Artist August: A Chat with Mike Chen of the Joe Kubert School

By | August 13th, 2013
Posted in Columns | % Comments

Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of Joe Kubert’s passing, and so this is the perfect week for us to be shining a light on one of his proudest creations. When we started brainstorming Artist August this year, one of my goals was to do something at the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art. For those unaware, the Kubert School is a commercial art school established by Joe Kubert, the legendary comics artist, near his home in Dover, NJ. The school has been operational since 1976, and has produced a staggering number of talented artists across the entire comics spectrum.

Back in July, I spent a morning at the Kubert School, walking around, observing classes, taking photos, and chatting with the staff. The classes that were in session that day were two summer camps (one for pre-teens and one for teenagers), as well as a summer session for non-matriculating students. At the end of my morning, I spent 40 minutes or so chatting with instructor and Academic Supervisor to the school, Mike Chen.

Chen graduated from the Kubert School in 1981, and has been involved with the school, off and on, ever since. Chen, who in the ‘80s did work on such DC books as “Action Comics,” “Superman,” “Worlds’ Finest,” “Tales of the Legion,” “Who’s Who” and more, is a man with a wit as dry as the Arizona desert, and a wealth of knowledge and experience to draw upon to help the students at the Kubert School achieve a successful career in comics.

When I got to the school, one of the things that really struck me was the high number of female students I saw. When I asked Chen about this, he said that the school was, in fact, getting more women applicants than in the past, but that what I was seeing in the summer camp classes (at least 50% girls) was not reflective of the full-time students at the school.

“Since the school’s inception it had been, unfortunately and not purposely, a boy’s club,” says Chen. Around 2000, the number of female students started to increase – the current student body is between 30 and 40 perfect female, which is the highest it has ever been. In addition, any part time classes offered tend to be even more women-dominant than the full-time work. Chen attributes a lot of this to the rise of manga and anime in the United States.

That isn’t to assume, however, that only Americans attend the Kubert School. While the students are significantly American, there are students from Mexico, Canada, Europe and Africa, as well as a few Asians. In fact, other countries approached Joe throughout the years about setting up official relationships with the school and, possibly, setting up other campuses. China, Brazil, Spain and Italy have all reached out, in one way or another, to build a relationship with the school. However, Joe wanted to keep things local, and so those relationships never materialized. The school does run a number of correspondence courses, so that students who can’t commit full time (or are local enough for the Saturday morning classes that are open to anyone), can still learn from the school. In fact, until his death in 2012, Joe would sometimes offer personal critiques to the correspondence students.

The students, wherever they are from, are required to have at least a GED or high school diploma to enroll, and they range from 17 years old all the way to 60 – there is a retired plumber currently studying at the school. The average student is between 20-22 years old, and about 60% of the school comes to it through an interest in western comics, but with more and more students embracing manga, the school is noticing a real growth in people wanting to draw because of it. Chen says that those who come to the program via manga usually have a very keen understanding of using the art to tell a story, versus just drawing muscular superheroes. He said that the school, but Joe in particular, always stresses the importance of visual storytelling, beyond just making good looking pictures.

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I asked Chen about a ‘house style,’ and if he felt the school had one. He said that he didn’t think it did – some other schools focus more on drawing characters, and so those students can come out producing work that looks more or less similar, but since the Kubert School wants to teach visual storytelling, the focus is less on how one draws a character, and more on what the drawing tells about the story.

The school is set up as a three-year program, but many students don’t make it all three years. When I asked Chen about the low retention rate, he gave some truly fascinating answers. First of all, very few students are asked not to continue – most of the people leaving the school are doing so on their own accord. For some, it is a financial reason; due to the staggering number of hours students are expected to/encouraged to draw (Chen estimated the average student is drawing, in and out of class, 8-12 hours a day), the school suggests that students do no work part time jobs while attending. If finances may be an issue, the school recommends working for a few years, saving your money, and then enrolling, so that when you are present, you can dedicate as much of your time to drawing as possible.

However, there was another reason that people don’t stick around the school – their own egos.

For many of the students, they were the best artist in their hometown, and were used to being fawned over – that isn’t the case at the Kubert School. Suddenly, you may be the 85th best artist in the school, and you’re no longer special. That can mess with someone, and apparently, it does with some frequency. In addition, many of these students have never dealt with deadlines, or with professional critiques. The school was set up to be a commercial art school – you want to come out of it able to work in a professional art setting – and so the school is set up to teach you how to work for someone else and, again, some people just can’t handle that. The loss of students are almost always issues with attitude, not aptitude.

One of the most fascinating parts of the chat with Chen was the revelation that the school’s curriculum was set by Kubert at the school’s opening and, with very few exceptions, has not changed at all. The major exception is the inclusion of more technology into the program. At first, Joe was very reluctant to embrace new technology, but with the pushing of his sons (especially Adam), as well as the Program Advisory Committee (past and present members include Karen Berger, Joe Quesada, Neal Adams and Paul Levitz), eventually technology found a place at the school. What was once the “Paste Ups and Mechanicals” class is now “Digital Production,” and each student at the school needs to have a MacBook Pro at the start of their classes.

Among the other classes, students are instructed in the best practices of finding work, as well as just about every aspect of visual comic art – animation, layouts, lettering, inking, design, coloring, caricature, etc. Just by reading over a class list (easily found on the Kubert School’s Wikipedia page, although I cannot vouch for its accuracy), you really get the sense that the school prepares students for being a well rounded professional artist.

After talking with Chen, it became abundantly clear exactly how much work it takes to make it as an artist in comics. Just spending a half hour with the guy made it clear how passionate he, and everyone at the Kubert school, is about what they do. We will feature more about the school later today and tomorrow, but know that we could have easily done an entire week’s worth of coverage on all aspects of the school.

For more information on the Kubert School, please visit their website.

//TAGS | Artist August

Brian Salvatore

Brian Salvatore is an editor, podcaster, reviewer, writer at large, and general task master at Multiversity. When not writing, he can be found playing music, hanging out with his kids, or playing music with his kids. He also has a dog named Lola, a rowboat, and once met Jimmy Carter. Feel free to email him about good beer, the New York Mets, or the best way to make Chicken Parmagiana (add a thin slice of prosciutto under the cheese).


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