In the past, when an artist who had a big influence on me has passed away, I've done a sketch as a tribute. This week, Joe Kubert, one of the most talented and unique voices in comics, passed away. Instead of posting a sketch I thought I'd share a short story I wrote a few years back in a writing class I took at The Story Studio here in Chicago.
I once read an interview with Joe where he mentioned that the way his house was laid out he had to go through his sons' bedroom to get to his studio. It was just a little aside that was part of a bigger anecdote, but that detail stuck with me and became the genesis of this story, which is not intended in any way to be factual - it was just a chance for me to imagine living and working in the golden age of comics...
BLAME IT ON ERROL FLYNN
It was almost nine-thirty when the front door to the small New Jersey bungalow swung open and Joe walked in, carrying a leather art portfolio and a bundle wrapped in brown paper.
“Muriel! I'm home!”
“Quiet. You'll wake the boys.” Joe's wife Muriel threw a dish towel over her shoulder as she walked in from the kitchen. “You know how hard it is to get them to bed when you're not here.”
“Oh, Damn. Sorry. I forgot how late it was.”
With a quick kiss Joe handed his things to Muriel so he could take off his jacket. “What's in this package?” she asked.
“They were throwing out a bunch of old art boards at the office. I thought the boys would get a kick out of looking at them. Most of 'em are junk, but there are a few nice Superman pages by Curt Swan in there.” Joe headed towards the kitchen. “What's for dinner? I'm starved.”
“Chicken and dumplings. I've been keeping it warm for you. I hope the chicken hasn't dried out, it was good when the boys and I ate.” Muriel hung Joe's jacket in the front closet before following him. “Why are you so late getting home?”
“Carmine cornered me on my way out. He needed to vent and I became his exhaust pipe.”
As they passed through the living room, Joe saw that the news was on the television. The big story was Mickey Mantle's upcoming two thousandth game this Saturday. Joe quickly calculated that he had drawn at least twice that number of comic book pages in his career. Maybe someday they would have Joe Kubert Day at Yankee Stadium.
“What was it this time?”
“Oh, everyone at the office is going crazy because Stan Lee's got a new book over at Marvel with another one of his weirdo characters that's selling like gangbusters. 'Spider-Man', this one's called. He's a little nebbish that gets bitten by a radio-active spider and ends up crawling up walls and shooting webs out of his ass or something like that.”
“I don't know. All I know is that Weisinger's driving Carmine up the wall, wanting to know how we're going to compete with that, so now Carmine's driving me up a wall. Sometimes I wonder if taking the art director job was a mistake. When I was just freelancing I didn't have to deal with all of this crap.”
“The problem is, you took the job and still do freelance work at night. I keep telling you that you can't do both.” Joe knew where this line of conversation was going as he sat down to his dinner. Muriel leaned against the sink, arms crossed, “I don't know why you stay with these comic books. You could be making more money in advertising and you wouldn't have to work eighty hours a week.”
“If I worked in advertising, I'd be drawing packs of Chesterfields and Pepto-Bismol bottles all day. No thanks, I'd hang myself inside of a week. By the way, the chicken is not dry, it's perfect.”
Joe's compliment temporarily deflected Muriel, who grabbed her towel, turned with a sigh, and went back to drying the dishes. Joe went back to his dumplings. He knew she was right, but he also believed what he had said. He knew plenty of artists who had been lured into advertising by the money, only to come back to comics a year or two later.
As his friend and fellow artist Gil Kane always said, “Blame it on Errol Flynn.” Just about everyone working in comics at that time had grown up during the Depression, and they all had fond memories of the times they could scrape together the money needed to spend a Saturday afternoon at the cinema. They enjoyed the serialized exploits of cowboys, interstellar explorers and G-men, but most of all they loved the swashbuckling features starring screen idols like Errol Flynn.
Every time Gil, Joe and the others put pencil to paper they were trying to recreate the feelings of wonder and joy they felt while watching Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Sea Hawk. The fact that Joe was only twelve when he got his first paying job drawing comics made these childhood connections even stronger.
By the time he was finished with dinner, the tension between Joe and Muriel was gone. Muriel had no complaints about Joe as a husband or father. It just upset her to see him work so hard for so little reward, especially now that their boys, Adam and Andy, were showing an interest and a talent for drawing comic books themselves. She made Joe a pot of coffee to fuel his late night work session before going off to bed.
Joe's studio was in the small, third bedroom upstairs. Due to an architectural mystery the Kuberts were never able to solve, Joe had to go through Adam and Andy's room to get to it. When he was only doing freelance work, it wasn't a problem since he worked during the day when the boys were at school. Now that he had to take the train into Manhattan and put in a full day at the office, there were many nights when he didn't sit down at his drawing board until after the boys were already asleep.
Tip-toeing into their room, coffee thermos and portfolio in hand, Joe looked in on his sons. Adam was the oldest and took after his father physically. He was short and stocky and enjoyed playing baseball as much as he enjoyed comic books. Andy was fairer and slighter, and had been wearing glasses since he was six. He was the dreamer of the pair.
On the desk that the boys shared Joe noticed that Andy had been copying from the anatomy book that Joe had given them. Both boys impressed him with their desire to learn the craft. He tried to give them lessons whenever he could to help direct their energies, but they managed to fill up reams of paper with their drawings with or without his guidance. He felt a swell of pride mixed with a little bit of regret at the thought of his sons following him into such a demanding business.
Joe clicked on the big fluorescent light on his drawing table and sat down with the script he brought home from the office. The story was about 'The Viking Prince', a minor character from one of DC's older titles that Joe thought had the potential to become a lead feature. He was a Viking warrior who had offended the gods by falling in love with a Valkyrie and was cursed with immortality, thus denying him entry into Valhalla.
Joe was working with Bob Kanigher, the writer who had first created the character, and both of them were excited about the new project. Joe had been building up his morgue files with Viking reference and had even rented a 16mm print of 'The Vikings' with Kirk Douglas. He would stop the projector whenever he found a shot he liked and Muriel would quickly snap a picture of it before the heat from the bulb melted the film.
Now, as he read through the script, doodling layouts for the panels and pages in the margins, he felt his enthusiasm drop a bit. He thought about all the furor at the office over the new books Marvel was putting out. Even though Stan Lee was the same age as Joe and the rest of their contemporaries, he seemed to understand what the kids today were interested in, what scared them, what got them excited. Even college students were starting to read Marvel books. They said the stories were 'hip' and 'cool.'
DC comics had never been 'hip' or 'cool', they were the comics that parents felt safe giving their children to read. It had been a long time since Superman had fought the Nazi's or even a monster from outer space. These days, he kept busy fighting off Lois Lane's matrimonial advances and taking care of his stable of super pets. Joe was glad that he'd never had to draw Beppo, the super chimp.
“Dad?” Lost in his thoughts, Joe didn't know how long Andy had been standing in the doorway between the boys' room and his studio. “Andy, jeez, your mother's going to kill both of us if she finds out you're up.”
Andy walked over to his father's drawing table and into the light. He was carrying the drawings Joe had seen on the desk. “I wanted to show you my drawings. I wanted to make sure you saw them.”
Joe picked Andy up and set him on his lap and then spread his drawings out on the table. “I saw them on my way in here. You did a wonderful job. Do you remember some of the muscle groups I taught you? What's that one called?”
“That's easy, it's the biceps.”
“Okay, Mr. Gray's Anatomy, how about this one?”
“That's the...pic...pec...pictorial muscle!”
“Pectoral”, Joe corrected him.
Andy knit his brows and repeated the word quietly several times. Satisfied with his critique, Andy gathered up his drawings so he could see what his father was working on. “What's this, Dad?”
“Oh, just a dumb story about a Viking.”
“Is he a good Viking or a bad Viking.”
“Is he a good Viking or a bad Viking.”
“He's a good Viking, a very brave warrior.” Joe had Andy stand up so that he could take some drawings out of his portfolio. “Here, you want to see what he's going to look like?”
Andy plopped down onto the floor, cross legged. “Yeah. Does he have a sword?”
“You bet.” Joe joined Andy on the floor so that he could spread all of his design sketches out. He had drawings all of the main characters, including the Norse Gods, as well as some ideas for Viking ships, sea monsters, and frost giants. He went through each one, explaining who everyone was and how they figured into the stories. Each drawing produced more questions from Andy, and soon Joe found himself retelling the entire origin of Jon, the Viking Prince.
Just as he got to the part about the curse from the Gods Joe noticed that Andy was rubbing his eyes and taking longer and longer to blink. “Alright, you. I've kept you up long enough. Time to get you back into bed.”
“But I want to know what happens to Jon the Viking.”
“Tomorrow. I promise I'll be home for dinner and then I can tell you and your brother the rest of the story together.” Joe scooped Andy up off of the floor.
“Viking's honor.” Andy was already asleep before he reached the doorway. Joe put him in his bed and tucked him in. The clock on the wall said it was quarter past one. “Muriel's going to kill me when she finds out about this.”
Joe sat back down at this drawing board, poured himself a cup of the now lukewarm coffee and got back to work. He didn't think about Stan Lee, or Spider-Man, or angry publishers for the rest of the night. He was too busy dreaming about swashbuckling adventures on the high seas.