Drawing on their Judaism
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Drawing on their Judaism

Legendary artist Joe Kubert honored in Israel

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Legendary comic book artist Joe Kubert meets Israeli President Shimon Peres at the Israeli Cartoon Museum Aug. 17. Yosef Avi Yair Engel

At the tender age of 12, Joe Kubert broke into the comic book business in a rather brash way: He just showed up.

“I didn’t even know what kind of materials to use. I drew on the paper bags from my father’s [butcher] shop. And I brought those drawings [to Manhattan] to show them what I could do,” the once scrappy kid from Brooklyn and now legendary comics artist said in an interview. “And they gave me paper. They gave me pencils. They gave me brushes. I never had known that they used those kinds of materials. The guys in the business just gave it to me because they recognized in me a heavy desire to do this work.”

Jewish history is full of sages who mastered the written word, but Kubert – and his sons Adam and Andy, who followed in his footsteps – have made their mark through the penciled image. Kubert himself is responsible for the creation of several major comic book titles, including “Tor,” “Tales of the Green Beret,” “Sgt. Rock,” and “Hawkman,” as well as drawing for some famous pre-existing series such as “Tarzan.” Adam and Andy earned their reputations working on the X-Men and Superman series and X-Men and Batman, respectively.

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Several panels from “Jew Gangster,” by Joe Kubert. Courtesy Israeli Cartoon Museum and DC Comics

While perhaps less recognized by the general public than “Spider-Man” writer Stan Lee, the Kubert family’s impact on the world of comics and American culture may be longer lasting.

That influence is due in no small part to the Kubert School, which the family established and runs in Dover, N.J. Established in 1976, it is the first and still only accredited school that focuses exclusively on the art of cartoon drawing.

Since its inception, the school has produced generations of successful alumni, many of whom now inhabit the distant corners of the comic book industry, having worked on such diverse projects as “Spongebob Squarepants,” “Swamp Thing,” “Spiderman,” “Daredevil,” “Hellboy,” “Scooby Doo,” “Archie Comics,” and “Conan the Barbarian.” In August, Joe and Adam (along with Adam’s wife Tracy) came to Israel to present their own work at the Aug. 17 opening of the Kubert exhibit at the Israeli Cartoon Museum.

The highlight of the ongoing exhibit is the original artwork and pages from Joe’s graphic novel, “Yossel.” The story of Yossel is that of a boy living in Holocaust-era Poland and the experiences he goes through trying to survive the Shoah. The story has a very personal appeal to the elder Kubert, who himself was born in Yzeran, Poland, and in 1926 immigrated as a baby with the rest of his family to New York. The story is an imaginative quasi-autobiographical look at one of the alternate paths Joe’s life could have taken had his parents not decided to leave a middle-class life in pre-war Poland for the clamor and bustle of immigrant New York and the land of opportunity.

In one gutsy trans-Atlantic move, the Kubert family unknowingly escaped the fires of the Shoah that would burn throughout Europe only 15 years later. “There is nothing left of that town [Yzeran] at all,” said Joe. “It doesn’t exist anymore…. It was wiped out completely.”

Joe is grateful to his adopted homeland. While the Kuberts are atypical in their chosen profession, they are very much the archetypal American Jewish success story. Joe still remembers his childhood, growing up in a traditional immigrant home in Brooklyn.

“My father was a kosher butcher in Brooklyn, but he also happened to be very well-read. He was a chazan (cantor) in shul,” Joe said. He added, “My father observed all the holidays, and every Friday [when I was] a kid, my father after work would go down to the shvitz [public steam room] in East New York.”

After several decades in the profession, when Joe had managed to establish himself in the comic book world, he encouraged his sons to join the family business. Eventually, Adam and Andy would even join Joe to teach at their parents’ school in Dover.

The entire family still runs the Kubert School. While Adam and Andy teach, Joe helps oversee the overall management and course development. Joe gives special credit to his wife Muriel’s business acumen for allowing the school to survive and flourish while he maintained a full-time career as a comic book artist all these years.

“The agreement was,” Joe said, “that she handled the business side and I would try to make sure that the courses taken were the proper ones.” Joe concluded matter-of-factly, “It is more because of her than anyone else that the school exists.”

Despite how far he has come from his Depression-era youth, the senior Kubert still holds affection for the tradition-filled milieu of his Brooklyn childhood, which perhaps led to the most unusual of collaborations in his 73-year career: drawing cartoons for the two Chabad-Lubavitch publications Tzivos Hashem (literally, Armies of God, the chasidic organization’s youth arm) and Moshiach Times.

Joe fondly recounts getting roped into what became over a decade of drawing cartoons for the group’s publications, starting in the mid-1980s.

“There was one editor at the magazine who persisted in contacting every noted cartoonist that he could find the name of that had a Jewish background. He made it his business to find them and get them to sign on,” Joe said. “I had a team of Jewish people come to the house from New York, from Brooklyn, all the way to the house in Dover. They brought with them mezuzot, a tallit, tefillin. The whole bit.”

Adam added, “I think they did some whamby jambee on him and it worked.” He added, for good measure, “We still get matzoh every year from [the editor].”

Now a healthy looking grandfather, Joe continues to draw cartoons to this day, perhaps waiting for the next generation of Kuberts to decide whether they would like to join the family business.

And to think it all began with an upstart kid from Brooklyn who had the chutzpah to hop on a train to Manhattan, not even knowing what kind of materials to draw with.

JointMedia News Service

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