School Codifies a Literary Form That Started in the Funny Pages
The New York Times, Oct. 6, 2004
by Samuel G. Freedman
Sometime in 1939, when Joe Kubert was 13 years old and an aspiring cartoonist, he rode the subway from the far reaches of immigrant Brooklyn to the unknown world of Manhattan and applied for a job. There was an artist in his mid-20's, name of Will Eisner, who was putting out a newspaper comics supplement called "The Spirit," and the word was he needed a kid to sweep up the studio.
So Joe walked into the place and what hit him was not sights but smells -- the gummy erasers, the musty paper, the opaque white paint used to cover mistakes. Even as he went on to the renowned High School of Music and Art, studying classical composition and anatomy, he learned about story and character and craft from Will Eisner and his staff artists.
When Joe graduated from high school, he gave no thought to any career except illustrating comics, selling five-page stories for $5 a page, ultimately becoming famous for the World War II series "Sgt. Rock." From the beginning though, he noticed one trait about many of the most accomplished cartoonists. Rather than admit they worked in comics, they told outsiders vaguely, "I'm a commercial artist."
On a Monday morning 65 years later, Mr. Kubert leaned over the drafting table in his own studio, playing the venerable role of mentor, but doing so in a very different way. He directs what might be called Comics U., one of the few accredited schools of cartoon art, if not the only one. The techniques he picked up informally -- "one piece at a time," he recalls, "from whoever's kind enough to give you the time" -- his students acquire in a precisely devised three-year curriculum. Where 22 pupils enrolled when the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art opened in this town about 40 miles west of Manhattan in 1976, now 125 are enrolled, and this fall's incoming 45 were culled from nearly 300 applicants from around the globe.
As much as the school represents Mr. Kubert's enduring impact, it stands also for the growing literary legitimacy of comics, their growth in length and sophistication into "graphic novels." The form traces its origins to Will Eisner's "Contract With God," an unsentimental memoir of his Bronx childhood published in 1978. Since then, the practitioners have ranged from Art Spiegelman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Holocaust narrative "Maus," to Chris Ware, who portrayed two generations of fatherless boys in "Jimmy Corrigan." Several of the most acclaimed graphic novels -- Harvey Pekar's ' 'American Splendor," Daniel Clowes's "Ghost World," and Max Allan Collins's "Road to Perdition" -- have been adapted into films. Michael Chabon paid homage to the comics industry heyday of the 1940's and 50's in his prize-winning (unillustrated) novel "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay."
Mr. Kubert's school has played a major role in codifying and propounding what might be thought of as the canon of cartoon art. "The art of comics is a complex and demanding one with a grammar, principles of style, and traditions all its own," said David Hajdu, the author of a forthcoming history of the early years of the comics. "An education in traditional literature can surely help the author of a traditional novel, just as an education in the traditions of comics can help the author of a graphic novel."
The working title of Mr. Hajdu's book, "The Ten-Cent Plague," attests to the contempt heaped on comics for much of the past century, when they were derided by cultural mandarins and political figures as mindless diversions at best and incitements to juvenile delinquency at worst. Nonetheless, Mr. Hajdu pointed out, at least one "prominent and immeasurably influential" school of comic art functioned in the 1940's. Led by Burne Hogarth, who illustrated the "Tarzan" comic strip, the school was later subsumed by the School of Visual Arts.
Most commonly, though, young illustrators served de facto apprenticeships like the one of Joe Kubert to Will Eisner. Those lessons now inform many of the courses in Mr. Kubert's school.
"I learned very early -- and it relates to the graphic novelists of today -- that a cartoonist is a storyteller," Mr. Kubert said. "You're not making art for art's sake, or composing a visual just for the sake of design. It has less to do with quote-unquote good drawing, and more to do with creating the kind of characters who are credible and believable, telling your story clearly, effectively."
To that end, while Mr. Kubert requires students to take a sequence of classes in drawing, design and layout, his school's foundational course is narrative art. He still teaches two sections of it to the third-year students. And he has demonstrated its precepts in his own graphic novels; "Fax From Sarajevo" depicted his friendship with a Bosnian cartoonist during the Balkan war, and "Yossel: April 19, 1943" portrayed a teenage boy fighting, and ultimately dying, in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
The students who seek to drink up this knowledge must be prepared to pay about $14,000 a year for the opportunity. They must take 28 hours of classes a week and spend nearly as many on homework. They must also make the psychic leap from being a talented amateur to a nascent professional, held to professional standards. In interviewing applicants, instructors at the Kubert school often ask: "How do you feel about criticism? How do you feel about rejection?"
Some plainly do not feel very well. The students admitted straight from high school are most likely to drop out. Those who persevere tend to be older, and are sometimes career-switchers; there have been both a lawyer and a plumber in the recent past. The school's alumni have been hired by employers from Marvel comics to Hallmark Cards to Microsoft.
"Until I came here, I was under the impression that drawing was just a hobby and that's all you could make of it," recalled Charles Wilson, a 27-year-old from Indianapolis. "This school makes it real. Making contacts, learning the terminology, the tricks of the trade. The things that make the average reader say a page looks good. Composition, design, layout, story. So much more than pretty pictures."