Memorial Day Special: Comic Legend Joe Kubert Discusses His Korean War Experiences

Joe KubertJoe Kubert is one of the legendary figures of the comic book industry, known as much for his famed art school as he is the artist of books like "Sgt. Rock" and "Hawkman." He had narrowly missed World War II -- and in fact one of his earliest jobs was working on "The Spirit" when Will Eisner was drafted -- but in the early 50's the creator's number was called, and he joined the Korean conflict. The following interview is from 2001, where we discuss his wartime experiences, his involvement with war comics and...his connection to the Three Stooges? Yup. Read on, as we honor our fallen veterans.

You were in your teens in 1947. Do you remember where you were when Pearl Harbor was attacked?

I recall that rather vividly. I was in my early teens. I was born in 1926, so I was about 15 and was already working as a cartoonist. I was in my home, in my bedroom, it was on Sunday morning. I was drawing pictures, as I was already a pro cartoonist for comic books. I don’t think I really understood the significance of what was happening when the news came over that Pearl Harbor was bombed.

Were you listening to the radio at the time?

Yes. Well, most of the guys in our business are listening to the radio when we’re working.

When did the enormity of what had happened dawn on you?

I guess it kind of came up rather quickly when we saw the pictures of what the hell had happened and Roosevelt’s address to the country saying that we were in a state of war and so on. Soon afterward, when people in my family were being drafted, I guess it hit everybody and I was part of everybody.

How did the war affect your work or the company that you were employed by?

I started drawing in the business when I was about 11 or 12 years old. I got my first job at that time. Not as a result of anything good that I was doing, but rather because there was so much work in demand at that time, that guys were willing to give jobs to even kids like me. So we could learn on the job. Well, when the war started, a lot of the artists, a lot of tremendous artists, were drafted. That allowed even more room, and even more demand, for guys like me that weren’t yet in the Army or whatever. Strangely enough, and oddly enough, and ironically enough, that which proved out to be life-threatening and horrible for a lot of other people during World War II, it afforded me a lot of opportunities.

In fact, I recall vividly one time, Will Eisner had been drafted early on. And at that time, before he was drafted, he was doing "The Spirit." When he was drafted, "The Spirit" went to Lou Fine, who was the artist at the time. So they scrounged up a bunch of guys to help out with the inking and the work and so forth. Alex Kotsky, who’s another incredibly talented man, was called in to do inking. And this was the way I got my first job. One of my early jobs doing a really vaunted hero like The Spirit came to me simply because I was still around. My summer vacations from high school were spent running back and forth to Stanford, Connecticut from Brooklyn, but the advantage was that I was able to work with people like Lou Fine and Alex Kotsky working on "The Spirit."

I also asked this to Will Eisner: Did you know what the Nazis were doing to the Jews?

Yes, I did. In fact, my folks were living in a small town in the southern part of Poland and their family was from the same place as well. They were helped to come to the United States by their brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and so on, but there were still a lot of people left in Europe. And little by little at the beginning of the war and towards the middle, there were people coming from my folk’s towns, telling them what happened to those relatives that were left there. And I recall seeing a lot of these people come with the tattoos on their arms.

I never really realized at that time what the hell was happening, or going on. But I do recall those stories. And I remember the stories of those people telling my mother and father how their brothers and sisters and uncles were running up the street and how they were hunted down like animals and shot. It was horrible, but I don’t think that I really felt the significance of it until later on.

Did those memories and emotions later play into your "Fax From Sarajevo," where there were parallels between the Holocaust and what was going on over there?

Very, very much so.

So, were you either drafted into the service for Korea or did you sign up?

Oh, I was definitely drafted. Me and the two other guys that had to pull me along.

Do you remember where you were when you received your draft notice?

No. We were living in New Jersey at the time. I had just squeaked by and missed World War II for one reason or another and when Korea came up I was drafted. And I guess…well, I was going to say I was ready to go but I really had no choice in the matter. [laughs]

You were drafted into the Army?

Yes.

What division were you in?

I don’t recall. It was the infantry. I was stationed at Fort Dix for a year and then I was shipped off to Germany. Most of the guys in my outfit went directly to Korea after Basic, but one reason for another I was shipped to Germany.

And you remained in Germany for the rest of the war? “Missed out” being an unfortunate choice of words, perhaps.

Yeah, I don’t know what it was but I missed out. I don’t feel I missed out. I kept in touch with a lot of the guys that took Basic with me and it was a horror, I understood. I recall getting letters from some of the guys and they told me about 50-percent of the guys were casualties within the first week of going to Korea.

They call Korea the “Forgotten War.” Do you think that’s because it was sandwiched between World War II and Vietnam?

I think so. I had a brother-in-law that was in Korea and he froze a couple of toes off. It was, like all wars, a horrible situation.

The Korean War isn't as recognized as Vietnam, even though we lost nearly as many men.

Yeah. All these kind of conflicts stink. They cost the lives of a bunch of people. Either their full lives or remnants of the rest of the time they’re on Earth. It stinks.

Did you ever read Will Eisner’s "P.S. Magazine" when you were over there?

Funny that you should ask. Will is incredible. In fact, I worked for Will when I was about twelve years-old. Before he went into the Army he was doing "The Spirit," he was doing it in Manhattan, and one of the summers I spent was working there, and he gave me a terrific opportunity. I wasn’t doing a hell of a lot of drawing. I did some stuff. But mostly I was erasing material and cleaning up and sweeping out the place. And incidentally, even today, remains a very dear and close friend of mine. And we talk about it often and we kid about it. It was a wonderful opportunity that I was given.

Anyhow, when Will was drafted, and of course, one of the things he did, the genius that he is, he kicked off this "P.S. Magazine." Which has, incidentally, has just celebrated its 50th anniversary.

I wasn’t aware of that.

Well, let me tell you a couple of other ironic things. He started it when he was in the service. He insisted, and I guess he sort of inculcated this, to me anyhow, that you can do anything with cartoons. You can take the driest subject, like mathematics, and do it in a cartoon, graphic way and make it seem interesting.

Apparently, he applied that theory to what he was doing in the Army. He knew that guys who were working on tanks and trucks and stuff like that, weren’t the type that would really sit and read really detailed information, in terms of verbiage. But he felt very strongly that if it was done in an entertaining way that they way absorb what was trying to be put across to them, in terms of teaching, whether they realized it or not. And that’s exactly what happened. Have you ever seen any of the early "P.S. Magazine"s?

I’ve seen a few pages here and there.

He did a tremendous job. He would take the driest, most mundane, kind of subjects and make them seem interesting, and funny, and humorous, and entertaining. And in that way the guys learned to do stuff that they didn’t even realize they were learning.

["The 'Nam" creator] Doug Murray told me how he read it in while he was serving in Vietnam.

Isn’t that something. So when he got out of the army, he continued to do it. He did it for twenty years after he got out of the service.

But anyhow, every couple of years the Army gives this stuff out for general opportunity for other publishers and other people to do the books. After his twenty year stint, I guess he had enough of it. So the books went out for public bids, in terms of new publishers or artists or whatever, to do the work. I don’t remember exactly when this happened. This must have been in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s. But I made a drawing. I had heard someplace that they were taking bids for this. And in my naive [laughs], unsophisticated, untutored way, I thought well, let me take a jump at it. And I did, and of course, my sample just disappeared or whatever the hell happened to it.

About six, seven months ago, just towards the end of last year, I got a call from a very dear friend, Neal Adams, who had mentioned to me that somebody had come up and they were looking for artists to do "P.S. Magazine." And he said, “Hey Joe. You got people. You got the school.” And incidentally, I had not heard about it or read about "P.S. Magazine" since like thirty or forty years ago.

So it was still going on.

I didn’t even know that it was still going on. I knew that Murphy Anderson had taken over the chores of putting out the magazine after Will had left it. Murph had worked with Will prior to it and kind of was able to step right in.

Anyhow, [recently] I learned from Neal that they were taking bids on "P.S. Magazine." And so I said gee whiz, that would be really interesting, coming back to square one after all these years. And so we started vying for it. And for the last six months we’ve been doing "P.S. Magazine" here.

What a great opportunity for your students.

Yeah. Well, it’s terrific for them. It’s terrific for us. And they tell us that we’re doing a real good job on it. So it just worked out. Really, really nice.

What was the first DC book that you worked on after being discharged from the Army?

Well, I didn’t get right into doing work for DC when I came out. When I had went into the Army, I was working for a guy’s place by the name of St. John’s Publishing Company. And I had been producing, packaging magazines for him. When I got out of the Army I contacted him and he was more than happy to have me come back and do more stuff for him. I contacted a very dear friend of mine, who I went to high school with incidentally, a guy by the name of Norman Maurer. We had started into the business together, and Norm had I had done a lot of work together. We were very good friends. He was living out in California and he had been involved in some other things. He had gotten into producing, directing movies and so on. I contacted him and asked him if he’d be interested in becoming a partner, working with me, and producing these magazines. He felt he would like to do it so he came East here. We rented a house in New Jersey, and started putting out magazines.

What kind of magazines?

Well, they were not Army-oriented at all. One of the magazines was of one of my characters called Tor. Norm also had access to The Three Stooges because he had married Joanie Howard, who was Moe Howard’s daughter. So we were putting out The Three Stooges magazine.

Did you ever meet the Three Stooges?

Oh yes. As a matter of fact, I was out to Norm’s wedding in 1947. So yeah, I knew the family, and I had met the guys. I mean, I didn’t know the Stooges [laughs]. I had met them and so forth.

So when Norm decided to get in with me, we knew we wanted to do some books that were a little bit more novel. Especially since so many books were coming out and the business was extremely competitive. I had recalled seeing some 3-D magazines in Europe, in Germany, when I was there, that you read with red and green glasses. And I suggested that maybe it’d be a good idea to have our books stand out a little bit from all the rest, and to have them, if we could do it, in 3-D. At first glance we all looked at each other, me and Norm and some other people, and went, “Nah, it’ll never work.” But then we started working on it and were able to then produce a magazine for twenty-five cents, which included the red and green glasses. So we produced the first 3-D comic book, which was Mighty Mouse. And this was back in 1952, I think.

And this was before "Creature From The Black Lagoon in 3-D," and all those type of movies.

Yes, I believe so. I think it was just at the same time, or perhaps a little bit before, 3-D movies came out. Now, before you asked when I started doing the war stuff for DC. It was soon after that we started that, after the first batch of 3-D books came out, the whole bottom dropped out of the comic book publishing field. Everybody went 3-D and the gimmick soon wore out very, very quickly. On top of that, the Senate investigating comic books and how terrible they were for kids, and so on, was being publicized and on TV, so that too had a terrible effect on comic books. St. John’s was one of the publishing companies that fell, among many others, and it was then at that time that I went over to DC.

Did DC come to you and ask whether you’d be willing to work on the war comics?

Oh, no, no. It was just a job. It wasn’t that I wanted to do a war comic. It wasn’t that I was particularly interested, because I wasn’t. I’d done every conceivable subject matter for comic books and I’m interested in the whole scope of things that are done, whatever the subject matter is, whatever the genre is.

When I went over to DC, I got involved with Bob Kanigher, who at that time was editing about half a dozen war magazines. He gave me the first story, simply because he had a story to give me. That’s the way it started out. Not because I was pushing for it. Not because I requested it. Not because he felt it would be a good thing for me to do. It just happened to be a couple of war stories that were open and that had to be done so he gave them to me to do them.

I’m assuming you drew back upon your own military experience?

A little. I try to make comic book stories as realistic and credible as possible. But the storylines themselves, especially at the very beginning, I had no control of at all. The way comics books are set up is the work is divided into any number of facets done by different people. There’s a writer, there’s a letterer, there’s an inker, there’s a colorist, there’s a penciller, and so on. My job was just to illustrate the stories. The stories were written by somebody else. I tried to have the characters look as much GI as I possibly could, based on, of course, the time that I spent in the Army, on the uniforms and stuff like that. But the basic stories themselves, especially at that time, I felt were as far removed from what happens in the Army as you can get.

The dinosaurs in World War II?

Exactly. I mean what we’re trying to do is sell comic books. And we’re selling to, what we feel, at that time especially, a particular audience of younger people. So we tailored the stories for that purpose.

As we talk about this, I’m looking at a cover for "Star-Spangled War Stories," “My Buddy Was A Killer Dinosaur.”

I found very few of those when I was in the Army.

You must have been looking in the wrong places. So you became DC’s resident war artist.

I just fell in, I just fell in.

And most of those were done with Bob Kanigher writing.

Bob was the editor and the writer. At a certain point, however, Bob took ill and the powers that be felt it might be a good idea for me to be the editor. At that time I tried to make the stories a little bit more interesting, a little bit less gung ho, a little bit make peace, not war.

When you were editor of "Sgt. Rock," you ended all of the books with, “Make War No More.”

It wasn’t very original, I don’t think, but it was just my comment. I felt that the stuff that I wanted to do was not promote guys going into the Army to kill people, but the fact that most guys in the Army, that I had found, were there simply because they had to be. Even the guys who enlisted, not only the draftees. There was a job that had to be done, there were things that had to be done, you really didn’t have a hell of a lot of choice in it. And simply because you were in a lousy situation you had to do something. You had to act accordingly and there were certain expectations that the upper echelon had for you. And you had to do what you had to do, period.

Did the conflict in Vietnam impact DC war storylines at all?

I don’t think so. As a matter of fact, Bob had attempted at that time, I think he was still the editor, to introduce different kinds of stories. Vietnam, Korea. But for whatever reason, the most popular ones seemed to be those that dealt with World War II.

Do you think that was because people could look at the Nazis as a sort of cartoonish characters?

Your guess is as good as mine [laughs]. I really don’t know. I think we’ve kind of postulated on it and felt that perhaps that this was supposed to be a righteous war as opposed to some that didn’t seem as clear-cut later on, or whatever the hell the reason was. And the enemy was very distinct and was described as the “blackest of black,” so to speak. The most horrible of horrors. It was easy to hate people like that.

Having lived through the Korean experience, did you see the Vietnam parallels right away? Particularly that it would become the size and scope that it did.

No, not at all. I was involved with a comic strip called "The Green Berets."

For the Chicago Tribune.

Right. Robin Moore, who was the writer, was a terrific guy who had been in Vietnam and had fought with the special forces. I was lucky enough to meet some of those guys. Incredible bunch of people. And I want to make it clear that when I did the strip the politics of it were the last thing on my mind. As a matter of fact, I left it not because I was against the war but I felt that politics had no place in comic strips.

The idea was to use the popularity of Robin Moore’s book to kick off the comic strip, which it did. And the writer felt apparently that it was a platform that he could espouse certain feelings. It wasn’t that I felt that he was right or wrong, I just felt that the newspaper strip, a comic strip, was not the place to do it. I felt that it should eventually become a sort of romantic kind of thing, perhaps a Terry and the Pirates kind of strip. It never got to that. It got to the point where it became such a drudge to do it, I just left it.

The country’s anti-war sentiment dragged that strip down in the end, correct?

I guess so, but I didn’t really look into that as carefully as I should have. I guess we all learned a lot about what the hell happened and the kind of abuse that guy’s in the Army always get, and especially in the Vietnam war, the politics that were played there. But I wasn’t really aware of all that stuff, and I certainly wasn’t one of the people who were manning the ramparts and saying, “Bring the boys back home.” I didn’t know what the hell was happening.

How’s your school doing?

So far, so good.

Have you noticed a drop in the number of students?

Yes. There had a drop but it’s coming back up again. It’s been pretty steady and the drop hasn’t been remarkable. Well, we started out as a small school and I certainly haven’t depended on the school. The school here is not my career. I’m still a comic book artist. And that’s what I do and I’m lucky enough, even at this stage in the game, to keep on doing it.