Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Art of Joe Kubert Reveals an Artist Stronger Than Superhero Stories

Posted By on Tue, Dec 13, 2011 at 11:00 AM

click to enlarge artkub.jpg

In 1939, at the age of 13, Joe Kubert drew and lettered a series of four stories about a character called Volton, the Human Generator, for Cat-Man Comics. These were the early days of the comic book industry, just a year after Superman's debut in Action Comics #1. Kubert's Volton stories are clearly the work of a kid, albeit a talentedone. They were professionally published work by a young, fast-learning artist. Kubert, who is still working today, witnessed the initial comics boom (the so-called Golden Age) while receiving a working education in the medium. But Kubert's precocity blossomed into something much more -- an industrious productivity that included mainstream superhero work as well as some fine examples of comics journalism.

A new book closely examines Kubert's development as an artist and his many successes in the comics industry. The Art of Joe Kubert contains extensive commentary by Bill Schelly that contextualizes Kubert's work with the development of comics as a medium. At times, Schelly betrays a fanboyish interest in the minutiae of artistic methods and materials that don't really tell us that much about Kubert or his art. Still, it's an informative and briskly engaging essay.

click to enlarge Kubert drew his Volton stories when he was 13.
  • Kubert drew his Volton stories when he was 13.

In reviewing the vast panorama of Kubert's eight-decade career, The Art of Joe Kubert allows readers previously unfamiliar with the artist to share an appreciation of his abiding interest in human nature (as opposed to just superhero theatrics) through a surprising variety of storytelling styles and subject matter. Kubert's great influence on other cartoonists came from the way he embraced the comics medium as a whole, instead of just a particular niche or character type.

click to enlarge LR_JK181.jpg

Kubert learned by doing. He spent his early adolescence and teen years making a circuit of the many comic book publishers in New York City, picking up small jobs here and there that doubled as valuable training. The ultimately forgettable Volton stories came on the heels of some anonymous work for comics packager Harry "A" Chesler. Regardless of their relative quality, the Volton stories led to steady work for the young Kubert at different publishing outfits throughout high school.

Kubert apprenticed with Will Eisner, creator of The Spirit, at Eisner's studio, and with Sheldon Mayer, editor of All-American Comics, under whose eye Kubert drew a number of Hawkman stories while still in his teens (he'd return to this character later in life).

Kubert's style would eventually become recognizable but went through a number of brief "periods" early on, during which it reflected the signatures of the artists into whose orbits Kubert revolved, among them Eisner, Lou Fine, and Mort Meskin. With his early start in the business, Kubert also matured early, his later style generally marked by simplicity of line and a quality of realism, particularly in the many war comics he would do through the 1950s and '60s.

click to enlarge Sgt. Frank Rock
  • Sgt. Frank Rock

That period saw the creation of Sgt. Rock by Kubert and writer Robert Kanigher for Our Army at War. Frank Rock is a WWII-era noncommissioned officer -- or "non-com" -- whose unique characteristic was (despite his melodramatic name) his humanity, particularly his experience of the psychological effects of war. Whereas many war comics of that era looked back with uncomplicated admiration for the heroes of WWII, Sgt. Rock's stories had the balls to look that war in the face and measure the real impact it had on the soldiers who fought it.

Kubert's legacy, as this volume demonstrates, is that he saw comics as having a part to play in the world at large, reflecting cultural and social concerns as opposed to just being an outlet for juvenile fantasies and wish-fulfillment. This concern first shone through those Sgt. Rock stories, which took the clichés of war comics and transcended them via Rock's grittier-than-usual experiences.

click to enlarge "Fax from Sarajevo"
  • "Fax from Sarajevo"

Later, Kubert's interest in journalism and history led to works that he wrote and drew, including Fax from Sarajevo (about the city's siege by Serbian forces in the early 1990s), Yossel, April 19, 1943 (about the Warsaw ghetto uprising), and Jew Gangster (a fictional re-creation of Depression-era New York slum life). Each of these later works evinces an interest in realism -- even if Jew Gangster seems inspired by the atmospherics and clichés of Warner Bros. gangster films of the 1930s. They are some of Kubert's most serious and dramatically layered works, and they best demonstrated his interest in creating work that engaged with the world at large.

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