American Legend: The Joe Kubert Interview
There’s only one way to describe Joe Kubert: legend. Kubert began working in comics in the late 1930s, before he was even a teenager, and he hasn’t quit since. He’s perhaps most widely acclaimed for his gritty, stunning style on war comics such as Our Army at War and Sgt. Rock, but he’s drawn most of the biggest guns in the superhero world as well (most notably Hawkman). In 1976, he founded the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, which has over the decades produced an astounding range of talented graduates (including Rags Morales, Alex Maleev, Stephen Bissette, and Kubert’s sons Andy and Adam, to name just a few).
Now Kubert is back with Dong Xoai: Vietnam 1965, a riveting fictional depiction of one of the bloodiest and most famous battles of the Vietnam War. Here’s the fascinating story of how it came to be, as well as what Kubert is working on next—including some new Hawkman work for DC!
It’s an honor to speak with you, Mr. Kubert. Congratulations on the new book—it’s really wonderful. What inspired you to do it now?
Thank you, I appreciate it. The subject matter came to me kind of as a surprise. To give you a little bit of a background on it: I had been contacted by a retired colonel, a man who was in charge of a group in the Special Forces, Bill Stokes. He had contacted me, not knowing me, based on a drawing I had done 40 years ago, when I was doing the Green Berets strip. How that had come about was when that Green Berets strip came out in the newspapers 40 years ago, part of it involved some promotion that I was doing. The syndicate had brought in somebody, this fellow who had won the Medal of Honor, and he was in the Special Forces and had served in Vietnam. I did a drawing at that time to promote the strip and forgot about it completely. Out of the clear blue sky, Bill Stokes called me about two or three years ago. He knew nothing about comic books, nothing about comic strips, and I’m sure knew nothing about me but Googled me based on the fact that I had signed the drawing. So why did he call me? He called me because he has been constantly in contact with people with whom he had served in Vietnam in 1965, even prior to the war having started. In the correspondence with the family that he maintained communication with, he had included drawings and photographs and pictures, anything that he could find that referred to the story of their experience in this place called Dong Xoai. And he maintained this connection, this correspondence, not only with the few guys who still remained alive but with their families, with their children and grandchildren. So he included as much information as he could, which included the drawing that I had made.
Why did contact me on the drawing? Because he had been using something that had been used in the newspaper and it became fuzzy. It became illegible. So he asked me if I had a clean copy so that he could include it in this newsletter that he sent to the families. So I said, “I can’t find the drawing. I would have no idea where the heck that’s gone. But if you send me the copy that you have, I’ll be more than happy to do another drawing for you.” Which he did, and I was very happy to do it. I did the drawing and I sent it back to him and he got back to me and said, “How much do I owe you for this?” I said I don’t want any money for what I did, but I would like to get a copy of that newsletter that you’re sending to the survivors of the experience that you had in Dong Xoai, which he did. So when I read this thing, and that is the back of the book, I just felt that this was a story that I had to do. I’m reading this thing, the details of it, the battle that took place, the concern that each man had for each other, the incredible experience of that battle that they went through—the men who were killed during that time, and every man having been wounded during that set-to. I said, This is something that I’ve got to draw. This is something that I’ve got to do in picture form.
Do you remember how that story was presented to the general public back in 1965? And how it compares to what you discovered those men went through?
Vaguely. Only vaguely. I was focused in on the Green Berets strip at that time and that’s where all my thoughts were. I don’t know if you’ve ever been involved in doing a syndicated strip. It’s like a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week job. The deadlines are horrendous. I don’t know of any other job that has that kind of pressure on it as does doing a syndicated strip. So I only vaguely remember the fact that I had been introduced to the guy who had won the Medal of Honor. I had met him but only fleetingly because he had come up to the syndicate’s office when I was there. We said hello. He described the incident in which he had earned that Medal of Honor. I did a sketch based on what he described to me and that was the end of it. So when this whole thing came up, it was like a shot out of the blue and I had no idea, no conception of doing anything about it until I received a copy of the newsletter that Bill Stokes had been sending to the survivors and their families.
Bill Stokes lives today in North Carolina a little bit out of Chapel Hill. And I made an appointment with him and got in my car and went down to North Carolina. I got down there and I found him to be a straight arrow. The guy is a pleasure to talk to. No game playing, nothing. I said, look, I read the stuff that you sent me. It’s a story that I would love to illustrate. I would love to make a graphic novel of this. I think it’s something that really moved me and I would try to incorporate that in what I do. I said I’d love for you to help me in any way that you can. If you tell me no, I will of course honor what you’re telling me, but I’m going to do the book anyhow. And he quickly agreed to help me, supplied me with hundreds of additional photographs that he had taken while he was stationed in Dong Xoai, and told me more detailed information on the backgrounds of the guys with whom he had served. He was in charge of the whole group of 12 guys. That was the way the book came about.
Did you meet with any of the other survivors?
No. The guys are all over the United States and any way that I came to find out about them was through Bill. He was a contact that I had with the others but that contact was minimal, and you’ve got to understand that this guy, a retired army colonel, has such a relationship with the men, I can only imagine it. Here are guys who served at a place where each one of their lives was up for grabs. Each one of them was depending on their buddy, not only to watch their backs but to be there in case, God forbid, something happened to them. And that’s the way they played it. And in reading about it, and reading about it even long after this whole thing had taken place, 40 years later, while they still maintain that kind of contact. I mean, they get together once or twice a year, have a picnic or a cookout at somebody’s house. They never lost contact with each other. It was really something that grabbed me.
With him not knowing who you were before he contacted you, was he surprised to learn who you were and the work you’ve been doing all these years?
Well, I tell you, we’re talking about a very astute army guy. I knew that he got to know what I was all about, despite the fact that he knew nothing about me before except that I had drawn this picture. He must have Googled the hell out of me, because he knew me, he knew what I had been doing, he knew my children, I mean he knew everything about me, and rightfully so, because when I had suggested what it was I wanted to do, he wanted to make damn sure of the person with whom he might be involved.
Have you talked to him since you finished the book?
Oh, yeah, constantly. He’s a great guy. Like I said, straight as an arrow and good guy to talk to; no game playing. What he says is what he means, which is the kind of guy I enjoy talking to.
What does it feel like to capture war and depict it graphically? To make it look real and accurate and authentic as you do?
That part of it is not the most difficult thing, but it is difficult. That is, before I start drawing, I try to steep myself with as much reference, as many photographs and pictures, as much information as I can garner on the subject matter itself, and that applies to any story that I’m doing because I think that the stuff we do in comics really stands on its credibility. I don’t care if you’re doing a superhero story or a western or whatever the heck it might be. Unless the character is credible, unless the backgrounds are believable, then the whole story is worthless, because we’re stretching stuff to begin with. We’re talking about things that don’t happen every day. The best stories are maybe just a little bit unusual, or a little bit with a twist, and in order to make those things seem credible, they have to be based on evidence, so to speak. They have to look real. They have to look credible. So I do a lot of that before I can start to draw. Then I read about these guys. I get as many books on the subject as I can. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s not unusual to say that the guys I did the story about are the original band of brothers. And it’s done over and over again. We’re not talking about one group. We’re talking about I don’t know how many guys in different areas of the service who felt the same way. One of my very good friends, the artist Sam Glanzman, is somebody I’ve always admired. As a matter of fact, he’s doing some work with me right now. I’m going to be doing some work with DC packaging some anthology books, and he’s going to be doing some of his old U.S.S. Stevens stuff. Sam too is cut of the same cloth. He is able to do stories that he does about having served on the U.S.S. Stevens because he had a sense and a feel for the guys who served with him. There wasn’t the ship. The ship was made of feeling things because of his relationship with his buddies, and I think that’s that way it works.
Since you’ve been doing this for decades and depicting war and the toll it takes on humanity, has it changed your perspective on war itself and the human condition?
If I were to classify the stories I do, the settings, I think, are secondary. The relationship between the people in them is foremost and most important in any of the stories I do. And that’s why I try to stretch myself as much as I possibly can, to make those characters that I draw credible and believable. Because if they’re not, then regardless of how dramatic a situation I put them in, it’s meaningless. The war setting? I guess one of the reasons that I’m recognized and connected with a lot of war stuff is because I fell into a situation that required it. It’s certainly not because I have any particular feeling toward it, because I don’t. But because early on, the stuff that I did sold, so they kept feeding me more and more war stories to do. And I guess that’s the reason that I became to look so connected to that stuff.
Are there any superheroes or any comics characters that you haven’t illustrated that you would really like to?
Well, I just finished one I should mention. I’m doing these DC anthologies. I have two in the bag and six that I’m going to be doing altogether. Hopefully by the beginning of next year they’ll be out. The first book will contain a 22-page story on Hawkman that I wrote and kind of give it my feeling of what the beginning might have been.
Is it based on the current Hawkman incarnation?
No. No. No. [Laughs] It goes back to Gardner Fox’s interpretation. It just seemed to be more logical to me and a lot more comfortable for me to do.
These anthologies will be based on different DC characters?
They gave me these books to do any way I wanted to do, any kind of characters I wanted to do. Some are still creator-owned. One of the books will contain a series of Redeemer stories I did about 20 years ago but for one reason or another never got published. Well, it wasn’t for one reason or another; it was because I couldn’t finish the damn things! [Laughs] I had so much work on my table, I was just a little bit overoptimistic about the work I could do at that time and I was only able to finish maybe half a dozen of the dozen stories I was slated to do. But those will be published now.
What do you consider your most impressive accomplishment in comics?
I think my most impressive accomplishment is the five kids that I’ve had! My love for what I do, I think, puts me in that category of being one of the luckiest guys in the world. I enjoy what I’m doing. I love what I do. I don’t have any particular favorite. The job that’s on my table is my favorite at that time simply because I invest all my concentration and all my thoughts on that particular job. That said, it’s work that I love to do. It’s work that I’ve always loved to do. I haven’t had a job since I’m 12 years old. This is work that I love to do and people are willing to pay me money for. And at this stage of the game where I can do pretty much what I want to do when I want to do it, how lucky can you get?
Do you still feel as much enthusiasm for the industry itself as you always did?
I don’t know if it’s particularly for the industry. I guess I do. I’m enthusiastic. But I’m more enthusiastic about the work. I don’t know why. After all this time, maybe I’m getting the hang of it. I don’t know. But it’s something that I enjoy doing more today than I did when I started. I think I’m getting perhaps a deeper understanding of what the hell I’m doing and perhaps the freedom that I’m allowed to do what I want to do and people are happy to publish it, that’s like putting the cherry on top of the whipped cream.
When you founded your School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, did people think it was a good idea at the time, or did they try to talk you out of it?
Well, I never met any real resistance, I don’t think, at any time. People were not overly optimistic about my being able to do it. I wasn’t overly optimistic about it! I never did think the school would last as long as it has. I’m very proud of the fact that people have come out of the school and are doing really well. It seems that at this stage of the game, after almost 35 years, a great number of guys in our business have at one time come through our school. It’s a good feeling and I’m very proud of the fact that we’re able to do that, but I’m more proud of the guys that have done it. We may have opened the door or pointed the way, but those are the guys who have done it and oh, boy, I tell you, if you’ve done anything in my business, you know the work that’s involved in it.
How is everything going with the school now? How many people are involved with it at this point?
We’re a small school. We have an enrollment of about 100, 110 students. It seems to be picking up. It’ll never have more than 300. That would be the limit. I wouldn’t take any more simply because I think the success of the school really depends on the instructors here. We have about 20 or 30 instructors available to us, and of course they don’t teach five days a week. They are working artists at their own tables and their own studios, wherever they are, wherever they live, and they come to the school to teach one or two days a week. What they teach is what they do to make a living, so the information they’re giving to the students is the real stuff. And the success of the school really is a result of the kind of instructors that we’ve had. And the two guys we’ve had that I’m most proud of, of course, are my sons! That is a miracle. An absolute miracle. Because to have two of my kids want to do what I’m doing, love what they’re doing as much as I love what I’m doing, be here at my school, be teaching one day a week as I do, doing their work here and I see them doing their work every single day, my God, how lucky can you get?
With the way the comics industry is now, there’s a preponderance of people who write, draw, and even letter their own work. Is it a good thing, do you think?
Well, to begin with, it’s really difficult for anyone to break into my business. More so today than any time I can remember, simply because it’s become so complex and so demanding. The fact is that most artists who are doing work today are doing the whole jobs themselves. They’re either doing the penciling or the inking or the layout or the coloring or one of the different facets that it takes to put out this material. The other thing is in order to learn the basics of what’s going on in the business, you have to learn that from people who are in it. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no one place that I know of that gives enough information about all of the different facets of what’s going on in this business to prepare anybody to actually do it. When I started out, all you had to learn was, Here’s a brush, here’s a pencil, here’s a hunk of paper to do this stuff, and this is the way it’s done. Well, it’s become a hell of a lot more complex than that. In addition, when I started out, comic books were 64 pages in length and sold for 10 cents. They were considered next to toilet paper—they were considered the least viable way of doing art material in this world. And most of my peers who were adults were ashamed to be in the business because it was kids’ stuff, a throwaway kind of art. It allowed me, however, at the age of 12, to sell my first work. Because the publisher, having to do 64 pages of material, could afford to throw away five pages and say, Here, kid, here’s five pages do whatever you want with, and here’s five bucks a pages and we’ll print it. Which he did and which is how I was able to learn what this industry that I was trying to get into was all about.
That was pretty serious money for a 12-year-old at that time too.
I was making more than my father was at that time! And I was still just starting off high school. But that kind of situation doesn’t exist today. That throwaway of a couple of pages just isn’t there anymore. Now you have 22 pages in a regular magazine, 22 pages of artwork, every one of those pages is valuable, so there’s nowhere that somebody who wants to break in can do it as I did. That’s one tremendous advantage that I had. When I take a look at some of the stuff that I did that they bought, I cringe! I absolutely cringe! Because the stuff is so terrible. Nevertheless, it gave me an opportunity to start. Now, somebody trying to get into the business may bring samples of all the things they’ve done and all they things they’re trying to do, but they’re starting at a terrific disadvantage because the use of computers has come in so heavily now. Although the computer is just another tool, it is a complex tool. And at times I think for new people coming in, it becomes almost overpowering and causes a lot of these guys to forget the fact that what the cartoonist actually is is a storyteller. And if you make a drawing so complex or if you remove the drawing so far from the storytelling factor, you’re losing it. You’ve lost your readership. You’re no longer telling a comics strip. You may be doing some beautiful artwork, but you’re no longer telling a story that’s recognizable and has a stream of pictures that will tell somebody who’s reading it exactly what’s happening.
It becomes really complex for anyone trying to break in. If someone starts out, for instance, inking really well, there’s no way, if that’s all you can do, I don’t care how good an inker you are, if that’s all you can do in this business, you’re walking a real tightrope. Because if one week or one month passes by where you’re not getting that job—and it could be any of a thousand reasons over which you have no control—what do you do? You’ve got to run and get a job somewhere else, because that’s the only thing you can do. At the school, the people who attend—and it’s a tough school to get through—are able to garner enough information and enough various aspects of the business that they should be able to do everything, just as I do, just as my sons do, just as anyone who’s looking to make a viable living over an extended period of time does. That kind of information is absolutely integral for them.
How much do computers play into the course study at your school?
Computers are a big part of it. That’s another facet of the business that they have to learn. It is just a tool, but it has to be learned by anyone who wants to break into this business. Computers now are an integral part of every business I know of. If you don’t have a computer, then you’re not in business. So the same thing applies in comics, and the benefits are tremendous. You can do your work anyplace in the world! And there are guys doing work today where the original art never leaves their homes! They’re able to transmit it to the publisher without having to mail the artwork out. I remember deadlines where I had to get into New York—I lived in New Jersey, and I had to get in my car and drive like crazy to be able to get there in time, to make sure things got to the printer on time. Well, I’m sure people are still rushing, but they don’t have to get in their cars anymore; they have the computer.
Did computers play into the artwork of Dong Xoai: Vietnam: 1965, other than as a delivery mechanism? It looks like you used straight pencils for this.
I’m flattered by the fact that you look at the stuff I did and think that the results are purely by pencil! [Laughs] Because to go into a little bit of detail: You notice there’s a gray tone to the paper in the book. Well, that gray tone was not on the paper that I used when I did the drawings. The drawings were done on regular notepaper. Very thin stock. And sketches were done by pencil on 8 ½ x 11 sheets of paper. The gray tint was created. I have a guy who works with me, Pete Carlsson, who is like my right arm. This is the guy who knows which buttons to push to make the machines work. And what he did in order to get that gray tone was this: The paper that I worked on was thin enough to allow some sense of something behind it to come through. By that I mean he was able to put a black sheet of paper behind my drawings and adjust the computer and scan the stuff in so that it gave a gray tint over the entire paper. The white paint that you see on the paper is white paint that I had applied to the paper itself so that he, in setting the computer up to get the tone that I wanted, was able to work that with the computer throughout the entire book so that the look of the book, to some degree anyhow, was a result of computer work having been done on it. But drawing, I just used a pencil. A pencil, a hunk of paper, and white paint—that’s what did it.
Let’s talk a little about how the industry was when you started, and the attitude of publishers toward creators. Is it significantly better now?
Unquestionably. But I would hesitate—I would not paint the guys who ran the publishers 40 or 50 years ago as evil people. That’s the way business was done. When somebody came up with the idea for a comic strip, he knew well to begin with that the moment he gave it to a publisher and cashed the check that the property no longer belonged to him. There’s been a lot said about the guys behind the Superman character, Siegel and Schuster, and all the dough that Superman has generated and so on and so forth. Nevertheless, that was the way business was done at that time. No one put chains around an artist and dragged him up to the publisher and forced him to do the work. Quite differently. The artists loved giving the stuff to the publisher for the checks that they received. For years, nobody wanted the originals. I’ve been around this business so long that I recall vividly, I was there when artwork in comic books was just tossed aside like garbage. But more than that, syndicate guys, guys like Hal Foster, who did Prince Valiant—if somebody wrote in and wanted a drawing, he’d send them a whole page! Now we’re talking about something that’s worth $50,000 or $60,000 that he just gave away! Well, was he stupid at the time? No! That’s the way the world was. It was a different world completely at the time than it is today. And you cannot gauge good or bad, evil or good then based on what’s happening today. Would I take my originals back today? Of course I would! I wish I had saved my originals! And boy, this is an old story, but I wish I had saved the stuff that I did 40 and 50 years ago. But nobody did. And the business—the whole thing has advanced. There were a lot of things the publishers did not want to give up. They’re businessmen. But a lot of the things they eventually had to give up in order to maintain their businesses. So the artists did better, the writers did better, everybody who was involved did better. But to compare, to say today that we were taken advantage of 40 or 50 or 60 years ago, I think is wrong. That’s the way it was, is all.