The morning of October 9, 2010, I was in New York City for the second time in my life. I was standing in a line with about ten people in it, and although I’d been in the line for nearly 40 minutes, I wasn’t going to leave that line any time soon. Because I had only one thing I needed to do that day. I needed to shake hands with Joe Kubert.
Joe had one rule at New York Comic Con that year: he’d sign one thing for free, but everything else you brought him to sign would cost you five bucks. That, to me, was completely reasonable. He was an old man, eighty-four years old, and not only that, he was a legend. Lots of people wanted to see him, and he’d come up with a very smart and respectful way to see as many people as possible. Except the two jackasses about ten people ahead of me in line didn’t quite see it that way. They saw it like, “Hey, let’s get Joe Kubert to sign a hundred things and pay him five hundred dollars so we can sell them on eBay for even more than that!” I wanted to strangle them. Not only were they holding up the line, but they were, in my eyes, being incredibly disrespectful.
But Joe Kubert was a man of his word. He signed every single thing those two guys had, and he smiled at them pleasantly as they forked over their bills. And he kept that smile on his face for the next people in line. And the next. Because even if he was pissed at you, he wouldn’t have let it show. Because Joe Kubert was a professional. And a class act.
I first learned about Joe Kubert because of the ads for his Cartooning School that were in comics back when I was reading them. I was too young to really understand what a legend he was, never having been able to read Hawkman or Our Army At War or Tor back in the day. And he wasn’t doing a ton of work when I was reading in the 80s. It wasn’t until I was an adult fan and I’d picked up one of his Tarzan collections half-price before the power of his art struck me. And then I grabbed some Sgt. Rock Archives, and those sealed the deal. I was a Joe Kubert fan for life.
When I finally got to the front of the line, I asked Joe if he could please sign my books. I’d only brought two. My first Sgt. Rock Archive and my first Tarzan Archive. He smiled that same smile at me, nodded his head, and said, “Sure.”
“Could you personalize them? To Devin?”
Smile and nod. “Of course.”
I watched him sign. There was so much I wanted to say to him, I didn’t know how to start. And then suddenly, I heard myself saying, “I just wanted to thank you for those Tarzan books. The first time I read them, I was transported back to when I was ten years old, reading my Grandpa’s old Burroughs books at the cottage on a rainy day. Your Tarzan looks exactly like I imagined when I was ten.”
He looked up at me. And the smile was there. But it had changed. It had softened a little around the eyes, and it wasn’t quite as broad in the mouth. It felt more real. “Thank you,” he said. “That is a really great compliment.”
I asked him if I could get my picture with him, and he said of course. Thanks to the magic of digital cameras I don’t actually have that photo any more. But I have the two books, and the memory of the three minutes in my life where I met Joe Kubert.
I’m actually tearing up as I write this. I’m not a comics expert, I’m not an art expert, I’m not as well-read or as descriptive as I would like to be. I just know what Joe Kubert meant to me. His comics transported me, not just to the places he was drawing, but to a place in my past. He made me feel young and happy and vibrant again when I read those Tarzan books.
And that’s not all. He gave me gut-wrenching chills when I read stories like “Ice Cream Soldier” or “3 Stripes Hill.” And he helped me kick off my first episode of Scotch & Comics with the brilliant Jew Gangster, a book he did in 2005 that absolutely blew me away with its poetry of beautiful art telling an ugly story. Every time I read another Joe Kubert comic, I get more in awe. Reading his comics helps me understand how art works. How storytelling works. How comics work.
To a few people, Joe Kubert was a teacher, a father, a husband, and a friend. But to thousands of people, he was a creator, an artist, a man who changed their lives without their paths ever having crossed. I am honoured to have met him, and to have the memory of that real, heartfelt smile. He will be missed.
(Cross-posted from Tumblr.)