Behind the Kubert School: Part 2A article by: Bryan D. Stroud
This is part two of our interview series with former instructors at the Kubert School. Part 1 can be found here, featuring Dick Ayers and Irwin Hasen
Dick Ayers mentioned to me that he used to car pool to the school with Ric Estrada. Even though Ric has been enduring chemotherapy treatments for awhile, he very graciously gave me a good chunk of his time to talk about his experiences teaching at the school for a two year period, which I believe was the first two years it operated:
Ric Estrada: My memories of the two years I taught at the Kubert School alongside men like Dick Ayers and Dick Giordano and there were others, but those are the two that come to mind right away. As you may or may not know Joe Kubert was at the time an editor at DC comics. He was the editor of the Sgt. Rock series and I had worked with him on some of the backup stories in the Sgt. Rock books. I always liked to do backup stories. They were usually only six pages long, so I got paid for them much faster than when I did a 20-page story. (Mutual laughter.) I’d do six pages in 3 days and on day number 4 I’d go back to the office and I get paid.
BDS: Not bad.
RE: Well, I had a family to raise and it was a growing family that ended up being 9 children. Anyway, my main purpose in life was to feed my family and art was a wonderful, God-given talent, but at the same time it was a tool rather than an end in itself, so I was very pleased and honored when Joe Kubert opened his school in Dover, New Jersey; the Joe Kubert School of Cartooning, he asked a few of the people he worked with, among them Dick Ayers and Dick Giordano and myself and he asked us to be the first instructors during the first couple of years.
That was a tremendous learning experience for me in addition to the honor to work with a group of very, very talented young men and women. Most of the students were ages, oh; I would say 16 to 30. The oldest was about 30. The youngest was about 13 years old, a little girl who was very sweet and very introspective, and believe it or not after graduation she was the first one to get a well paying job doing cartoons for a newspaper.
Anyway, it was very nice to commute to Dover, New Jersey. I lived in New York City at the time, and it was a 45 minute ride and the school was in a beautiful old building that had been some rich person’s mansion at one time and now he had all these wonderful students. Some of them were actually lodging in a nearby servant’s quarters down in the other end of the gardens, and it was a beautiful place. The students were fantastic, and out of those students you had guys like Rick Veitch.
Some very, very talented cartoonists came out of there, and some of them, because of their youth…I was already a man in my 40’s, and here I was dealing with teenagers and people in their early 20’s and some of them were a little rebellious and strangely enough some of the most talented ones were the most rebellious. (Chuckle.) I would give them an assignment and they would sort of twist it around to show me that they knew better. That was a complete challenge. In fact, I heard from Rick Veitch recently. You may or may not know that Joe Kubert lost his wife recently.
BDS: I sure did and was sad to hear of it.
RE: Muriel was the heart of that school. She was the administrator. She was the soul of the place. She was so spirited and so talented and so alert. She was not an artist, but she didn’t have to be. She knew everything else. And we all worked with her. She took care of the materials when people needed drawing paper or pencils or pens or ink. She was there administering those sales.
The school was a delight to work for, and I worked two days a week; Tuesdays and Thursdays all day long and my course was art and storytelling composition and also the business of art. So on the one hand I taught the kids the technique of telling a story in picture continuity and how to compose the pictures so that they would be sort of cinematic; so they wouldn’t be boring. “Move the camera, move the camera, move the camera.” That was the motto. Down shot, up shot, middle shot, medium long shot, long shot, up, down. And the other thing that I taught was, as I said, the business of art, which was how to prepare a portfolio and show it to as many people as possible, and get used to being rejected by some, but keep trying until somebody would say, “Hey, this is what we want.” Those were my two subjects; storytelling and composition.
Also, I taught color with markers. And the students were fantastic. Many times Dick Ayers, who lived not too far from me when I was in a town about 45 minutes north of New York City and he lived in a nearby town and sometimes we rode together to the school and we had long conversations about art and especially cartoons. What do you think cartoonists talk about? Cartooning.
BDS: (Laughter.) Imagine that!
RE: (Chuckle.) So to a cartoonist, another cartoonist is great company because they talk about what you want to hear about, and we all have our likes and our dislikes and our gripes and our glories. The gripes in cartooning are really the deadlines and an occasional grumpy editor who will kind of growl at our work, but generally doing comic books was a delight in the creative sense. Dick Ayers is a fantastic storyteller and we had the privilege of working during the Silver Age, which was one step beyond the Golden Age. In the Golden Age, the cartoonists had a slightly more primitive style.
When you look at the Superman of the Golden Age, he’s a little more primitive. When you look at the Superman of the Silver Age, he’s a little more detailed. More muscles, more shadows, more anatomical detail. In the Silver Age we were trying to refine what had been done before. After that came the Bronze Age and whatever age came after that. The Silver Age was the 60’s and early 70’s. I did the bulk of my work for DC Comics in the late 60’s and through the 1970’s. The last story I did for them was in 1982. I had moved to California and I did a series called Amethyst, Princess of Gem World. Now Dick Ayers was able to work for both DC and Marvel.
I never worked for Marvel. It was either out of loyalty to DC or squeamishness about maybe walking out of there and never finding another job. (Chuckle.) I stuck it out with DC for all those years. You’re familiar with Neal Adams. Neal Adams is a fantastic cartoonist. We often met each other in the office and I complained sometimes about the pay in those days, which was so skimpy. You’d get $50.00 a page and some people were getting $30.00 a page, which is really very little, because it takes you a day or two to draw one page, and Neal gave me a wonderful secret. He said, “You know the secret of getting your page rate hiked? You work for DC for awhile and then you walk away and you go to Marvel and you say, ‘I’d like to work for you guys, but I’d like to get better pay than at DC,’ and they’ll give you better pay. After a few months you walk out of Marvel and come back to DC and you say, ‘They were paying much more than what you’re paying.’ So little by little you hike up your page rate.”
RE: I never had the gumption to really go for it. As I said, my main thing was to get my weekly paycheck for the six pages and go home and buy the groceries for the kids.
BDS: No one could ever fault your priorities.
RE: Well, that was my priority and it has been over the years. Over the years I discovered little by little that my work was very well known, because I worked like crazy. I often did two pages a day, so my six pages I did in three days and one day Joe Orlando, who was one of the editors at DC, and a very good cartoonist in his own right, Joe Orlando said, “Look at this fan magazine from England. Listen to what they’re saying about you.” And the fan magazine said, “American comic books have an epidemic disease called “Estradaitis,” because everything that comes out of there is signed by him.” So rather than a cartoonist, I became an epidemic. (Mutual laughter) I’ve never been able to live it down.
He showed that to me way back in 1976 or 1977 and here it is 30-odd years later and I’m still thinking about it. (Chuckle.) Anyway, the Kubert School was a delight, and any time you talk to someone who was taught, on any level, in any subject, you always find out that the instructor always learns more than the pupil, at least at the beginning. For the first time in my life I had to look at what I had learned over the years. I was in my late 40’s and I had been working like a fiend for many, many years. I got my first cartooning job when I was 21 years old, and so I’d been working for over 20 years already, but I had never really taken inventory of the things that I had learned along the way. Teaching at the Kubert School forced me to look at what I knew and then I began to fill a notebook with the lessons I was going to teach. The first couple of weeks I just talked and talked and talked and tried to teach them everything I knew, and then I realized that it wouldn’t work. The kids were just confused.
So then I began to pace myself and to bring out some of the things I knew and I’m sure that Dick Ayers and Dick Giordano and some of the others probably felt the same way. I don’t know if you know the story of the preacher who came to a new parish and there was one parishioner sitting in the first row and nobody else showed up, and he gave this tremendous sermon and at the end this young preacher came down to the parishioner and he said, “What did you think of my sermon?” The man answered with, “Look, I’m a farmer, and when only one cow shows up, I don’t feed him the whole load.” (Mutual laughter.) The first two weeks I was feeding the kids the whole load and then I said, “I’d better start pacing myself.” So as I said, I learned a lot of things about the things I already knew, and I began to broaden myself. “Today I’ll teach them about composition in terms of this or that and then next week I’ll teach them about how to handle close-ups; how to move the angles from down shot to up shot and things like that.”
Then, some years later I met some of the students. I went to the San Diego Comic Con, the big comic book convention there. I’ve always been a guest of the San Diego Comic Con, and I ran into some of the students and they said, “You know, Ric, the things you taught us; actually it took us over 5 years to begin to really, really assimilate what you taught us, because you taught us so much and so much of it was way over our heads,” and they also said something else that was very rewarding: “Not only were you teaching us the technique of art, the technique of cartooning; you were teaching us how to have self-confidence,” which is something most artists don’t have, because you tell your parents, “I want to be an artist,” and the first thing they say is, “Oh, you’ll starve.” “I want to make a career in art.” “Art? You’ll starve.” The word “art” and the word “starving” come together. (Chuckle.) What I was trying to show them, though, is that there are thousands of artists all over the country and all over the world and we see Van Gogh and hear about those who had miserable lives, but we don’t stop to realize that Walt Disney never starved. Walt Disney was an artist, and he invented a funny mouse and the funny mouse became Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney became a millionaire and he hired hundreds, maybe thousands of art students and they all made a good living. Parents never understand that.
So I tried to teach along those lines; to have confidence, no matter what their parents or relatives or even friends would say about, “Art? You’ll starve,” because that’s not true. If you work like a fiend, and you learn your basic principles, you’ll never starve, and the basic principles are how to draw decently and how to prepare a portfolio and to show your work to as many people as possible. But all those things became very clear in my mind during those years at the Joe Kubert School. Before, I did them unconsciously. Now, I was very conscious of these things, and my own work improved as a result. So those are my reminiscences of the school. It was a wonderful atmosphere. Joe is a terrific guy. Very positive. A fantastic artist. He could take a piece of chalk and just draw on the chalkboard and in five strokes draw Sgt. Rock or a tank or an airplane. It’s just incredible. His mind is unbelievable. Working with him and for him was always a challenge and always a learning experience.
But as I said, in the school you have to gather what you know and put it in a certain order so the kids would understand. What else can I tell you about the school? Once in awhile we had a dinner and we all got together and we were very sociable and we had a lot of fun. There was also another artist that came at the time; the widow of Walt Kelly who did the Pogo comic strip. I forget her first name, but she came to the school as well and I met her a couple of times, but we were all so busy that we didn’t have much time except for that one dinner every three or four months. We didn’t have much time to socialize. We just taught and taught and taught and taught and it was an amazing experience. For me I would never have had the chance to teach like that. Before that I had been a junior art director at the Famous Artist’s School in Westport, Connecticut, but as an art director, you don’t have the one on one experience of working with a group, and I had learned quite a few things at that time during my one year as junior art director putting together a course for talented young people, and I had been able to gather a lot of information, but never like at the Kubert School, where you had 25 students in front of you, throwing questions at you, and you try to please them all and you try to give them something valuable. That’s my memories of the Kubert School.
BDS: Oh, and wonderful memories they are. It sounds like it was a wonderful fit for you. Did you consider going for a longer tenure there? I’m curious as to why it was only two years if you don’t mind.
RE: I don’t remember exactly. I think part of the reason was that I had other plans. Let’s see. That was the late 1970’s and I had an offer from a friend of mine who’s a very good cartoonist: Leo (not sure how to spell the last name). He’s from Argentina originally. I had met him at DC comics and his English was very shaky. So I was able to translate for him when he came over and we spoke Spanish between us and he went to Mexico and he telephoned me from Mexico and he said, “There’s a great chance here in Mexico. The Mexican Government’s Ministry of Education wants to hire bi-lingual artists who can do comic books on Mexican history. They have accepted the fact that the people here will never read books, but they will read comic books, so they want to give them a solid knowledge of history through comic books.” So I put my portfolio together and I flew to Mexico. They offered me a fantastic contract and at the time, the late 1970’s, something like $90,000.00 a year to do these comic books on Mexican history.
BDS: That would be hard to turn down.
RE: Very hard, and I think that was one of the reasons I moved on from the Kubert School. I took my whole family, all six children we had at the time and we drove for days and days until we got to Mexico. We found a home there, we found a bi-lingual school there for the kids and I began to do the Mexican comic books on Mexican history and as luck would have it, two months after I got there, they altered the exchange rate. I wasn’t being paid in dollars; I was being paid in the equivalent in Mexican Pesos. They devaluated the currency to half its value. So suddenly the $90,000.00 became $45,000.00.
BDS: Oh, no!
RE: Then two months later they devaluated to half all over again and the $45,000.00 became $22,500.00. So suddenly I was scrambling around trying to find freelance jobs in Mexico and writing to New York to some of my old clients trying to get comic book assignments and advertising assignments from other agencies that I’d worked for and then I met with a Cuban…I’m originally Cuban as you may know; that’s my funny accent. (Chuckle.) So I met a Cuban publisher, who had been exiled from Cuba since the Castro regime took over, and this Cuban publisher asked me to develop an idea for him and take it to New York City and try to sell his idea for him and he pays for the trip. I took my oldest son along. He was about 12 at the time, and went back to good old, wonderful New York.
I love New York. As far as I’m concerned, that’s my home town. I spent my childhood and my teens in Havana, but I spent 30 years of my life in New York City, so to me, that’s my town. So we tried to sell this fellow’s idea to the T.V. networks and to DC comics and to Marvel comics and whoever would take it, and nobody would buy the idea. So by now I was totally disconnected from the Joe Kubert School. Then my little son and I went from New York to California and again we went to every studio in California and we were lucky enough that Hanna-Barbera Animation Studios saw my presentation and said, “We don’t like the idea. We don’t want to buy the idea, but who did this presentation? Did you do it?” I said, “Yes.” They said, “We’d like to hire you to do similar presentations for us.” So I was offered a very good job at Hanna-Barbera. I ran back to Mexico to pick up the rest of my family. It took us about three weeks to get ourselves together. We got back to California and I went back to Hanna-Barbera and met the art director, a very nice man; Iwo Takamoto, a Japanese-American, and he said, “Oh, my gosh, it took you three weeks to get back here and I had to give the job to somebody else.” So there we were in California, a new place for us, and I scrambled all over town looking for another job.
Then I ran into Stan Lee, who was the head of Marvel Productions there. They did animated cartoons based on their comic book characters in New York and he hired me on the spot. He knew my name from comics and we hit it off beautifully and for the next six months I worked for him. Then Iwo Takamoto of Hanna-Barbera called me and he said, “I offered you a job and then I couldn’t give it to you and I’ve been feeling pretty guilty about it and the job opening is ready for you again. Please give me an answer in a day or two and come and work with us.” And that’s what I did. I went to work with them and I spent eleven years working for Hanna-Barbera.
BDS: Not bad at all!
RE: Not bad at all. In fact, at Hanna-Barbera I discovered the animation film industry is a very flimsy industry. You get hired for production, whether you’re doing a movie, or you’re doing… the studio system was on the way out, and you get hired to do a production or two and after that everybody goes home. So I was an oddity in that I stayed there for eleven years when I saw people coming and going every two years. When Ted Turner bought out Hanna-Barbera, as happens in all those mergers, Ted Turner brought his own people, and the people who were there were let go and Ted brought in his own people and that was that and it was lucky for me because I was able to work for Dreamworks and for Warner Brothers and for Universal.
I worked for many other studios, but on more of a short term basis. One season, two seasons. So my experience in comic books helped me develop the technique of story-boarding for film. With story-boarding you get a script; somebody hands you a whole bunch of words on paper and you turn those words on paper into sort of a comic strip to show the angles and how the story develops. So those years in comic books were priceless in the animation industry. We stayed in California for 17 years and I was working all the time. So I can’t complain. So then here in Utah I was offered a job I couldn’t resist. Again, the money was very good and we moved to Southern Utah and there I worked for 3-1/2 years for a small studio that treated me very well until they folded and then I kind of semi-retired. I’m still doing work. I’m illustrating children’s books and writing novels, but I’m not running to an office every day.
BDS: (Chuckle.) That’s not all bad.
RE: Not all bad at all. I put in 17 years in California, but work-wise I put in 20 years worth of work for the Animation Guild and they’ve given me a very nice pension. I’m not rich, but I can live on it, plus Social Security. All our children but one are grown up, on their own and married. We have 11 grandchildren and they live all over the country and we have a little girl with us; a little girl with special needs. She is our youngest and has Downs Syndrome and my wife, my little girl and myself are trying to live happily ever after. (Chuckle.)
BDS: It sounds like you’re well on your way, too. What a great legacy.
Interestingly, Joe was one of my original contacts when I began this grand adventure and I’d e-mailed him a handful of questions, which he answered shortly thereafter. One was asking him if this second career, referring to the school, was as satisfying as his artistic career.
His reply was telling:
This (the school) is not my career. I am a cartoonist – first, last and always. –Joe Kubert
Later, of course, when I had the privilege of speaking with Joe about his recollections of his friend Jack Adler, he elaborated a little bit:
BDS: You've got a pretty impressive string of alumni that lead right back to your door.
JK: Yep, and I'm proud of that and Jack also should be proud of that because a good piece of that belongs to him.
We can be thankful for Joe’s immeasurable contributions and the legacy spawned by the school he founded that bears his name. The future of comics is on a surer footing because of this important effort. I hope you enjoyed learning a little more about it from those who were on the front lines.