You know, I really didn’t think I had an article in me this week. I had planned on doing a “catch up with modern comics” kind of piece, where I went through my weighty stack of actual, physical, printed comics, and do my best to jump back into the conversation, especially since one of the titles I reading, one that I was just ready to pounce all over and tear it apart, was chosen as last week’s Pick of the Week, but for a variety of excellent reasons, I never got the chance to read anything. And so, I woke up this morning and thought, “well, maybe something will come up.”
Something did come up, of course. I found out Joe Kubert died.
Now, I am not going to pretend like I am a huge Joe Kubert fan. I honestly just came to appreciate him over the past decade or so, and though I know that he is incredibly influential, I never read of any of his books until relatively recently. I always thought his work was really powerful, but I did not realize his incredible skill until Wednesday Comics came out. Now his work on those pages may or may not be particularly amazing, but I was shocked at how much he could do with so very little. With just a few lines and the most rudimentary of layouts, he could just tell a fantastic story. For someone who always equated “good art” with detailed pencils and imaginative pages, it really turned everything I knew about comics upside down, and his art helped me appreciate work I may never have appreciated before, including Jeff Lemire, and other artists whose work I would have pegged as “simplistic.” Now, every time I see Joe Kubert’s name on a book, I grab it, without hesitation.
When word of Kubert’s passing hit the web, I found myself not really able to say anything, as I didn’t feel like I really had the right to comment on this sad event. While I really liked his work and understood, at least on an intellectual level, his contribution to comics, I was not an authority on the man and just felt like reading other people’s reflections on his life and work. I felt sorrow for the family he left behind, but hoped, in my heart, that the general feeling was that he lived a wonderful life, touched a generation of readers and inspired a multitude of artists to follow their dream. It would be a quiet way of honoring a man whom I admired, if from a distance, and I assumed would inspire me to pick up a bunch of his work and perhaps write about him a few months from now.
But, of course, something else happened. Something that reminded me, sadly, of the peevish vitriol that surround the late Michael Turner’s death in 2008, where people would say something about his passing but making sure to add some snarky comment about their opinion of his work. Turner was, by all accounts, an incredibly nice guy and was a definitive creative voice and, in my naivety, I wrote an article expressing frustration at how people were remembering him.
The situation with Joe Kubert was much more localized (a single article) but so jaw-droppingly abhorrent that I will not share the name of the writer who wrote the piece, which is, somehow, still up. There is an an apology by the author, an apology that you have to click through to find, but that apology only came about after the appropriate thrashing of the piece, which, let’s face it, should have been taken down and replaced by said apology. Even if one supposes that the piece should still be up, it should open with the apology — but it is still up and that’s why I find myself having to write this article. For those of you who haven’t had the particular misfortune to read the piece (and the tortured apology), suffice to say, the author makes an incredibly insensitive and absolutely unforgivably evil comparison to Joe Kubert’s death, one that could only have possibly been worse if he had accused Joe of basically being a murderer. Seriously. All because Kubert contributed to the Before Watchmen series.
Now, I can hear some of you sighing, “Oh, that’s just the Internet for you,” or, worse, “well, that’s just comics, there are always going to people like in comics.” And you know what, what’s truly awful? I totally understand that sentiment.
Why is it that comic book fans have one of the worst possible reputations in all of fandom? Why is that? Why is “the comic book guy” both awful and absolutely spot-on? What is it about comics that fills many a comic book fan with such destructive self-righteous indignation and vitriol when it comes to this medium that they supposedly love so much? Why do comic book fans take this stuff so damn seriously? I mean, I have been around some serious nerds, people. I have been to my share of Star Trek conventions. I’ve played Dungeons and Dragons at gaming conventions with guys whose BO was so bad it literally brought tears to your eyes. I’ve waited in line for Star Wars for 8 hours and argued why Macs are better than PCs basically all of my life.
But never, in all my years, which are numerous but not so numerous enough that I don’t get upset about this kind of bullshit from time to time, have I met fans that have had such blatant hatred for other fans and creators of the same freaking medium that they have spent their lives obsessing over.
What is the problem with comics? I say that sarcastically, of course, because, on the surface, this has nothing to do with comics — it’s some kind of weird personality thing, where an earnest appreciation turns itself inside out into something legitimately sinister. But maybe…maybe it actually does have something to do with actual comic books. Indulge me for a second:
Comics are, after all, comic books, and like all books, once in one’s possession, are completely useable — as long as there is a light source — at any time. You don’t need to be around other people, you can read them over and over and over and over again, you can read them in bed, you can read them in school, you can read them on the bus, you can bring them with you wherever you go. And for many of us who discovered them as kids, comics are crack hits of an idealized fantasy, where, literally, the shy dork is actually a superhero and, on a regular basis, saves the day. (By the way I totally get this, I was more shy than you and a bigger dork than you were (or are), I absolutely guarantee it — no one out-dorked me as a kid, I totally sucked at everything even remotely cool, was stratospherically unapproachable to the opposite sex, and just verbal enough to play D&D every Friday night.)
And this fantasy, for many folks, is where it all just clicked. And the stories and the art and the format itself, became the one thing that would always be there, as long as you had a flashlight at night by which to read to return to stories under the covers. For many of us, comics were home, and as such, we have a strong emotional connection to everything that touches comics.
I remember when Watchmen was published in mid-80s. Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns came out, and quite literally, comics haven’t been the same since. But they were just overpriced books on thicker paper back in the day! I remember flipping through Watchmen being bored instantly and grabbing Daredevil because the Dark Knight books were too expensive and the covers were weird. I was obviously a kid and I liked what I liked and I had no money.
Let’s be clear: no one freakin’ grew up with Watchmen. No one had Watchmen sheets and Watchmen lunch boxes and, until the movie came out, no one wanted to dress up like anyone from that book for Halloween. So, it is with some degree of honest — truly honest — surprise, for me, that people are being so freaky about the new Before Watchmen series; yes, I understand why people are up at arms, I get the debate about creator rights — but regardless, the books are out and I’m reading them, I like them, I think they are great, and they don’t diminish Watchmen for me at all, which, by the way – shocker! – I don’t really think is all that great in the first place, so what do I know, right? But I do know that there are literally thousands of books that I don’t find interesting so I don’t read them. And I certainly would never trash the legacy of a legendary creator and, by the way, a dead man who cannot defend himself for the apparent crime of working on one of those books (with his son!) that I didn’t deem worth of reading anyway.
This is not “just comics.” It cannot be “just comics.” People whose views bring only senseless vitriol and anger into comic book discourse are not comics. They are a poison and do nothing to help this art form, which, by the way, needs all the help it can get. (Speaking of which, whomever at DC who approved mentioning Kubert’s Before Watchmen work in their brief condolences to Kubert’s family and fans made a huge mistake there as well — it came across as amateurish and desperate and definitely inappropriate, but for obviously different reasons.)
Here is what “comics” is to me: Comics is a community of some of the best artists and writers in the world, whose work inspires millions of people, whose artistry is proof that there is good in this world. Comics is being able to follow artists like Becky Cloonan and Ben Templesmith and Fabio Moon and Ryan Kelly on Instragram and be treated to their sketches and paintings, just because they feel like sharing their work with us. Comics is being able to tell superstars of the industry, like Darwyn Cooke, Frank Quitely and Grant Morrison, that you really appreciate their work and they touched your life and make it better to their faces and get an earnest handshake, a smile and bit of honest conversation in return. Comics is the ability to complain about comics because you love comics and that, just like a relationship with someone you love, you are not always going to get along. But the love is still there. Comics is about the ability to take legends and make them new again, they are about being able celebrate the past while embracing the present. To me, the notion of comics means perseverance, a commitment to a creative endeavor that will almost certainly never result in financial gain, but people do it anyway because they love the medium and are happy to be part of the story. Comics is being able to go to conventions and parties and websites and twitter and celebrate the work of people whose work has helped comics make the world a little bit better.
Joe Kubert was one of those people. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Mike Romo lives in Los Angeles.