Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Joe Kubert Presents #1 review

Artist, writer, teacher ... legend. Joe Kubert worked in comics for an astonishing 70 years. He died in August, leaving a legacy to the industry that comprises three parts - an immense body of gorgeous, thoughtful stripwork; countless professionals trained at his eponymous school; and his artist sons, Adam and Andy.

But Kubert was also an editor, steering such titles as Our Army at War and Tarzan while also providing stories and art. And in Joe Kubert Presents he's once again curating talent and characters, presenting the type of stories he missed seeing in comics. The six issues see Kubert showcase fellow pioneer Sam Glanzman, veteran Kubert School humour teacher Brian Buniak and, happily, himself. As well as writing and drawing, all three look to be lettering and colouring their work, making for a purity that's rare to see; what's more, DC have printed the work on heavy stock, allowing for sharper reproduction.
Thunderbunny and Mad alumnus Brian Buniak begins a serial featuring Sixties DC characters Angel and the Ape -  detectives Angel O'Day and Sam Simeon. She's human, he's a comic-drawing gorilla, and it's good to have them back. The story sees a rich guy who's being preyed upon by a gold-digger ask the pair to stop him being murdered, and it's a lot of fun. So far, Sam's not talking as he did in the old days, something I hope will change pretty quickly, allowing for some banter. That's not to say Sam is absent characterisation - Buniak's energy-filled artwork and occasional grunts clue us in as to what's on his mind. The pages are packed with sight gags and Easter eggs, such as a parade of earlier artists' versions of Angel by Sam's desk, ensuring this strip rewards multiple readings.
In the Second World War Sam Glanzman served on the destroyer USS Stevens, and over the years he's told dozens of stories about that time, both at Marvel and DC. Sadness permeates every panel of this issue's tale of Patty and Jerry, two guys who worked on the guns, along with authenticity; I've rarely felt so close to the experience of the ordinary heroes to whom we owe so much. Glanzman is another octogenarian - he draws himself looking back - and his powers remain impressive.
And then there's Kubert himself. Incapable of not creating something new, here he debuts Spit, an unloved orphan who joins a whaling vessel. Presenting the harsh narrative in pencils only, with a grey wash effect, emphasises the ragged hopelessness of Spit's days. By the end of this short opening chapter there's the slightest hint that he may soon have a life rather than an existence. This is bleak stuff, but Lord, the craft ...

... Kubert's mastery of the comics form is also evident in the book's joyfully coloured feature-length strip, a story of the Silver Age Hawkman and Hawkgirl's first adventure on Earth (Katar's blond here, like his Golden Age counterpart Carter Hall, making him look more than ever the classic comics hero). They're sent down by authorities on their homeworld Thanagar not to study police methods, but to report on Earth's increasing threat to the universe. It's not stated outright, but there's a sense that Katar and Shayera are judging Earth's people, that Thanagar may take drastic action if there's no cause for optimism. The all-business Katar foregrounds the implications of their mission, but the cheerier Shayera chooses to concentrate on the potential for exploration and adventure. She's not stupid, just approaching their mission from another angle.

Having them land in a canopied part of Africa, filled with animals of the jungle and veldt, allows Kubert to bring a Tarzan artistic sensibility to the story. And while the local people wear animal skin and shake spears - there's even a witchdoctor type - they don't feel like comic book caricatures, so much as classic adventure strip denizens. There's an inarguable message about pollution, but mainly I loved this strip for its stripped-down approach to Hawkman and Hawkgirl - the continuity contortions of recent years are absent, this is just a pair of winged wonders, space aliens who can talk to the animals, getting to know earth. It's easy to find a messianic subtext - sent from on high, they're here to save us from themselves else their 'father' finds us wanting - but it's equally easy to ignore such things (the inescapable Jesus parallels are coming next month, as Kubert's long-lost Eighties project, Redeemer, finally appears).
The art is a dream, marrying the fantastic to a naturalistic line that makes characters and landscapes come alive. Shayera's mask is redesigned slightly, making her eyes more freakily birdlike, but I could look at this Hawkgirl and Hawkman every day for the rest of my life and never tire of the sight. And Kubert's colour choices and lettering style complement his illustrations perfectly. We even get to see the man himself, on an introduction page that leads into the story's gorgeous opening image of soaring Hawkpeople and floating cities.

I don't know enough about illustration to say for certain, but the cover illustration looks to have been done on textured paper or board, lending a timelessness, a poetry, to its image of Katar, Shayera and elephant chums. The signature-turned-logo and unobtrusive contents lettering sit well beside it.

A packed issue - 52 high quality pages for $4.99 - is rounded off with an essay by Kubert explaining the concept better than I have here, and an addendum by his friend and collaborator Pete Carlsson.

There's a production problem, and I mention it only in the hope that someone at DC might see this and take a look at what's very much a nuts and bolts, not a content, issue: the two slight staples are too weak to maintain the integrity of this heavier-than-the-norm comic. Even before I read it, the central four pages had come away.

With Kubert gone, and his final strip already printed in this week's Ghosts #1, there's a bittersweet tinge to this series. But with quality work of the calibre contained in this first issue, I can see subsequent releases being something to treasure for reasons far removed from justified sentimentality. Joe Kubert understood how to make a comic book story sing, and even after his death, he's showing us how it should be done.

9 comments:

  1. I bought Joe Kubert Presents #1 spontaneously at my local comic shop (I hadn't been aware it was being produced) and I am mightly glad that I did. It was a real pleasure to to find story telling like this available in today's mass market publishing and with Joe himself sat at his easel introducing the work it all felt very intimate. DC Comics are to be commended for giving this legendary old soldier the final salute that he undoubtedly deserves.

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    1. That easel page was great, Flodo Span. Being ancient, it reminded me of this DC Special issue, which I only ever saw in a house ad:

      http://www.comics.org/issue/23004/cover/4/

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  2. Joe Kubert's work, especially his work on Hawkman, just makes me miss the old versions all that much more, and hate the new rebooted version even more. There was absolutely no reason to disregard those beautiful bits of fiction and characterization that Kubert, and others like him contributed to Hawkman and Hawkgirl. Kubert has single-handedly shamed DC's current crap passed off to us, thus why I'm surprised DC even published this shining example of hey comics should be.

    This makes me miss Kubert and his work ethic all that much more.

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    1. I agree with everything you say, Dale. Anyone for a Campaign for Real Hawkman?

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  3. Wow, what a phenomenal issue... and the promise of 5 more is exciting and bittersweet.

    The sight of Kubert at his drawing table is a familiar one; I think he opened some issues of Tor in a similar fashion. I'll have to check my archives.

    There are wonders on every page of this book. Thanks for bringing some attention to it, Mart!

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    1. Hi Rob, did you see my reply to Flodo, above, easel-wise?

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  4. I did! (There's a similar DC Special cover for Carmine Infantino, too.) And I just checked my Tor Archives, as well, and the motif is there as well -- some stories begin in his art studio, and Joe (often with Norman Maurer, his Tor collaborator) introduces the work and puts it in context, and the action begins on page 2.

    I'll try to scan a few versions of this when I get a chance.

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  5. If anybody wants an example of the casual brilliance of Joe Kubert's art, all they have to do is look at the first page where Joe includes statue of two dinosaurs wrestling. For utterly no reason but just to make the page more exciting.
    Brian Buniak's version of Angel and the Ape, had me in stitches. The opening action scene was fabulous. A great reveal of Angel, reminiscent of our first view of Mary Jane in Spiderman, only Angel's hair is a sexy mess.
    Sam Glansman's USS Steven's saga is like nothing being done in comics today. Mature, sophisticated and riveting.
    What a book. Again what a book.

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    1. Hi Anonymous, thanks for the excellent commentary. I hope you're still enjoying the series, I certainly am.

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