Joe Kubert, a titan among comic-book artists whose work stretched from the Golden Age of the superhero to the gritty realism of the graphic novel, died on Sunday in Morristown, N.J. According to The New York Times, he was 85. The cause was reported as multiple myeloma.
Kubert, who first plied his trade as a teenager in the 1930s and continued drawing in the hospital during his final illness, was among the last of the generation of comic-book illustrators whose work helped define the genre in the years before World War II.
“He’s the longest-lived continuously important contributor to the field,” Paul Levitz, a former president of DC Comics, said in an interview on Monday. “There are two or three of the greats left, but he’s definitely one of the last.”
Kubert was most closely associated with DC, for whom he drew Sgt. Rock, a World War II infantryman he created with the writer Robert Kanigher, and Hawkman, an airborne crime fighter. He also created Tor, a prehistoric hero, and, with Kanigher, Enemy Ace, whose antihero is a German pilot. In addition, Kubert was considered one of the definitive interpreters of Tarzan.
Through the Kubert School, an academy in Dover, N.J., that he founded with his wife, Muriel, in 1976, Kubert helped train a generation of young colleagues. The country’s only accredited trade school for comic-book artists, it enrolls students from around the world in a three-year program; well-known graduates include Amanda Conner, Tom Mandrake, Rags Morales and Timothy Truman.
Besides Sgt. Rock, whom he drew for decades, and Our Army at War, a DC series of the 1950s and afterward, Kubert explored war and violence in a series of graphic novels he wrote and illustrated in recent years: “Fax From Sarajevo” (1996), about the Bosnian civil war; “Yossel” (2003), about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising; and “Dong Xoai” (2010), about the Vietnam War.
“For me,” Kubert told The Plain Dealer of Cleveland in 2003, explaining the lure of drawing combat, “it was not about war and fighting but about the people, the characters.”
Joseph Kubert was born on September 18, 1926, in the shtetl of Yzeran (also known as Jezierzany), then in Poland and now in Ukraine. He came to the United States with his family as an infant and grew up in the East New York section of Brooklyn, where his father was a kosher butcher.
As a small child Joe loved to draw, and the sidewalks of New York became his canvas. “When I was 3 or 4, neighbors would buy boxes of penny chalk for me to draw pictures in the streets,” Kubert told The Jewish Week newspaper in 2003.
Drawing was a dubious way to make a living, his parents knew, but it was vastly preferable to the other calling into which East New York youths were inclined to fall: street-gang member. His father bought him a drawing table, which cost about $10, a small fortune in the Depression. But with that, the boy’s future was secure.
At 11 or 12 Joe gamely rode the subway into Manhattan, drawings in hand, and landed an after-school job as an office boy for a comic-book publisher. By the time he was a teenager he had worked for Will Eisner and Harry Chesler, leading entrepreneurs of the comic-book world, sweeping up, erasing, inking (his early duties included Archie comics) and eventually drawing.
The first comic he illustrated himself, Volton, about a hero with electrical powers, was published when he was 16. After graduating from the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan, Kubert served stateside in the Army before becoming a full-time artist.
In the early 1950s he helped develop the methods of drawing and reproduction that made possible the 3D comic book, which had a considerable vogue in the years that followed. During his experiments he ran through quantities of lollipops: he needed the colored cellophane wrapping the lime and cherry ones to make the red-and-green glasses vital to his effort.
Kubert’s other work includes the mid-1960s newspaper comic strip “Tales of the Green Beret,” with the writer Robin Moore; the graphic novel “Jew Gangster” (2005), about the career path not taken; and a comic strip, “The Adventures of Yaakov and Yosef,” for The Moshiach Times, a children’s magazine published by the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic movement.
The recipient of exhibitions in museums and galleries throughout the country, Kubert was the subject of a biography, “Man of Rock,” by Bill Schelly, published in 2008.
Kubert’s wife of 57 years, the former Muriel Fogelson, died in 2008. In addition to his son Adam, he is survived by three other sons, Andy, David and Danny; a daughter, Lisa Zangara; three sisters, Rosalind Krasilovsky, Sheila Dempster and Eva Cahn; 12 grandchildren; and a great-grandchild. His sons Adam and Andy are both well-known comic-book artists.
From 1967 to 1976, Kubert was DC’s director of publications, with duties that included overseeing the company’s line of war comics. He took the post when the Vietnam War was at its height, and under his supervision the company’s war comics reflected as much.
At the end of each comic Kubert directed the typesetter to add a four-word coda. It read, “Make War No More.”