June 2010

Martyn Pedler


An Interview with Joe Kubert

Until I had Joe Kubert on the phone, it hadnít occurred to me that I had no idea how to pronounce the name of his new graphic novel Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965. He laughed and told me that he understood. If it wasnít the name of the village where this battle had occurred, he wouldíve called the book something a little simpler. (For the record: it's something like ďDung ShwaiĒ.)†

Heís been drawing comics for seventy-something years; almost his entire life. Heís famous for his work on characters like Tor, Hawkman, and The Viking Prince, but most of all for his iconic World War II soldier Sgt. Rock. Later, in 1996, Kubert won acclaim for writing and drawing Fax From Sarajevo -- a graphic novel based on long-distance communications from his friends attempting to escape the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War.†

Joe Kubert technically began Dong Xoai back in 1967. He just didnít know it. A chance promotion for his comic strip Tales of the Green Beret led him to sketch scenes from the career of a soldier, just returned from Vietnam after winning a Medal of Honor. ďNow go forward,Ē Kubert told me, ďabout forty yearsÖĒ

Kubert: I got a letter from a retired colonel named Bill Stokes. Heíd been in charge of a Special Forces unit -- twelve men -- whoíd been in the village of Dong Xoai and experienced an attack that just decimated the whole area. He was still in contact with these soldiers who were still around, as well as their families, and he sent out kind of a long dissertation on what theyíd gone through -- including pictures, illustrations, and photographs.†

One of the illustrations he had was one Iíd done forty years ago. It was an old newspaper print -- rough and smudged. This guy knows nothing about cartooning, nothing about comic books, and doesnít know me from Adam. He saw my name on the drawing and contacted me to ask if I had a clean copy of it. This was a drawing Iíd done forty years ago! God knows whatíd happened to it. I said if he sent me the picture Iíd be more than happy to redraw it.†

When he got the drawing back he asked how much he owed me for it. I said I didnít want any money, but I would appreciate if heíd sent me a copy of the material youíre sending to all the guys who are left. He sent me a copy, and it contained about thirty pages of material. When I read this thing and saw these pictures, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I thought: this is a story I really want to do.

Dong Xoai doesnít look like a traditional graphic novel. Itís drawn entirely in pencil -- without panels or word balloons and with drafting marks still visible. Why this style for this project?

I felt that it might give the impression I was kind of a reporter at this occurrence. I wanted to pull the reader into that kind of feeling. I didnít want the drawings to be finished -- I wanted that immediacy present in the work. †

Youíve worked on nearly every genre of comic book over the course of your career, but youíre most closely associated with war comics. Was this something you pursued or just random chance?

Iíve been asked that before, and the answer is: my business is one in which if find success, you keep repeating it! I took on the war stories in the early Ď60s -- Bob Kanigher was my editor and writer at that time -- and the stories I did apparently sold magazines. So I was given more. Itís not because I had a particular interest. Whatever work that I have on my table, whatever Iím currently working on, is my favorite story.†

Many war stories attempt realism by adding violence -- but you seem a lot more interested in faces than gunfire and explosions.

Absolutely. The feelings that these men had, the relationship they had with one another, interested me much more. These guys were together through all their training, before they came to Vietnam, so they not only knew each other -- they knew each othersí families. And yet all these guys are a stripe of men that can compartmentalize. They can, under stress, suddenly provide the leadership they have to, or obey the orders that they have to. I tried my damnedest to show them as human beings.†

War comics have been around about as long as the medium itself -- and theyíve played a major role in propaganda all that time, too. Do you approach these stories with a moral duty as an artist?

I try to be as honest as I can. Bob Kanigher and I used to discuss this at great length. Heíd been in the army, as I had been. Neither one of us was in combat or anything like that, but we knew a lot of people who were. It ainít fun. It ainít fun at all. What we wanted to do was to portray that the people involved in these situations werenít there because they enjoyed it, but because they were called upon to serve. As a matter of fact, we started finishing each Sgt. Rock story with a bullet and the words ďMake War No More.Ē†

When youíre working on a book like Dong Xoai, do you feel the parallels with modern events? Thereís an interrogation scene in the book -- but you keep it off page and show the soldiers as being uncomfortable with this possibility of tortureÖ

Yes, I was affected by this business of interrogations -- and how heavy interrogations should be. Itís interesting you should point that out. There were stories that made the rounds during the Vietnam War about these kind of horrors. Collecting ears as trophies, things like that. I discussed this with Bill Stokes. He said: ďThey may have happened, but I never saw it, and none of my men were ever involved.Ē I did this story according to the information he gave me. I respected him, and I believed him.

In the back of Fax from Sarajevo you wrote that you told this very bleak story in a graphic novel, even though ďcomics have long been considered a childís medium in the United States.Ē Now that comic books seem so suddenly respectable, do you think youíd still include that statement?

I donít know. I still feel that if itís not a childrenís medium, itís at least a young personís medium -- despite the fact that the average person who reads comic books is now, Iím told, probably in their early twenties. Maybe itís because Iím an old fogey, I donít know, but I still feel a little strange and awkward when I see stuff thatís so blatantly sexual. Or thatís violent for no reason except sensationalism. There are all kinds of things which you could put into a story to intimate more effectively than blatantly showing everything. Itís ludicrous, and shows little respect for the reader. †

Does this debate about the respectability of comic books mean anything to you?

No, Iím not going to take that burden on my back! All I try to do -- and have tried to do since I started -- is to not be ashamed of what Iíve done. It started when I was a kid. I was 12 or 13 when I sold my first work, and even at that point I knew my parents would see it. I wasnít about to show them something I was ashamed of, or something I couldíve drawn on a toilet wall. As I grew older and had children of my own, I couldnít bring myself to do things that would embarrass me or them. I donít describe myself as a puritan -- but Iíve been very lucky in this business, and I just havenít had to do anything I didnít want to do.†

Have you turned down work because you thought the project was inappropriate?

Yes, I have -- but if I needed the dough, I probably wouldnít have. Iím not pretending to be better than I am, believe me. I just didnít have to do it. †

Itís nice to have the option to say no.

And how! Speaking frankly, at this stage of the game, Iím more in that position than Iíve ever been in my life. Iím a very, very lucky guy.†

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia, and Bookslutís regular comic book columnist. Find him at www.martynpedler.com.