During my teaching years at Southern Illinois University Carbondale from 2007-2016, I did some research about graphic novels, especially their usefulness for struggling readers and writers in K-12 education. One of my interviewees in 2010 was the famous Joe Kubert, who had founded a well-known school for cartoonists. I was surprised that he granted my request for an interview immediately, and he turned out to be a gentle, wonderful person, patiently giving me insights into his art and the daily life of cartoonists and illustrators. He sadly passed away in 2012; here is his profile on his school’s website. I am grateful to have been able to speak to this great master, and I am rendering our interview in its entirety (I still had my maiden name back then).
Interviewee: Joe Kubert (K) Interviewer: Christina Voss (V) Date: 04/29/2010 Time: 9:00 a.m. – 9:22 a.m. Topic: his school for cartoonists Recording time: 22:26 min When visiting the Comic Con in Chicago on Saturday, April 17th, 2010, I received an advertising flyer for The Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art Inc. I went to the website, found an email, and sent my info and consent letter. Nobody filled in my online survey, but Joe Kubert, the owner, sent me an email and indicated his willingness to be interviewed. According to his website, Joe began working in comic books at age eleven as an apprentice of a comics production house, and has been staying true to this field for more than sixty years, producing stories like Hawkman, Tarzan, Enemy Ace, Batman, The Flash, and Sgt. Rock for DC Comics Publishing Co. His principal contribution in 1952 was the work on the first 3-D comic book, Mighty Mouse. In the 1960s, he illustrated a novel which appeared in several newspapers, and he was also responsible for Winnie Winkle (Chicago-Tribune New York News Syndicate) and Big Ben Bolt (King Features). For 25 years, he served as editor for DC Comics. He wrote and illustrated four graphic novels (Tor, Abraham Stone, Fax From Sarajevo (a true story based on his friend’s and agent’s faxes sent as only means of communication with the outside world when he was trapped in the Bosnian war zone 1992-1994), and Yossel: April 19, 1943,a story aboutthe Holocaust in a “what if” situation), and illustrated a graphic novel from Brian Azzarello (Sgt. Rock: Between Hell and a Hard Place). In 1976, he founded the first and only accredited school for the art of cartoon graphics, a a three-year residential school specializing in the development of professonal cartoonists and artists, which is located in Dover, New Jersey. The class sizes are normally 15-20, maximum 25 students. In 1998, he established the Joe Kubert’s World of Cartooning, which offers correspondence courses. In 1999, he published an instructional book on the art of creating powerful comic book characters, Superheroes: Joe Kubert’s Wonderful World of Comics. He has received many awards, and is a past vice-president of the National Cartoonist Society, a member of the Advisory Board for the International Museum of Cartoon Art, the New York Press Club, and the Society of Illustrators. Joe also works with cinematic animation and computer-generated graphics (see http://www.kubertsworld.com). K: Hello. V: Good morning! K: Good morning. V: How are you doing? K: Good. How are you doing? V: I’m fine. We have wonderful weather here now. After all the storms. K: Good. That’s good, good. V: Do you have a little time for a phone interview right now? K: Yes, absolutely. V: Oh, wonderful. Well, the first thing I would like to know is, em – talk a little bit about your school. K: Okay. The school is one that is focused towards the interest of anyone who wants to be a comic cartoonist, whether in newspapers, or story board, or comic books, or whatever, and it is a three-year school, em, and the students who graduate receive not only a job, but a certificate. V: Oh, can they work at your school, too, and can they become teachers there when they graduate? K: I’m sorry, the sound is garbled. Em, I didn’t quite hear you. V: Oh! I wanted to know whether they can also work at your school as a teacher when they graduated. K: I… I still… It still… the line is terrible. Could you please speak just a little bit slower? V: Yes [very slowly]. I’m sorry. Can they also work at your school when they finish their education? K: Yes. As a matter of fact, that’s precisely why they’re coming to the school, to get the information and necessary background, so they’re able to get a job, that, that’s expressly the reason why students are coming to the school. V: And how many students do you have right now? K: We have approximately 100 students who are attending now. V: Uhum. And are there more males or females, do you know? K: I’m sorry? V: Are there more men or more women? K: Oh, many more men. That’s interesting that you should ask. But of course there are many more men than, uh... I think our enrollment is perhaps 20 percent women. V: Oh! That is interesting, because people say that girls read less comics than boys, too. K: They read more comics than boys? V: They read less, and there are less especially geared towards girls, too. K: Yes. Yes. The problem has been for years that comic books have been a medium that is read more by the males than the females; that’s true. But I think that in the past few years, that it has changed considerably now; I think in the past, there were fewer women and girls who read comic books; there are more today than there were in the past. V: Maybe one just needs to make more advertising to get girls into reading comics, right? K: Oh, I think it’s more than advertising. I think the subject matter should be more suitable for women. I don’t think…. I think that women’s interests are in variance to what men are looking for. V: Do you think girls like manga more, and boys action hero comics? K: I…. – your guess is as good as mine! [both laugh] V: That’s good. How did you come to, em, cartooning, comics, and graphic novels; what was your first decision to go into there? K: Well, I always loved cartooning, since I was a child. From the first time I’d seen cartooning in newspapers when I was very, very young, I felt this was what I wanted to do. I’ve been drawing since I was a very young child and I just gravitated towards this form of art. V: Uhum! That’s interesting. Can you describe what a work day of a graphic novel or comics illustrator is like? How do they go about? K: Well, to begin with, eh, it’s not a work day. Eh, if you enjoy… I enjoy doing what I do every day, and I’ve never looked at it as work. I’ve been retired since the first day I picked up my pencil to draw. This is something I, I love to do. I’ve always enjoyed it, and it’s not a job. But the time at the table, this is of, eh… well, I’m sitting at the table right now as I speak to you; and I’m here six to seven days a week, and not because anybody is forcing me to; this is where I’m most comfortable; this is where I most enjoy myself. V: And do you make your cartoons with pencil and ink, or do you use computer programs? K: No, no, we use the computer as well, but the initial work is done with, eh, with pencil and ink, and, eh, the computer plays a large part in what we do today, as it does, I guess, in every, every business. It’s an integral of every business existing; it’s an integral part of our life. V: And how do writers and illustrators work together? If the illustrators don’t make the story; if they just make the pictures? K: The illu… the business itself… the comic business itself is broken up… broken down into a number of different facets. For instance, there’s a writer, an author, somebody who creates the story itself. Very often, then that’s given to an artist who just does the penciling. Then, the next step would be to have it inked. And the next step before that may be to have the lettering done. That’s another person. Then, the next step after that is the coloring. That’s another person. Em, and all this is overlooked and overseen by an editor. That’s pretty much how it works. V: Does the author of the story have a final word, like if he doesn’t like the illustrations? If he wants them a bit different; if he didn’t imagine it to be like this in the beginning? Can he have a veto and say he wants it in a different way? K: That’s an interesting question. No, the person who has the, the…. the series of hierarchy in our business is that the editor is the top boss. He’s the guy that makes the final decision. The editor is the one who finds the writer. Personally, he dictates what the, what the subject matter of the particular book is he is putting out; what he is looking for. He will then contact the writer or perhaps the writers, and select a story he thinks fits the book he is editing. He will then find the artist – give them the story – find the artist to do the illustration, and that artist is usually several people, not just one. And the responsibility, the one who dictates the quality of the work, or just the final word, is the editor. V: Uhum. Yah. And how much research does one have to put into creating a comic? For example, the author; does he need to read lots of newspapers and original works? K: Absolutely. Yes, yes. There are… there’s a lot of research, a lot of reference that’s used in the work we do, simply because the, the stories that normally involve very highly imaginative situations and characters, and it is very important to make those characters – despite the fact that they are fictitious and very imaginative – you have to make them credible and believable. And unless the backgrounds, unless the, the… if you’re showing a city scene, unless that city, unless the buildings are absolutely correct, then the entire presence of the story just disappears, because if the background is not credible, then the whole story, despite the fact that we deal with very highly imaginative characters and stories, they must still be credible to the exent that at least, the reader must feel that these things are possible, these things can happen. And the backgrounds and reference material, and the things that the writer must read about, certainly are the basis for this kind of credibility. V: So it’s a lot of work; it’s not just fantasy, right? K: That’s correct. That’s absolutely correct. People who are… who don’t really know about the business too much feel that if they’re doing a superhero story, which deals with characters that just don’t exist, they could write anything, or draw anything, or do anything they want, they have the freedom to do it. That’s very far from the truth. The best stories, the best superhero stories are those that are done… that seem to be believable. That’s the endowment that the artist and the writer must inject into these stories. V: Uhum. And do you do more cartoons and graphic novels for children or for adults in your school? K: I do them for myself. [half a second break; both start to laugh] I, I, I do the kind of work and the kind of stories that I enjoy doing. I’m fortunate – most of the, uh, most of the people in my business who are trying to get started, to get on their feet and so on, to establish themselves, accept they must be flexible to accept stories to do that they might not be too crazy about. That is a challenge. That is a test. They still have to do the best work possible; the best work that they possibly can, and inject themselves completely and totally into what they are doing, in order to get the best work done. Eh, I’m fortunate in that at this stage of the game, I can pretty much select what I’d like to do, at least, and the stories or graphic novels that I do are those that interest me. V: Can some of them be used for ESL students; learners of the English language? K: I’m sorry? V: Can some of your stories be used by teachers who are teaching learners of the English language, ESL students? K: Absolutely. Absolutely. I hope so, anyhow. I think that what I try to do is to incorporate into the work that I’m doing those elements that have made the characters or the story itself interesting to me, and doing that… a cartoonist is actually a story teller; a cartoonist is a communicator, and it’s not about selling pretty pictures. It’s being able to tell a story with those pictures. I don’t care how beautifully a drawing might be executed; if it’s not telling the story it’s supposed to be doing, it’s not doing a proper job. V: Uhum. Can some of your stories be used for children with learning disabilities, you think? K: Ah woah, that depends on the learning disability, but, eh…. V: Like reading and writing? Struggling readers and writers in K-12? K: I think that is a good source… [somebody must have brought him something, because he says to the side, “thank you very much, Paul!”] I think it’s a, an excellent method of learning any language that you might be looking at. The combination of pictures and words makes the understanding of that language a lot easier. I know a lot of friends I have all throughout Europe have gotten their major education of how to learn English from comic books! V: Oh! Em. Many people in the graphic novels world are against the creation of graphic novels for learning-disabled children specifically, because they think the genre is being dumbed down and made too easy. Do you you think there is a market niche for graphic novels especially for kids with learning disabilities, or should one just tell a story and the teacher can decide whether it works for a classroom or not? K: I think your last suggestion is probably the better one. I think the decision has to be made not on an overall general basis, but on specifics. I know there are a lot of magazines – and, I guess any kind of reading material can be decided on the same pages – there are things that I find personally objectionable in all, in many books that I wouldn’t bring into my home. On the other hand, there are many books that I think are applicable, that I’m interested in, and that I not only enjoy myself, but recommend for a family to read. I think it depends on the individual, on the individual, probably. V: Uhum. That’s a good answer. What do you think about online graphic novels, on the Internet? K: Well [laughs], that’s the part of the business that’s becoming more and more important. I must admit that I don’t watch the, the Internet too often. I kind of have my nose to the grindstone here. But anywhere and any way that, that illustrations and stories can be disseminated is a good, positive thing. V: Uhum. Many teachers of graphic novels have said that parents and students and other teachers don’t understand the genre of graphic novels; they think it’s a “long comic book,” or they think “graphic” means “violent” or “sexual.” Have you ever met such misunderstanding of other people about your art? K: [breathes audibly] I, I don’t recall such a situation where, eh, people have misread what I do. I just didn’t come across that kind of situation. V: Uhum. Some teachers said you can raise the self-esteem of students when you do comics and cartoons and graphic novels with them. Do you know anything about that, about the self-esteem of kids? K: I think that, eh, I think that it’s a good medium. I think that it’s an excellent medium, especially as you have mentioned before, for, eh, young people who have some disabilities concerning reading or understanding the material that they are reading. I think the combination of pictures and words is always a lot easier to grasp meaning than… just… It’s difficult, it’s really difficult… Myself, I think nothing can equal the effect of actually putting together words in a form that has impact, simply because in those words, each reader gets something different from those words. They can… if somebody describes a character verbally, there are still nuances that are different with each person who reads the same description, hereby satisfying the needs of each individual reader – a picture can’t do that. A picture is a photograph. I’m, I’m sure that there are many people…. For instance, one time on the radio, there were characters… adventure stories that were described on the radio, and characters acted out these parts, and each person who listened to those radio programs imagined those characters in a different way. When those characters were put into a picture for them, whether they were movies where they selected a character, or an illustration where an artist depicted a character, invariably, a number of people said, “well, I didn’t think he would look like that at all! It’s just not the way I thought this character should look.” However, just letting their imagination determine what a character should look like satisfies everybody. V: Uhum! I think so, too! What do you think of Classics Illustrated? You know, Shakespeare or Charles Dickens, or something like that… some people told me they are badly done, and they are from the 1950s and very old… K: They were well done for what they were. At least, at least, they stimulated people to go to the actual books, to Shakespeare, to all the classics, to read them themselves. I think that is wonderful. But to feel what the actual book is like from Classics Illustrated is a terrible mistake. V: Uhum. I’ve heard from some people in the graphic novels world that they want to create new graphic novels, and not adapt-, adaptations of existing literature. So, the story has to be entirely new, and not an adaptation of a classic or a book that’s already out there. What do you think about that? Should it always be a new story, or can it also do historical… K: You can do anything. I think you can do anything in a graphic novel. Anything that’s stimulating, that’s imaginative and is interesting, that’s emotional, that has some passion and vine in it. I think you can do any subject matter. It can be a classic, it can be a personal story; anything, as long as it’s, as long as it holds together, as long as it’s a good story. V: Uhum. Has any of your students ever done an autobiographical cartoon or comic? K: Oh yes. At least – not a complete novel, because that would take a lot of time. Usually, there are at least sixty or a hundred pages of length. But they have done 1- or 2-page stories. Perhaps of how they came to come to the school, or their experiences at home, or what they’re most interested in, and so on…. Yeah, that stuff quite often. V: Uhum. I talked to one teacher who told me that she works with foster kids and kids with emotional problems, and they tell the story of their lives through cartoons, and it’s like art therapy for them. K: Hm. Well, I’m not well-versed in those areas, but I would imagine that’s a very interesting possibility. V: Uhum. I have only one more question here on my sheet. Can you define what a graphic novel is in your own words? K: A graphic novel is as is described in the words; it is a book done with a combination of illustration and words. V: So it’s not just a collection of comics, or bound comics, bound together? K: Not comics. There may be comics that may be described as a graphic novel, but as far as I’m concerned, a graphic novel…. the overall…, the, the description I think would fit almost anything done in this form is a series of pictures and words that work together well. If the story is good and the pictures are bad, not well done. If the pictures are good and the story is bad, cannot be well done. It has to be a good marriage between pictures and story. V: Uhum. And finally, if one wants to go to your school, em, are there any kind of prerequisites? What kind of people do you take; what do they need to bring with them before they’re allowed to apply? K: Well, before, before they’re accepted into the school, they must submit a, a portfolio of most artwork, artwork they have done, and they also have to undergo a rather intensive personal interview, just for us to make a determination of where their, where their true interests lie, and make sure they know what they’re doing, why they’re stepping into this, and how difficult it is to get through the school. V: Uhum. How old are your students generally? K: They’re post-high school. They must be post-high school. V: Uhum. Okay. Thank you so much! You’ve answered all my questions. Is there anything else you want to tell me that I didn’t ask? K: No, I think, I think you were pretty thorough. V: Thank you so much for your time. K: Thank you. V: Have a good day! K: You too. V: Bye. K: Bye.