There’s a lot to say about the Big Man of classic American mainstream comics Joe Kubert, who passed away last week. I can hardly do his rich and varied career justice, and in any case he is served well by Bill Schelly’s fine biography Man of Rock (2008), just as his passing was marked appropriately by Schelly over at The Comics Journal. And of course there’s Gary Groth’s epic 1994 interview with him.
What seems to me lacking in the literature I’ve seen is a critical appreciation of his art and how it developed. I cannot hope to do anything but suggest a few lines of inquiry here, but think that an examination of how his late-career non-fiction and reality-based work would be a good place to start. Back when his first and still most notable book of that particular, one might say Eisnerian phase of his work, Fax from Sarajevo was published in 1996, The Comics Journal published a critical review by Kent Worcester in which he compared its visuals with Kubert’s concurrent run on the Marvel hero comic Punisher: War Zone. The point was Kubert was simply too mired in the romantic heroism of the genres in which he had forged his style adequately to represent that book’s protagonist, his European agent Erwin Rustemagic’s real-life experiences during the siege of Sarajevo.
Worcester had a point. Kubert is so closely associated with the war comics he drew for DC comics from the fifties through the sixties, the bulk of them in collaboration with Robert Kanigher for his documentary graphic novel to ring true in a comics landscape being changed by documentary innovators from Art Spiegelman to Joe Sacco. What seems more important to me about Kubert’s late-career change of direction, however, is the creative impulse it suggests beneath his work as a whole, not the least the pulp war stories with which he made his name and which arguably remain his most significant achievement as an artist.
Now, Kubert himself never professed any ambition beyond improving his craft. In his 1994 interview with Groth he described his approach entirely in a craftsman’s terms, very clearly distinguishing between “writing” and “illustration”:
“My approach to the work was based on my position as an artist, and only an artist. I had very little say in the writing aspects. Right from the beginning, it was made clear to me that the script was not open to my approval or disapproval. Sometimes the editor might ask, “Did you like the story, Joe?” Usually, that question came after the fact. The artist’s concern was drawing and the writer’s concern was writing. And I believe that was the position of most of the cartoonists during those years, that there was a clear separation between the artist and the writer. The writer does the script. The artist’s capabilities are limited to what he gets paid for. His job involves illustrating the written word. The separation was very clear.”
Hardly unusual in the comics industry, especially among people of Kubert’s generation, this attitude surely underlay most of his significant work in comics, and incidentally his work as a teacher, eventually to the detriment of the Joe Kubert School. However, considering the work, it seems that pride he clearly took in improving as an illustrator was entirely formal. Art rarely is, and in Kubert’s his gaunt, rippling approach to the human figure; his compact yet almost flung inking; and his lean, dramatic storytelling, form a heroic vision of the world that differs from most American mainstream comics art of the period. He is one of the few DC artists that never had to adhere to the bland DC house style, divorced from reality as it was. His art felt more real, even if its idealisation proved detrimental when Kubert turned his attention to more expressly reality-based material.
There is an unacknowledged darkness to Kubert’s work. His heroes seem that much more heroic because their world feels dangerous. It may have been futile on his part eventually to engage with the war in the Bosnia, the Holocaust, or Vietnam, but it seems to me a logical development for him as an artist.
Kubert’s professed admiration for Michelangelo makes sense in this regard, in that the renaissance master was so crucially concerned with the idealised body as a locus for the human spirit. The power that ripples through Michelangelo’s figures is more than physical — it is spirit bound in transient flesh. In its own rather modest way, I guess a fundamental appeal of Kubert’s art is that it stages in tense, textured fashion a similar conflict between the heroic ideal and physical reality.