Sunday, May 27, 2012

John Severin (1921-2012): 80 Years of Excellence

By Don Mangus, Heritage Auctions Comic Art Specialist, newletter 2012

John Severin was not only one of comicdom's top talents, he also was one of its most prodigious.

Years ago, comics historian Robin Snyder captured my full comics-obsessed attention when he posed this riveting question in his indispensable newsletter, The Comics, "Who has written the most scripts in the history of the comics?" Robin took up a monumental task, and didn't just guess or speculate, but actually counted the stories, and narrowed the champion to a handful of candidates: Paul S. Newman, Robert Kanigher, Carl Wessler, Otto Binder, and a few others. Eventually, Newman took the lead, but many years later, Robin is still counting "hanging chads." Inspired by his outrageous feat, I wondered, "Who drew the most comic pages?" Fan-favorite Jack "King" Kirby set a blistering pace. Devoted indexers meticulously compiled his stats. Kirby's career total was 20,318 pages of art, including 1,158 pages in 1962 alone. (The complete statistics can be found in The Art of Jack Kirby by Ray Wyman Jr., Blue Rose Press, 1994). The King logged a hefty career span of 58 glorious years.

Several cartoonists have since had the benefit of a few extra decades of work to catch or pass the King. Challengers to the throne include Dick Ayers, Steve Ditko, Tom Gill, Sam Glanzman, Russ Heath, Gil Kane, Warren Kremer, Joe Kubert, George Tuska, and my personal favorite, John Severin. "Big John" matches, or perhaps even tops, the unbelievably early start of comics prodigy Kubert. Tyro John Severin saw print in The Hobo News at the age of 10. Severin continued working until his passing, for a near-inconceivable career span of 80 years. In order to get solid Robin Snyder-like stats for John Severin, someone is first going to have to index nearly 45 years of Cracked magazine. Good luck. Since Severin typically did two features, as well as most of the covers, his page tally from Cracked alone is sure to be staggering.

John Severin's output is remarkable not just for its amazing quantity, but also its high quality and consistency. A childhood friend of Harvey Kurtzman, Severin sent the future MAD creator and others a steady stream of brilliantly illustrated letters that were inspired by the example of Western artist Charles M. Russell. When Severin's comics work debuted in the late forties, it appeared in full flower, and never really changed all that much — there was just no need.

In his early comic book career, Severin teamed with fellow High School of Music & Art alum Will Elder, with Severin penciling and Elder inking. It was a crackerjack team, and the two soon teamed with Kurtzman who had landed at EC. Unfortunately, after working on nine issues of MAD and many war, adventure, and Western yarns for EC, creative tensions erupted between Severin and the editorially autocratic Kurtzman. They tore a painful rift in the friendship, and Severin opted out of the collaboration for more creative freedom elsewhere.

In the many years since his legendary EC term, Severin worked steadily at Timely/Atlas/Marvel, DC, Charlton, Gilberton, Warren Publishing, Atlas/Seaboard, and Cracked magazine, as well as many other publishers. At Atlas, Severin was counted as one of "the Big Three," along with Bill Everett and Joe Maneely, and in friendly competition with Russ Heath, the four men turned out show-stopping war, Western, and horror work, always trying to top each other.

At MAD and later, Cracked, Severin showcased his endlessly entertaining talent for caricature and humor. His work stands alongside the best the field has to offer. Like all true masters of the art of cartooning, Severin was able to adjust his basic cartooning approach ever so slightly for the demands of the humor genre, while the style still remained uniquely his own.

John Severin received late notoriety in the twilight of his career when he illustrated 2003's controversial limited series, The Rawhide Kid. As quoted on wikipedia, Severin wryly quipped, "The Rawhide Kid is rather effeminate in this story. It may be quite a blow to some of the old fans of Rawhide Kid, but it's a lot of fun, and he's still a tough hombre."

Mr. Severin is survived by his loving family — sister Marie, his wife of 60 years, Michelina, six children, thirteen grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren, and a step-great-granddaughter. Our warmest sentiments go out to his family and friends.

In the final analysis, despite the obsession I have displayed in obtaining a page count tally, there is really only one bottom line that counts — that John Severin's many fans will continue to enjoy his brilliant legacy, preserved in the many pages of the comics we love so much.

Some Favorites:


Blazing Combat: #1-4
Cracked: A vast body of regular issue and special issues from a 45-year run
Creepy: #7, 10, 11, 14, 17, 62, 68, 73, 75-77. 78 (inks Wally Wood), 79, 81, 83, 84 and 86 (inks Carmine Infantino), 87, 89, 91(reprints 78), 92, 93 (inks Infantino), 100, 105, and 112
Eerie: #2, 6, and 8
Frontline Combat: # 1 (Kurtzman inks); 2-6, 8-11 (Elder inks); 7, 12, and 15 (solo)
Incredible Hulk: #109, 110, 131, 132, and 141-155 (mostly inking Herb Trimpe)
Kull the Conqueror: #2-9 (inking his talented sister, Marie Severin)
Mad: #1-7, 9, and 10
Our Fighting Forces: # 131 (inks Ross Andru); 132-150 (The Losers stories with writer Robert Kanigher)
Sgt. Fury: #44-46; 50-79 (inking himself, Dick Ayers, and others)
Strange Tales: #136-138 (Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L. D., over Jack Kirby breakdowns)
Two-Fisted Tales: #19-27, 29, 31, 36 (with Elder), 28, 33, 36-41 (co-edits with Kurtzman #36-41)
Unknown Soldier: #251-253; and 260-261 (Enemy Ace stories with writer Robert Kanigher)


Graphic Story Magazine #13 (Spring, 1971): Interview
Comics Journal #215 and 216 (August and October 1999): Interview
Squa Tront #11 (Spring 2005): Special John Severin Issue

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