Man of Rock: A Biography of Joe Kubert
© copyright 2008 by Bill Schelly
The comic-book works of Joe Kubert have enjoyed an astonishing critical and commercial resurgence. His life’s oeuvre, the product of seventy years of intelligent writing and dynamic artwork, has earned him millions of readers, and is being acknowledged by comic-book fans far and wide. Indeed, Kubert’s talents have brought him recognition in the larger popular culture scene in America and Europe. In the summer of 2006, he had the honor of having his artwork appear on a U.S. postage stamp—a commemoration of DC Comics’ winged superhero, Hawkman.
In the early 1900s, writer Charles Fort asked himself why some things—ideas, developments, recognition—emerge into popular consciousness at a particular time, when there’s no single observable cause. He theorized that some things gain mass recognition when multiple trends or forces work in concert. In Fort’s parlance, the emergence of Joe Kubert as a superstar in his field of endeavor—attributable to no single cause—happened simply because it was “Kubert Time.”
To begin with, much of Joe Kubert’s work has been reprinted in recent years, often in hardback form: Hawkman, the high-flying hero of DC Comics; Tor the Hunter, Kubert’s caveman with a moral compass; Sgt. Rock, the indefatigable leader of the combat-happy Joes of Easy Company during World War II; Enemy Ace, the World War I pilot known as the Hammer of Hell; and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, which Kubert interpreted in the 1970s. The Kubert catalog, almost without peer, is now readily available to old-time admirers and younger eyes.
Kubert has in the course of his long career won all the major cartooning honors, including being twice selected by the prestigious National Cartoonists Society as Best Comic Book Cartoonist, and has been inducted into the Comics Industry Hall of Fame.
Though his vaunted status as a master comic-book artist was gained primarily by his work for DC Comics, Kubert’s work in the graphic-novel arena alone would earn him a place at the top of the heap of geniuses of comic art, alongside Harvey Kurtzman, Alex Toth, Jack Kirby, Art Spiegelman, Charles Schulz and Kubert’s idol and early employer, Will Eisner. Joe’s award-winning Fax from Sarajevo was prominently featured in Stephen Weiner’s The 101 Best Graphic Novels.
Joe Kubert’s creative growth, characterized by a constant willingness to experiment with new types of stories and techniques, has never stopped. Thus he has been able to embark on new territory, telling stories that appeal to an ever-widening audience, even as he’s passed his eightieth birthday.
In addition, Kubert has emerged on the world stage as a Jewish artist of conviction. When a Danish newspaper infuriated many in the Islamic world with the publication of a dozen cartoon visualizations of Mohammed, certain Islamic extremists inflicted violence upon Danish embassies in the Middle East, and issued death threats to the cartoonists who contributed the offending illustrations. Joe Kubert and Dr. Rafael Medoff of the David Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies issued a letter of protest against such threats which was picked up by wire services and widely quoted in stories on the incident that were published in America and around the world.
Kubert’s success can be appreciated even more when contrasted with the lives of many—probably most—comic-book professionals who toiled in the trenches alongside him in the 1940s and 1950s. Theirs were stories that didn’t exactly radiate good fortune.
There’s the high-profile case of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, whose creation Superman made the owners of DC Comics rich, but not them. Only after a concerted effort on their behalf by influential and stalwart comic-book professionals did the duo receive a yearly stipendfrom the publisher, partially as a public relations maneuver when Superman: The Movie came out in 1978.
Another example—an even sadder one—is that of Bill Finger, who took Bob Kane’s simple idea of a man in a bat costume and fleshed out Batman’s universe. Today the role of principal writer on the feature from the beginning would confer upon him co-creator status, and if Finger had had a father with legal savvy like Bob Kane did, he might not have lived in virtual poverty in a shabby studio apartment at the time of his death.
Another high-profile case is that of Jack Kirby, widely regarded as one of the greatest talents ever to draw comic books, whose later in life was involved in a dispute over the ownership of artwork with Marvel Comics. After co-creating many of their line-up of heroes beginning with the Fantastic Four in 1961, he felt the publisher had reneged on a promise to give him a percent of the profits. In his final years, Kirby was not destitute, but he was certainly not financially well-off. Sadly, health problems took away his drawing prowess when he grew older, further affecting his earning ability.
These familiar stories of economic deprivation and lack of creative recognition are just the tip of the iceberg; there are hundreds of similar, if less well known, personal odysseys. Comic-book artist and historian Jim Amash, who has interviewed more professionals from the Golden Age of Comics than probably anyone else—mostly for Alter Ego magazine—said, “It’s shocking how many of them found themselves late in life with little or nothing, just scraping by, or living on the goodwill of others.” Comic-book fans decided something must be done, and formed the organization called the Hero Initiative to raise money for needy folks who gave so much to popular culture through the comic books they wrote, edited, drew or colored. (Kubert has been on the board of the Hero Initiative from its inception.)
Although Joe Kubert faced many of the same obstacles and inequities, his life has gone quite differently. His parents were poor immigrants, and like so many during the Great Depression, struggled to make ends meet. He never received anything but a piece-work rate for the thousands of comic-book pages he drew over the course of his long career. Yet, today, it seems Kubert has it all: financial security, professional recognition, good health, a long-lasting marriage, and grown children who are successful in their own right, and who have given him a gaggle of grandchildren.
Remarkably, Joe Kubert continues to write and draw comics with the same quality and thoughtfulness that he’s had all his life, and his work continues to be in demand.
What did Joe Kubert do differently than others who fared so poorly? His talent, great as it is, is no greater than that of other creative luminaries in comics. His career has certainly encompassed a fair number of disappointments, and he hasn’t reached his every goal. Yet he sits on a kind of summit, and if asked about his success, he simply shakes his head and says, “I’m the luckiest man in the world.” Luck, of course, plays a part in all lives, and Kubert has had his share, but that explanation only goes so far.
What made Joe Kubert different? What circumstances contributed to making this particular moment in history “Kubert Time?”
— Bill Schelly
Man of Rock Contents
1 – Everything Is Illuminated
2 – Ghetto Life
3 – I Draw, Therefore I Am
4 – The Stone Age of Comics
5 – The Largest Room in the World
6 – Attic of Wonder
7 – Between the Eyes and the Brain
8 – Heroes Hit the Showers
9 – Young Man with a Brush
10 – Aiming Upward
11 – Happenstance
12 – Fan Favorite
13 – A Combat-Happy Joe
14 – In Syndication at Last
15 – The Right Man for the Job
16 – Tarzan at DC
17 – The Kubert School
18 – Adam and Andy
19 – Moving Ahead
20 – Fax from Sarajevo
21 – Creative Stretching
22 – Man of Rock
About the Author