THE JOE KUBERT SCHOOL
GROTH: You started the Joe Kubert School, I believe, in 1976.
GROTH: Now can you tell me how you got the idea for the school? And what gave you the impetus to start such an ambitious project?
KUBERT: Well if I knew then, 18 years ago, what I know today, I’m not sure that I would have started it. In fact, I don’t think I could have started it today [laughter]. I had always thought that it would be great if there was a place where those people who have the ambition, ability and dedication to become cartoonists could come to acquire an education that would enable them to successfully enter this business. Actually, the school is an extension of the experiences that I and most other professionals I know went though. Early on, I met many artists who helped me. They offered unstintingly to give me whatever information I needed in terms of drawing, printing, the reproduction processes, lettering, coloring, and so on. All the things I wanted to know about the business. The school is a projection of my own experiences in learning. However, the education I got was on a hit and miss basis. That is, help was available to me whenever I could make contact. Once a week, once every two weeks. Nobody ever said, “Don’t bother me. I’m too busy.” But of course, the help I received had to be at their convenience or whenever I could get out to see them. I was just starting high school. So it was a hit-and-miss situation.
GROTH: Very informal.
KUBERT: Yeah, very. The guys who were already in the business would, I guess, figure it was a payback to help someone else, someone they recognized who was really serious about becoming a professional. That was their payback. To help that guy. Which in this case happened to be me. But it happened to many other novice artists and writers. It was the only way a new guy could break in. There was no place else to learn the stuff except from those people who are already in the business. So, intuitively, I went about getting all these bits and pieces of information, lacing them together so that I had some idea of what I had to know to ensure myself of making a livelihood as a cartoonist. I learned penciling, inking, coloring, lettering, and all aspects of the business.
I’ve always had the thought that it would be great if there was a formal school situation where an aspiring artist could gain this knowledge. I knew nothing about setting up a school, or curriculums, or teaching. And, as I said before, that abysmal ignorance was devoid of fear. So I just rolled ahead. I was not going to alter my own career. I’ve always loved what I do. And there hasn’t been one day I’ve ever been out of work. So it wasn’t as if I started the school in order to replace what I was doing or anything like that. Certain events kind of fell into place. My wife, Muriel, is a graduate of Rider College and a recipient of a business degree. In addition, by 1976 all five of our kids had grown up enough to be on their own. This meant that Muriel was free to become the business part of the school. She could, if she wanted to, take on the responsibilities of handling the business end of it: because if I had to do that, follow the numbers, etc., I wouldn’t have started a school in the first place.
But there were other things necessary before the school could come into being. There was a need for a physical place to start the school. As luck would have it, a house was up for sale right in my hometown of Dover. The people whose house was up for sale had a granddaughter who attended school with my daughter, Lisa. My daughter was in high school at the time. “My girlfriend’s grandfather is selling their home, Dad. It’s a big house with lots of rooms.”
Lisa had no idea that I was thinking of starting a school. Just a little bit of local news. Muriel and I, because we were kind of inquisitive, decided to take a ride and look at the place. It was an old mansion that was built in the early 1900s. It consisted of 23 rooms. In addition, there was a carriage house with two apartments over a four-car garage. The property sat on seven and a half acres of land. A park-like setting. When we saw the place, Muriel and I looked at each other and said, “This would be a great place for a school.”
GROTH: You actually showed that to me, Joe.
KUBERT: When was that?
GROTH: It might have been the last time I was out there.
KUBERT: Right. So, the place was up for sale. I had no idea what kind of a deal I could make. I had a rough idea about the school I wanted. But how to do it and how to work out the details of curriculum or the legalities of starting a school were still rather nebulous to me. I learned as I went along, getting information from other school owners and state officials. I was able to get the mansion at a good price. I was not going to change the building in any radical way. The family wanted the building to retain the look that it had always had for the last 80 or 90 years. So we worked a deal. I still knew nothing about starting a school. All I felt was that if we could put this together that potentially it could be a good thing for people who want to become cartoonists.
GROTH: So what sources did you go to?
KUBERT: One was the Higher Board of Education in Trenton. The people there were kind enough to take me to a number of commercial schools and introduce me and Muriel to the owners of those schools. The owners helped by describing how they got started, that’s how we learned what we’d have to do. Another person who was particularly helpful was Jack Adler.
GROTH: DC’s production manager?
KUBERT: Yes. I’d known Jack almost since I’d first gotten into the business. Also, I discussed this with Sol Harrison, another old and dear friend. I wanted to know what they felt was important in terms of a curriculum. Sol and Jack were into all the production aspects of the comic-book business. I knew that was important for people who wanted to become cartoonists. Mainly, though, I sat with Jack and discussed with him what would be important for someone to know in order to get a job in this business, and to make a livelihood over an extended period of time. That’s how our 10-course curriculum came into being: that same curriculum which is taught today, with variations. The school follows the new applications and materials that have occurred in the business, such as the use of computers in paste-ups, color separation and animation.
In order to qualify to teach at the school, the instructor must be a professional in his own right. This ensures that the students will get professional information from a professional. From someone who is in the business. I didn’t want a printer to teach illustration. I wanted each instructor to teach specifically that area of the business in which they specialized.
GROTH: Now, when you say a 10- course curriculum, can you elaborate what you mean by that? Is that 10 separate classes?
KUBERT: That’s 10 separate classes, two of which are given per day. The schedule for the students starts at 8:30 a.m. They attend their morning class from 8:30 until 11:15. From 11:15 to 11:30 is lunch. Rather, 11:45.
GROTH: Whew. I was going to say, what a slave driver! [Kubert laughs.] Fifteen minutes for lunch!
KUBERT: Right. Well, you can gobble two hamburgers in 15 minutes. Or can you? [Laughter.] But it’s to 11:45. 11:45 to 2:30 is the second session. That’s two sessions, two courses per day. And they have two different courses every day of the week. So through the five days, they’re taking all 10 courses. And the schedule is repeated every week through the school year. In addition to the five or six hours in school, there is a lot of homework. Homework usually equals the amount of time they spend in school. The average student spends an accumulated eight to 10 hours a day drawing. Six or seven days a week. It’s a tough grind.
GROTH: When the school started, was it a one-year school or a two-year school?
KUBERT: When we started it was a two-year school. We had 22 students. And those students were very highly motivated. People like Steve Bissette, Rick Veitch. Rick Taylor, who is now head of production at DC was one of the students. Tom Yeates, Cara Sherman, Rick Grimes. There were 22 students in our first class.
GROTH: Now, let me ask you this, Joe. The second year curriculum, did you have the same classes but on a more advanced level?
KUBERT: Yes. One of the things I discovered early on was that you can describe the elements, lettering, for instance, within a period of hours. This is the pen, this is the Ames guide, this is a T-square, these are balloons, these are captions, and so on.
GROTH: This is the alphabet.
KUBERT: You can explain that within a comparatively short period of time. However, it will take the better part of a year to learn how to letter professionally. So a great deal of what a person has to learn is acquired through repetition. Practice. That’s the only way anyone improves their ability. And, I guess, the practice never ends.
GROTH: Can I ask you what those 10 classes were?
KUBERT: Pretty much the same 10 courses we give today. The Business of Art, which describes what to expect getting into this profession and what the profession expects of you. Paste-Ups and Mechanicals. Basic Drawing. Narrative Art. Methods and Materials. Painting and Illustration. Computers in Production. Humor. Basic Animation. Life Drawing. Anatomy. Incidentally, we also have a separate school in cinematic animation.
GROTH: Can I ask you who you tapped initially for The Business of Art? Do you remember?
KUBERT: I really don’t recall. But among the first instructors were Hy Eisman, Dick Giordano, Lee Elias and Ric Estrada. Some really terrific cartoonists.
GROTH: Now what would Dick have taught? Do you remember?
KUBERT: I’m not sure. Probably Narrative Art. Or inking, part of Methods and Materials. A lot of us doubled in classes. There were only about a half a dozen guys, and we would teach more than one class. I was teaching about three days a week, I think. And this was all with the intent that once I got the school started I could let it kind of run by itself and do my own work.
GROTH: That did not happen, did it?
KUBERT: No. That was a basic error on my part ... [Groth laughs] that took more than 10 years to correct.
GROTH: Right, right. Do you remember who taught Basic Drawing?
KUBERT: Ric Estrada, I believe, taught that subject. Lee Elias might have taught that as well. Irwin Hasen came in a few years later. Irwin is still teaching at the school. Hy Eisman started from day one. And Hy is still teaching at the school. Tex Blaisdell came in a little later. A bunch of really good guys.
GROTH: Now what did you teach?
KUBERT: I don’t remember. [Groth laughs.]
GROTH: It wasn’t racquetball, was it? [Kubert laughs.]
KUBERT: No, everybody was able to walk out of my classes [laughter]. On both legs. [More laughter.]
GROTH: You probably had that in the initial sales pitch: “No one will need crutches when they walk out.”
KUBERT: That was an advantage.
GROTH: Would you say that what your school teaches primarily is craftsmanship? I don’t want to get too nuanced here, but do you make a distinction between craftsmanship and art? And are you primarily teaching people the craft so that they can apply that to their own art?
KUBERT: I feel that every person who draws is exercising an unique ability different from anyone else. The school is unusual in that we teach cartooning the same way that one would teach fine art. That is, that every student must first learn the basics. This includes life drawing, anatomy, perspective, proportions, foreshortening, composition, color. The basics in all of these areas. With that sort of sound foundation, they can then express their own individuality. The old masters had ateliers, where the young person would work under the close supervision of the masters. Eventually, the student would become their own kind of artist. But only after they’d learned the basics. I think, to a great extent, that occurs at our school. Many graduates don’t realize the importance of what they’ve learned until they’ve been out of the school for a couple of years.
I want to return to something you asked a little while back, Gary. You asked if I had started with a two-year school. I did. But after the second or third year, we had to extend it to three years. We found that the pressure of compressing all the things that a student had to learn within that comparatively short period of time was driving most of them over the wall.
GROTH: They were limping out of there, Joe. [Kubert laughs.]
KUBERT: Limping, physically, mentally, and emotionally. [Groth laughs.] It was not something that I enjoyed seeing, you know. Driving people like that. But I think that there is no other way to learn what has to be done except by working at it. Really working at it. That’s why dedication is so important. Because unless the student knows clearly that this is what they want to do more than anything else in the world, they just ain’t going to make it. And as tough as the school is, it’s nowhere near as tough as it is in the profession itself.
BORN TO TEACH
GROTH: Let me just skip back and ask you one question I’m curious about. Someone like Burne Hogarth — well, not someone like him, but Burne Hogarth. [Kubert laughs.] There’s no one like Burne Hogarth [bigger laugh]. Burne Hogarth seems like a natural-born teacher, you know?
KUBERT: Yes. I think he is.
GROTH: Maybe I should say a natural-born lecturer, but I just know that he has some sort of inner need to pass on information, knowledge, and so on. You certainly don’t strike me as a natural lecturer.
KUBERT: I’m not.
GROTH: Was this need latent?
KUBERT: No, it’s not. I really don’t enjoy this teaching stuff that much. There are very few artists I know that actually enjoy getting up in front of a bunch of people and talking. The place that most of us enjoy is sitting at our drawing table and doing our thing. Not wanting anybody to know that we’re even there. Just to be let alone and do our work. I love to draw. There nothing I enjoy more than being behind my drawing table and drawing. Getting up in front of people and talking on a regular basis is not really something I enjoy doing.
GROTH: Making this whole project even more paradoxical.
KUBERT: Yeah, but there’s still another side to that paradox. My sons Adam and Andy came through my school and were in my classes. My attitude towards them was exactly as it was towards the other students. Except with them I was a lot tougher. There are few things that compare to the lift you get when you’re showing an aspiring artist, one who wants to learn what you know, and his questions start to be answered. “How do you draw this? What kind of material do you use? What kind of pen do you use? What kind of paper? How do you make this tool work? When do you do a close-up? What happens when the figure moves?” Questions that go through the minds of every young artist who is attempting to learn. So you drop a little pearl, so to speak. You drop a little bit of information. And you watch. It’s like turning on a light. And when they start to understand, it’s really great. That was the kind of feeling that I got from my sons, as well as all the other students.
So, despite the fact that I really am not crazy about teaching, there are other compensations. Working with people that are motivated. Dedicated. And that’s true of 99 percent of the people who attend the school. That’s the counterbalance for any discomfort I may have in front of a class.
GROTH: You must have a wide enough variety of students who want to do different kinds of comics. Some of them might want to do humor. Some of them might want to do superheroes. Some of them might want to do extremely personal narratives. Is your curriculum generic enough so that they can apply what they learn to any direction they want to go in?
KUBERT: I believe so. One of the tenets of the school is that the cartoonist must be flexible to get a job in any one of the many areas in the field of cartooning. If somebody tells one of our graduates that there is a job available — whether it’s doing superhero or horror stuff or painted illustration or humor — he should be able to do it well enough to get that first job. That entry-level position. Why is that important? Because that’s your first step through the gate. If a graduate’s knowledge is limited to the superhero genre, and there is no superhero work available, he’s out of luck. Our business is one of cyclical changes. Before superheroes, genres changed every six months [laughs]. This is the longest period of time I can recall when a particular genre, like superheroes, has lasted so long. And, if a cartoonist is not able to do a variety of work, he may find it difficult to stay in this business. The moment an artist is forced to get a job out of his field, it’s much harder to get back in. As long as you’re working in the field, you’re there when an opportunity arises. When you can get closer to doing the kind of work you really want to do.
It’s important to communicate to the students, “Get your toe in the door. Get your first job in the business.” This is how it worked for me and almost every guy I know. If your first job is as a letterer, do lettering. If your first job is in production, erasing pages, whatever it might be, do that. If it’s going to be inking, do that. If it’s going to be penciling, do that. If it’s going to be humor, painting... anything by which you can take that first step in, do it. It places you in the position where, if an opening opens in the direction that you want, you’re there to take advantage of it.
GROTH: Would your school be appropriate for a cartoonist who does not necessarily want to enter the commercial realm but who wants to apply these skills to his own personal vision, and doesn’t give a damn about superhero comics, and wants to follow in the tradition of someone like Robert Crumb? He just wants to do his own work. Would your school be valuable to him?
KUBERT: If he limits himself to any one area, he would not make it through the School. Our students must pass every one of the courses in order to make it from the first to the second to the third year.
GROTH: Right, right. Well, that’s very interesting,
KUBERT: My unwritten contract with the student is, if you work and become accomplished in all of the areas of the curriculum, you’ve got a good chance to get a job when you get out. But you’re not even going to graduate unless you pass every one of the courses to the degree that you can get a job in those specialties. If a student insists on doing his own thing, setting up his own list of course qualifications, he’s in the wrong school. Unless he is ready to apply himself with equal effort to every one of the courses whether he likes it or not, he’s in the wrong school.
GROTH: Let me ask you a slightly more philosophical question. How do you feel about cartoonists who don’t want to see their drawing as a job, as a means to getting a job so much as a vocation? What I’m getting at is that it sounds like your school is commercial-oriented.
KUBERT: It is commercial-oriented. But if you’re asking me what I personally think about someone who wants to do cartooning because he loves to do it and has something specific in mind, and doesn’t want to bother with anything else; I respect that. I think that’s an admirable trait and although it may be tough from a wage-earning standpoint, he’ll at least have the pleasure of doing his thing even if he doesn’t get published.
GROTH: He would not necessarily make the best pupil.
KUBERT: In all probability, he would not even be accepted in the first place.
GROTH: Right, right. Now, have you had to eject students?
KUBERT: Many. Too many.
GROTH: Is that tough?
KUBERT: It’s one of the toughest things that I have to do. There are a number of situations for which a student may be asked to leave the school. If he evidences a lack of maturity, or doesn’t understand what it means to be a professional, he will be asked to leave. He should not be wasting our time or his money. Attitudes like “I won’t do my homework,” or “I don’t get it done when it’s supposed to be done,” or “I’ll do it just to get done,” don’t cut it.
We warn people who seem to be slipping into those modes. We tell them that they’re heading for trouble. Sometimes they don’t believe us. Sometimes they think, “Well, I’m paying my tuition, and Joe is not going to kick me out. After all, is he going to say ‘no’ to money?”
Very often, when the chips are down, and we have to dismiss a student, it becomes rather traumatic. Usually, the decision for dismissal is not one made by me unilaterally. There is input by all the instructors involved with the particular student. I discuss the problem with others in administration, especially Debra Kubert, my daughter-in-law. She is the school administrator and my right hand. When that authority has to be exercised, it’s a lousy feeling for every one involved. Very often, despite our warnings that this may be an imminent occurrence, despite telling the person who’s in trouble that this is going to happen, they still don’t believe it. Finally, when they are dismissed, there are apologies and tears. “Just give me another chance. I’ll do better.”
But by then it’s just too late.
GROTH: I assume it’s a pretty small percentage of students that you have to do that to.
KUBERT: Thank goodness. It’s not a large number. But it’s more than I’d like.
GROTH: I’d very much like you to respond to a quote from Todd McFarlane. I assume you know who Todd McFarlane is?
KUBERT: I know the name, but I don’t think I’ve ever met the guy. I know his work.
GROTH: Well, I saw him say this on the video, so I not only heard him say it but I watched him say it. He said, and this is almost verbatim, that he’s often asked by kids what they should do to learn how to draw comics and his answer to them, he said, is very unconventional, and something a lot of people don’t agree with, but he said, quote, “Don’t learn to draw from life, learn to draw from comics.”
KUBERT: Well, that’s completely the reverse of how we teach. And opposite of what I think is right. Completely opposite.
GROTH: Can you explain why?
KUBERT: To me, basics is the most important thing an artist has to learn. It’s the only way that an artist can extrapolate and create their own style. A sound basic foundation is critical for any artist. Without it, the artist is standing in quicksand. It might be different for Todd. Maybe his experience has been different. Exceptional. And, it may have worked for him. There’s always an exception to every rule.
GROTH: What is your general opinion of the level of draftsmanship and craft in contemporary comics?
KUBERT: Well, I think that the artwork is impactful. The graphics are strong. Color and reproduction have improved tremendously. But I think the general quality of the stories are poor, and the ability to tell a story sequentially is lacking. The story actually becomes more confusing as a result of the artwork rather than defining the story’s content.
GROTH: Yeah, the actual mechanics of storytelling.
KUBERT: I believe that the job of the cartoonist is not to merely draw pretty pictures, but to tell a story with his pictures. If he does not accomplish that, he’s not doing the job of a cartoonist.
GROTH: Now how much do you feel that you have to keep up with contemporary trends? In other words, if the kind of storytelling that you can’t personally follow is what sells, do you feel compelled to teach that?
KUBERT: That’s a good question. There’s no doubt in my mind, Gary, that the style of illustration used in comic books today is one that really catches the eye and the interest of many of the readers today.
KUBERT: They contain the sort of detail and rendering that attracts. All that fine line stuff, and “push-’em-in-your- face” illustration that’s being done by Todd and other young and very successful cartoonists has really caught the fancy of a large segment of the comic book-reading public.
KUBERT: Despite their success, I still disagree with the approach. I would find it difficult to draw in that style, just as they would find it difficult to draw in my style. But if my livelihood depended on it, I would try my damndest to do it [laughter]. Fortunately, I don’t find myself in that position! But if I had to, I probably would. Success, and making the kind of money exemplified by the current style is very attractive indeed. So, why not emulate what sells? The school neither curtails or espouses any particular style of illustration. We are involved essentially in teaching the basics, and allowing as much freedom as possible to the individual students. Telling a story well enhances, does not subtract from a cartoonist’s style and ability.
I think a lot of the Image stuff looks absolutely sensational. I think that the color separations that they are able to achieve via the computer separations is tops. I can’t think of any other publisher that reflects that kind of quality. Their books look sensational. But I can’t read ’em. And I guess that’s where we diverge, in terms of focus and direction. That’s where we differ.
GROTH: Well now, as a teacher, do you feel like you have to, because this is what the market wants ... ?
KUBERT: I tell every instructor to teach those things by which they make their livelihood. I’m not going to try — I can’t teach Todd McFarlane’s way of drawing. My approach is quite different. So what I do is teach what I’ve learned and what I’ve acquired that’s proven to enable me to make a living. Tex Blaisdell teaches Methods and Materials. He teaches his way of inking. His way is different from a lot of the guys up at Image. Tex has worked with Alex Raymond and Hal Foster. His teaching reflects those experiences. And our way of teaching seems to work very well. Of all the students who have graduated since I started the school back in 1976 (this is our 18th year), between 90 and 95 percent are working in the art field based on what they’ve learned in the school.
GROTH: Well, I think what you’re saying is that you are resisting this trend and teaching more conventional storytelling.
KUBERT: No, not resisting, Gary. If Todd McFarlane offered to teach at the school, I’d greet him with open arms. What would Todd teach? Todd would teach the way he does his stuff. His approach would be different from mine. Many of the instructors differ, since no two artists’ approach is precisely the same.
I remember when Dick Giordano was teaching at the school — he taught for about six or seven years — a student came to me and said, “Hey Joe, we asked you a question and you gave us one answer, and when we asked the same question of Dick, he answered it in a completely different way.” [Groth laughs.] And they asked, “Which way is right?”
GROTH: You gotta get your stories straight, Joe [laughter].
KUBERT: The tough part of teaching art is that there is no one right answer. My answer to that student was, “I’ve told you the way I do it. The way I see it. Dick’s answer is the way he does things. The way he sees things. And you students may be lucky enough to develop a third answer — your way of doing these things.” There is no one right answer.
GROTH: Now let me try and nail you down a little bit. I assume that there’s some latitude among teachers. But I also assume that there are certain absolutes from which you couldn’t deviate. If someone came to you, if Todd came to you and said, “I’d love to teach at your school but I’m going to teach people how to draw by looking at people who imitate Jack Kirby.” There might be a point at which you say, “I simply can’t accept that.”
Am I right there?
KUBERT: I really don’t know. You’re setting up a hypothetical situation, but I’ll try to answer. There are certain things that are unacceptable to me. If the information will hurt the student, I would not permit it. If an instructor advised a student to ignore storytelling, I would not accept it. If the instructor said to learn to draw from comic books only, that would be unacceptable. That would fly in the face of some of the basics I was talking about. If the instructor allowed his class to be undisciplined, thereby not acting in a professional manner, it would not be permitted. Wild or uncontrolled behavior is counterproductive. If I felt students were being taught things that would not lead them to get a job, it would not be permitted. That would apply to Todd and anyone else who wanted to teach at the school. If their teaching differs from mine, that’s OK. Fine. I’m open to learning. I’ve learned a heck of a lot from George Pratt. He gave me some invaluable lessons working with multimedia color. George taught at the school for a year or so. I’ m open to learning as long as it’s something that I feel is practical and applicable and make sense.
GROTH: Right, right. See, I’m trying to figure out, Joe, how big a fascist you are in the school [Kubert laughs] and you’re coming across as far too tolerant.
KUBERT: Keep that up and I’ll bust your other leg, Gary.
GROTH: You’re a fascist on the racquetball court, Joe, but not in the classroom. [Laughter.]
KUBERT: The attitudes I demonstrate in school are the results of my experiences. First, getting into the business. Then, staying in and being gainfully employed over the past 50 years. I don’t play games. I don’t think I’m heavy-handed with the students. The students receive those things that will prepare them to meet all they will face when they graduate and go out to find a job. That’s what all of us instructors try to do.
I get no enjoyment out of seeing a class full of bleary-eyed people who have spent an all-nighter to meet a deadline: an assignment that they had to do for school. But I don’t know any other way that they are going to acquire the necessary abilities unless they work like hell at it. I had to do the same things. I have as little sympathy for myself when I’ve had to work 24 or 48 hours straight through as I have for them.
GROTH: Well, good. So you are a bit of a fascist. I had to get something out of you. [Kubert laughs.]
KUBERT: You’ve asked me some good questions, Gary. I’ve been interviewed a few times about the school and asked questions by educators, but none of them as incisive as you. None of them called me a fascist, either. [Laughter.]
THE RASHŌMON THING
GROTH: This is completely irrelevant to the interview, but I taught a class once when I took over Art Spiegelman’s class at the School of Visual Arts when he went to Europe. And it was a really interesting experience, both intimidating and exhilarating.
KUBERT: How did you approach it?
GROTH: The class title was “History and the Aesthetics of Comics” and Art brought it up to comic books starting in 1938, so I had to take it from 1938 to present. I prepared a slide show, which now that I think back on it, took an enormous amount of time, but that’s when I had an enormous amount of time. So I had a slide-show presentation, and we went through all of the major artists, Mort Meskin, Lou Fine, all the way up to you and Gil Kane and everybody up to the current generation.
KUBERT: Did you enjoy the experience?
GROTH: Yeah, yeah, I did. And I really loved reading the evaluation of my teaching. The variety was utterly amazing. There were two evaluations that were completely diametrically opposed to each other. One person said, “I don’t know why he likes superhero comics so much. Why in the hell would anyone like superhero comics as much as he does?” And then another said, “How come he hates superhero comics so much?”
KUBERT: It’s the Rashōmon thing. I’ve come across it often. I know that I have to repeat particular points a number of times. I don’t object to that. It’s part of my job. Because I know that each student receives the information that I give at a different time and, perhaps, a little differently. One student will understand what I said immediately, while the others in the class don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. So I’ll repeat it again, and more pairs of eyes will suddenly brighten. Little by little, they will all understand. Then, somebody way at the back will say “Oh, that’s what you meant.”
GROTH: Right, right.
KUBERT: People receive the information at different times and sometimes in different ways.
GROTH: I had the impression that some people in my class were simply not going to learn anything, and I had another impression that some people were going to walk out of there knowing as much as I did.
KUBERT: There’s a residual action that occurs that I never expected. A number of experienced educators told me that the students will give you as much of an education as you give them. I said, “No way!” How can students teach you anything? What could I learn from these novices? I was wrong. There are things — I’m not talking about drawing or academics — but the enthusiasm that young people have is catching. It keeps the blood pumping. They tend to carry you along with their vitality. Plus they usually know more about what is happening in the comic-book business— vis-a-vis who’s doing what to whom and why — than I do.
You mentioned Burne Hogarth a while ago. I’d spoken to Burne a few times when I first started the school. We met at a National Cartoonist Society meeting, I believe. He was extremely helpful to me. You know, of course, that he started the School of Visual Arts. He gave me some hints based on his experiences. “Watch out for this, Joe.” And, “Do this, but don’t do that.”
GROTH: Well, I think he can be an enormously generous guy.
KUBERT: I believe he is.
GROTH: A lot of people are put off by his manner, which you take or you leave. I’ve always found him to be an incredibly giving person. Did you read his interview in The Comics Journal?
KUBERT: Yes, I did.
GROTH: Because he mentioned you in there, I think.
KUBERT: I’m not sure I saw that reference.
GROTH: Unless I edited it out. [Kubert laughs.] He mentioned you in the interview and it perplexed me because I didn’t understand his reference. I don’t know if you knew what he was talking about, but you were mentioned, and he said, “Oh yeah, Joe Kubert. You know, Joe Kubert’s a really angry guy.”
GROTH: And I said, “Joe is?” And he said, “Oh yeah, oh yeah. Very angry guy.”
KUBERT: I wonder if he was equating anger with ...
GROTH: ... passion?
KUBERT: Yeah. Or something even worse than that. [Groth laughs.] I don’t consciously feel anger generally. And I try to act with people as I would want them to act towards me. Yet, but come to think of it, Mike Chen and Debbie, my daughter-in-law, say the students are kind of scared of me. I could never understand that.
GROTH: Well, I’m scared of you, that’s for goddamn sure.
KUBERT: [Laughs.] Well, you have good reason [laughter]. Maybe Burne thinks I have a forbidding look.
GROTH: Yeah. You know, I figure you’re sort of a hard taskmaster, but I never thought of you as angry.
KUBERT: No, I don’t think so.
GROTH: I mean, I’m angry, I’m angry at all kinds of things [Kubert laughs]. But you seem good-natured and even- tempered, so I didn’t know what he meant by that. But I thought, Jesus, maybe he knows something I don’t know.
KUBERT: You know, Burne and I haven’t had any really personal contact. It’s just been a couple of short talks about my starting the school and so on.
GROTH: Right. Well, he probably just looked in your eyes and made that assessment.
KUBERT: [Laughs.] I should not flex my muscles.
BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD
GROTH: OK, I have a few other things I wanted to cover. One of them is a strip that was actually announced by DC in 1983 that as far as I can tell never came out.
GROTH: The Redeemer. Right.
GROTH: Can you tell me the story behind it? It was supposed to be a 12-issue series ... ?
KUBERT: Yeah, it was a big disappointment for me. It was something that I really wanted to do. The problem was that while I was doing The Redeemer I was also editing about 10 different books. And drawing I don’t know how many covers. I’m not shifting the blame on DC. I had taken on a load of work. Originally, my plan was to do a 12 issue series of The Redeemer. I finished four of them. They’re still resting on a shelf in my studio. For the last 10 years. A number of publishers said they’d be happy to publish them, but I’d want to reedit them and I haven’t had time.
GROTH: And you wrote and drew those, correct?
KUBERT: Yes. I think my son Adam may have lettered some of it. DC had paid me in advance against royalties. DC did not ask for the money back, but I wanted to own that character. I wanted the rights back because I had created this character, and I really liked the story line. So I bought the whole package back from DC. Now it’s mine. The Redeemer is now my property.
GROTH: I see. Well, what was the stumbling block in publishing it then?
KUBERT: I just didn’t have the time to finish it. I missed my deadlines. I did exactly what I tell my students not to do.
The Redeemer had been promoted in a four-page flyer. It was going to be a 12-issue series. I could not meet the deadline. I suggested that we make it a six issue series. Even finishing a six-issue series would have meant that soliciting for sales would’ve been so late and disappointing that the bookstore owners and the distributors felt the sales would be badly hurt. They were probably right. So DC was going to shelve the whole thing. I have no complaints against DC or Paul Levitz. They’ve been straight up with me. I just couldn’t finish what I had started.
GROTH: Huh. Well, I was hoping for something more sinister, Joe, but that [Kubert laughs] explains it.
KUBERT: You dirty rat. I know you’ re not kidding, that’s the worst part.
GROTH: It’s very disappointing. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but you’ve done two graphic novels starring Abraham Stone.
KUBERT: I’ve done three. I finished the third one and I held onto it for about a year. Until Ervin Rustemagic, who is my agent and sells my stuff to the European publishers, got out of Sarajevo. He was stuck in Sarajevo for about two years. From 1992 to 1994.
GROTH: Can you tell me how that started, how you got involved in writing and drawing that strip in graphic-novel form?
KUBERT: Well, I had known Ervin Rustemagic, it’s got to be at least 20 years ago. The first time I went to Lucca, in Italy. He had just started a little syndicate business called Strip Art Features. “SAP.” He is a Yugoslavian, born in Sarajevo. About six years ago, I decided I had enough freedom from my chores at school so that I could start some projects I’d been thinking about. I was less interested in being published in the United States and I would attempt to do some European-type graphic novels. I got together with Ervin at his home in Sarajevo. We talked about the possibilities of working together. We decided that I would do Abraham Stone. Abraham Stone was a character I had developed twenty years before but never did anything with. Abraham Stone had sat and percolated for about 20 years. Now was the time to do it. So I started working on the side.
GROTH: Abraham Stone, if I remember, and I read at least one of them, was basically a Depression-era gangster?
KUBERT: Did you really read it, Gary? No, he’s not a gangster. He’s a kid who was born on a farm in Pennsylvania. The railroad stole the land from his parents, forcing him to move out and around the United Stats at the age of 16 or 17. So this young guy is growing up in the late 1890s, early 1900s. It was a most exciting time in American history. Cars came into existence. The telephone had just been invented. The industrial revolution was taking hold. World War I was starting to boil. And I thought it would be a great time to build a story. Movies were starting to be made. I felt that such a story would be of interest not only to European readers, but also to readers here in the United States.
GROTH: How did it do?
KUBERT: Very well in Europe. Poorly in the United States. It was published by Malibu under the Platinum label. They did a nice job of packaging, but it didn’t sell well.
GROTH; Well, it wasn’t superheroes. [Kubert laughs.] And it didn’t look like Todd McFarlane.
KUBERT: I should have called Todd, but he might have been busy. [Groth laughs.] Seems like superheroes sell well in the United States but they don’t sell at all in Europe. Graphic novels sell great in Europe, but they don’t sell in the United States.
GROTH: I was going through your file, looking for as much dirt as possible [Kubert laughs], and I found something I just had to ask you about. I have some tear sheets from the Chicago Tribune/New York News syndicate called Winnie Winkle [Kubert laughs] allegedly drawn by Henry Raduta, but it looks like a watered-down Joe Kubert.
KUBERT: That is a really interesting story.
GROTH: All right. I hit on something.
KUBERT: Yeah. Not only from a historical perspective, but also in relation to the school. There have been a number of times when I was asked to work on syndicated strips. One was a fight strip called Big Ben Bolt. The syndicate was King Features.
KUBERT: King Features needed somebody to do the strip. It was paying very, very little money. It had a few papers, but it was still being published. Somebody had gotten in touch with me and asked if I knew anybody who could handle it. I thought this might be a perfect vehicle by which my students can gain experience and make a couple of bucks. As long as it didn’t interfere with their schoolwork. I would oversee the work. Like Eisner and Iger, and Chester.
GROTH: You wanted to inflict on your students what they had inflicted on you.
KUBERT: [Laughs.] Yeah! I thought it would be great for the students and the school. The school and the schoolwork always came first. Many students come to the school figuring the only way they’re going to make it through the school financially is by working at the same time as attending the school. But, in our school, that’s a very difficult thing to do. Working and attending is a heavy schedule to maintain. If the work is essential, then your homework will be penalized. And having a job is not an excuse for not doing homework. You cannot learn when you don’t do homework. They say, “Well, I can’t attend you school, then.”
That’s right. You can’t attend the school.
So when I considered doing the syndicated strip I wanted to make sure the students would understand what it would entail. Under those conditions, we took on Big Ben Bolt. That lasted tor a while. Until I discovered that I was saddled with the whole strip. The students were to busy with their schoolwork. Then I got a call from the News syndicate. Winnie Winkle needed artwork. Again, I was overly optimistic. The students would get excited. "Take it, Joe. We’ll have time to do it.”
And six months later I find myself doing the whole thing myself because they’re too busy. So I dropped the strip. I spoke to the editor of the news syndicate, Bob Reed. I explained that we, the school and I, were willing to do it. But not the way it had been drawn in the past. So if they want me to do Winnie, I would change the strip drastically. I’d keep the main character, Winnie, as close to the original as possible. But she would look like a real girl. They accepted it. I don’t think they had any choice. I don’t think they could’ve gotten anyone else to do Winnie for what they could afford to pay. Another thing I insisted on was that the only signature on the strip must be “JKS.” I wanted the school’s name. At first, they said, “NO!” [Laughter.] But they finally gave me permission to put the initials JKS on the strip. We did dailies and Sundays. The whole bit, for the better part of a year. Then the same thing happened again. I suddenly found myself doing the whole strip by myself. So I just dropped it.
GROTH: So there is no Henry Raduta.
KUBERT: Henry Rad — no, no, no. Henry Raduta was the writer.
GROTH: Oh, OK.
KUBERT: And had been writing the Winnie Winkle strip all along.
GROTH: Well that’s the skeleton in your closet I was looking for, Joe. [Kubert laughs.] That will be the headline, “Joe Kubert Drew Winnie Winkle.”
KUBERT: I think we did a good job on it. I think the students learned a lot. It was a kick.
GROTH: If your drawing Winnie Winkle doesn’t ruin your reputation, then nothing will. [Kubert laughs.]
KUBERT: But I did prove what we were teaching. That a cartoonist should be able to handle any style that comes down the pike.
GROTH: So did this strip run?
KUBERT: For about a year.
A PLEASANT BLEEDING
GROTH: I wanted to ask you one last question about something I’d been meaning to ask you for a while now anyway. We were at Pro-Con together a year and a half ago. It was the first Pro-Con, in ’93. And I sat next to you in the audience when Dave Sim was giving a talk.
KUBERT: Gary, are you sure you’re not trying to goad me into something controversial? I remember that particular event very well.
GROTH: Me? Are you kidding? You’ll remember that Dave talked and talked and talked and talked. And you had your hand up repeatedly. I don’t think you were angry but I think you were anxious.
KUBERT: I think I was kind of upset concerning the one-sidedness of the information he was dispensing.
GROTH: You never got a chance to say anything because Dave rather cleverly talked for the entire hour and left no time for questions from the audience. So ... here’s your chance.
KUBERT: I don’t know Dave Sim, but I’m sure that he was describing his own personal experiences with the commercial world of publishing comic books. I know he’s a self-publisher, and he is an avid devotee of self-publishing. The impression I got from Dave was that every publisher was out to screw every creative person. And if any artist wants to exist they should stay clear of all commercial publishers because they will take advantage of you. I felt he was just too extreme. Sure, I think self-publishing is a good way to go. And some people have been very successful; they’ve been able to protect their product and been able to make a lot of dough. Others have lost their shirts, their houses, everything.
I’ve met hard men in the publishing business. They’re in it to make a buck, not to make “nice-nice” to creative people. They are, like most people in business, looking to protect themselves and to make out, some more so than others. I can’t speak of all publishers as a whole: mostly I’ve dealt with editors and art directors. I worked for Max Gaines, Bill Gaines’ father, but I think I met him only once, so I can’t really judge as to the kind of guy he was. I knew old man Donenfeld, I’ve gone up and down elevators with him. But I can’t say I knew him real well, either. I knew Carmine Infantino, Sol Harrison, and Alan Harvey real well as publishers. Also Mike Richardson and Jim Shooter and Paul Levitz. All fine people, as far as I’m concerned. I only know how I’ve been treated by them. I’ve no complaints.
GROTH: Of course.
KUBERT: I was just going to say that what Dave said was, I felt, very slanted. It bothered me that people, not having had their own experience with publishers, might expect that going into the comic book business via commercial publishers was dangerous and could prove to be a disaster. That’s not to say that an artist — or any creative person — should be absolutely naive and innocent. Know what you’re stepping into. Know what you’re doing. But you’re not entering a nest of vipers or facing Dracula.
GROTH: Speaking of which, I think after some six or seven hours that I’ve bled you dry, Joe. [Kubert laughs.]
KUBERT: Well, it’s been a pleasant bleeding. Hardly hurt at all.