Friday, March 21, 2008
An interview with JOE KUBERT about Robin Moore and 'TALES OF THE GREEN BERETS'
For those like me who didn’t live through it, it’s hard to believe a time when the Vietnam War wasn’t hotly protested and its soldiers vilified. But such was the case in the war’s early years. The Beatles, for example, were prevented by their manager from answering questions about the war in 1964-’65. By 1967 they would find themselves at the iconic vanguard of ‘flower power’. In 1963, a writer named Robin Moore wanted to do a book about the U.S. Army Special Forces. He spent a year training with them, including a tour in Vietnam. Moore’s 1965 book, ‘The Green Berets’, and co-authored 1966 pop hit, SSgt. Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Berets”, secured forever in America’s consciousness the elite reputation of these “fearless men that jump and die.”
Robin Moore passed away in February at age 82. Tucked away in his biography was another Green Berets project – a comic strip with now-legendary artist Joe Kubert. The strip is something of an historical oddity. It was a boldly pro-military strip introduced during an unpopular war. It was an adventure strip at a time when serialized strips were struggling for survival. The sad occasion of Moore’s death got me thinking about the circumstances around the creation of the strip, and Joe Kubert generously took time to talk to me about it and Moore: “Robin was one of the sweetest guys I ever met…and one for whom I had tremendous respect. Any guy who’d go through the Army training, especially the Special Forces training, go with them and be with them. There’s not one Special Forces guy that I met, and I met a lot of them, who knew Robin and had nothing but good words to say about him.”
Kubert had been drawing war comics for DC and his attention to realism and detail made him the ideal choice. But, he was not the first choice: “Neal Adams and I were working for the same company, for DC Comics. Neal, I think, was also doing a syndicated strip at the time – ‘Dr. Kildare’, or something like that* and we didn’t know one another. He had been asked if he was interested in doing the Green Beret strip by Robin Moore and the people who were going to attempt to sell it to the syndicates. At that time of course the strip itself did not exist. They were trying to sell it. Neal was so wrapped up with what he was doing at the time, despite the fact that we didn’t know one another he knew of my work and suggested that the guys contact me, which they did. It was the result of that that I took on the strip.”
‘Tales of the Green Berets’ by Robin Moore and Joe Kubert debuted in September, 1965, although Kubert reveals that Moore was not so involved: “Robin was not the author of the strip. The strip was actually a spin-off from the book and the guy who wrote it was Jerry Capp**. He got involved in the sale – or getting the idea, tying it up and putting it into a package that he could sell to the syndicates. What he needed, of course, first, as you would with any kind of a strip that you wanted to sell to the syndicates, you had to have samples put together, a couple of weeks of work to show what your intentions were. It’s on that basis as to whether a strip will be picked up or not. I myself had nothing directly involved with the business end of the syndicate. That was all done, I would imagine, with Jerry. I know Jerry was involved. I’m not sure how much Robin’s involvement was. I don’t know what the business set-up was, where of course his name continued on the strip as the author but of course he did not actually write it.”
Kubert came into the strip with definite ideas of what it should be: “The political aspects of the strip didn’t interest me at all, didn’t make any difference to me. Fact of the matter was that I felt very strongly that the strip should be successful and we had discussed this previous to even putting the samples together and it was a basis for my coming into this in the first place – that it should be an adventure strip, something similar to ‘Terry and the Pirates’, a kind of romantic adventure kind of thing based on the situation as described by Robin in his book. That’s the way it started out. That is what the samples were based on. And, of course, it really lauded the work of the Special Forces guys, what they were doing, how they were working in the different places, the responsibilities that they had being sent to Vietnam and so on and so forth. It sounded to me like it would be a good idea to use the interest in that situation as a springboard, but not to make a political treatise out of it.”
“It’s like being on an infinite pressure cooker all the time, and I didn’t so much mind that as much as just being unhappy with the way the goddamn thing was put together. The ironic thing was that the samples that we had submitted to the New York News and the other newspaper that had accepted it was not a political thing at all. It described how terrific the army guys were and what they were trying to do and so on and so forth. Then right after it kicked of and the New York News syndicate gave it a terrific kickoff. They really promoted the hell out of it and it really started really, really well. Then it was just a horror from that point on, for me, anyhow. The contract that I had with Jerry was that I would have last work in terms of the illustration to apply to the stories that he sent me, and invariably I tried to excise the political aspects of it. It was hell on wheels, I mean it was really difficult because Jerry’s a helluva nice guy. I enjoyed the opportunity to do a syndicated strip. Every comic book artist at that time had a dream of getting into syndication, and it was exciting. But it was awful to do something with which I was in such total disagreement with. As I say again, it wasn’t the politics of it. It was just the fact that I felt if you’re going to do a political strip let it appear on the editorial page, not on the comic strip page.”
Kubert left the strip after about two years, and it died shortly thereafter. By this time, protest of the Vietnam War and the youth movement were sweeping the country. The 1968 ‘Green Berets’ film, starring John Wayne and based on Moore’s book, was widely panned as U.S. propaganda. He returned to working for DC Comics, primarily on their war comics. Kubert explains: “The war books for DC were completely and totally opposite. First of all, the war books, the characters, like Sgt. Rock and so on, were all World War Two things and they were just war stories. The focus of those stories was on the men, the fact that here were a bunch of guys who were in a wartime kind of a situation. They did what they had to do, not because they liked it. It wasn’t a jingoistic kind of thing where everybody’s running around with cigars in their mouths and killing everybody. These were not those kinds of stories at all. In fact when I took over the editorial chores of doing those books I ended every strip with a bullet that said ‘Make war no more’. That was the whole point of the stories. So, it wasn’t as if we were promoting that kind of thing. These were stories about guys who were stuck, who were in the Army and had to do a stinking job that they didn’t particularly care for but they were looking out for each other. That’s all.”
Joe Kubert is the founder of The Joe Kubert School of Cartoon & Graphic Art. His most recent published work includes Sgt. Rock: The Prophecy. His art can be found every month in PS Magazine, a preventive maintenance equipment publication for the military. His next project for DC Comics is the return of TOR, due in May.
*Neal Adams was drawing ‘Ben Casey’ and Ken Bald drew ‘Dr. Kildare’. Both strips were based on popular TV medical shows of the time.
**Jerry Capp was the brother of Eliot Caplin and Al Capp. Eliot was a comic strip writer, who was writing ‘Dr. Kildare’ as rival to brother Jerry’s ‘Ben Casey’. Al Capp was the most famous of the three as writer and artist of ‘Li’l Abner’.