Written by Bryan Stroud
John Powers Severin (born on December 26, 1921) was an American comics artist noted for his distinctive work with EC Comics (primarily on the war comics Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat); Marvel Comics (especially its war and western comics); and for his 45-year stint with the satiric magazine Cracked. Severin was inducted into the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame in 2003.
John was a teenager in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, New York City, when he began drawing professionally. While attending high school, he contributed cartoons to The Hobo News, receiving payment of one dollar per cartoon. After high school, he started renting studio space with Will Elder & Harvey Kurtzman - working on logos and packaging mostly. Inspired by the quick money Kurtzman would make in between advertising assignments with one-page gags for Stan Lee at Timely Comics, Severin worked up comic samples inked by Elder. In late 1947 Severin was given his first comic art job by the team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby at Crestwood Publications.
Over the next several decades, John enjoyed a storied career in comics. He moved easily through genres - often switching between westerns, war titles, superheroes and fantasy books. In the early 1950's, he was one of the original 5 artists to start Mad Magazine. As recently as 2011, he was lending his distinctive style to Witchfinder: Lost and Gone Forever.
Mr. Severin passed away at his home in Denver, Colorado on February 12, 2012 at the age of 90.
This was another of those short and to the point interviews (via letter), but despite that, it was a thrill to be in touch with the legendary and incredibly talented John Severin. I still am not certain the reasoning, but I was tickled when his sweet wife sent me what I presume were comp copies of what may have been John's last published work, the 5-issue Witchfinder mini-series from Dark Horse. She also asked me if I'd consider writing a letter about them. Well, I was glad to do so and to my surprise and delight, they published it in issue #3 of B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth: The Long Death. To date, it's my lone published letter in a comic book and I'm still kind of proud of that.
This interview originally took place via the mail on November 22, 2011.
Bryan D. Stroud: My research tells me you sold you first professional work at age 10! That must be a record.
John Severin: That seems to be the rumor, but for the record, it was in early high school doing cartoons for the Hobo News.
Stroud: You attended the High School of Music and Art in New York?
Stroud: Who were your artistic influences?
Severin: Charlie Russell, Hal Foster and Howard Pyle.
Stroud: What made you decide to go into comics?
Severin: My friend, Harvey Kurtzman’s influence.
Stroud: The earliest comic credit I could find was for DC’s Boy Commandos in 1942.
Severin: I never drew that character, and I was in the Pacific in 1942.
Stroud: How well did you know Joe Simon and Jack Kirby?
Severin: Jack gave me my first job and I continued to work for them. At that time, I also took on American Eagle.
Stroud: Was your time in the Army helpful for your work on war books later on?
Severin: Yes, it was part of my life experience.
Stroud: You’ve done extensive work on war and westerns. Was that by choice or by assignment?
Stroud: Russ Heath told me you were one of the very best western artists.
Severin: Well, thank you. I return the compliment.
Stroud: You’ve done a little work on superhero titles, but mainly the aforementioned and some adventure, horror and humor. Russ and Bernie Wrightson didn’t like doing superheroes. Is that your take as well?
Severin: Yes. I’m a realist.
Stroud: You’ve won a bushel basket of awards. I noted an Alley for Best War Title of ’67 and ’68 for Sgt. Fury and Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and a Sparky Award in 2001. Were there others?
Severin: Some others have been: The Eisner Hall of Fame, the Jules Verne Estate Lifetime Achievement, Marvel Shazam, Best Horror Western for Desperadoes, the War Collectors Hall of Fame, the National Inkpot Award and the International Inkpot Award and every letter I receive telling me I have given someone pleasure is equally gratifying. I’ve been around a long time, so they come from kids to fans who go back fifty or sixty years.
Stroud: You were one of the first to work on Mad. What was that like?
Severin: A lot of fun.
Stroud: You have credits for Warren, Charlton, Harvey and DC, but Marvel seemed to be your home. Why?
Severin: Stan (Lee) gave me lots of scripts and covers.
Stroud: What was your favorite assignment?
Severin: After all these years, I can’t say. I enjoyed drawing them all.
Stroud: Were deadlines rough?
Severin: Yes and no. They are an essential part of the business.
Stroud: What was your production rate?
Severin: Fast enough to meet multiple deadlines.
Stroud: How were page rates back in the day?
Severin: I was fortunate enough to do well.
Stroud: There was a pretty small group doing war books for DC back in the day to include Joe Kubert, Russ Heath, Sam Glanzman, Jerry Grandenetti, Ross Andru and Mike Esposito, Ric Estrada and Mort Drucker. How often did you encounter them?
Severin: I am friends with Kubert and Heath.
Stroud: Did you ever do any advertising work?
Severin: Yes, but I never worked at an agency. I did Sgt. Fury for the Wall Street Journal, some westerns for Ford Motor Company and a few things for the Enquirer.
Stroud: Did you do any syndicated work?
Severin: Some. I don’t remember. I know I did a series for the New York Post.
Stroud: What are your favorite tools of the trade?
Severin: A #2 pencil, preferably a Mongol and a Croquil pen.
Stroud: Did you like doing covers or interiors?
Severin: Interiors, because it allows you to develop the story and characters.
Stroud: Did you use a lot of reference in your war and western work?
Severin: All that I could get hold of any subject.
Stroud: You’ve done historical figures like Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp. How did that differ from doing fictional characters?
Severin: The only thing factual about them were their names. The stories were all fictional.
Stroud: Many of your peers paint. Do you?
Severin: No, only a couple of colorblind artist’s fiascoes.
Stroud: Do you do commissions?
Severin: I never have time to do many.
Stroud: Do you do conventions?
Severin: No, I only have once or twice.