Usually my regular Busted Knuckles columns have a main feature along with the Busted Knuckles Manly Cover, the Busted Knuckles Babe of the Week and the Roundup. But not this time. This Busted Knuckles is dedicated entirely to my memories of Joe Kubert, who we as a comic book community recently lost. Joe Kubert should never have to share the stage with anyone, and he won’t today.
The comic book business is not what it used to be. How do I know this? Because people like Joe Kubert are gone.
Joe Kubert, legendary artist, writer, editor, businessman and teacher passed away last week at the age of 85. I don’t use the word legendary a lot. I don’t think it’s a tile that many have earned. Joe Kubert earned it many times over.
Joe Kubert was one of those people that you never felt would be physically gone. As a comic book reader, creator and comic book marketer, Joe Kubert has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. He has always been a beacon and icon that has stood and delivered through every storm that has hit comics — as well as through the best of times. No one physically lives forever, but Joe was one of those rare people that you always felt would.
I, like a lot of other folks, was shocked when the word of Joe’s passing was put out on the Internet. I was flooded with memories of his work, his words and the friendship that we had. Granted, our friendship was not one that could be described as a talk-to-everyday-Christmas-card-exchange-once-a-month-lunches. It was one made through the business of comics. But every time Joe and I saw each other, or I would call, he would always remember me and soon we would pick up where we left off the time before. What I will remember most about Joe was his kindness. He was always kind to me.
My personal timeline with Joe began in the very early 1980s. I had yet to break into comics as a professional. I was still working sales and marketing for an audio/video chain, but I knew that I wasn’t getting any younger. If I were ever bust down the door of comic books and become a writer and businessman, then I had better get crackin’.
Through writing letters to various comic books, including G.I. Combat and Sgt. Rock, I had become friends with DC Comics editor Murray Boltinoff and another creative legend, Robert Kanigher. (the creator of Sgt. Rock) Both Murray and Bob were kind enough to always write me back. They also sent me examples of scripts, plots and outlines for me to learn from. Murray was super-helpful in letting me know what an editor expected from a writer, and he would critique my submissions on his own time. Bob also sent me his scripts to learn from and, was never shy about describing the do’s and don’ts of being a writer.
It got to where Murray told me that if I’d like to call his office on Wednesdays, he’d be more than happy to talk to me and answer some of my lengthier questions personally. I was stoked that he would take the time to offer that to me. Never being the shy type, I took him up on it.
My Wednesday phone calls to Murray become a regular thing. And they became enhanced when it turned out that was the same day that Bob Kanigher and Joe Kubert would also stop by the DC offices and had meetings with Murray. Bob was more than happy to talk to me on the phone; in fact sometimes it was harder to get off the phone with Bob.
Kanigher was a true character and he loved to talk. He made me the President of the Sgt. Rock Fan Club in his letter columns and had me connected with thousands of other Sgt. Rock readers. One day, while talking to Bob, he told me that Joe Kubert had just walked in and asked me if I’d like to speak with him. I stuttered and said “Sure!” I don’t think Bob really asked Joe if he wanted to talk to me, but kinda shoved the phone at Joe and said, “Here’s Beau Smith, the President of the Sgt. Rock Fan Club!”
Being the nice guy and professional that Joe was, he got on the phone, introduced himself and asked me questions about the Sgt. Rock Fan Club. I have a feeling this wasn’t
the first time Bob had done this to him. As it turned out, Joe and I had a very nice conversation. We ended up talking more about the business of comics and how creators should be able to market themselves as well as their work and how the business of comics could also be better marketed. Please remember, this was around 1983 and the comic book industry was nowhere near what it was today with self-promotion and publisher marketing.
From that day on, I would continue to call on Wednesdays and speak with Murray and Bob, as well as Joe when he was in. None of these guys had to set time aside for a nobody like me, but — right in the middle of their work day – they took the time to talk and help me as a writer and marketer. Can you imagine if you tried to call the DC or Marvel offices today and ask to speak to Joe Quesda, Axel Alonzo, Eddie Berganza or Geoff Johns? I don’t think that’s gonna happen.
Joe was great in the fact that he gave me tips as to what a writer can do with a story to help an artist enhance the story. He also told me a long time ago that as a creator it’s good to own the things you create.
By the mid-1980s, I finally broke into the comic book business with Eclipse Comics as their VP of marketing as well as doing some writing for them. One of the first things that I did was make sure that I owned some of the stuff that I created or was a part of– such as the sci-fi/horror series Parts Unknown and the superherocrime noir story The Black Terror. I took Joe’s advice to heart and to the bank.
It was during my time at Eclipse Comics that I became friends with Joe’s sons, Adam and Andy Kubert. When they say the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, they were sure right about the Kubert family tree. I could tell instantly that Adam and Andy had listened to their dad as artists and as businessmen. They are true professionals just like their dad.
There’s another thing they inherited from their dad: that bone-crushing ha
ndshake. Granted, they don’t have the massive vice-like grip that their dad had, but I doubt if there are many that want to test their grip against that of the Kubert boys.
At Eclipse Comics, the Golden Age hero Airboy was brought back by Tim Truman and Chuck Dixon. It ran for 50 issues and assorted mini-series. It was with issue #50 that series writer Chuck Dixon mentioned that he really wanted to do something special with that issue, as well as make it a double-sized issue.
Chuck and I talked and our dream team idea was to have Adam and Andy Kubert draw it. That was followed with “How about we ask Joe to do the cover?” So I called Adam and Andy up and we discussed whether they were interested. Once they said they were interested, we talked schedules and page rates, and found it was all within the budget that Eclipse publisher Dean Mullaney had set up.
Then I asked if they thought their dad would be interested in doing the cover for the issue. Adam and Andy thought he’d be interested if he had the time, so I called Joe. It was great to talk to Joe and reminisce about when I would talk to him at the DC offices in the early ‘80s. Once again I thanked him for always being so kind to me and for his great tips and stories. He said that he really didn’t have that much time, but since his boys were doing the book and he enjoyed the Airboy characters, he said he would be glad to make it happen. Joe also chuckled and said that he couldn’t rightfully turn down the President of the Sgt. Rock Fan Club either. Joe made my day. He made everyone’s day when he asked if it was okay if he did a wraparound cover. The result was amazing. What a way for the Airboy series to end, with Chuck Dixon writing and the Kubert Family on all the art. This was a real dream team.
During the next few years, I’d run into Adam and Andy at various conventions, as well as sometimes even Joe – when Joe had the time to attend a convention. I’d always make sure to drop Joe a letter now and then at the school to see how he was doing. I’d call Adam and Andy and pester them via the phone; after all, I’m older than they are, and they had learned to respect their elder. (These days, I’m everybody’s elder.)
Later on, after I went to work for Todd McFarlane as his Director of Publishing and Marketing, Todd was looking for new creative talent to come in on Spawn and Spawn related projects. One of the first two names that we wanted were Andy and Adam Kubert. We would’ve loved to have had Joe as well, but we knew his time, interests and business came first. As we negotiated with Adam and Andy we could hear, see and feel the spirit of Joe within both of his sons. He taught them well when it came to contracts and business. In the end, we couldn’t come to a deal, but it was nothing but pleasure to deal with the Kubert clan. Everyone should be so professional.
Not long after that, Dark Horse Comics had offered me a chance to do a supernatural western that I had called The BadLander. I had always seen Joe Kubert’s art in my head when I created the series and character. Even though I knew the chances were slim to none that it would happen, I called Joe up and asked him if it was something he would be interested in. He had to turn the project down, but believe me when I tell you that I have never had anyone turn me down and yet make me feel like a million bucks.
Joe told me what he liked about the character and the story, and what he thought might make it work better. What could have been a five minute phone call turned in to over 40 minutes of wonderful creative advice and ideas. In turn, I answered his questions on some of the trends and transactions that were going on distribution, retail and in the toy business at that time. It was a great conversation and one that I will always treasure.
I told Joe that I was going to ask a former student and teacher of his, Sergio Cariello, who I had worked with before on Batman/Wildcat and Catwoman/Wildcat for DC, to handle The BadLander. Joe told me that I couldn’t make a better choice and that Sergio would no doubt give the character all the talent it needed to be a top-notch story. He spoke highly of Sergio’s work and what an asset he had been to the school. It was great to hang that phone up and have Joe’s blessing and thoughts. Again, his kindness and professionalism showed why he had no peers.
Fast forward a few more years to Mid-Ohio Con. I was a guest there as were a lot of other comic book creators including,Joe Kubert. As the long time and still President of the Sgt. Rock Fan Club I was asked to be the moderator for the Sgt. Rock panel with Joe Kubert and Sgt. Rock ‘s then-writer/artist, Billy Tucci.
I was thrilled. Not only did I have the chance to help showcase Joe and his incredible, iconic career on Sgt. Rock, but I also got to spotlight Billy Tucci and talk about how Billy’s respect and admiration for Joe and Sgt. Rock had carried what Joe and Robert Kanigher created into this century without ever losing the tradition and foundation that they had built.
I geared Joe’s questions past what standard interviews always brought up. I tried hard to let the people there discover the man behind the pencil in a personal way. The panel went wonderfully and it was fantastic to hear all these great stories and answers come from Joe’s own voice. The crowd asked sharp questions that Joe always had an answer for. I think Joe was quite flattered when at the end of the panel everyone stood and clapped for him…for a long, long time.
That was the last time I saw Joe. As I said at the start of this, I never thought we’d be without him. I thought he would always be around.
When I heard of Joe’s passing I was sad, but at the same time I thanked God for letting me spend time with him and for giving Joe all the creative gifts that he had to share with us all. I prayed for his family that they would always have the memories and the spirit of Joe with them as they continue their lives. He not only taught them lessons of life, he taught many others outside his blood-related family lessons as well. Joe’s life was about a gift and how to share it.
He shared and taught us all. Thank you for sharing your gift, Joe, and thank God for sharing Joe Kubert with us.
The Flying Fist Ranch