Iconic comic book artist and writer Joe Kubert spent most of his life drawing brawny superheroes, lionhearted jungle men and rampaging dinosaurs. But at age 75, Kubert began a journey back to his roots, leading him to illustrate Warsaw Ghetto fighters and Holocaust survivors, as well as ethical mini-lessons for the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement. Kubert, who passed away August 12 in New Jersey at the age of 85, left behind an enormous fan base in the comic book world, as well as a growing audience of admirers in the Jewish community.
“I’ve known and interviewed many older comic book artists, and I usually find that their abilities diminish after a certain age,” comics historian and publisher Craig Yoe said. “But the amazing thing about Joe was that in his 70s and 80s he was at the top of his game, still constantly and passionately drawing new comics and graphic novels of the highest caliber.”
Kubert’s most recent phase was his immersion in his Jewish roots. He helped design “Cartoonists Against the Holocaust: Art in the Service of Humanity” for the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, a traveling exhibit of 1940s political cartoons from American newspapers about the Jews in Nazi Europe. For the Lubavitch magazine the Moshiach Times, he drew a series of two-page adventures with moral lessons, called “The Adventures of Yaakov and Isaac.” He also wrote and illustrated “Jew Gangster,” a graphic novel about the Jewish underworld figures of yesteryear.
The Jewish project that attracted the most attention was his 2003 graphic novel, “Yossel: APRIL 19, 1943.” Comic book fans who were used to Kubert drawing the likes of Hawkman were startled to find their favorite artist re-creating the Warsaw Ghetto revolt. In real life, Kubert’s family came to the United States from Poland in 1924 when he was a small child; in the book, the family stays in Poland, and young Joe — Yossel — is a budding teenage cartoonist when the Germans invade and World War II begins. Yossel’s cartoons come to the attention of the Nazi authorities, who spare his life because his artwork amuses them. Ultimately, Yossel chooses to join the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
Kubert was more than a little surprised when I called him in 2006 to tell him about Dina Babbitt, a cartoonist and illustrator who, like the Yossel character, was spared because of her art: Josef Mengele needed her to paint portraits of victims of his experiments in Auschwitz. “I had never heard of a real-life example of that [when I wrote ‘Yossel’] — I just imagined that it could have happened,” Kubert told me.
Kubert became one of the leaders of a campaign by the Wyman Institute to persuade the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, in Poland, to return to Babbitt eight of her paintings. Four hundred and fifty comic book creators from around the world signed a petition and drew international attention to Babbitt’s cause.
J. David Spurlock, publisher of several books of Kubert’s art and formerly an instructor at The Kubert School, formerly known as The Joe Kubert School of Cartooning and Graphic Art, in Dover, N.J., worked with Kubert on the Babbitt campaign. “Joe entertained entire generations of young Americans with his tales of the good guys beating the bad guys,” Spurlock said. “But he also knew when it was time to step into the real world and be one of the good guys, trying to help an elderly Holocaust survivor recover her property. That’s what my Jewish friends call ‘a mensch.’”
Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and the author of The Jews Should Keep Quiet: President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and the Holocaust, forthcoming from The Jewish Publication Society in 2019.
Joe Kubert, Comic Artist Who Returned to Roots