NOT A DEAD PERIOD
KUBERT: No, not so. I was working even while I was in the Army. Both for DC and Acme Comics, and for St. John publishing. While I was taking my basic training at Fort Dix, the Army had set me up painting the emblems on helmets and helmet liners. They put me in a separate building and I had my own studio. I never went out on bivouac because they had me painting helmets. I was also able to do my cartooning. After basic I was assigned as permanent personnel in Fort Dix. A year later I was shipped overseas to Germany.
GROTH: Fort Dix is in Georgia?
KUBERT: No, Fort Dix is in New Jersey.
GROTH: How far from Manhattan was that? Could you go into the city and pick up scripts?
KUBERT: It’s about 75 miles from New York. I was married shortly after I got drafted, and my wife would do the shuffling back and forth with the work. I had a Town and Country Chrysler car while I was in service. A convertible. I commuted from an apartment we had in Princeton to Fort Dix for the year that I was stationed there. Then, all permanent personnel had to see overseas duty. Again, I was lucky. Most of my outfit went to Korea. They shipped me to Germany. While in Germany I did work. I was in Special Services and I was able to set up my own studio in Sonthofen, a beautiful place in the southern part of Germany. I was able to continue my work, mailed it into the States.
GROTH: And that would have been for DC, I presume.
KUBERT: That was for DC. For Julie Schwartz.
GROTH: When did Julie Schwartz become your editor at DC?
KUBERT: When I got out of the Army, my friend Norm and I produced the 3-D comic book Mighty Mouse. I guess that’s what drove St. John Publishing out of business: the collapse of 3-D. St. John had turned everything into 3-D and based on the huge success of the first book, he decided to convert everything into three-dimensional comic books. Each succeeding sale was less than the one before. Proving that gimmicks don’t work forever. It was at the time that I got involved with DC and doing some stuff with Harvey Kurtzman and one or two other companies. Avon Publishing was one. Then I went up to DC again and that’s when I got the job working with Bob Kanigher. That must have been about ’55.
GROTH: How was working with Julie?
KUBERT: With DC, Julie Schwartz was kind enough to just let me run with it. I didn’t really have all that much time to work on the artwork in the Army, but I did as much as I could. Julie would say, “If you get an idea for a two or three page story, just do it.” So I’d write, draw, and letter the stuff, and send out a complete job.
GROTH: What kind of an editor was he? Did he ask for changes?
KUBERT: No. The changes I had were very minor and limited. Usually when I brought in the job it was accepted without any heavy alterations.
Interesting aside, Gary: When I was working with Julie, he really wasn’t too crazy about my work. He will deny that to this very day, but there was a time when he felt that my figure drawing was disproportionate, that I drew the heads too large for the body. I guess every artist goes through these different phases, and I sure as hell did. So he wasn’t too crazy about my work although he eventually came to accept my stuff more and more. But it never affected our personal relationship. I never felt he was being unfair to me or was putting me down. It wasn’t personal. So despite the fact that Julie wasn’t crazy about my work, it never affected our personal relationship, and I still consider him a very, very dear friend.
GROTH: So you had a social relationship that was really apart from the professional relationship.
KUBERT: Social to a limited degree. The fact that he married the woman that I first went out with, Jeanie [laughs]. She was a receptionist at DC. Very pretty woman. I think she was a little older than I was... which was also a big thrill to me, you know? Julie and I laugh about it now. A young guy going out with a woman! [Laughs.]
GROTH: So after you got out of the Army you went back into the packaging business.
KUBERT: Right. Back to St. John. I had kept in contact with him and he had assured me when I left that our relationship could continue when I returned.
GROTH: Did you close down your studio when you were drafted?
KUBERT: Oh yeah. I gave up the room in the apartment [laughs]!
GROTH: So you had to rent a new studio for yourself?
KUBERT: No. When I came back to St. John, we started off first with me working at home. When I got out of the Army, the first thing I did was take a vacation with my wife. We drove out to California and visited Norm in L.A. I discussed with him my ideas about going into business together. He was excited about it and said, “If it seems reasonable to you, Joe, let’s get this thing started.”
So when I got back from California, I spoke to St. John. He said, “Fine. Go with it.”
And he wholeheartedly accepted me working with Norm. My relationship with St. John was great. He was much older than I — I was 25 at the time, and he was in his mid-50s. Up to that time I continued working at home. There was really no reason to start a business outside.
GROTH: Where were you living when you got out of the Army?
KUBERT: New Jersey. My family originally came from New York, Brooklyn, then moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey. When I got out of the Army, I was already married, and we lived in Boonton, which is about 10 miles from here.
Anyhow, that was when we came up with this idea for the Mighty Mouse 3-D comic book. The way that came about was, I had seen copies of 3-D in photographs when I was stationed in Germany — copies of magazines with inserted red and green glasses. I talked with Norm about putting together some sort of a comic book that would be a little different.
GROTH: Who did you recruit other than Norm?
KUBERT: Before 3-D, Norm and I were doing everything except for the backup stories. Alex Toth did backup stories that were terrific. I think Hy Rosen might have done some work, I don’t remember. The guy who colored our stuff is an uncle of Howard Stem, the radio guy [laughs]. It’s amazing how these circles of experience touch one another! Leonard Stern was the guy’s name. We were just starting up. Norm was still in California, and when we started to grow it was necessary for Norm and I to get together physically. So Norm rented a place here in New Jersey. When the 3-D stuff came into being, and we knew we couldn’t handle this on a do-it-at-home basis, St. John gave us space in his offices on 5th Avenue in New York. A whole floor. This was pursuant to the first 3-D book we put out, which sold like crazy. So he turned everything he was doing into 3-D. So did everybody else. That was one of the reasons that 3-D died a horrible death. It probably also had a lot to do with killing the St. John Publishing Company as well sad to say.
GROTH: Who actually engineered the 3-D process?
KUBERT: Myself, Norm Maurer, and Lenny Maurer, Norm’s brother. Lenny was technically minded and had a lot of experience in graphics and printing. We knew it could work, this 3-D stuff, but the trick was to produce 3-D so it could sell for a reasonable cost. Including the glasses. As opposed to the 10-cent comic books that were being published. That was only a part of the big question. Matching the inks to the glasses, the designing of the glasses, etc., we had to be designers and engineers. But it was really a three-way effort. I was the one who came up with the thought of doing it in the first place, and that came as a result of what I had seen in Europe. Then Norm and his brother Lenny and I started kicking the idea back and forth. One of the first samples done on 3-D was one of the Three Stooges, and Tor. Norm was married to Joanie Howard, Moe Howard’s daughter. And with that. Norm had also brought the title of the Three Stooges to do through St. John, as a comic book. So we were putting out One Million B.C., the Tor book, and The Three Stooges. But Mighty Mouse was selected because of the notoriety of the Mighty Mouse character and St. John had already licensed the work. All the “flat” artwork was already done, and what we had to do was convert that whole thing to 3-D, which is what we did.
GROTH: 3-D died pretty quickly, didn’t it?
GROTH: And that was just because the market was flooded with it?
KUBERT: The publishers thought the gimmick would last forever so everybody tried to use the gimmick on everything. St. John took every book he had and converted them to 3-D. When the market was saturated with 3-D, it was so common, readers began to ask, “Hey, what about the story? What about the content?” The lack of content is what I think really the caused of the death of the 3-D.
GROTH: You created Tor at this time. And you retained your copyright. Now that suggests to me a certain amount of savvy on your part.
KUBERT: Luck, again, Gary. Pure, unadulterated luck. And nice guys that I dealt with. When I went to St. John with Tor, it was copyrighted under his name. It’s true we had the same financial arrangement, royalties and so forth, but it was still under the St. John banner. When the book went under because of the fiasco of 3-D, St. John died, literally. His son took over the publishing. They were putting out limited titles, none of which dealt with the comic books. I contacted the son and said, “Look, I’d appreciate it, since St. John is no longer publishing comic books, and since this was my creation and of no value to you now, I’d appreciate it if you’d turn the copyright back to me.” And he did.
GROTH: Simple as that.
KUBERT: Just like that. I still retain the letter I got from him, returning the copyright to me.
GROTH: Can I ask you what your arrangement with St. John was like — did they pay you per page or was there a royalty involved as well?
KUBERT: There was a budget and a royalty. As a matter of fact, the 3-D earnings enabled me to purchase my first house. I’ll never forget Norm and I leaving the office one day when we started to receive our first monies. And there was a lot of money coming in. On the way home — you have to understand. Norm lived just a little further west than where I lived — on our way home we stopped at a Buick place and each of us bought a brand new car! Never said anything to our wives. Just brought the cars home with us.
GROTH: How did the royalty work?
KUBERT: Based on the number of books that would sell, based on a percentage of the profits. Norm was really the business head. When I was doing books before the war, it was on a very informal basis. Especially because there was not a great deal of money involved, it really didn’t make a big difference. The only time one gets into trouble not planning properly is when you’re a success. But when things don’t go well, nobody cares. However, if money starts rolling in, everybody is looking for their little piece. Norm really had an excellent business head. He would analyze the contracts and would set things up on a much healthier business basis than we had ever done before.
GROTH: Do you have any idea whether royalties were routinely given out at that time? That doesn’t sound like a standard arrangement.
KUBERT: It was exceptional that a publisher would share royalties ... except in very specific instances. After the figures came out on the book and they could make a determination of how many books sold, payments to us would be made. The first 3-D books sold a million and a quarter copies at 25 cents a shot, which was unheard of at that time, especially at that price. They had to go back to print again.
WORKING WITH BOB
GROTH: After St. John collapsed, you went back to DC.
KUBERT: True. That’s when I was working with Bob Kanigher.
GROTH: Was he your first editor at that time?
KUBERT: I don’t think so. There were a half a dozen editors working up there, but I worked on Rip Hunter and several other books. But it was only a short time until I got involved with Bob Kanigher.
GROTH: How did you get involved with Bob?
KUBERT: I showed him my work, apparently he liked it, and we went on from there.
GROTH: He was editing what at the time?
KUBERT: He started off the war books, a series, three or four war books.
GROTH: Bob’s quite a character. Can you talk about what he was like back then?
KUBERT: Sure. He was, as far as I was concerned, one of the best editors I ever had, and one of the nicest guys I ever knew. That’s not to say that he treated everybody the way he treated me. Why did he treat me differently? You’ d have to ask him. I had the good fortune of having most people that I’ve ever met in this business tend to give me the same type of respect I give them. And that’s all I’ve ever really asked for. I’ve cringed when I’ve heard editors verbally abuse people. The guy who was being abused would just sit there and take it. His livelihood depended upon him taking that crap. I could never do that. Bob Kanigher says that the reason we get along so well is because he respects my talent. I don’t believe that. [Laughs.] Maybe a little bit. But he knew I wouldn’t stand for any of that kind of crap, and there was an understanding. I was straight with him and he was straight with me.
GROTH: Where do you think you got your attitude, that certainty of yourself, where you wouldn’t tolerate that whereas other people would?
KUBERT: I really don’t know. And I’ve never even felt that consciously. It’s only in retrospect that I’m making a guess. It wasn’t an attitude that I adopted, it wasn’t even an attitude that I realized. It was just the way I felt.
GROTH: It was the way you were. I’d want to confirm this, but I’m almost sure that Gil Kane told me he witnessed Bob Kanigher throwing comics pages out the door of his office and then following the pages would come the artist.
KUBERT: Oh, yeah. As a matter of fact, he did that with Irwin Hasen. Irwin is teaching here at the school — and Irwin still today is a very good friend of Bob Kanigher’s. But Bob was the kind of guy who would do that. And Shelly Mayer would do similar things. It seemed that certain guys dispense abusive behavior to the extent that people are willing to accept it.
GROTH: So editors would really tyrannize people if they could get away with it.
KUBERT: Yeah. But I don’t think it was consciously done on their part. I guess it’s the same built-in, intuitive feeling that a kid would have: how much can they get away with their parent?
GROTH: But you never had any problems like that.
KUBERT: Never. Not with anybody I ever worked with.
GROTH: What do you mean by him being a good editor? What did he actually do?
KUBERT: Bob is gifted with the ability to write in such a way that he creates pictures as he writes. He in turn recognizes when an illustration has what he called an “emotional impact.” It was inherent in all his writing. And he has always had the ability, when he describes a story verbally to me, to actually put those pictures in my mind. I can see every detail of the pictures he’s telling me about. I can see more than what he is describing to me. He would edit my stuff accordingly. He’d say, “Joe, this is lacking,” or, “You can punch this up.”
He would also allow me enough freedom to make a bunch of choices. His writing was sparse — cut to the bone. In fact, there were times when he wrote a full script for me with one short sentence per panel, three or four sentences per page. With that I was able to do the entire story. And he would also allow me the freedom to alter or change things when I felt it should be changed. He allowed me to take chances. I would try different kinds of reproduction. I would suggest to him, “How about doing this whole story in black and white, except the one shot of color at the end of the story?” And he would write to that. So we played off each other very well. And he was astute enough to give me the kind of direction that pushed me further and further into the things I enjoyed doing. He was a very good editor.
GROTH: Did he write all the material that he edited?
KUBERT: No. He had several writers who wrote for him, but he was prolific. He could turn out a pile of stuff. I’ve seen him turn out seven- and eight-page stories during lunch. He’s the only guy I know in this business who has never missed a deadline. He is a pro, capable, and turned out a tremendous amount of work.
GROTH: Did you start working on the war books with Bob?
KUBERT: Yes. The first story I ever did for him was a war story. This was in the early ’50s. It was at the end of the debacle of 3-D at a time when, again, everybody thought the business was going under.
GROTH: You did a couple of stories for EC, two for Harvey Kurtzman. Can you tell me what that experience was like and what led up to that?
KUBERT: It was great. Harvey was always the sweetest guy in the world, except my stuff just never really worked for him, I think —
GROTH: He didn’t like your work.
KUBERT: I don’t think so. Guys like Wally Wood and Jack Davis did incredible work with him. For some reason, I guess because I felt so goddamn inhibited and lacked the freedom I had had up to that time, that I found it really difficult to work with Harvey. And maybe I just didn’t draw well enough. Maybe I didn’t do the stuff as well as he would have liked.
GROTH: He would give you pages with the panel configuration already mapped out.
KUBERT: Yes. Panel borders already inked in. Lettering already done. An overlay on tracing paper exactly where the figures should go. So there wasn’t a hell of a lot of freedom to exercise! Apparently the other guys were able to do it, and do it really successfully. I felt I was a good friend of Harvey’s, we had gotten together very often. He graduated from the High School of Music and Art, the same school Norm and I had gone to. Norm’s brother Lenny graduated from Music and Art, as well as Kurtzman and Al Feldstein. It seems that cartoonists are a close, tight-knit group.
GROTH: How did you meet Harvey?
KUBERT: If I remember correctly, it was after things went awry at St. John’s, and I was looking to re-set myself. To pick up work with different publishers. There was no feeling of disaster; I never really felt that. I was almost immediately able to pick up work at any number of different places, and for me it was more a matter of selection. What I chose to do, rather than, will I get something to do. I went to Harvey at EC.
GROTH: So you knew Harvey before you approached him at EC?
KUBERT: Yes. EC was a place I liked to work. Harvey’s books looked beautiful. He was getting the best color, best reproduction, and that’s why I went up there. I got the two stories to do from Harvey. After that, I guess I started doing stuff for DC and other places. Harvey didn’t seem too excited about giving me additional work.
GROTH: Did Harvey ever tell you why he didn’t give you any more work?
KUBERT: He had left EC and he was financed by Hugh Hefner in some new publications. They were humor/parody books. Harvey asked me to do some work for him. I did, but it was terrible. Doing caricatures a la Jack Davis and Morty Drucker was not my cup of tea. Both Harvey and I realized that. I did make a stab at it, though.
GROTH: How collaborative was it with Harvey? Did you talk to him about the two stories you did? Was there any give and take?
KUBERT: This is the layout, these are the pages already lettered and bordered. This is the overlay showing how it is to be illustrated. There were some variations allowed vis-a-vis characters, but the compositions were already blocked out and the tails on the balloons were already in, so you’d know where the characters had to be. Harvey had a clear vision of what he wanted, and insisted it be followed. He was right, of course. The quality of his efforts proved him right. When I was called upon to draw a ship or anything that had historical reference, material was supplied by Harvey. I understand when Alex Toth did some work for Harvey involving airplanes, Harvey took Alex down to an airfield to find the actual aircraft. Harvey had Alex go into the airplane in addition to supplying Alex with all the graphic reference he’d need. Harvey was a bug on authenticity.
GROTH: Did you get to know any of the other EC artists?
KUBERT: Yeah. Willy Elder, Crazy Elder was a hell of a nice guy. I know Jack Davis and of course Wally Wood.
GROTH: What was your impression of Wood? My impression of Wood’s life is that it was tragic. But of course you knew him in the ’50s and he was younger —
KUBERT: Woody was a prime example of a very talented guy gone awry. The stuff he did for EC during those years was the envy of every guy in the business. He was recognized by Eisner and others as one of the best. As far as his personal life was concerned, I have little or no personal knowledge. I’ve heard of the sad ending. I knew he was having a problem with drinking at one time, but I had never seen him drunk. Never.
GROTH: Was your impression that all these guys were really committed to this work?
GROTH: When you did those two stories for Harvey, was there any sense that EC was the “elite” among comics publishers and that the people working there were the great craftsmen of their day?
KUBERT: I think so. I know the guys I worked with felt that way. Toth or Carmine [Infantino] or Norm [Maurer]. EC’s quality was a combination of a lot of things: The stories held together. They were good just from the reading aspect. We felt the artwork was done really, really well by guys like Jack Davis, Wally Wood, Frank Frazetta, and the like. On top of that, the printing and the coloring seemed to be a hell of a lot better than most of the other books we saw.
GROTH: So you did two stories for Harvey, and then it was mostly for DC that you worked in the ’50s?
THE PRINCE AND THE PROFESSIONAL
GROTH: You did Viking Prince, and that ended in ’59. Did you do that for Bob?
KUBERT: Yeah, Bob wrote those stories and was my editor.
GROTH: Did that start having any special importance to you? It was a beautifully done ...
KUBERT: No, not really. It was a different genre, and it gave me a chance to draw something other than Army uniforms. I’ve tried, with every story, every job I’ve done, to do the best I know how. I think that’s half the pleasure of doing this stuff.
GROTH: Let me ask you a much more general question about your career. How do you feel about the content of what you drew? Tell me if I’m wrong, but it strikes me that you were more interested in the form, at least through most of the period we’ve covered, than you were in the specific content of what you were drawing.
KUBERT: I think you are probably right, Gary. 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.
GROTH: And for you it was basically a professional commitment and you weren’t behaving as an “artiste.”
KUBERT: No. I don’t think that sort of behavior would’ve been accepted for a moment. No chance. My approach to scripts was based on that recognition, even at that young and tender age that I was hired to do the best I could in terms of telling a story via the drawing. To do the best I could, and that was it. There’s no question that there were some scripts that I was given that I felt were perhaps poorly written. I felt that perhaps the story was flat or bland or repetitive. But that was not my concern. My job was just to draw whatever script I was given.
GROTH: On the other hand, Tor seems to be an exception because you created that from scratch.
KUBERT: Right. Tor was all mine; concept, story, and art.
GROTH: Did you have more of a commitment to that? Was it more personal?
KUBERT: With Tor, I had assumed the initial responsibility of writing and directing and illustrating. Like any novice writer, you’ve got to have enough confidence to go ahead. Whether it’s writing or drawing, you’ve just got to go ahead and do it. If I stopped to consider that I didn’t know the first thing about writing, that would’ve been it. Instead, I just bulled ahead. My first efforts were probably the worst. Hopefully I got better and better as I went along.
GROTH: Do you remember if you were intimidated by the task of writing and drawing?
KUBERT: No. I really didn’t stop to think about it. Pure stupidity, I don’t know. [Groth laughs.] Really! If I had thought about it, and if I really understood what the hell I was getting into, perhaps I would not have attempted writing. I just didn’t know enough about it to be scared!
GROTH: That’s always useful.
KUBERT: [Laughs.] I think the same thing applies to drawing. Even as a kid, I was so naive about the business that I just didn’t know enough to be scared.
GROTH: If you knew what you didn’t know, you’d be paralyzed.
GROTH: Can you talk a little about how your drawing improved over those 20 years from the early ’40s to the early ’60s? Did you actually study other people’s drawing and practice? Or was your practice on the page you were doing professionally? How did you actually evolve as an artist consciously?
KUBERT: The same way most artists evolve. To begin with, you emulate the people you admire. While I was attending the High School of Music and Art, I would go up to the library and grab hold of a book of Michelangelo’s painting. The art impressed me so that I’d keep looking and examining the work at every opportunity. Those things that really impressed me rubbed off just a little and never disappeared from my mind’s eye. Gave me the impetus to find out how I can improve my own work.
GROTH: Were you conscious about improving as a draftsman? Was that a goal?
KUBERT: Absolutely. From the time I started, and I think this is true of most artists, while I was drawing, the work looked fine. Five minutes after I finished, I could see a dozen different places where it could be improved. But instead of going back and trying to refine what I had already done, I figured to do the improving on the next job. There was never enough time for much refinement. Deadlines, y’know?
GROTH: Do you think — and I know this is kind of tough to ask 30 years after the fact — were you conscious of doing better work on strips you were more interested in, or was your effort more or less the same with every professional job you were given? The reason I ask that is because I thought that Viking Prince was sort of the high point in your career up to that point. I thought the drawing was some of the best you had ever done.
KUBERT: I appreciate that, Gary, but I don’t think that I was conscious of that at all. In fact, there were times when I felt I did some stuff that I particularly liked. When I brought it up to the editor, he’d look at it and maybe it’d be “OK.” Then I’d bring up a job that I thought was so-so, and he’d say, “That’s a step forward! That looks good!” I think each one of us — I’m sure it’s true of you as a writer and I know it’s true of artists — has to make our own personal judgments about our work. I think each of us has a feeling of what we’d like to do. It’s nice to get a pat on the back or, “Your stuff looks OK.” It’s nice to get that feedback, but I think every artist should think, “I know what I’m looking for. I haven’t gotten to that yet. I’m glad to gain someone else’s approval, but I’m still not at the level I’m looking for.”
“MAKE WAR NO MORE”
GROTH: You had an enormous stretch where you worked with Bob on the war books, and it wasn’t just Army of War, but it was a number of war books and you did a tremendous number of covers as well. I started reading comics in the ’60s, and you were from my point of view, associated with the war books, not with superheroes. Did you bring a passion to the war books? Were you particularly interested in doing those?
GROTH: [Laughs.] Not at all?
KUBERT: No. Not really. It was a job. One that I was fortunate to get. And by taking that job on, I felt I had to do the best I could. Therefore, I did a lot of reference and research on the subject, and I tried to do each subsequent job better than the last one. But I’ve never had any special affinity for war stuff at all. The one genre I do enjoy doing is Tor, a stone-age Tarzan. That’s the kind of stuff I always liked. But the war stuff held no special love for me.
GROTH: Jesus, that’s the most shocking thing you’ve told me during this interview, Joe. [Kubert laughs.] Because you did the war strips so well and so long ... you must have done those strips for 10 years.
KUBERT: Or more. And then after that, I was editing them. My attempt was to try to do the best work I knew how. When I took over the editing of the books, the first thing I did was to push a “Make War No More” logo. I wanted the readers to understand that I wasn’t doing war books for the purpose of glorifying war or killing. I feel there are some justifications for war and I wanted to describe situations that people find themselves in during wartime. I tried to do this as dramatically as I could. That’s all.
GROTH: I infer from what you said earlier that you were much happier with Kanigher’s scripts than you were with a lot of scripts you drew previous to that.
KUBERT: Kanigher is a great writer. He did some stuff that, for me, was inspirational. And he gave me lots of freedom. I felt no inhibitions when I illustrated his stuff. If I wanted to change a panel or add a couple of panels where I felt it would help the sequence work better, I had no fears about doing that. And he had permitted that from the very beginning of our relationship.
GROTH: You mentioned the “Make War No More” blurb which started appearing in the DC books in the late ’60s or early ’70s ...
KUBERT: That’s when I took over the editorial reins. I was the one who directed that “Make War No More” be included on every story.
GROTH: Is that because you felt strongly about not glamorizing war?
KUBERT: Yes. Kanigher’s stories weren’t glamorizing war. We had discussed that many times. What we were trying to do was to get down to basics. That is, do stories about people who were in a wartime setting, not because they liked it, not because they enjoyed it, but because they were required to be there.
GROTH: How closely did you and Kanigher work on the books? Did he give you a written script for each book?
KUBERT: Yes, a full script for every story I did. I mentioned before that he gave me the OK to change things, but not in any deep editorial sense. In other words, I couldn’t just go ahead and change any story or the direction of a story. But anything that might add to the drama or that would make the storytelling better or more impactful, was OK.
GROTH: Were they collaborative in the sense that you could talk to him about the themes running through the stories or particular characters? Or did you think the stories were just so good that that never concerned you?
KUBERT: We did talk, but very rarely. It was very infrequent that we would discuss storylines. When we did, it wasn’t as if Bob was asking me for any input. It was more to tell me what to expect when I got the script. Once in a while I would throw a suggestion in, which, if he felt made any sense, he did follow. But that was very rare.
GROTH: So you were living in Dover in the ’60s?
GROTH: So your routine would be to go into the offices to pick up scripts, or would they mail them to you? How did you physically function?
KUBERT: Usually what happened was, I would bring in finished pencils. While the strip was being lettered, he’d give me another script. So I’d pick up a new script at the same time I’d be delivering one I had just finished.
GROTH: Kanigher worked in the offices at that time?
KUBERT: Yes, he worked in the office. In fact, during the time he was writing the Sgt. Rock scripts, he was also editing at least a half dozen other books, as well as writing for other editors besides himself.
GROTH: Would he write the scripts in the office too?
KUBERT: Yeah. As I mentioned before, I never saw anybody able to turn out a story as fast as he could. I have been present when he wrote an eight- or 10- or 12-page story during lunch.
GROTH: Kanigher left at some point and you took over the editorial reins of the war books; what year would that have been?
KUBERT: I forget now ... was it ’72? Kanigher left because he was ill. I think he got pretty close to a nervous breakdown. Carmine had asked me to come in and take over the editorial chores of the books for which Bob was responsible.
I was doing a newspaper strip for a while — I was doing Green Berets — I was away from DC for a couple of years during that time. I was publishing through the St. John Publishing Company, with Norm Maurer. I was doing work for other companies. Plus the syndicated strip. I was busy. Eventually, because of certain problems, I left the Green Berets strip. The writer was Jerry Capp, Elliott Kaplan’s brother, Al Capp’s brother as well. Jerry saw the strip as a propaganda medium, I think. I felt it should be entertainment. We disagreed. Jerry was unhappy. I was unhappy. Finally, I just left the strip.
When I left it, Carmine had gotten wind of my departure. Carmine had been made editorial director and publisher of DC. He asked me if I’d come back as an editor to handle a line of books, including Sgt. Rock. The line of war books. I said fine, I would do that.
A funny aside: When Carmine took the job of boss man at DC, he started wearing a suit and tie to work, as befits someone in that position. Getting dressed up for any reason always bugged me. Made me feel kind of uncomfortable. I was quite accustomed to never having to get dressed up. Working at home, there was never any reason to spiffy up. And tuxedoes were not essential wear when a job had to be delivered.
When he discussed the job with me, Carmine put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Joe, look. We’re editors now. We’re going to be in a different kind of job situation. You’ll be coming into the office. Meeting executives. Can you see your way clear — how about ...” I was coming in two or three days a week. I came into work from New Jersey after the traffic let up — after 9. I left before traffic started, two or three days a week. So Carmine said, “Joe, when you come in, can you wear a jacket and tie?” I said, “Carmine, if that’s a prerequisite then you can take the job and shove it.”
“Just kiddin’, Joe, I was just kiddin’!” he said. I’m not sure whether he was kidding or not. I never wore a jacket or tie — that I can remember. [Laughs.]
GROTH: And I’m sure he was just kidding.
KUBERT: I don’t know, Gary. You’d have to ask him. Anyhow, I suddenly find myself in a reverse of positions. Previously, I was the artist working for Bob Kanigher, the editor. Bob and my relationship has always been excellent. For many years. I enjoyed working with him one-on-one. I never had any problem. I think that’s true with most of the people with whom I’ve worked. With Shelly Mayer. With any editor. I guess I’ve been lucky. Even with Kanigher, an editor with whom some artists and writers had a hard time. Bob could be rough. For instance, Morty Drucker would leave Bob’s office literally shaking like a leaf after an editorial critique.
When I took over the editorial chores, Bob was having a bit of a problem getting writing work. I’ve always thought that he was one of the best writers in the business. His demands for himself, as well as for other people, were high. If he was displeased with the content or quality of a story, he never hesitated to say so. He has strong convictions. He wanted things done his way. I was now in a situation where I had the responsibility for editorial. And the authority. As the artist, I could (and did) voice my disagreement. But if I wanted the job, I had to do as I was told or not do the job at all. Those were my options. But the positions were reversed now. My relationship with Bob, as I’ve said before, has always been very good. I have always had great respect for his ability. But now he’s the one who has to argue for me to accept certain ideas. It was an understanding we both accepted. It was a professional situation that was accepted by both of us. He continued to write Sgt. Rock. I wrote maybe the first three or four when I first took over. When he wanted to come back, I believe I was one of the few people who gave him work at the time. I guess others were afraid that he’d be too tough to work with. I never had that fear. Even if I did, I would never let that stand in the way of someone as creative and as good as Bob not to be able to work. So he continued writing, and it’s been a great relationship. And he’s still a very dear friend today.
GROTH: You also did a stint on the newspaper strip Green Berets. You drew it for about two years. You mentioned that you basically had a difference of opinion with the writer in terms of how the strip ought to be presented. Can you elaborate on that?
KUBERT: The person with whom I was working was Jerry Capp. He was and perhaps still is the writer for a number of syndicated strips. The contact actually was through Neal Adams. Jerry had called Neal. I had not met Neal at that time, but he had seen my work and when Jerry Capp told Neal he was looking for somebody to draw this Green Berets strip, Neal suggested that Jerry contact me. Robin Moore, the author, had written the book, Tales of the Green Beret. He also wrote The French Connection, both very successful. They had contacted Neal Adams, who was already involved in a syndicated strip, and Neal suggested I might be the right guy to do The Green Berets. Neal had seen the war stuff I had done. Jerry Capp subsequently contacted me, asked if I’d be interested in doing the strip. I met with Jerry and Robin. Our understanding was I would have some say about the editorial aspects. It wasn’t to be just a matter of hiring an artist. We’d put the strip together, and actually sold it to two different syndicates at the same time. I had made some changes in the scripts and the understanding was that I would have some say about the editorial direction the strip would be taking.
But what happened was that the strip took off. The News Syndicate did a hell of a promotion on it, and it looked like it was on its way. It’s amazing how success breeds problems, isn’t it? Problems come up only if you are successful. Failure dies a peaceful death. Jerry started writing what I considered “message” stuff: more propaganda and flag-waving than entertaining. I felt that the book material should be used as a springboard to get into syndication. I hoped it would become another Terry and the Pirates. I felt that Jerry was unhappy about his earlier decisions, the things we had talked about originally. The strip to me had become a flag-waving propaganda effort. Not that I had violent feelings against the Vietnam War. I just felt that a comic strip was not the place for that kind of material. Finally, it got to a point where I was extremely uncomfortable. And Jerry was extremely unhappy. Incidentally, I want to point out that Jerry Capp is a hell of a nice guy. He really is. And I enjoyed working with him up to that point. But it became intolerable for both of us. Finally I said, “It’s crazy to keep knocking our brains out against each other. I quit.”
GROTH: Did the strip continue without you?
KUBERT: Yes. For about three or four months. There were several other artists who worked on it after I left, but it just fell flat.
GROTH: The strip took place in the Vietnam War. Didn’t it come out during the war, when we were actually engaged in Vietnam?
KUBERT: Yes, I believe so.
GROTH: But you weren’t opposed to the Vietnam War.
KUBERT: No, not really. I was one of those who accepted a lot of the information we got, all the things we were told. I guess I just didn’t know enough about what was going on at the time. My objection to doing this strip was not because it was about Vietnam. The strip was becoming too much of a political diatribe. It should have been an adventure romance story. Focused on people, characterization. That’s where I felt the strip should go.
GROTH: Have you since reassessed your position on Vietnam?
KUBERT: Yeah. Like most people, I think we discovered later that a lot of guys lost their lives under conditions that if the full truth be told were less than justified.
GROTH: When you learned that and reformulated your views, was that terribly disillusioning for you about this country and this government?
KUBERT: The feeling I had was that this is America. The United States of America. My parents were immigrants. They and I had an opportunity to do things that I don’t think we ever could have done if they had remained in Europe. Grateful for living in this country, you start to believe that whatever politicians tell you is true. The more one finds out about politics, the less one believes. I’ve been finding this out more and more. Learning about Vietnam, of the young people who were killed and maimed and crippled both physically and emotionally, it’s ... well, depressing is not a strong enough word. You listen to what the politicians are saying. You listen to Clinton, and you get to a point where you don’t believe anything. I think if you check any of the recent polls, you find that the majority of the country feels exactly the same way. There are something like 20 percent or 30 percent who believe what the politicians tell us; the other 70 percent or 80 percent don’t believe a word.
GROTH: I read once that there was a photograph of you shaking hands with John Wayne on the set of The Green Berets and I inferred from that that you must be some sort of rabid, flag-waving right-winger, but I guess that isn’t quite true.
KUBERT: [Laughs.] I’ve always admired John Wayne for the parts he’s played in the movies. His politics I knew nothing about and neither did I care. I loved him in his Westerns and the movies he played. How many times have we suddenly found that those people we admired have feet of clay? Or find out they are some of the most stupid people in the world? I wonder what sort of political beliefs Michelangelo had. But I know what his art meant to me.
The first time I went to a convention in Italy, in Lucca, I had been invited to give a talk and slide show about my work. Part of the slides I showed were of the Green Beret stuff I had done [laughs]. This is in Italy, heavily Communist at that time, and as I’m talking, I hear whistling coming from the audience. Mind you, this is my first time in Europe, the first time to a convention. I figured they were enjoying what they were looking at! [Laughs.] I just ignored the whistles and just blithely went on, not knowing, of course, that these whistles were boos and catcalls!
GROTH: So you just sailed through that pretty effortlessly.
KUBERT: Oh yeah. I thought it was great. Talk about your naive cartoonist.
PART OF THE JOB
GROTH: You would draw a book a month, correct?
KUBERT: At least a book a month.
GROTH: And covers too. And you did that continually for quite a few years, steadily at DC for 10 or 12 years. Did that pace become grueling? Or was that simply routine?
KUBERT: In retrospect, I don’t recall. I’m sure it was at the time! [Laughs.] At certain periods of time, anyhow. But I don’t remember any of that period as being hard on me. I do remember when I would plan a vacation for my wife and family, I’d say, “We’ll go for a month, I’m going to take work with me to do.”
GROTH: On your vacation.
KUBERT: [Laughs.] Yes. I’d take along the work with me, and come back with the same amount of work done as I took with me. Those times were hairy because then when I got back, I had fallen behind and there was a lot of stuff I had to catch up with. Not only the work but the money: because during those years when I wasn’t behind a table working, nothing was coming in.
GROTH: Then you did not have benefits, right?
KUBERT: None whatsoever.
GROTH: Did that bother you, or did you just accept that?
KUBERT: That was the way for everybody. It meant I had to take care of myself, and I did. We budgeted, I knew about how much money I was making; I tried to save as much as I could. It was my responsibility. I really didn’t need anybody to hold my hand.
GROTH: There are very few artists today who do as much work as artists of your generation did then. I’m thinking of artists like you and Gil Kane, Carmine Infantino, and Jack Kirby, of course. You did not only a tremendous amount of work, but it was all incredibly good work. I’m wondering how your generation, and how you specifically sustained that level of quality and level of output. Was it just that you worked eight hours a day every day?
KUBERT: There was no such time when you worked just eight hours a day. There’s nobody I know of that worked just eight hours a day.
GROTH: So you worked more than that.
KUBERT: Oh, yeah. It wasn’t unusual to work 12 or 14 hours a day. When we had a deadline, it was not unusual to pull one or two all-nighters, a full 24 or 36 hours without sleep, in order to get the stuff done. A lot more commonplace than it is today, I think.
GROTH: Did that strike you as excessive? Or did you accept it?
KUBERT: I accepted it. It was part of the job. If I didn’t want to stay up all night, then I had to gauge my time and scheduling a little better so I got more stuff done during the day. Usually the all-nighters were prefaced by a day I took off, or a week I took off, and it just meant that I had to come back and put in the hours in order to catch up.
GROTH: Didn’t you ink all of your own work on the war books?
GROTH: That strikes me as a little unusual at the time. Is that something you demanded?
KUBERT: No. But I don’t think it was unusual. I have had guys who inked some of my stuff: Murphy Anderson and Jack Abel. But that was merely because I got into such a pickle that I wasn’t able to get the stuff done myself. My preference was to do it myself. That was the usual procedure. It wasn’t because I had insisted on doing it, although I would have. I just wasn’t happy with anybody else inking my stuff. Not because the results were better or worse, they were just different. I would prefer to do the whole job myself, good or bad.
GROTH: I know Gil Kane was inked by a lot of people and I know Infantino and everybody at Marvel was inked by somebody other than the penciler.
KUBERT: I don’t really know how they fell into that, Gary.
GROTH: And what’s interesting is, I think your inking is so important and such an integral part of your work. To almost contradict what you just said about other inkers not changing the quality, it seems to me that somebody like Jack Abel is completely wrong for your work. Your inking is a vital and necessary component of your drawing.
KUBERT: I think it’s a very important part of the overall piece of artwork. How Carmine or Gil got into just doing the penciling, I don’t know. But once you get into that position, it’s hard to jump back. I had spoken to Carmine a number of times. “Carmine, I’d love to see you do your own inking.” I’ve enjoyed inking Carmine’s stuff myself. But I felt always that the artwork would be more distinctive, it would be more of his material, which I love to see. Carmine got to a point in doing only the pencils that he felt shaky and uncertain in trying to ink.
GROTH: It seems to me it would be more important to have you ink your work than it would be for someone like Kirby to ink his because so much of Kirby’s work is done in the pencils, it almost didn’t matter who inked it. So much of Kirby was structure and it was almost impossible to ruin the dynamics of his work (though a couple inkers managed to). But there’s a vitality to your inking that it would be impossible for another person to duplicate.
KUBERT: As far as Jack is concerned, I remember seeing one of the first jobs he ever did. He had penciled and inked it for Timely. It was called ‘The Vision.” The inking was more powerful, more effective, than anything that was inked by anybody else. This was over 50 years ago. And he has had outstanding inkers. But there was a quality, both a vibrancy and a three-dimensional effect, that he was able to achieve in his own inking that nobody else could match, in my opinion.
GROTH: It’s funny because Gil Kane actually told me the same thing: “Nobody can ink Kirby’s work as good as Kirby.” So I guess you’re right there.
KUBERT: Yeah, but I think the last guy to say that would have been Jack [laughs].
GROTH: I believe it was Joe Sinnott who once told me that Kirby’s pencils were so complete that he said he felt like he could have poured ink on the top of the page and let it seep into the pencil indentations.
KUBERT: Having inked Jack’s stuff myself on one of his Newsboy Legions, I can testify to that. His pencils were so complete, compositions so well put together — even linearly so beautifully balanced, and the pacing and storytelling was excellent.
THE ’60S GENERATION
GROTH: Let me ask you what you thought of some of your contemporaries at the time, because that generation who was doing work in the ’60s represents a pretty impressive body of talent: Steve Ditko was doing some of the best work of his career with Spider-Man and Dr. Strange. Did you know Ditko at that time at all, or ever?
KUBERT: I don’t know Ditko really all that well to this day. I may have met him, or spoken to him on the telephone once or twice.
GROTH: Were you fond of his work; did you enjoy it?
KUBERT: I wasn’t really crazy about Steve’s stuff.
GROTH: I can sort of see that because Steve’s stuff is in a lot of ways diametrically opposite of yours.
KUBERT: Whatever the reason. I’d rather say nothing than say anything negative about it.
GROTH: How about Gil Kane?
KUBERT: I love Gil’s work. I think Gil is a terrific artist. His page designs, his anatomy and figure drawing is so dynamic. His stuff just jumps off the page. I just love his stuff.
GROTH: I think you two are certainly two of the great draftsmen of comics. What about Infantino’s work?
KUBERT: Carmine had a quality in his work that’s really hard to pin down. A lot of Carmine’s drawings, taken from the standpoint of proper proportion, were far off. And yet, despite the fact that the figures were exaggerated, they seemed to hang together well. He got those figures to move so normally and naturally. And his design overall of the page — I think Carmine was one of the few artists who led the pack in designing the page with great innovation, still keeping in mind it has to be read panel by panel sequentially — he was one of the few artists able to combine design, drama, characterization, and storytelling in a page and still make it legible.
GROTH: You talked earlier about some of your favorite artists in the ’40s and ’50s, people like Mort Meskin. Did you have favorite artists in the ’60s and ’70s to that same degree?
KUBERT: Meskin was always one of my favorites. The guy was just an incredible artist. His knowledge of anatomy just seemed to flow out of his fingers. He could do foreshortening and execute extreme perspective — he was a tremendous artist. The trouble is, when I started out, young guys like me looking at stuff that’s so far beyond our abilities we have a tendency just to see the surface of the art. We didn’t analyze the basics, the foundations. For instance, when I first started to ink, I thought that the whole trick was to get a fine line. To get a perfect feathered effect. Feathering is where you have a real fine point ending in a fat base. Getting a bunch of these “feathers” into a nice, fine feathered effect. That’s what I tried for, when I was young and inexperienced. Not realizing that what made an illustration had little to do with the finish. It had most to do with what lay underneath that inking.
GROTH: The underdrawing?
KUBERT: Yes. An artist’s ability is gauged by his knowledge of the basics. The underdrawing, that’s where Mort Meskin’s strength was. That’s the quality that Mort demonstrated. He could do an illustration of a guy jumping at you and foreshorten that leg so that the leg looked like it was coming out at you. He did it simply, with very few lines or rendering. Other, lesser artists would have made that leg look like a stump. He was able to do that sort of foreshortening and make it work. The same applies to my three icons: Hal Foster, Alex Raymond and Milt Caniff. Hal Foster didn’t bother with fancy inking. The inking was merely a way of finishing his illustrations. But the guy could draw. And his incredible knowledge was displayed in every illustration he did. Plus his ability to tell a story and do it dramatically, effectively, and with impact. Foster’s rendering (or inking) technique is really simple. His inking was merely his means of completing an illustration. It only took me about 50 years to learn that! [Laughter.]
GROTH: How much underdrawing do you do?
KUBERT: Underdrawing doesn’t necessarily mean a lot of drawing. It has more to do with basic knowledge. I’ve been accused of doing rough, light pencils, and I guess I do. I like to do a lot of drawing with brush and pen, so that I’m not merely tracing the pencils.
GROTH: Were you fond of Shelly Mayor’s drawing?
KUBERT: I loved Shelly’s stuff. I still do. His was not an animated humor style. It had a three-dimensional quality, even though the material was humorous and exaggerated. It also had a realistic quality that connected with me.
GROTH: Did you ever notice or pay attention to Carl Barks?
KUBERT: I didn’t know the name, but I appreciated for years the work he was doing in comic books without knowing that it was done by Carl Barks. It was only later on when he had gained the fame and appreciation via his paintings, that I made the connection between the painter and the cartoonist. “This is the guy’s stuff I used to love to read when I was a kid!” In fact Barks’ Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck is where I learned a whole lot about storytelling.
GROTH: Is that right?
GROTH: These would have been read by you as a kid?
KUBERT: Oh yeah. And when I got older as well. I think I probably read more comic books between the ages of 8 and 15 than I ever did in my whole life. That was when I was reading Carl Barks, recognizing his ability to tell a story, the way each panel followed the other so smoothly. I think that was what made him so enjoyable to read. His stuff was so legible and intelligible.
GROTH: I also wanted to ask if you liked Roy Crane’s work.
KUBERT: Crane’s work is a perfect example of utter simplicity. I have an original piece of Roy Crane’s Captain Easy. It was given to me years ago by Alex Toth. I don’t know how many years ago. Several decades. It hangs in my office at the School now. The way Crane was able to combine the simple blacks and lines into a pseudo-humorous, super-realistic strip was beautiful. Plus the fact he was a master in what every cartoonist must evidence. That is, to tell a story.
GROTH: Neal Adams came into the field in the late ’60s and he brought with him more of an illustrative and realistic approach, sort of breaking from Kirby’s approach. How did you feel about that?
KUBERT: I always admired Neal’s work. He’s a wonderful craftsman and artist. Especially for a guy as young as he was when he first came into the business. I think he was only about 16 or 17. In those early years he did a syndicated strip, Ben Casey. Getting a syndicated strip at that young age and especially during those times was admired by some and envied by a lot of others. Neal did some beautiful stuff.
GROTH: His Green Lantern-Green Arrow stuff with Denny O’Neil came out around ’71 I think, and that stuff was pretty radical for its time. I’m curious what you thought of that.
KUBERT: Neal was an innovator and a gadfly. As a matter of fact, that’s what led to his doing the pencils on one of the Enemy Ace stories that I inked. He wanted to try everything. He wanted to gain an insight on every facet of the business, including analyzing the work of other artists in the business whose efforts he admired. An admirable trait. And Neal probably had more to do with us artists getting our rights and obtaining that portion of what comes into the business as ours.
GROTH: Of course he was very vocal about Siegel and Shuster in the mid- to late- ’70s when he was championing their cause. I assume you were in favor of that.
KUBERT: I was. And his efforts vis-a-vis work-for-hire and the enabling of artists and writers and the rest of the creative team to share in the profits that the publishers make from the books is in a large part due to Neal’s dedications and guts. He’s pushed harder and put himself on the line more times than any guy I know.
GROTH: There were three times in the history of comics when people tried to form unions. I understand that in the late ’50s Bernie Krigstein tried to create a union.
KUBERT: I wasn’t aware of that. But I was invited to be present at the formation of an organization in which Neal was involved.
GROTH: Was that ACBA? That would have been in the early- to mid-’70s, wouldn’t it?
KUBERT: Yes, that was the organization. I really can’t recall what year that was. I remember the meeting was up at Jim Warren’s apartment, if I’m not mistaken.
GROTH: Did you attend that?
KUBERT: Yes, I did.
GROTH: Can you tell me what that was like, what the tone was like, what the issues being discussed were, who was there?
KUBERT: There were a number of artists and writers Neal and Jim [Warren] of course, at most 10 or 12 other people. I think they invited those who were considered “heavyweights.” The term “union” was anathema, and not used in any discussions. It was merely to be an organization by which creative people could attain due rights and status in the business. But it wasn’t to be a union, per se.
GROTH: Why were they reticent about referring to it as a union? Was that a little too radical for them?
KUBERT: I think it probably was. What happened, if I remember correctly, was this: Those of us who were making out OK really didn’t see the need. The ones who were having a tough time and couldn’t get the jobs, really wanted a union. The guys who were working and doing OK said, “We really don’t need this.”
The others said, “You are a bunch of rats because we need the work and you’re not helping us.” Whatever reason, it just didn’t come into being.
GROTH: Was Neal involved in that?
GROTH: Were you involved in ACBA?
KUBERT: No. Only in having attended that first organizational meeting. Whatever the reason, I don’t recall why, I had decided this was not for me. There were some other things about it that just made me a little nervous.
GROTH: Can you remember what those were?
KUBERT: No. I’d rather not even ... I just don’t recall.
GROTH: My recollection was that ACBA was more of a social organization than any kind of a union.
KUBERT: I had dropped out after the first meeting, so I really couldn’t tell you. Whatever the reason was, really, I just don’t recall, but that was it for me. This was a long time ago. I really didn’t pay a lot of attention to ACBA or its doings afterwards.
GROTH: How militant were you at the time about creator rights and work-for-hire?
KUBERT: Not at all.
GROTH: Why is that? Were you just pretty comfortable in the situation you were in?
KUBERT: No, I think it wasn’t so much “comfortable,” but I had become accustomed to working and to living under these conditions since I was 11 or 12 years of age. You asked me before if I objected working to all-nighters or how I felt having to work with no guarantees or coverages. Unless I was at the table working, no bucks came. No one chained me to the drawing board or put a gun to my head. These were the rules of the game. You don’t want to play? OK. I did not object to it simply because that was the way it was. I would not go through that again, not in light of the accomplishments and changes that have occurred today. But today is a different time. Today is a different world, as it applies to the comic-book business. But when I started, that’s the way it was. Those were the conditions under which you were going to work and you accepted them. I accepted them, and I didn’t object. I was making money doing something that I loved to do. People were willing to pay me and pay me well for my efforts. So I guess, to that degree, I was comfortable.
GROTH: You strike me as the kind of guy who has a pretty serious work ethic instilled in him.
KUBERT: You might say that, Gary.
GROTH: Do you think you could have hastened the day when creators’ rights would be acknowledged by having been more militant at the time?
KUBERT: Maybe. I don’t know. I admire guys like Neal Adams who were more militant. Not only did they help themselves, but they helped everybody else, including me. Should I have done something at that time? I don’t know. I didn’t. For whatever the reason, whatever the circumstances were during that time, I just did not feel the compulsion. Neither did I feel the ardor with which to do it.
TARZAN AND THE ACE
GROTH: You mentioned Enemy Ace, and I think that is one of the strips you are best known for, and one of the best strips done in comics during that period. And again that looks like one of the strips you put everything you had into.
KUBERT: Well, that was Kanigher’s writing and Kanigher did a great job on it. All I did was to draw the pictures to it, that’s all.
GROTH: Were you any more passionate about that particular strip than anything else you were doing at the time? Or was that again just another strip you accepted as a professional assignment?
KUBERT: I don’t want to describe any of the stuff I’ve done as “just another assignment.” I’ve never approached my work on that sort of a basis. As I said before, whatever script I got, including Sgt. Rock or Enemy Ace or Viking Prince, I just tried to do the best I could. It wasn’t a matter of just sitting down and drawing pictures. I tried to do the best I could. Always. You say that Enemy Ace turned out well, and that it was good. Mainly I think it was because of Bob’s writing. I got fired up and did the best job I could.
GROTH: It looked to me that you poured your heart and soul into it. I don’t mean to diminish the other work you were doing at the same time.
KUBERT: I worked on it. I got a lot of reference on World War I air warfare and Baron Von Richtoven aka Enemy Ace. On the airplanes, what I tried for was a feeling of what I had read and seen. I read a goodly number of historical pieces on the real Red Baron. I got a whole bunch of material on World War I planes, both construction and performance-wise. I tried to get a feel for these little airplanes that were put together with wood and paper and wire and string. They flew thousands of feet in the air, and the men that flew them were just incredible! That’s what I saw when I read Bob’s Enemy Ace. That’s what I tried to put into my drawings.
GROTH: Can you tell me how your doing Enemy Ace came about? Was it just the routine of Bob calling you up and saying, “I have a new strip in the works.”?
KUBERT: Just that way. Bob said he had an idea, a new perspective, air/war stories about World War I, but told from the enemy’s perspective. My reaction? It sounded great to me. Bob did a lot of reading and research work, especially concerning flying and the kinds of battles that took place in the air. The tactics used. The dogfights. That was important, so the stories would be credible. Bob must have had a lot of fun figuring out the situations the planes would be involved in. How the pilots felt: their reactions. And he communicated them to me, and fired me up.
GROTH: There was a brooding quality to your Enemy Ace stuff that I don’t know if I saw or at least recognized in your earlier work. Do you think that’s true? Were you conscious of that?
KUBERT: If that’s true, Gary, it’s because Kanigher wrote it that way. He had that in the script.
GROTH: Another major series you started working on in the ‘70s was Tarzan. That seemed to be also another triumph in terms of your drawing. Can you tell me how that came about?
KUBERT: Triumph? That sounds so pretentious! [Laughs heartily.] I don’t know about this “triumph” business, but it was a big kick for me. The Tarzan strip was one I had loved as a kid. One of the first things I read when it appeared in the New York Mirror, Sundays and dailies. Back in the ’30s, Tarzan being done by Foster was the strip I looked forward to every week when I was 6, 7, 8 years old. From what I came to learn, the people from Burroughs had given the rights to DC to publish Tarzan if I was to do the editing and drawing. That sounded great to me. I went back and read all 32 of Burroughs’ Tarzan books. I read them all, including Foster’s early syndicate work. What I decided on with Tarzan was to do a book that would generate the same kind of response from a reader today that I had felt when I read the Tarzan when I was a kid. That was to be my attempt.
GROTH: Did you also read the strip when Hogarth was doing it?
KUBERT: Yes I did. Hogarth was, and still is, a terrific artist, especially on Tarzan. He did some beautiful, beautiful, stuff. But again it’s not a matter for comparisons.
GROTH: Had you read the Tarzan prose by Burroughs before this?
KUBERT: Yes, I had read Tarzan before. I know I was still in grammar school; I was maybe 9 or 10 years old. I did love the Tarzan books. Plus the Kipling Jungle Books. Seems like jungle stories always fascinated me. So when the opportunity to do Tarzan came up, it was a real big kick for me.
GROTH: Was your conception of the character derived mostly from the books as opposed to other sources?
KUBERT: It was a combination of all these things: the novels, the strip, the movies.
GROTH: Didn’t you edit those books as well?
KUBERT: Yes, I did.
GROTH: Were you in charge of the entire Burroughs line, or were other people in charge? Because there was a John Carter book as well ...
KUBERT: At one time Joe Orlando was editing Korak and some other Burroughs characters. But eventually they all came to me.
GROTH: So that was a fairly major editorial job.
GROTH: But you were pleased with that amount of work.
KUBERT: I was having a good time with them all. The only thing was, there is only 24 hours in a day. It was tough getting a lot of my own artwork done. One of the many wonderful experiences that happened was meeting a young guy named Mike Kaluta. Mike was, and still is, an avid John Carter fan. He was bugging me to let him do this character. Mike pleaded, “Joe, please let me transcribe it page by page from the book. I don’t want to rewrite it.” I said, “A guy who loves a particular character as much as you do should have the opportunity to do it. You get six pages a month.” It was a very pleasant experience. Every six pages he brought in reflected a labor of love. And, of course, Mike Kaluta draws like a whiz!
GROTH: I think you also did a strip called Ragman in the ’70s. Did you write that strip as well?
KUBERT: That was a collaborative effort between Bob Kanigher and myself. That was at a time when I was editing a number of books. We wanted to come up with something a little different. Bob wrote it but only after a lot of plotting between he and myself. So it was a collaborative effort.
GROTH: So you were instrumental in conceptualizing the strip.
KUBERT: I believe you can say that.
GROTH: Can you tell me how you came up with the idea?
KUBERT: We thought that a superhero character dressed in rags might be a little bit different. What we were looking for, of course, was something along the lines of a superhero, but different from those that were already out. The character was to be dressed in rags. Then we gave him an identity. We went backwards and gave him a history. His father was to be an old circus performer and owning a junkyard now.
GROTH: My impression was this was not terribly successful commercially. Is that true?
KUBERT: That probably is true. Else it would still be published. It was published just recently simply because I think DC was looking for an old character that might be revitalized for today’s market. But, as you know, Gary, the only reason books don’t continue to be published is because they are not financially successful. We were talking about Enemy Ace. It seemed to be a pretty good idea. Not a bad book. But it’s not being published today simply because it didn’t sell. Sgt. Rock was a great character. Lasted 30 years or more. It’s not being published today because it just didn’t sell.