Back in Black History month I wrote a couple of posts about the integration of African American characters in comics books, especially in 1960s war comics. I had the good fortune today to be able to speak to Joe Kubert about Our Army At War 113 and 160, the two Sgt. Rock and Easy Company stories featuring Jackie Johnson that promote racial integration, harmony, and equality. I wanted to know the truth about the reasons behind the publication of such ground-breaking stories for their time. Mr. Kubert was very kind to schedule a phone interview with me during his day at Joe Kubert's World of Cartooning. Here's the content of the interview as best as I could scribble it down - I've omitted much of what I said in terms of the backgrounds to my questions, for the sake of clarity:
Interview with Joe Kubert 5/25/2010
Interviewer: How did the decision to publish OAAW 113 featuring a black soldier, Jackie Johnson, come about?
Joe Kubert: Bob Kanigher was the editor at that time and he wrote most of the Sgt. Rock stories himself. The decision to publish the story was entirely his. I became editor later when Bob’s health wasn’t so good but at that time I had no part in these decisions. Bob would discuss the comics with me only for the sake of clarity and as far as I knew decisions were made solely on the basis of selling mags. You mentioned in your e-mail that you were wondering if the military had asked us to do this, but there was no political motive at all – certainly no government request. Later when I was editor we decided to try a new book, Blitzkrieg, showing the war from the German side, what the German army had gone through, and we had six issues ready but the company felt it was too hot to handle and so they killed it before it went on the stands. They felt that the title and the direction were too partial to the Nazis. With OAAW 113 there was no hesitation to publish – it was felt that having a black character in Easy Co. would be popular with the readers and that it was something that our readers would like to see. We did have a good reaction from the readers in their letters. It wasn’t all purely money-making, however. There was an attempt to show recognition of problems that had existed. We knew there had been no integrated units in WWII but it was important to show how things were supposed to be.
Interviewer: There was a big gap in time between the books EC were producing in the 50s that showed integration happening in the military in Korea, and OAAW 113 in 1961.
Joe Kubert: Harvey Kurtzman’s stories – he felt very strongly about these things and it wasn’t a selling strategy with him, he would put these things in his stories hoping to benefit the young readers. Bob Kanigher had been in the army – he was also the kind of guy who felt very strongly about certain things, including racial equality, and he did his best to show it in his work. He wrote and I illustrated another series of stories about the Black Flyers, the Black Angels – about the Tuskegee Airmen.
Interviewer: The publication of OAAW 160 followed Muhammed Ali’s conversion to the Nation of Islam. The NOI had been putting out a lot of anti-Vietnam involvement messages, as well as saying that this was not a war the Black community needed to be part of, so was the decision to do this story and make Johnson a heavyweight champ designed to counter the influence Ali’s fame had in making those viewpoints more widely known?
Joe Kubert: With OAAW 160 again Bob Kanigher did that story and there was no discussion with me over the content. Again we received no negative letters. I was not aware of any intent on Bob’s part to reference Muhammed Ali with that story, although the characteristics of Jackie Johnson do seem to fit the profiles of Jack Johnson and Joe Louis as you say.
Interviewer: Mr. Kubert, thank you so much for answering my questions.
Joe Kubert: You’re welcome. Good luck with your dissertation.