People often ask me who my favorite artists are, and I give a different list of names every time…there are artists I adore that I have gotten to work with, like Ethan Van Sciver, Nicola Scott, and George Perez. There are artists on my wish list, like Los Bros Hernandez, JH Williams III, and Bryan Hitch. And sadly, there are artists whose work I love, but who are sadly passed on, like Gene Colon, Jack Kirby, and Jim Aparo.
The names are so many that the list I give is different every time.
Unless someone asks who my favorite is, my one favorite, my single top choice. That answer never varied.
It was Joe Kubert.
It was ALWAYS Joe Kubert.
Joe sadly passed away this week, and I’ve been reading moving words from people who knew him well, who learned from him, who worked with him. Those people said inspiring, articulate things. I am not going to be able to match those people’s eloquent statements, I am sure. But I can’t let this pass without at least attempting to convey what his work meant to me.
When I was a little girl, I loved comics so much that it barely mattered what kind of comics they were, I would read them over and over (we were poor, comics were a luxury of a sort). We got them mostly second hand at garage sales and the like, so I didn’t really get to choose, which in the end, turned out to be a good thing. I might not have ever been exposed to the great war, horror and Western comics if I was spending my small and precious allowance at a newsstand. I wouldn’t know who Magnus was, I wouldn’t have known about Jonah Hex.
I was a story kid. I wanted to read the story. The art really only became a factor when I didn’t like it…Kirby was hard for me to enjoy at that age (I know, but I was a kid at the time). I never read the credits…who cared who these people were? What mattered was the story. To this day, I still don’t know some of the credits from my favorite childhood comics.
There was precisely one artist whose art hit me hard at that time, one artist who drew me in even when the story was below average. One guy whose name I actively sought out: Joe Kubert.
I devoured everything I saw with his name attached. There was no access to any sort of fandom for me, I didn’t even know fandom existed. But I knew this guy was special. I felt like he had to be eight feet tall. I imagined that other artists averted their eyes in his presence.
He drew men that looked like the world had touched them hard. He drew women in all shapes and sizes, like real human beings…and when he chose to draw a sexy woman, holy crap, the sultry just steamed up the page. He drew kids and dogs and trees and buildings and everything you looked at, you KNEW it was his art, and no one else’s. He didn’t draw the clean, blocky backgrounds of most superhero comics…his was a bit grittier and a lot more lush.
I coveted his comics like no other before or since. When he drew a character, it almost immediately became the definitive version for me. All due respect to every other artist, but when Kubert drew Tarzan, my feeling immediately was, well, no point in anyone else even trying from that point on. Kubert had drawn Tarzan. That conversation is closed.
He did something many artists still don’t know how to do to this day, he gave his characters a soul. The war-fatigued soldiers of Easy Company were more real to me than most anything I saw on film. That was Kubert’s gift to us, he conveyed an inner life in everything he drew.
I remember thinking at the time, that Kubert could give an emotional weight to even inanimate objects. He could draw a tank, and make it seem lonely. He could draw a tree, and make it seem hopeful. That’s not craft, exactly, it’s vision. It’s, well, maybe it’s magic.
Years later, when I was going to college (poor again, dang it), I was working two jobs and was barely keeping a roof over my head, I walked into a comic shop, and they were selling a page of Kubert art, specifically, THE LOSERS. And it was a great page, the cast on a boat being shot at from above.
It was forty dollars, and I didn’t have that kind of money for something so frivolous. But this was a Joe Kubert page and it was in my hands. So I did the only sensible, practical thing.
I didn’t buy groceries for a week and took that page home. Still possibly one of the smartest choices I ever made.
Later still, I found out that Kubert had a school that taught people how to create. Of course he does, I thought. When you are the best creator, the only ethical thing to do is to create more creators.
And then the world played a joke and I became a creator of comics myself. And Joe became invaluable to me several times without his even being aware of it.I often thought about things Joe had drawn or written when I faced a script roadblock. I would think of how he conveyed isolation in silence, or joy in silhouette. How he would fill one panel with rich background detail and leave the next blank. In short, I stole from him and continue to steal from him shamelessly. I should be in jail, the amount I took from that man.
He once said, he didn’t want the jungle in Tarzan to be realistic, he wanted it to be better than realistic. I can’t tell you how many times that philosophy has exactly described what I wanted to convey. It’s not an exaggeration to say it was an artist who taught me how to write.
When I was working up the proposal for Villains United, no one seemed to understand what I wanted to do with Catman…how I wanted him to have a presence. I finally told Dale Eaglesham, the wonderful artist of that book, “Just imagine him as if he was drawn by Joe Kubert.” Dale immediately knew what I meant, it didn’t need further explanation, and once again, Joe saves the day, because Dale’s first page of Catman, completely Kubert-inspired, sold the entire series.
Later still, I was part of a small group trying to raise money for medical expenses for a beloved comics writer. Literally the first guys to donate art were the Kuberts, Joe and his amazingly gifted sons Adam and Andy, worked together to produce a stunning Batman and Hawkman piece. I have never wanted a piece of comics art so much in my life.
And just as a reader, I can’t even explain how lovely it was to see Joe doing fresh, original work later in his career, fantastic books like JEW GANGSTER, FAX FROM SARAJEVO, and my favorite, YOSSEL. That a grand master of comics art was doing his best and bravest work in his 70’s and 80’s is absolutely joyous.
Oh, and I found out later, that thing about artists averting their eyes around him? It’s pretty much true, I am far from the only one who saw him as something just a bit brighter than the sun.
I realize I’ve gone very long here, but the reader paying attention will probably notice that something’s missing…which is, did I ever actually speak to Joe himself, and that’s kind of a funny story.
See, I was too starstruck. I just couldn’t. I couldn’t do it.
We were at the same conventions all the time. We were even in the same DC booth more than once. Once, he was right in front of me in line for a taxi from a hotel at a convention. I grabbed my husband’s hand too tightly and held my breath…I was afraid to say hello!
I don’t really get starstruck. I can’t explain it. I meet musicians and famous actors all the time, and my normal reaction is, shall we say, less than fawning. I just don’t really get the culture of celebrity, I don’t care about it, don’t have a lot of interest in it.
But those are just movie stars. This is Joe Kubert we are talking about.
A lot of his friends knew of my love for the man’s work, they were always trying to pull me over to meet him, and I would always chicken out. It got to be a little bit comical, as I am not exactly known for being shy or intimidated easily. As embarrassing as this is, this went on for ten years. A solid decade of me being afraid to go tell an artist how much his work meant to me.
Finally, this very year, at the C2E2 convention in Chicago, Larry Ganem, a wonderful and kind guy who manages talent at DC, just refused to put up with it anymore and grabbed my hand and dragged me over to the DC booth where Joe was preparing for a signing. I honestly was still dragging my feet, what the hell was I going to say to him?
Well, you’ll be happy to know that I sputtered like a complete bonehead. I have no idea of what I said or what I sounded like. I don’t remember at all, I just remember I verbally flopped about like a flounder. I’m pretty sure I managed to get my name in there somehow, but truthfully, I might well have been speaking in tongues.
I know I was prepared to explain who I was…I couldn’t imagine he could possibly know that. But here’s what happened:
Joe Kubert, the artist who made me love comics, who made me want to understand storytelling and made me want to tell stories myself, who showed me vikings and jungle lords and flying men with maces and noble cavemen and weary soldiers and so much more, he gave me a huge smile and grabbed me and gave me a big huge hug.
I seriously almost cried. He was so kind, he said he not only knew me, but he followed my work and loved my writing. At this point, I wish I was making this bit up, but I found that I lost my capacity to speak.
If I’d been capable of it, I would have loved to tell him how much his work meant to me, and how much of what I strive to achieve is because of him. But I was so completely reduced to a fangirl muddle that all I could think of was, “I can’t take up his time and it IS NEVER GOING TO GET ANY BETTER THAN THIS MOMENT RIGHT NOW SO MOVE ALONG, SIMONE.”
So I thanked him profusely, probably in some made up language, and moved on. It’s very selfish at this moment, but I can’t express my appreciation to Larry for forcing me to go meet my hero before he passed away. I can’t even imagine the regret I would be feeling now if I’d not taken that opportunity.
Right now, I am thinking about Joe’s students, the people he’s sent out in the world. I imagine that their weapons are all a little bit sharper for having known him. So many of the people he’s touched have gone on to build worlds of their own, that alone should put Joe in the pantheon forever.
I’m thinking of his friends and family, and wishing them every possible condolence. So many of them are also creators, his gifted sons, and his wonderful granddaughter Katie, whom I have had the pleasure to work with in her capacity as an editor at DC.
I’m terribly sad. But if there was ever a creator who inspired others to do the same, it’s Joe Kubert. And my own example just shows, his influence is everywhere in this industry I love, even where you don’t expect it.
When you put greatness out in the world, greatness tends to proliferate. His message seemed to always be, don’t aspire for the middle, don’t settle for ‘good enough.’
Dream big, draw big. Dream big and draw bigger.
Thank you, Joe, and rest easy.