natural talent was something Kubert was evidently born with, but he also credits his success to a large degree of luck. So Yossel is the result of his wondering what if circumstances had been different and his family were to have been swept up in the nets of the Reich's purge of Europe. Yossel is a talented young boy whose fondness for American comics has inspired in him a love of adventure and fantasy. He draws pictures of his heroes constantly, hidden away in his attic while his loving parents worry and fret at the news from Germany. One day a Nazi officer arrives and orders the family into the street, carrying what possessions they can, as they are transported with the town's entire Jewish population to the Warsaw Ghetto. The Jews are forced to stay indoors at night under a strict curfew, supposedly for their own protection, and only allowed to work under proscribed circumstances.

Yossel's daydreaming provides an unexpected benefit. He becomes a favourite of Nazi soldiers who see his drawings of Siegel and Shuster's Superman as a vision of their dogmatic Übermensch. A desperate band of revolutionaries encourage Yossel to report back to them what he can learn from the soldiers about their purported 'Final Solution' for the Jews. 

What remains stunning about this work is how the unflinching horror of the Holocaust is coupled with the wild imagination of Yossel. Kubert's chosen style - rough pencil drawings with each page almost resembling an illustrated sheet of butcher's paper - not only conveys the ceaseless invention of the child narrator, but the protagonist becomes an instrument of the comic medium itself. When an event is described to him he immediately begins to draw it compulsively, much like how a flashback would visually transition to the event spoken of. It is an audacious approach by Kubert, once again presenting the seeming of realism, but also a central conceit that is pure fantasy. Yossel even conjures up brief glimpses of Kubert's own work on Hawkman, Enemy Ace, Viking Prince and Tor. Ultimately his artistic genius provides only a brief escape from the suffering of the ghetto, but the message remains clear - but for a small twist of fate, this could have been Kubert's own life. Powerfully told, Yossel is a masterpiece and a fitting tribute to an extraordinary man. 

Joe Kubert not only leaves us with an incredible canon of art, but showed the way for his successors to move forward. The consummate craftsman and teacher, his legacy will endure. 

I am honoured and privileged to have met him.


  1. Hello Emmet:- thank you writing such a well-informed, passionate and moving eulogy. For what little it may be worth, I think you're quite right to emphasise how Mr Kubert's life informed his work, and to note that the values and experiences of his younger years always enriched his projects. His was an approach which I can't help but identify with a steely and yet entirely compassionate form of conservatism. I realised, when writing about his first run on the Unknown Soldier, that the politics of those stories escaped the kneejerk reductionism of the 21st century's public debates. In the terms of the mass discourse of today, Kubert was both left and right, though of course his was a conservatism forged in tough and yet inspiring times, as shown in Schelly's fine Man Of Rock. He expressed tremendous sympathy for those who faced terribly challenging circumstances, for example, and clearly loathed prejudice wherever it appeared. Yet he was also a traditionalist in many ways and, as you point out, he had a touching love for the myths and legends of his youth. Such a ferocious respect for both social-minded values and individualistic ones too sits perfectly well in his own work, though today that's a mix that's sadly far less common. His may not be my politics, but I've always found that distinctive quality of supposedly opposing values in his work to be fascinating and moving.

    Of course, he was a wonderful, wonderful artist, an able writer, a teacher, an innovator, a political commentator through his work, and a great many other things too. But for me, there's also something so fundamentally inspiring in the way in which his body of work fuses hard-headedness and sentiment, community and individualism, patriotism and social concern. It's a series of qualities which can be seen in the issue of Sgt Rock in which he and Bob Kanigher referred to My Lai. Kubert softened his co-creator's tale, but he passionately held to its central tenant, namely, that soldiers do not pursue their personal missions and prejudices at the cost of civilian lives. Even there, he stood between two apparently opposing perspectives - the my-country-right-or-wrong gaggle & the radical critique of the war - and he showed that there needn't be just two antithetical stances at all.

    The humanity of his work as well as its excellence will, I fervently hope, always be an inspiration. It should be. It certainly is for me.

  2. Colin as always you are a scholar and a gentleman. What you describe demonstrates how antithetical the divisive politics of today are to the political values of the post-war era.

  3. Good work, Irish.



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