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Joe Kubert:

Rock & A Hard Place

Little Joe Kubert was a baby of only two months when he and his parents and elder sister left their eastern Polish hometown of Yzeran behind them in November 1926.

Earlier that year, in the spring, his family had been refused a visa to sail to America, because his mother was still pregnant with him. They were Jewish and he would have grown up in Poland as Yossel. When, in November, they tried again they managed to join a crowded boat in Southampton docks taking European emigrants across the Atlantic to the New World and a new life.

Raised on the newspaper strips and earliest comicbooks, Joe got his first break aged eleven and participated in six decades of the medium’s history, much of it now collected in hardback Archives. He was at the dawning of the Golden Age, when Hawkman first took wing; in the Fifties, he helped pioneer the 3D craze and his believable caveman Tor, as well as beginning his long-association with DC’s war titles; in the sixties, he soared again with a revived Hawkman and the honourable German pilot Enemy Ace; in the Seventies his sinewy Tarzan ranked among the finest interpretations. Since the Eighties he has expaned his school’s outreach by correspondence and online with Joe Kubert.com, while illustrating Wolverine with son Adam, Punisher with other son Andy, Stan Lee’s Batman revamp and other big players.

Tarzan

Starting in the Nineties, Joe also wanted also wanted to explore the scope of the graphic novel. He crafted Abraham Stone for the European market in three large-format colour albums for Ervin Rustemagic’s Strip Art Features. Kubert’s period adventures of New York mobsters, early Hollywood intrigue and Pancho Villa’s Mexican revolution provided gutsy entertainment but seldom engaged more deeply.

In a similar vein, his prehistoric survivor Tor never looked finer than his four parter for Epic.

Then Joe took on nearly seven year’s work drawing a 224-page epic western starring Italy’s top-selling cowboy Tex Willer, which is finally out in English as four fancy colour hardbacks from Venture.

Still, by now Joe knew he needed to stretch himself further. His wake-up call arrived by fax. In those pre-internet days, the fax machine became the sole lifeline for his agent and firend Rustemagic to tell him about the desperate plight of his family and his countrymen trapped in Bosnia’s war-ravaged capital. One way for Kubert to respond was to visualise these stark descriptions into a graphic novel, Fax From Sarajevo (Dark Horse). There is some risk of misreading this classic-looking comics narrative as escapist action, except that the vivid urgency of the situations is hugely reinforced by incorporating Ervin’s acual fax printouts into the pages, vulnerability and bravery spelled out in cold dot-matrix capitals.Kubert’s own experiences of the realities of war while serving in Korea have always lent credibility to his comic book reports from the frontlines.

Over fifty years, Sgt Rock has been no granite statue but a living, feeling, principled fighting-man, a rock to the men under him in Easy Company. Writer-editor Robert Kanigher, a master of compact combat dramas, never scripted a long Rock story. In the 140-page Between Hell & A Hard Place (DC Comics), Brian Azzarello gets that opportunity and Kubert returns to the battlefield in two ways, as he resembles the character Lieutenant Rags. Azzarello perfectly captures Kanigher’s visual pacing terse dialogue and moral issues. Rock insists on finding the murderer of three German officers captured by Easy, suspicious that own of his own troops could be responsible raise the question: can killing be murder if you’re fighting a war?

Between Hell & A Hard Place

Azzarello also plays with the nicknameing of soldiers - ‘Bulldozer’ or ‘Bull’, ‘Little Sure Shot’ or ‘Shot’ - as a means to help them leave behind who they once were and do what their new military status requires. Kubert and Azzarello don’t flinch from showing the fear of inexperienced ‘greenhorn’ and the damage and waste which war inflicts on them, as current reports from Iraq only underline. In his rugged brushwork and bravura washes of colour, Kubert has lost none of his flawless economy and clarity.

Raw, uninked pencil is the perfect medium to convey the harrowing immediacy of the Holocaust for his graphic novel Yossel: April 19, 1943 from ibooks. Joe has gone back to that fateful November in 1926 when his family were allowed to leave for America and imagined how different his life would have been, if he, as Yossel, had been forced to stay and endure the horrors inflicted by Hitler. Except that this is no ‘imaginary story’. As Kubert notes, "There’s no question in my mind that what you are about to read could have happened."

His 120-page alternative autobiography begins and ends on that fateful day in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Yossel’s drawing talents are his solace, his inspiration. They win him favours from the German invaders, but can’t save his parents and sister from being deported to the death camps. Rather than meet the same fate, he and others left in the ghetto choose to die fighting against their Nazi persecutors.

Kubert’s achievement is making us feel as if we have stumbled across the real, unfinished sketches and from them we come to know young Yossel himself, a teenager - barely yet a man - speaking through history straight to our hearts. In Joe’s own words, creating this book "was very personal, a little scary, and sort of cleansing." At the age of 77, Joe Kubert has now given life to his other self and allowed Yossel to document his lasting testimony.

Yossel

Posted: September 8, 2007

The original version of this article appeared in 2004 in Comics International, the UK’s leading magazine about comics, graphic novels and manga.

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