The first drawing I ever hung up in my room was a copy I made of Joe Kubert’s cover for issue #1 of “Justice Inc.”
Looking at that cover now, it’s easy to see why 9 year old me was enthralled by it. It had a sense of danger that just wasn’t present in the other comics I was reading. Joe drew a grim faced hero plunging through the sky towards us as a parachute erupts from his back. The guy looks weather-beaten, with sharp cheekbones, a furrowed brow, and deep grooves around the nose and mouth. Most of the comics heroes I’d encountered were glowing, perfect Olympians, frozen at a sunny, youthful point in their mid-20s. Not Kubert’s. His heroes were older and sinewy, never armor-plated with idealized musculature. Capable, but vulnerable, they always looked like they’d been through a lot. Clearly, the work they did was hard, and their success, if it came at all, would come at a cost.
Years later at his school, my classmates and I would learn from Joe that this is how things are in real life. The man had a titanic work ethic, teaching and dealing with administrative matters at the school while continuing a productive freelance career, keeping in shape, staying active in his community and being there for his family. He never seemed to be in a hurry, but he got a lot done, all while maintaining the gravity and authority of an Easter Island statue. A young artist couldn’t ask for a better role model.
One thing that must have helped Joe keep going was that while he always described drawing as work, he clearly loved doing it. He attended the school’s evening life drawing sessions, not as an instructor, but just for the pleasure and the practice of drawing from a live model. The man was wrapping up his fifth decade as a working artist, and he still spent his free time doing figure studies, humbly recording observations in charcoal or chalk, seeing what else the model could teach him. In class, when he wasn’t critiquing or lecturing, he doodled with whatever tool was handy. He’d sometimes tear these doodles up and toss them in the trash after class, prompting a mad rush of Kubies to the basket to recover what he’d done. Here’s one that I recovered and taped back together.
Joe was a patient and generous instructor. There was a one genuine prodigy in my class, and a couple of students who were close to professional, but most of us (and that includes me) were struggling mightily to reach even the bottom rung of competence. That didn’t stop Joe from taking us and our efforts seriously. I can’t begin to communicate how much this meant to us.
We’d bring our work to him, and he’d take a moment to study it as a whole. Then he’d ask us a few incisive questions about our goals for a figure, a panel, a sequence. Just formulating the answers was valuable. Joe never let us lose sight of our role as communicators. There needed to be a reason for every choice we made on a page. Then he’d lay tracing paper over it and, with a soft lead pencil, would show us how we could tell the story more effectively. If we’d fixed a problem he’d spotted in our work before, he’d note this. If we failed to fix it, he’d correct us again, sometimes with a bit of gentle ribbing. For all his gravity, he had a sense of humor, and he urged us to loosen up and not take ourselves so seriously. We were going to be learning throughout our entire careers, and we’d never be 100% happy with what we did. “Do the best you can with the time allotted and move on.” “If something didn’t work on this page, get it right on the next one.” “Let yourself have fun with it.”
He told us that a lot toward the end of our last year at school. It seemed impossible. We’d all come a long way since our first day of school, but we all knew how very far we had to go. For me, drawing was still more about failure than fun. I was panicking, convinced that I’d never have what it takes to support myself as an artist, and I don’t think I was alone. I know a lot of my classmates felt the same. Joe didn’t. He was confident about our skills, and more importantly, about the quality of what we’d been taught.
On our last day of school, he answered some big-picture questions for us, and he drew pen sketches of some of my classmates. He did this one of me.
August 12th, 2012.