Pow! Ka-boom! Take That!

A gallery of comic book covers by Joe Kubert, who got a lucky break in the business from a man whose name lives on in Drew’s Special Collections.

Kubert, here in his Dover, N.J., studio, estimates that he’s drawn at least 5,000 covers in his career, many with military themes. Photo by Librado Romero/The New York Times

By Mary Jo Patterson

Joe Kubert started drawing before most children learn to talk, grasping a pencil as a toddler and chalking pictures in the streets of his Brooklyn neighborhood by the time he was 3 or 4. Before he could read he fell in love with the Sunday comics in the newspaper, excited by the brightly colored figures that seemed to jump off the page and into his imagination. Joe, the son of a Jewish immigrant butcher, dreamed of becoming a cartoonist but had to learn how. And he did, by knocking on doors of art studios in lower Manhattan during the Depression.

By age 12 he had landed at MLJ Studios, forerunner of Archie Comics, where kindly artists gave him drawing materials and tutored him in penciling and inking. But his first professional job—a six-page story starring Voltron, paying $5 a page—came during his next apprenticeship, at the Harry “A” Chesler Studio, where Kubert also found a nurturing atmosphere. “Harry allowed me to come in as often as I wanted” after class at Manhattan’s High School of Music & Art, he says.

Chesler, whose studio churned out comic strips and books for publishers, amassed an extensive personal collection of popular art, original comic art and literature about the genre. Originally gifted to the Friendship Library at Fairleigh Dickinson University, the art was eventually sent to the Library of Congress and the books to Drew. Today the Rose Memorial Library houses the Chesler Collection of Studies on Cartoon Art and Graphic Satire, a valuable resource for students of cultural history. The collection, which centers on 19th- and 20th-century studies and compendia, holds some 3,000 items, from a 1890 edition of Thomas Nast’s Christmas Drawings for the Human Race and The Katzenjammer Kids: Early Strips in Full Color to the more recent Poison Maiden and The Great Bitch: Female Stereo types in Marvel Superhero Comics.

Kubert went on to become a legend in his industry. Though best known for his war comics—DC characters Sgt. Rock and Hawkman and the syndicated daily Tales of the Green Beret strip—he also illustrated horror, Westerns and animal themes. “I’m fortunate to have been able to make a livelihood at something I love to do,” says the father of five from Dover, N.J., who also runs a school for artists.

In the 1990s he moved into the realm of graphic novels, writing and illustrating somber subjects like the Holocaust and the 1992 siege of Sarajevo. Last year Dean of Libraries Andrew Scrimgeour gave Kubert, 84, a tour of the Chesler Collection, a warmup for Kubert’s keynote lecture at a 2010 Drew symposium on the graphic novel, led by lecturer Sloane Drayson-Knigge T’86, G’90,’02, and library staffer Bruce Lancaster. Kubert is honored, though amused, to find his work worthy of study by academics. “It amazes me,” he says. “I mean, it’s wonderful, it feels good that the work is so accepted. To me, it was just a job.” Still, he did manage to save some of his output. “Not because I collected it,” he laughs, “but because I couldn’t bear to throw it away.”

All art by Joe Kubert. All covers courtesy of DC Comics.

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