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 super heroes, and drawn them all well. A tour through his career is a tour through comics' history itself.
Joe Kubert was born in Poland in 1926, immigrating with his family to the United States when he was two months old. When he was three or four he was given a box of chalk by a neighbor and quickly set about covering the Brooklyn pavements with his drawings. Joe's parents noticed their son's love of drawing and encouraged him in every way. On Sundays the young Kubert would devour the full-page funnies, avidly enjoying Hal Foster's Prince Valiant and Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates.
In 1938, Kubert got his first exposure to the world of professional cartooning at age eleven and a half. A school friend, who happened to be related to Louis Silberleit, one of the owners of MLJ Studios (now Archie Comics), suggested that Joe visit the studio. Joe took his friend's advice and took a batch of drawings wrapped in newspapers to the company's Manhattan offices. There he met his first professionals; Mort Meskin, Charles Biro, Bob Montana, and Irv Novick. The artists, young men in their twenties, were receptive and helpful to the youngster, giving him art tips and information. "One artist would suggest, 'Watch this figure, kid. Start doing this,learn how to draw that.' and I'd ask 'Can I come back again and show you when I do what you've told me?''Sure kid, come back any time.' So maybe once a week, or as often as I could, I'd come back.."
This kind, if unofficial, apprenticeship program, was invaluable training. By the time Joe was twelve, he was allowed to ink a rush job, the pencils of Bob Montana's Archie. Later, while at the High School of Music and Art, he became friends with a future collaborator, Norman Maurer. The two were intensely interested in becoming comic book artists and would frequently cut classes, often three times a week, in order to walk from 135th street to publishers' offices in lower Manhattan.
Through such shoe leather wearing excursions Kubert gained more work experience at Harry 'A' Chesler's comics shop. Kupert was allowed to visit the shop after school and on weekends and Chesler, although outwardly a gruff seeming man, was nice enough to allow the boy to practice on unused scripts. During this period Joe's father continued to support his son's interest in art and, although not financially well off, paid a princely sum for a drawing board for his son (a board that Kupert still uses to this day).
Kupert's first paying job came from another shop, Holyoke Publishing. Joe was all of twelve years of age when he penciled, inked and lettered his first story for Catman Comics, "Voltron." Before graduating from high school Kubert and Maurer also worked for Charles Biro's crime comics, where Kubert inked Lou Fine's pencils on the Daredevil and Crimebuster series.
Kubert worked for other shops during this period, inking for Will (The Spirit) Eisner, as well drawing Flagman at Holyoke, Boy Buddies for MLJ, and Phantom Lady and Espionage for Quality Comics. In 1944 he landed a job at Max Gaines' All-American Comics, edited by Sheldon (Sugar and Spike) Mayer. His new editor was another mentor. "He took a serious interest in me. He taught me that to communicate was the most important element in cartoon illustration. He was extremely helpful and effective with all the artists who worked for him." While at All-American Kubert continued to learn, studying the work of the other cartoonists, like Lee (Black Cat) Elias and Irwin (Dondi) Hasen.
All-American was to merge with National Periodical Publications (now DC) that same year. The move enabled Kupert to get his first work on Hawkman (a strip he would revitalize almost twenty years later in The Brave And The Bold comic), as well as penciling Sargon the Sorcerer, Dr. Fate, The Flash, and The Vigilante. Although still in his teens, Kubert's distinctive style of dynamic compositions, bold blacks, and fluid brushwork began to take form. It was still far from perfection but, influenced by Hal Foster, had an impressive feel for action and fantasy.
Just prior to being drafted into the army during the Korean conflict, the eighteen year old artist had gotten involved in packaging a series of comics for the St. John publishing company. Kubert had a good relationship with the owner and was delegated a heavy load of responsibilities for one so young, not only writing and drawing, but working as an art director, as well as handling payroll and profit-sharing duties. Kubert also hired artists for the studio, and one artist he hired, Alex Toth, would go on to become another major innovator in the field.
In 1950 Kubert was inducted, but working for Uncle Sam painting helmet emblems didn't prevent him from continuing on with freelancing through the mails, even while stationed in Europe. After serving his tour of duties, Kubert returned to civilian life and St. John, reuniting with Norm Maurer for his first major memorable job, Tor.
It's no exaggeration to say that Tor was one of the best "Noble Savage" books to hit print, perhaps only rivaled by Frank Frazetta's jungle-man Thun'da. Tor was a caveman who coexisted with the dinosaurs, but there the resemblance to Alley Oop ended. Unlike the boisterous stories of V.T. Hamlin, Kubert handled his cave character with an introspective, humanistic slant. Tor was a wandering outsider, and many of his conflicts came not only from tussles with dinosaurs, but from the human fear of the stranger. The scripts were thoughtful and well written, and the art was magnificently rendered through the duotone shading process, giving each panel additional contrast and depth.
Depth was important; Tor had the additional distinction of being one of the first 3D comics. The 3D craze had hit America hard and the theaters were packed with audiences wearing the red and green cellophane-lensed glasses. (Later DC would reprint Tor as a color title in 1975.)
St. John's first 3D book had been Mighty Mouse and Norm and Joe had spent long hours in perfecting the tedious routine of registering many acetate overlays over the original, base drawings. The extra effort paid off in that the first 3D comic sold a million and a quarter issues at twenty-five cents apiece. With St.John's royalty and profit sharing plan the young Kubert was able to buy his first house. With the success of the initial sales, St. John converted all his titles to the new process. The move proved to be a disastrous mistake, however. "Each succeeding sale was less than the one before. Proving that gimmicks don't last forever." When the public lost interest, Archer St. John lost his business. Kubert was now back on the streets freelancing again, looking for that next script (and check!) in the mail.
( Continued in Part 2 )