A major talent in the comics industry for over five decades, Joe Kubert is indisputably one of the most impressive craftsmen in the field's history. During his time in the business he has drawn everything from horror to westerns to superheroes, and drawn them all well. A tour through his career is a tour through comics' history itself.
With the debacle of the 3D comics craze behind him (as well as the resultant crash of Archer St. John's publishing house), Joe Kubert was back on the streets, back to the less than secure world of living from check to check as a freelancer. The mid-fifties weren't the best of times for the comic book field but Kubert's next job was for the best the field had to offer: EC Comics.
It proved to be the first and only significant creative failure Kubert would experience. Joe did three stories for Harvey Kurtzman's two war books, Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat. Unhappily, those three stories were the only jobs Kubert did for EC, despite the impressive work he had done on Tor a few short years earlier. Kurtzman was an exacting taskmaster as an editor, even going so far as supplying his artists with tracing paper layouts that had to be closely followed, over pages that had already been lettered and bordered. While some artists, like Davis and Wood, were able to work under such rigid conditions, Kubert felt inhibited, his work forced and stilted. Feeling the lack of freedom difficult, Kubert moved on to return to DC Comics.
From EC's Two-Fisted Tales to DC's Star-Spangled War Stories, Our Army At War, Our Fighting Forces, G.I. Combat, and All-American Men of War. The Korean War had sparked new interest in war comics, and DC wasn't slow to notice the growing market. The editor of this comic book battlefield was the controversial Robert Kanigher, who was a dragon to some artists and writers (his criticisms could be brutal). Kubert, however, enjoyed a good professional relationship with the editor/writer. "Kanigher is a great writer. He did some stuff that, for me, was inspirational, and he gave me lots of freedom. I felt no inhibitions when I illustrated his stuff," Kubert stated in an interview.
Kubert also worked in the superhero and adventure genres at DC, like The Flash, Hawkman, and The Viking Prince, but really came to be known as a war book illustrator, perhaps the war book illustrator. His gritty style and meticulous research added an extra dimension of realism well suited to the subject of war. Later Kurtzman would remark that Kubert had gone on to become one of the best war book artists in the field. The most well known Kubert/Kanigher collaborations involved the star of DC's war titles, Sgt. Rock. Originally created by Bob Haney in Our Army At War #81, the gruff and cynical noncom appeared in countless stories penciled and inked by Kubert.
Although the DC war titles were never as historically anchored or as well written as the Kurtzman books, Kanigher, like Kurtzman, refrained from glorifying the last resort of diplomacy, preferring instead to avoid stories that presented soldiers of opposing armies in a black and white contrast of good and evil. An outstanding example of this more evenhanded approach was the Kubert/Kanigher title, Enemy Ace. The series took the bold tact of featuring the enemy's point of view with stories about Hans von Hammer, a grim existentialist and flying ace of World War I.
Stories about the Rittmeister took on a higher degree of sophistication than was usual in comics. "I think the character had a lot more depth and a lot more breadth than many others," Kubert said. Although two other excellent artists, John Severin and Neal Adams, also portrayed von Hammer, Kubert remains the ace in that series.
By the mid-sixties DC began promoting artists, as well as writers, to the position of editor, among them Carmine Infantino, Joe Orlando, and Dick Giordano. Kubert, naturally enough, eventually inherited the war books after Kanigher had been forced to step down due to illness. In keeping with not glamorizing the horror of war, one of his first moves was to institute the use of a blurb, "Make War No More," on all his books.
During 1966 and 1967 Kubert absented himself from DC for another kind of war story, based on America's most divisive war, The Green Berets comic strip. During the Vietnam conflict the actual Green Berets were glorified as an exclusive combat wing of the armed forces, specially trained fighting men proficient in guerrilla warfare. Robin Moore, author of The French Connection, had written The Green Berets as a novel. Now Kubert was contacted by Jerry Capp (brother of Li'l Abner creator Al) for a syndicated comic strip version.
Kubert employed his usual high level of quality and the strip, boosted by heavy promotion, took off. Dissatisfaction, however, eventually set in. Kubert had hoped to develop the strip along the lines of Terry and the Pirates, but began to feel that Capp had turned the strip into a flag-waving propaganda effort. After less than two years, Kubert left. The Green Berets floundered on for another few months and then, like the public's support for that war, thankfully disappeared.
Kubert returned to DC as an editor. In addition to his war book editing and illustrating, he took on an exciting new project in the early 1970s, illustrating Tarzan of the Apes. A big fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Burne Hogarth's strip, Kubert read all 32 of ERB's Tarzan books. His talents at expressive, fluid anatomy and dynamic design resulted in one of the finest comic book adaptations of the 1912 classic character. During this period, Kubert also edited Korak, Son of Tarzan, giving a promising young artist, Mike Kaluta, some his first work, illustrating Burroughs' Carson of Venus as a back-up feature for the title. "It was a very pleasant experience. Every six pages he brought in reflected a labor of love."
In 1976 Kubert went on to found the School of Cartoon and Graphic Art. His school has turned out some notable graduates, including Tom Veitch, Steve Bissette, Timothy Truman, Tom Yeates and two of Kubert's sons, Adam and Andy ("with them I was tougher"). Two school projects were actual work on syndicated strips, Winnie Winkle and Big Ben Bolt, but in both cases Kubert found himself saddled with doing most of the art chores.
Despite the grueling workload of managing a school while editing DC titles, Kubert still finds time to work on other projects. One of his most notable, and recent, efforts is the 1996 graphic album Dark Horse's Fax From Sarajevo, a. grim account of the Bosnian civil war. Based on the experiences of Erwin Rustemagic, a friend of the Kubert's, Fax follows the harrowing experiences of Rustemagic and his family as the war in the former Yugoslavia expanded. Aside from his friendship with the author, who literally provided the story through faxes to the outside world, Kubert was motivated to spread the word about the horrific events unfolding. "I am the father of four sons.Every once in a while, in this world, things happen where you just caní't sit back and let it happen. Something has got to be done."
In 1997 the hardcover story won the Harvey Award for Best Graphic Album.