Joe Kubert was a legendary comic book artist most associated with Hawkman and Sgt. Rock. I interviewed Joe for Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman. He passed away in 2012.
The interview is transcribed (and slightly edited) from a
recording, as I did with all the interviews in this series (Jerry Robinson, Shelly Moldoff, Lew Sayre Schwartz, Alvin Schwartz, Joe Kubert, Arnold Drake, Carmine Infantino, Irwin Hasen).
What was your relationship with Bill Finger?
I don’t pretend to have been a deep friend or anything like that. I can tell you my acquaintanceship was one purely on a professional level and as a matter of fact was also colored by the fact that he was quite a bit older than I. I think I was, when I was first did these things, I think I was about 16 or so, where he was an adult and probably in his late twenties and there was a wide difference in our approaches and in our backgrounds as far as personalities were concerned. He was a nice guy. As you’ve already probably found out, Marc, he had many problems, one of which I brushed up against, which was his not being able to hold onto any of his money. He was always, always in debt. And I learned this to both his and my chagrin simply because he had borrowed money from me and that was after he had done work and the fact that he had even asked me, I was so impressed (laughs) to be able to help him out was a pleasure for me. But that led to a lot of problems.
When was that?
(pause) That was before the war. That was probably in the early ‘40s. Before the war, probably 1940. That was when I was doing Hawkman, things like that. I started out as a kid doing that kind of stuff and Bill was the writer. At that time the property was owned by, oh what was his name, by Gaines, by M.C. Gaines. It was called All-American Comics. Eventually All-American Comics sold out to DC and all those properties became DC’s, which included the Flash and Hawkman and a lot of others of that type of character. During the time that it was owned by Arnold, by Gaines rather, was the time that I was doing the illustrating and Bill had done some of the stories. Now the situation was of course that no writer was assigned specifically to any one of the characters. Whenever they had time they were called in by the editor or they came in looking for work and the editor gave them whatever the next job was, whatever the next deadline that was coming up that had been written and drawn. And that’s the way it worked for most of us, to both writers and artists. It was during that time that Bill did some of the Hawkman stories. I had met him, I had known him, he was a nice guy. But again, as I said, there was no really any kind of deep personal relationship at all.
He borrowed money that he couldn’t repay?
What happened was, I had gotten a check. And the money [came] hard to all of us, but I was a kid and I had no need of money simply because the way I grew up, all the money that I made, all the money that I earned, immediately went into the family pot, which was fine, which was the way it was supposed to be. And so the money held little significance for me except for the fact that if I needed it, I had it, but mostly it was used for the family purposes. I had received a check and apparently Bill knew that I got the check that day or he was in the office at the same time, and he said, “You know, Joe, I could use some dough, I need some money.” I said “Sure, how much do you need?” I think it was $2-300 he needed at the time. This was a lot of money at that time. I said sure. As a matter of fact, I think he asked me for $200 and I asked him if it was enough. And he said, “Well, if you can squeeze out another fifty…” I said sure. “And I’ll pay you back next week.” [something unintelligible, with a chuckle] …standard line. He held off paying me until I finally got out of the army ten years ago [think he meant “later”] and had a, I put people on, I got so angry at this, ‘cause I had contacted him a couple of times, it was hard to track him down. But eventually I got an agency, a collection agency, to go after him, and I think eventually, I did get—but I don’t really recall. [It was a mostly?] sad relationship with Mr. Finger.
Did you talk to him after that?
The only time that I had really seen Bill was when we happened to come together when we went up to the company to pick up a job or something like that. So I didn’t really have an opportunity to get to know him too well. I had heard all kinds of stories about him and it was only after I lent him the money that people said to me, the older guys would say to me “You did WHAT? You lent him WHAT?” He had had that kind of reputation and I knew nothing about that.
Money aside, what sense of his personality did you get or what stories have you heard about his personality?
He was a very pleasant guy. He was a very bright guy. I understand that, I don’t know if you’re, I understand why you’re asking these questions for the purpose of the book that you’re doing, but I’m afraid that all the information that I had about him and the small experience that I had with him were not really upbeat or really good ones. He was a good, he was a nice guy as far as I knew. But I didn’t know him that well. The stories that I heard about him, afterwards, was you never lend him any money. He had some problems—I think he was divorced from his wife, he had problems, I understood, I learned later, he had problems with his wife, ex-wife and kids, all that kind of stuff.
Do you think that his work is a fitting legacy for him, or do you his personal problems tarnished that too much?
I don’t think that his personal problems tarnished the work that he was doing at all. Everybody that I’ve spoken to, everybody that knew him, including myself, admired the kind of work he did. It was a pleasure to illustrate his stories. His stories, the way he wrote his stories, the material that he wrote only enhanced the ability of anybody who was illustrating it. This medium that we work in, the comic book medium that is, is one where unless the writer has a mind for graphics, some idea of what the picture should like towards which he’s writing his script, very often the story can be very slow-paced, very boring. But Bill was capable of writing the kind of story that was intelligent. He tried to figure out little gimmicks, little ideas. I recall one sequence in a Batman story where Batman was in a hole that was dug out for him, almost like a grave-like kind of thing, and there was a huge stone that was placed over the area that was dug out and he was underneath. He could not move that stone. It was so heavy. But what he did was, he had, I think he had some pencils or some round objects, perhaps, like bullets or something like that, and wedged them underneath the stone in order to make it roll. So that instead of actually trying to do it with brute strength, he used his head a little bit. It was gimmicks like that that Bill was really terrific in working out and made it a little bit more unusual, a little bit more interesting, a little bit more interesting in terms of the graphics as well.
Do you think that he knew that he was good? Did he get any positive feedback from anybody?
I don’t think so. I think that his personal problems really got in the way of the kind of relationship that he would’ve had with his editors. I think that he always felt, how shall I say, perhaps a little bit obliged, perhaps a little bit owing, perhaps a little bit too willing to take a little bit of abuse from these guys simply because the jobs and the money that he got from it was so important to him. They really took advantage of him to that degree.
What did he look like? There are so few photos of him out there.
He was not a tall guy. He was not a big guy. I would say in retrospect I think he was probably around, I would say about 5’7” or 5’8”. But he was well-built, he wasn’t, he didn’t go to fat or anything like that. I understood he played a lot of tennis and he was into a lot of sports. Kind of sandy-haired. Not tan but nice complexion, a ruddy complexion, and very pleasant to talk to, very pleasant.
Was he handsome?
I would not call him handsome, but he was a pleasant-looking guy. His features were clean cut. I don’t remember offhand, he didn’t wear glasses as I remember, but I do remember his features were rather even and well-balanced. In other words, his nose was not too big, his face…he’s the kind of a guy that if you looked at him and caught a glimpse of him, you would say “This looks like a pleasant guy.” But there was nothing remarkable about him to cause you to remember really what he looked like. His hair was kind of sandy, not full—combed and cut in the style of the day of that time, which meant that it was kind of short and well kept. He was a clean-looking guy.
Do you know anybody who might have a photo of him or even a drawing?
Gee, I don’t know. I haven’t been able to find any…
[a passage I didn’t transcribe when I explain why I need images and he suddenly remembers one person who might have some but can’t remember the name, only that he did more art than Bob Kane…it was Jerry Robinson, “he saves a heck of a lot”]
In the late ‘30s, early ‘40s, was it the tradition that people would still dress up for work, wear ties?
Not formally, but certainly not the way we’re dressing today. He would usually wear…everything except the tie. Yes, he would wear a jacket very often, but it would be like a sport jacket, not a suit jacket, really.
[I said I got impression guys would put on a tie even when working from home and he said no]
Do you know anything about his relationship with Bob Kane?
No. As a matter of fact at that time I didn’t even know Bob—I met Bob Kane only shortly before he passed away.
Do any other stories that you’ve heard about Bill come to mind that you haven’t talked about yet?
Only that which I’ve told you and I would hesitate to repeat too many of the stories that I might’ve heard fleetingly. Again the guy I think that would probably know much more about things would be Jerry.
[I thanked him]
My pleasure. Not at all. Anything that I can help anybody who is making any sort of an effort to do anything along the lines that comic books or to enhance what we’re doing, I’m for it.