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John Powers Severin, 1921-2012

Portrait of John Severin by his sister Marie from Graphic Story Magazine #13

John Powers Severin (December 26th, 1921—February 12, 2012) is legendary as one of the most prolific and long-lived of all comics artists, producing quality work well into his 90s. Almost alone of the original EC comics artists, Severin kept working, penciling and inking stories and miniseries for Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and many other publishers into the early decades of the 21st century, long after most of his peers were either dead or retired. Though never really a “fan favorite” artist, Severin was well-respected by his editors, peers and the discerning cadre of fans who followed his work for decades in Mad, Cracked, Crazy, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, The Incredible Hulk, King Kull, “American Eaglein Prize Comics Western, Journey Into Mystery, Savage Tales, Bat Lash, Witchfinder, Two-Gun Kid, The Rawhide Kid, Blazing Combat, Our Army at War, The ‘Nam, Semper Fi, Our Fighting Forces, Creepy, Eerie, Two-Fisted Tales, Frontline Combat, The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror and too many other titles to be listed here. Because of his long career and highly developed work ethic, Severin was one of the most prodigious comics creators ever, creating thousands of pages of comic-book art, covers, portfolio plates, ad artwork and illustrations, despite never getting any formal art training.

Semper Fi #1 (December 1988) cover by John Severin

Although he did not possess a flashy style, his meticulous draftsmanship and attention to details of costuming, setting, weaponry and realistic facial expressions and body language made every job he ever drew memorable, dramatic and believable. His solid inking could elevate and dominate the most pedestrian pencil art in much the same way that Wally Wood’s inking did, bringing to it a higher level of visual interest than a lesser inker could provide. Because of his penchant for history, Severin is sometimes typed as a “war artist,” but besides war stories, he wound up illustrating many, many Westerns and other period pieces from just about every era in history. However, his knowledge of previous eras also lent that same type of verisimilitude to his infrequent fantasy and horror stories, especially for King Kull in the early ’70s, done in collaboration with his sister, Marie (Marie, who penciled the Kull comic, had also been John’s colorist at EC two decades earlier before becoming a well-respected superhero and humor artist over at Marvel). Severin must have had some affection for the Kull character, for he did one portfolio while still drawing the Kull comic; then, after leaving the title, he did a second one. One of Severin’s Kull drawings for the portfolios even wound up being used as the art for a rare and highly prized 7-Eleven Slurpee cup featuring King Kull, from a series of cups that showcased all of the major Marvel characters of the mid-’70s, including Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage, Dracula and the usual crew of superheroes.

“Star-Warz”, Cracked #146 (November 1977), drawn by John Severin

But during the ’60s and ’70s, Severin seemed to be everywhere, especially as the artist-in-residence at Cracked, where he did almost all of the covers and usually several features each issue, producing additional Cracked covers for paperback reprints. After being one of the founding artists for Mad, he began working for the Mad imitation Cracked in the late ’50s and stayed there for nearly 40 years, because he was paid as well as the Mad contributors and was allowed to contribute several features in every issue. In addition to the mountain of work he produced for Cracked, he was simultaneously working for Marvel, Warren and DC. Severin was the consummate professional who editors and art directors knew could draw anything, from a Roman legionary to Cracked mascot Sylvester P. Smythe, and everything in between. Like fellow EC colleagues Jack Davis and Frank Frazetta, Severin could crank out great humor comics with the same facility he drew war, Western and historical tales. Severin was nothing if not versatile, though his style was always instantly recognizable and remarkably consistent in its quality. Even to the last, it didn’t seem that Severin had dropped a line.

“Sheik of Araby!”, Mad #3 (Jan.-Feb. 1953), drawn by John Severin

John Severin was born Dec. 26, 1921 in Jersey City, New Jersey. His high school classmates at the High School of Music and Art included many future comics and cartooning luminaries such as future EC editor Harvey Kurtzman, Mad artist Al Jaffee and future collaborator, the inimitable Will Elder. Al Feldstein was another classmate, but was one who never liked Severin’s work even though he did assign the Severin-Elder team some stories for EC’s science fiction titles. Feldstein never used him at Mad when he took over as editor after Harvey Kurtzman’s abrupt departure, even though Wally Wood and Jack Davis, two of the other founding Mad artists, drew hundreds of pages for Mad. Severin’s work on those nine early issues has been endlessly reprinted in Mad paperbacks since the ’50s, so he was still earning reprint fees from that work decades after he did it, when he was in direct competition with Mad over at Cracked.

“Rebellion”, Prize Comics Western #88 (July-Aug. 1951), penciled by John Severin and inked by Bill Elder

Severin broke into the comics business in 1947, drawing a crime story for the Simon and Kirby shop over at Crestwood Publishing. He was soon working directly for Crestwood as a writer/editor/artist for Prize Comics Western. His “American Eagle” strip about an Indian chief was one of the most realistic and non-stereotyped Native American characters in 1950s comics. It was intelligent, well-written and superbly drawn by Severin and Elder (with occasional assists from the likes of Al Williamson, Roy Krenkel and Frank Frazetta). Done in collaboration with Elder and writer Colin Dawkins, the “American Eagle” strips Severin created are a neglected masterpiece, worthy of revival in reprint volumes. While working for Crestwood, Severin’s stories and covers appeared in almost every issue of Prize Comics Western from #73 through #113. After leaving Crestwood to work at EC for Harvey Kurtzman, Severin filled in for him as the editor of Two-Fisted Tales for three memorable issues (#37-#39) in which he drew every story and all of the covers.

Two-Fisted Tales #38 (July 1954), drawn by John Severin

American Eagle, Sgt. Fury, King Kull and the Incredible Hulk are probably Severin’s best-known characters, because he had the longest runs with them. Although Joe Kubert is the artist most associated with Sgt. Rock, Severin’s handful of Rock stories are equally dramatic and masterful, as are all of the many war stories and covers he did over the years. He was recognized for his continuing artistic excellence on several occasions, winning the Alley Award in 1967 and 1968 for Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos as Best War Title. He was nominated for a Shazam Award in 1973 as the Best Inker (Humor Division), received the Cartoon Art Museum’s 2001 Spanky Award and was inducted into the Will Eisner Comics Hall of Fame in 2003. His artwork was exhibited three times at the Words & Pictures Museum in Northampton, MA, including being featured in the museum’s grand opening show, which ran from Oct. 9, 1992 through Jan. 5, 1993.

Sgt. Fury #44 (July 1967) was written by Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich, and drawn by John Severin

John Severin is survived by his wife, his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and his sister Marie. Interestingly enough, many of Severin’s surviving family members are in the comics or entertainment business, including his son, John Severin, Jr. (also an artist), the head of Bubblehead Publishing; his daughter, Ruth Larenas, a producer for that company; and his grandson, John Severin III, a music producer and recording engineer.

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36 Responses to John Powers Severin, 1921-2012

  1. “so he was still earning reprint fees from that work decades after he did it”

    Did Gaines really pay reprint fees for the work included in the Mad paperbacks?

  2. Brynocki C says:

    Damn, wow. John Severin R.I.P. I need to track down some of this stuff. The Witchfinder series he did for Dark Horse is probably still on the shelves. He was making gorgeous drawings up till the end.

  3. R. Maheras says:

    For the record — I’m almost certain that the “self-portrait” above is actually a portrait of John drawn by his sister, Marie.

  4. Hy Resolution says:

    As the signature would indicate.

  5. Kim Thompson says:

    Yeah, I’m 99% sure that caricature is by Marie. I don’t remember John ever using the “SEV.” signature; there is a feminine delicacy to the features in the portrait; and the little cartoony photo pinned to the wall is very Marie.

    It’s a tribute to the greatness of MAD that by most people’s judgment, John Severin was probably the least great of the four main artists, trailing behind Wood, Elder, Davis. In any other context he’d have been the best. (I don’t think I’m along in thinking of CRACKED for most of its run as “a bunch of crap, and John Severin.”)

    Man, I used to love his and Marie’s KULL.

    I was impressed by the recent Severin interview in SQUA TRONT: The guy remained sharp as a tack and could remember tiny details of jobs done a half a century ago. Some cartoonists will look at old books of theirs as if seeing them for the first time, but not John.

    I guess that leaves Feldstein and Davis from the EC days. Sic transit…

  6. Kim Thompson says:

    “Alone,” not “along.” I shouldn’t post early in the morning.

  7. R. Maheras says:

    Regarding the man and his work, John Severin was one of the first comic book artists whose work I actively sought out. I probably first consciously discovered him when I ran across some of the Signet paperback “Mad” reprints in the mid-1960s, but when I became a Marvel Zombie in 1967, I quickly learned about his earlier Atlas/Marvel work, and his then contemporary work at Marvel. As I later delved into comic book history in general, by the early 1970s I’d seen much of his EC and “Cracked” work, along with his work at other publishers such as Crestwood, where he did some outstanding work with Will Elder on “Prize Comics Western.” His skills as a cartoonist/illustrator never ceased to amaze me, and he was one of a handful of artists I dedicated an issue of my fanzine “Maelstrom” to in 1974. As Kim mentions above, Severin drew the definitive Kull the Barbarian, and despite the fact that “Cracked” was the number two humor magazine on the stands during most of its long run, it was pretty much a one-man John Severin show for decades. He was so prolific and his skills so diverse, I’m still discovering work he did in the past that I’d never seen before. Rest in peace, John. You will be greatly missed.

  8. patrick ford says:

    I wonder what are the chances FB could reprint the Kurtzman issues of Mad Magazine #’s 24-30?
    (Issue #30 was compiled by Kurtzman but “edited” by Feldstein)
    I’m not sure why but Russ Cochran never got around to reprinting the Magazine issues.
    To this day the best source for a selected portions of the B&W Magazine material remains the two Crown hardcovers published in 1958 (Mad For Keeps) and 1959 (Mad Forever).
    BTW: The artists are credited in the Crown reprints, but Kurtzman’s name appears nowhere in either volume.

  9. Dan Nadel says:

    Fixed. Apologies for the error.

  10. R. Maheras says:

    Patrick — Two sources for those issues that may be more readily available that the two Crown volumes (of which I only own one) is the 1998 CD-ROM collection “Totally Mad” (which I own) or the 2006 DVD collection “Absolutely Mad.” The drawback, of course, is neither version is a high-resolution print version. But the big plus is that right at your fingertips you have every issue of “Mad” available right up to the point the CD and DVD were published.

  11. Eddie campbell says:

    Since Buying the 1998 Cd-Rom I switched to a Mac and now I can no longer open and read the damn thing. advice welcome.

  12. patrick ford says:

    Aside from their use as illustrations or reference I never look at comics on a screen.
    I don’t want every issue of Mad anyhow. I’d like the Kurtzman edited issues, and then artist volumes of some of the early Feldstein issues. A complete collection of Wood’s B&W Mad material would probably be “commercial.”
    The Crown books are surprisingly inexpensive. I assume it’s because most people don’t know about them.
    http://www.abebooks.com/servlet/BookDetailsPL?bi=1624124717&searchurl=bi%3Dh%26bsi%3D0%26bx%3Doff%26ds%3D30%26pn%3DCrown%26recentlyadded%3Dall%26sortby%3D1%26tn%3DMad%26x%3D79%26y%3D7

  13. R. Maheras says:

    I think you are right!

    The two Crown volumes are very nice, with great color reproduction. I actually have two copies of “Mad for Keeps” — a beat-up first printing with no dust jacket, and a nice copy of a later printing (third, I think) with a dust jacket.

    Note to anyone within earshot (eyeshot?): If you can get a copy, do it. they are great!

  14. R. Maheras says:

    Ouch!

    The navigation for the 1998 CD-ROM is clumsily designed anyway. Does anyone know if the 2006 DVD navigation and presentation is any better?

  15. R. Maheras says:

    On a Facebook post a few months ago, I posted six covers of various Random House Step-Up Books published in the 1960s. One, “The Adventures of Lewis and Clark,” was illustrated by John Severin.

    Here’s what I wrote about those six books:

    “During the mid-1960s, Random House published a “Step-Up Books” series of history-related books for grade-school children. There were many different titles written by various authors, and each was profusely illustrated. Of interest to comic book aficionados were six titles illustrated by four members of the very talented EC bullpen of the 1950s. The four were Jack Davis, Angelo Torres, George Evans, and John Severin.”

    If like Severin’s work as much as I do (or any of the four EC artists mentioned), I recommend you get copies of any or all, if you can. The four artists really did a wonderful job illustrating their respective books.

    Here are the six titles:

    “Meet Abraham Lincoln” — Illustrated by Jack Davis
    “Meet the North American Indians” — Illustrated by Jack Davis
    “Meet Theodore Roosevelt” — Illustrated by Jack Davis
    “Meet Thomas Jefferson” — Illustrated by Angelo Torres
    “The Story of Flight” — Illustrated by George Evans
    “The Adventures of Lewis and Clark” — Illustrated by John Powers Severin

    The rest of the books in the series that I’ve seen are drawn by other illustrators who, as far as I know, were not associated with comics.

  16. Allen Smith says:

    While the Kurtzman MADS were great, there’s a lot to admire in the magazine format MAD magazines. Lots of Wood art, for one thing.

    Allen Smith

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  18. Tom Stein says:

    I beg to differ with Kim Thompson. John Severin’s work for the early issues of Cracked was outstanding, on par with his work for EC, and sometimes better.

  19. patrick ford says:

    Tom, You read that wrong. Cracked contained “a bunch of crap, and John Severin.”
    In other words everything in it was crap with the exception of Severin.

  20. Kirk says:

    Cracked had a lot of good artists aside from Severin, such as Bill Ward and Don Oherek (which I’m sure I spelled wrong). It was the writing that was crappy.

  21. Chance Fiveash says:

    I was in my teens in the 80’s and I read CRACKED like a crack addict. Under Mort Todd’s editorship it was a great showcase for Severin, Dan Clowes, Shawn Kerri and Steve Ditko. Cracked was my first exposure to Severin, and I loved his work from the start. It led me to Monsters Attack, which also contained Severin art (and created by Mort Todd). CRACKED in unfairly looked down upon in comics history.

  22. Mort Todd says:

    Severin will be missed! At 90 he had a full life and career, with a great family! I’m trying to dig up a file of a Severin biography comic strip I got Russ Heath to draw and was published in the New York Post 10 years ago. Severin also introduced me to (among other things) Bushmills whiskey. When I heard of his passing, I poured a drink on the ground in honor of my homie! RIP JPS!

  23. Eric Reynolds says:

    “I guess that leaves Feldstein and Davis from the EC days.”

    This made me profoundly sad. Just 10 years ago we had Kamen, Elder, Adele Kurtzman, Williamson, and Feldstein at the Fantagraphics booth at Comic-Con. Only Feldstein remains.

  24. R. Maheras says:

    Same here — That’s why, when I had the opportunity to visit a recovering Russ Heath a couple of times after his knee replacement surgery last year, I jumped at it. These supremely talented folks won’t be around forever, so my advice to anyone listening is if you have the opportunity to reach out to these master comics creators and brighten up their day a bit, do it — now!

  25. James says:

    Severin’s best work shows him as one of the great actors of comics history. His characters are soundly realized and seamlessly imbedded in the narrative, perfectly cued in their expressions and gestures and how they interact with each other and the fully articulated 3-dimensional “sets” that Severin constructs on paper; the reader is completly engaged in the believability of what plays out on his pages.

  26. Tom Conroy says:

    Some of the best work Severin did were the war and western covers for Atlas in the late 1950’s. There is a great web sight where you can see cover scans of all the old Atlas comics. Go to” http://www.atlastales.com” and take a look at some great Severin work. I was only 13 (1955) when I saw my first Severin comic art. It was the ALAMO story in one of the Kurtzman war comics and I was hooked. I spent my teenage years searching through junk shops and old book stores looking for comics with art by John Severin, Russ Heath, Joe Maneely and Jack Davis. Severin was always number one and I still remember the thrill when I would find any old Prize Western or Atlas comics with art by Severin and the other artist I liked. When I was 18 I went to New York to become a “boy cartoonist” and that first year there I got to meet Severin and Heath. I called Severin on the phone and he said I should meet him at the Cracked Magazine office when he turned in some finished art. We had lunch in Times Square and talked for about half an hour or so. I thought he would be kind of God like, with a halo and wings, but he was just a normal human being and a really nice guy. Severin was no hack and everything he did was first class, even those Cheyene Kid and Billy the Kid comics for Charlton. They paid peanuts for art work, but he still did great work. A few years ago John Benson did a whole issue of SQUA TRONT on John Severin and has a nearly complete list of all his work. The hardest Severin art to find are those 25 covers he drew for the I. W. REPRINT comics in the early 60’s. It took years, but I finally got all of them. The DESPERADOES mini-series he draw was outstanding. THE OLDER HE GOT, THE BETTER HE GOT. John Severin was one of the best comic artist and I will always look back at his artwork with very fond memories. THANK YOU John for being on the earth.

  27. John Cook says:

    John Severin will definitely be missed! His work was always high quality and gorgeous! Reading Sgt. Fury, as illustrated by John Severin, was always a treat. As a kid, it left a definite impression on me. If his name was on a comicbook, whether it was a full story or just the cover, I’d buy it! His work on King Kull was beautiful. His work on Cracked was the only thing that made it worthwhile. Rest in Peace, John and thank you!

  28. R. Maheras says:

    In actuality, the “Mad” reprints I refer to above were published by Ballantine Books, not Signet. My apologies. One’s memory gets feeble with old age.

  29. Jeffrey Goodman says:

    Actually there are 3 Mad volumes published by Crown. They are Mad For Keeps, Mad Forever and Golden Trashery Of Mad. And thanks for the link to my spare copy of Mad For Keeps. It is a very nice specimen if you don’t care about having a first printing. In fact that volume may be the only one that went through multiple printings. GTOM is by far the scarcest of the three especially with a nice dj!

  30. Robert Markham says:

    Unfortunately, you’re not alone.

    You’re also wrong.

  31. Brian (Atlanta) says:

    Wow, I have original copies of all 6 of those books. I have been reading them to my children. Great books, great illustrations.

  32. Michael DeVerne says:

    Wow, I just found today he’s gone. This was a day after Whitney Houston died. I’m going to miss his work. He inspires me. R.I.P. Sev!

  33. Sabrena Dickey says:

    One of my best friends since high school is his grand daughter and she has an original signed copy of the Lewis & Clark she reads it to her daughters and it is her prized possessions and I will let her know how valuable others find her granfathers work! She will be very proud!

  34. Antoine Toniolo says:

    Inspiration never dies.
    Thanks John!

  35. Kevin Collins says:

    John Severin was one of the greatest comics artists of all time. He never turned in a poor job, or even a mediocre one. RIP

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