Comic Artist Joe Kubert – A Student Remembers

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Editor's Note: Our guest writer, Thom Zahler, is the creator of the comic Love & Capes. Renowned comic artist and teacher, Joe Kubert, died Sunday, August 12th, in Morristown, New Jersey.

Editor’s Note: Our guest writer, Thom Zahler, is the creator of the comic Love & Capes.
Renowned comic artist and teacher, Joe Kubert, died Sunday, August 12th, in Morristown, New Jersey.

I first met Joe Kubert when I was twelve. I was a precocious kid obsessed with drawing and comics, and he was a cartoon on the pages of Dynamite magazine. Joe wrote a feature on drawing for the kids’ publication, and I ate it up.

I knew who Joe was before that, of course. You couldn’t be a comics fan and not know his work. It was distinctive, as was his signature, and by the time I was reading comics he was doing a lot of covers. I wasn’t a fan of his work, at least not yet. I liked the detail guys, the ones who drew every line on every thing in every panel. I hadn’t come to appreciate his drawing yet.

It was what he did that captivated me. I wanted to be a cartoonist in that yearning, only-thing-on-the-planet kind of way. And so did he. Drawing basic shapes, starting with stick figures… this stuff I’d learned elsewhere. But in his column his passion for what he did jumped off the page. He described being a cartoonist as “the kind of thing you’d do even if they didn’t pay you for it.”

And he had a school.

Flash forward a few years, and I am at my interview to attend the school. I was wearing a suit, because it’s what schools tell you to wear at these things. Joe was wearing jeans. I knew I was going to like him.

For three years I went through what we’d describe as “boot camp for artists.” Joe had a vision of being an artist. He wanted to teach you everything, so that you could walk into a one horse town and be qualified for whatever art job they had. And he believed in deadlines. Every year, we had ten classes a week, every week. That first year, when I returned home for Thanksgiving, I’d already done 100 assignments.

Joe wanted you to be able to do it all. A lot of us students wanted to focus on just one thing. We wanted to be comic book artists, not caricaturists or letterers or graphic artists.

When I graduated the school, my first job was doing caricatures at an amusement park. I’d already lettered a few comics by then. And after that, I worked as a graphic artist at a newspaper and an ad agency. I’ve never had a non-art job since I left the school, and Joe is the reason why.

Joe’s career is pretty monumental. Other people will probably be able to cover that better than I can here. He started drawing professionally when he was in his early teens. He defined Sergeant Rock and Hawkman. He was an editor at DC Comics. He created a school to train artists. He was a good businessman. He owned his own characters and did graphic novels and original stories. And in his eighties, he was still working, and on one of DC’s premiere projects, and his drawing had barely lost a step.

I hadn’t seen Joe since art school when I ran into him at the Baltimore Comicon a couple years ago. He was walking by my table, still in jeans and full of life. I stopped him to say hello and reminded him that I was one of his students.

After graduating, a lot of us had mixed feelings about the school. It was a good education, sure, but there were things that became a burr under your saddle, too. Mostly, it’s that the what you expect life is going to be like after school is never what it is. I wasn’t bitter or anything that extreme, but I may not have always thought of the school fondly.

All of this is to say that when I stopped him, all of those feelings melted away when he asked if I was making a living doing art. “Yes, sir. I’ve been completely freelance for ten years. And I’ve never had a job that wasn’t art.”

Joe smiled. Well, it seemed like he was always smiling. He smiled even bigger, and we shook hands. In that moment, there was just the teacher and his student. He was proud that the student had used his training, and I was proud to have used the tools I was given.

It was the best part of that show.

Joe was too big to have just one legacy. His life will continue to ripple outward through his family, his work, and his students. But, on the occasion of his death, that first lesson he taught me seems to stand out.

He told me to do the thing I love, and work like hell to make it happen.

And I think he’d want me to tell you, too.

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