By the Seat of His Pants

When I was young, and I was spending every penny I could scrape together on new comics at the 7-11 and older stuff at thrift stores and bookshops, I knew who the best artist was — the one who seemed like he was working and thinking a few steps ahead of everyone else.  That was Jack Kirby.  I also knew who my favorite artist was, the one whose byline I was most excited to see even if (as was often the case) the writing wasn’t very good.  That was Neal Adams.

But the artist I found the most unique, the most distinct, maybe the most impressive wasn’t either of those guys, nor was it Steve Ditko or Gil Kane or Carmine Infantino or any of the other giants of the Silver Age.  It wasn’t even Jim Steranko, that singular genius whose stay in the medium was too brief to make much of an impression on me until years later.  It was Joe Kubert.

The first comics I remember seeing with Kubert’s instantly identifiable style were DC Hawkman books.  They’d all been published a good decade before I was born, but I lucked into a good-sized stash when I was around 8 years old and was immediately gripped by what he could do with the pen:  the lanky, fluid musculature that would remain unparalleled until the appearance of Steve Rude in the 1980s; the washes of color and the pools of moody blackness; his amazing skill at using silhouette; the way he communicated action and movement through poses and perspective.  Comic book artists were usually known as pencilers back in those days, but it was Kubert’s pen lines that stood out:  elaborate yet natural, using extremely precise lines and hatching to give an overall impression of roughness and grit.

That served him even better on the project he became best known for.  Kubert is probably best known today for his war comics — G.I. Combat and Our World at War, Sgt. Rock & Easy Company, the Haunted Tank, and my personal favorite (of which I still have a near-complete run), Enemy Ace.  It was here that his brutal blacks and adventurous compositions really stood out; he had a gift for striking lighting effects — those silhouettes again — and strong brushwork that gave his stories a tone and mood that no other artist could touch.  It wasn’t until I was much older that I made what seems now an obvious connection:  Kubert was drawing battle noir.  His clever framing, bold set-pieces and emotionally powerful deployment of light and shadow was an obvious comic art analog to film noir, the genre of postwar crime drama that’s had a grip on me my entire adult life.  And it’s no coincidence that these books featured Kubert paired up with a writer truly equal to his talents:  the late Bob Kanigher was a perfect partner for him, matching his visual sensibilities with a hard-boiled combination of the prosaic and the fantastic, the purple and the grimy.

“I felt, as did Bob, that Rock had to be a vet, which meant he had to be an older kind of guy, a father figure to those who came in under him,” Kubert said of Sgt. Rock, a character who might have been Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade had he remained stateside.  “I don’t think Rock’s deviated much, basically, over the years.  Rock is still the kind of guy who finds himself in untenable, uncomfortable situations, a war atmosphere where he has to look out for his boys and himself.  He doesn’t like it.  He doesn’t enjoy killing, doesn’t kill for the sake of killing; if he could possibly get out of this world, he would.  But there is this matter of duty, a sense of responsibility — terms that I think synonymous.”

Kubert was born in Poland a decade before it was sacked by Hitler’s armies, and was too young to have served in the war; but war was where he returned again and again throughout his career.  He professed no special passion for the subject; his interests were so wide-ranging as to be universal, and he applied himself equally to whatever stories he was offered.  But it was a world at war that he drew the most, whether it was his WWII books, the Vietnam graphic novel he illustrated towards the end of his life, the moving tale of the Yugoslav civil war he worked on with Ervin Rustemagić, FAX from Sarajevo, in the mid-’90s; or his masterful WWI Enemy Ace stories with Kanigher.  These latter books still amaze me:  Kanigher’s scripts attempted with some success to get inside the mind of a noble and decent man that found himself obliged to fight on the wrong side of a war, and, in contrast to other war books of the era, with their fantastic, gargantuan war machines of steel and fire, Kubert’s meticulously researched biplanes and triplanes were terrifyingly fragile creations of paper, wood, and wire, and their pilots always one bad decision away from death.

The fragility of life during wartime meant that Kubert was always drawn to losers, lowlifes, and the noble doomed, another noir-like element of his work.  The first new material I ever read with him at the drawing board was Ragman, a brief but compelling title created by him and Kanigher in 1976.  Ragman was Batman’s opposite number:  explicitly ethnic (Irish, though if times had been different, he surely would have been black), poor and desperate where Batman was rich and confident, confined to Gotham’s ghettoes where Batman leapt from the rooftops of its grand buildings.  Kubert’s Gotham City was noir’s Dark City, deep pools of shadow, streetlights briefly illuminated a moment of deadly violence, despair and wreckage and trash you could almost smell.  Rory Regan’s people were ambitious lowlifes straight out of David Mamet, and Kubert drew him with a ranging, lithe physicality that showed Steve Ditko didn’t have a patent on near-mystical acrobatic movement.

Kubert passed on his love for the medium to his sons, but that wasn’t enough for him.  He is one of the few comics giants to have left a legacy outside of the work itself:  he founded the Kubert School, America’s only accredited educational institution exclusively dedicated to cartooning.  Notoriously strict and demanding, and offering no soft and impractical guidance to its students, the Kubert School — which developed the talents of the likes of Karl Kesel, Steve Bissette, Matt Hollingsworth, Rick Veitch, Tim Truman, John Totleben, Shane Davis, Eric Shanower, Rags Morales, Alec Stevens, Steve Lieber, Alex Maleev, Tom Raney, Tom Mandrake, and many others — reflects Kubert’s dedication and commitment, and champions the kind of professionalism and craftsmanship that is sadly fading from the medium.

Joe Kubert’s comics were breathtaking, daring, often astonishingly good, but they were rarely beautiful.  His characters (drawn with an eye towards realism even in the realms of the fantastic, and with a frustratingly rare reflection of the diverse body types that make up the world) carried a lot of emotional weight, all the horrors of war, on their shoulders, and even as they refused to stop fighting for what was right, their postures often wore an attitude of exhaustion and defeat.  His faces were frequently lined and weary, almost like the corpses they knew they would someday become.  The hands of his characters twisted in pain, clutched nervously at weapons, held loosely to cigarettes.  His was rarely a world of bright four-color wonder, but of swooping aerial terror, of difficult decisions that would cost lives, of beaten-down shadows illuminated by the light of a burning tank.  Bob Kanigher called him a miracle-worker capable of using black ink on a white surface to create something “more eloquent than erupting blood”.  Kubert described his own work as emotional, intuitive; “I draw by the seat of my pants,” he said.  This quality combined with his innate talent and an intense professionalism to make him the most unique and exciting artist I could imagine all those years ago.

Kubert died three days ago at the age of 85.  I pulled out those Enemy Ace books yesterday, and I still felt the way I did when I was ten years old; they have lost none of their power to surprise and impress.  He is that rarest of artists, one whose work can single-handedly justify the existence of an entire medium.  My condolences to his family; we have all lost a giant.

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