Jewish comic book great Joe Kubert, who worked on acclaimed series such as Tor, Tales of the Green Beret, Sgt. Rock and Tarzan, died Aug. 12 at age 85 from multiple myeloma in Morristown, NJ.
At the tender age of 12, Kubert broke into the comic book business in a rather brash way: He just showed up.
“I didn’t even know what kind of materials to use,” Kubert said in an interview with JNS.org last year in Israel. “I drew on the paper bags from my father’s [butcher] shop. And I brought those drawings [to Manhattan] to show them what I could do. And they gave me paper. They gave me pencils. They gave me brushes. I never had known that they used those kinds of materials. The guys in the business just gave it to me because they recognized in me a heavy desire to do this work.”
While perhaps less recognized by the general public than Spiderman writer Stan Lee, Kubert’s impact on the world of comics and American culture may be longer lasting. That influence is due in no small part to the Kubert School, which he established in 1976 in Dover, NJ.
“He’s the longest-lived continuously important contributor to the field,” Paul Levitz, a former president of DC Comics, told the New York Times Aug. 13. “There are two or three of the greats left, but he’s definitely one of the last.”
Less than a year before his death, Kubert had taken his first and only trip to Israel to display some of the original artwork and pages from his graphic novel Yossel for a special exhibit of his and his sons’ contributions to the world of comics at the Israeli Cartoon Museum in Holon.
“The Kuberts are responsible for some of the iconic figures of American culture,” said United States Embassy press attaché Kurt Hoyer at the time. “The Kuberts have worked on every comic I have ever read.”
In addition to the comic books series that the elder Kubert worked on, his sons Adam and Andy earned their own reputations in the industry working on the X-Men and Superman series and X-Men and Batman, respectively.
Hoyer added, “The clarity of the drawing [in Joe Kubert’s work] and the way the colors grip you, really takes you back to a youthful outlook on life as a battle between good and evil.”
Neal Adams, who shook up the comics industry in the 1960s with his own drawing style, shared Hoyer’s assessment.
“Joe, in his way, was a primitive, he drew from his gut,” Adams was quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Times. ”Joe, because of his gritty style, because of his down-in-the-dirt approach, mixed the heroic with the terribleness of war… He never made it seem appealing, but, to men, the nature of war is that you can be a hero.”
The Kubert School, now run by Joe’s family, is the first and still only accredited school that focuses exclusively on the art of cartoon drawing. In his later years, Joe helped oversee the overall management and course development at the school, while his sons Adam and Andy work as teachers there.
Joe gave special credit to his deceased (2008) wife Muriel’s business acumen for allowing the school to survive and flourish while he maintained a full-time career as a comic book artist.
“The agreement was,” Joe explained, “that she handled the business side and I would try to make sure that the courses taken were the proper ones.” He said, “It is more because of her than anyone else that the school exists.”
Since its inception, the school has produced generations of successful alumni, many of whom now inhabit the distant corners of the comic book industry, having worked on such diverse projects as Spongebob Squarepants, Swamp Thing, Spiderman, Daredevil, Hellboy, Scooby Doo, the Archie Comics, and Conan the Barbarian.
Joe Kubert’s graphic novel Yossel, the highlight of the exhibit at the Israeli Cartoon Museum, had a special resonance with the artist. The story of Yossel is that of a boy living in Holocaust-era Poland and the experiences he goes through trying to survive the Holocaust.
The story had a very personal appeal to the elder Kubert, who himself was born in Yzeran, Poland, and in 1926 immigrated as a baby with the rest of his family to New York. It is an imaginative quasi-autobiographical look at one of the alternate paths Joe’s life could have taken had his parents not decided to leave a middle-class life in pre-war Poland for the clamor and bustle of immigrant New York and the land of opportunity.
“There is nothing left of that town [Yzeran] at all,” Joe Kubert told JNS.org last year at the opening of the Israeli Cartoon Museum exhibit. “It doesn’t exist anymore… It was wiped out completely.”
And Joe was certainly grateful to his adopted homeland. While the Kuberts were atypical in their chosen profession, they are very much the archetypal American Jewish success story. When he spoke to JNS.org, Joe recalled growing up in a traditional immigrant home in Brooklyn.
“My father was a kosher butcher in Brooklyn, but he also happened to be very well-read,” Joe reminisced. “He was a chazan (cantor) in shul.” He continued, “My father observed all the holidays, and every Friday as a kid, my father after work would go down to the shvitz [public bath] in East New York.”
Despite how far he came from his Depression-era youth, the senior Kubert still held affection for the tradition-filled milieu of his Brooklyn childhood, which perhaps led to the most unusual of collaborations in his 73-year career: drawing cartoons for the Hassidic group Chabad’s publications Tzivos Hashem and Moshiach Times.
Joe fondly recounted getting roped into what became over a decade of drawing cartoons for the religious group’s publications by a friendly and persistent Chabad rabbi starting in the mid-1980s.
Adam said, “I think they did some whamby jambee on him and it worked.” He threw in, for good measure, “We still get matzah every year from that rabbi.”