RIP Joe Kubert, 1926-2012

As a comics reader, I have never considered myself a fan of Joe Kubert.

That would be like considering myself a fan of oxygen.

There are things in this world too vital and omnipresent to not need, and as a comics reader the towering, artform-shaping talent of Joe Kubert is one of them. It would be impossible to contemplate a world without him.

But now we have to, because Joe Kubert passed away this morning, age 85, and now we have to learn to live without breathing.

Kubert was an incredible artist whose skills and storytelling power helped define comics since the 1940s. He’ll always be best known for his men of action, soldiers and superheroes and warriors – Hawkman, Sgt Rock, Tarzan, Ragman, Tor. He breathed life into them and made them both mythic and very human. Kubert’s characters had grime, stubble, texture, solidity; the world left its traces on them as they marked it in turn. They could fly with impossible grace or face down vicious enemies to save the day, but they would still need a shower afterwards to wash the sweat off their bodies and the blood off their knuckles.

Kubert was more than just an artist, of course; he was a writer too, one who wrote powerful, tense and often sad stories of adventure and conflict.  War stories were his primary oeuvre, but not hollow, jingoistic tales; Kubert wrote about the costs of warfare, about soldiers sacrificing themselves to save others and how stupidity and bad luck could make that sacrifice a fool’s errand. Sgt Joe Rock of Easy Company, perhaps Kubert’s most  enduring creation, was a soldier’s soldier, a good man prepared to endure bad consequences for the sake of his men and for what was right. There was nothing easy in Rock or in his stories; they were thrilling but sobering, and no-one came away from them thinking war was anything but hell.

But Kubert was never bound by a single genre. He continued to develop his craft and skills into his 80s, and later realist and semi-autobiographical works like Jew GangsterYossel and Fax From Sarajevo were some of his greatest and most thoughtful.

And again, Kubert was more than an artist, more than a writer; he was a teacher too. In the 1970s he established the Kubert School, America’s best-known and best-respected school for comics artists. As a comics reader, I’ve always looked for word of the Kubert School in an artist’s bio. It wouldn’t tell me anything about their artistic style,  but it was a rock-solid guarantee that they understood the craft of storytelling, the nuts and bolts of letting images carry a narrative forward one panel at a time. In an era of splash pages, pin-ups and characters without feet, that grounding in craft and narrative meant everything for me – and all of that led back to Joe Kubert.

He never retired. He never stopped writing, drawing, learning, teaching.

…and finally, though I never met him, everyone says he was a hell of a nice guy too.

There are many creative talents in the comics field, writers and artists past and present with incredible skill and inventiveness who have published fantastic works. But there are few transformative talents, creators who utterly change the face of the artform with their work. Eisner was one, Kirby another, and so was Joe Kubert.

We live in the paper universes they defined. And those universes are left flatter, colder and duller than they were yesterday.

Rest in peace, Joe. Thank you for everything.

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