Joe Kubert is a living legend in the comics industry. He’s been a professional artist ever since the time that Superman came on the scene in Action Comics #1. His working life spans an amazing seven decades. Though for a time identified primarily as an artist for DC, he has effectively been drawing for just about every major US comic book publisher and put his unique stamp on characters such as Hawkman, Sgt. Rock, Tarzan or Tor, his own creation, as well as some of the industry’s most notable heroes like Superman, Batman, Flash or The Punisher.
His Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art provided a training ground for new generations of aspiring comic book artists. Ever experimenting with new formats and inspired by the European wave of serious graphic novels in later life, he also became the auteur of a series of critically well received graphic novels (Fax From Sarajevo, Yossel, April 19,1943, Jew Gangster) that helped him become a well known personality even outside of the comic book fandom.
Written by acclaimed comic historian Bill Schelly, Man of Rock is the first full length biography of Joe Kubert.
Books about artists generally fall into three possible categories.
For one, they may be lavish coffee table reproductions of their most important work. Man of Rock is far from lavish, though following every chapter we generally get a few short pages of black and white reprints of some of the work discussed in the previous chapter.
Another approach would be a critical evaluation of the artist’s works and Man of Rock does indeed cover some of this aspect, in broader strokes at least, for Kubert’s most important features.
A quick glance at the full title of the book reveals, however, that Schelly took neither one of those general approaches and instead focused on writing a biography of Kubert. And this is one of the main issues with this work. Though diligently researched and with slightly over 300 pages presented quite in-depth and in detail, Kubert’s life, from the young age of 13 on, was very much an artist’s life that does not necessarily make for the most riveting reading.
As important as this definitely was for Kubert on a personal level, from an outsider’s perspective there is only so much interest that can be gained from learning about how he chose his first drawing board, how he was not scripted for WW2, how he was subsequently also not scripted for Korea, but instead spent his draft time in uneventful post-war Germany, what cars he favoured or how his father died at the ripe old age of 81 and his mother a few years later. The book is full of events that, in most people’s opinions, would simply qualify as the stuff that ordinary lives are made off.
Of course, the one aspect that was far from ordinary was Kubert’s interactions with the comic book industry and this book scores highly any time it places Kubert’s life into the broader aspect of American comic book history. Here it is highly informative, especially when it comes to describing the first two decades of the industry and how a field that, at one stage was covered by dozens of publishers and hundreds of titles was, following up on the introduction of the Comics Code, gradually diminished to a handful of publishers and a radically reduced number of available titles.
Reading about all those long lost comic book series will have you gain a much better understanding of the industry’s early years. It is fascinating to ponder that the very absence of fictional fantasy and horror violence that was required by the Comics Code led to a resurgence of interest in war comics, the only area where, for patriotic reasons, the industry was still allowed to let the reigns loose a little bit and where Kubert, according to his own words initially not a great admirer of war stories, was subsequently able to create his own distinct vision in the form of Sgt. Rock from Easy Company.
As well researched as this book is, I am inclined to have favoured a less biographical approach to the subject and a bigger emphasis on a critical evaluation of his work. Still, this is an important book that fills a gap in the market. It’s going to be invaluable to a true Kubert buff, and has enough nuggets in it to also keep up the interest for anyone just generally curious about comic book history.