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Kubert: Self-effacing genius


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POSTED: Sunday, March 15, 2009

Someday, someone will write a thesis on the Jewish roots of the comic-book industry. Virtually every one of the early masters of the craft is also a member of the Tribe, and, more than that, an unlikely number have roots in Brooklyn, N.Y. The borough has probably produced more comic book artists and writers and editors than the rest of the country (except maybe for Cleveland).

Jewishness infuses nearly every page of the recent book ”;Man of Rock: A Biography of Joe Kubert”; (Fantagraphics Books, 220 pages, $19.99) in ways both overt and subtle. Joe Kubert is such a giant of the comic-art oeuvre that his name has become an adjective attached to excellence.

“;Kubert”; itself is a rare name—born in Poland, his family emigrated to the United States in the 1920s when he was an infant. He was named Yosaif, Yiddish for Joseph. All the Kuberts, it seemed, came from a rural shtetl—a community completely erased by the Nazis during the war.

And so the only Kuberts in the world were the Kuberts of Brooklyn, where young Yosaif's father was a kosher butcher. The boy, enthralled by the newspaper comics, began drawing precociously, encouraged by his parents, who went into debt to buy him a drawing table. He began signing his work “;Joe”; Kubert, now thoroughly Americanized and assimilated.

Kubert's ascent in the pulpy world of comics was like that of a boy wonder. His first professional work was at age 13, and now, seven decades later and well into his 80s, Joe Kubert is still on top of his game, creating amazing pieces of graphic literature that simply get better. He and Stan Lee are the only veterans of the birth of comics still working in the field they helped create.

And Kubert is still drawing on the original drafting table his folks went into hock for. At some point it should go into the Smithsonian.

Comics historian Bill Schelly's book is full of detail about Kubert's early years and influences. Kubert grew up big and strong and handsome as a superhero and also earned a reputation as a square dealer, a good man under pressure and modest to a fault. His early work, particularly his inking style, is derivative and plain, but by his 20s the “;Kubert”; style began to emerge—a thready, sketchy style of limning the action, a heavy use of shadowy blacks and inky chiaroscuro, a realistic rendering of supporting details that don't overwhelm the storytelling. And his characters always look a little haggard and worried, as if superheroing was a tough row to hoe and doesn't pay well.

DURING THE war, Kubert worked on stock superhero stuff. He started his own production house and invented the 3-D comic book, and just then, the bottom fell out of the industry with the great comic-book scare of the 1950s. Scrambling for work, Kubert was magically paired with writer/editor Robert Kanigher to work on war comics for DC Comics, and one of the great teams was born.

The two churned out amazingly well-detailed epics of the stresses of men in combat, notably “;Sgt. Rock of Easy Company,”; written with adult finesse by Kanigher and drawn by Kubert with every greasy bead of sweat, three-day stubble and worried squint intact. These weren't stories of glory; they were keen vignettes that still have impact today.

In the 1970s Kubert's retelling of “;Tarzan”; became the high-water mark of Edgar Rice Burroughs' ape-man character in the comics medium. At the same time, Kubert opened a school for aspiring comic artists that's still going strong today.

One of casualties of the '50s comics meltdown was a prehistoric meditation by Kubert called “;Tor,”; and one of the artist's few regrets was that the character never really got a proper shaking out. Kubert regained the rights, and Tor has popped up here and there over the years, Kubert returning to it like a cave-dwelling muse. His six-issue miniseries for DC came out last year and will be released in stores Wednesday as a hardcover collection titled ”;Tor: A Prehistoric Odyssey”; (DC Comics, 160 pages, $19.99), and Kubert's artistic and storytelling abilities are as pointed as ever.

Back to Schelly's biography, it tends to gloss over the last couple of decades, in some ways the most creative part of Kubert's career, a time in which he revisited his Jewish heritage and crafted tales out of his own experience, including the amazing graphic book “;Fax from Sarajevo,”; the story of friends trapped in the hell of civil war.

You won't find much grit in “;Man of Rock.”; It turns out that Kubert is a decent, self-effacing genius who works hard at his craft and has never grown tired of it. And that's lucky for us, as we can't get enough Kubert.