JOHN SEVERIN: Every once in a while I’ll remember something because it stands out for some reason, but normally, I’m a waste of time.
GARY GROTH: Well, part of my job is to pummel you into remembering everything.
SEVERIN: I bruise easily. [Laughs.]
GROTH: That’s what they all say. I’d like to know a little about your upbringing before getting into your career proper.
SEVERIN: My career was never proper.
GROTH: Uh-huh. [Laughter.] I understand that you were born on December 21, 1921.
SEVERIN: No. I have a half a dozen different birth dates depending on what year you happen to… getting down to the facts… I was born in the 26th.
GROTH: That’s interesting, because there’s an encyclopedia of comics, and your birth date is given as December 21.
SEVERIN: Truthfully, I was born December 26, 1921.
GROTH: And you were born in Jersey City?
GROTH: Can you tell me a little about your childhood and your upbringing? You were born approximately eight years before the [stock market] crash, so I don’t know if you see that as a demarcation point in your life?
SEVERIN: No. It was for my father but they kept me unaware of what was going on.
GROTH: You were insulated from that.
SEVERIN: Yeah. “Just stand down there and eat that cold potato and shut up.”
GROTH: [Laughs.] So you didn’t notice that anything changed dramatically.
SEVERIN: Oh, yes.
GROTH: You did?
SEVERIN: Yes. But not as much personally, as much as my observation of what was going on around me. There were people who were living next door to us who had a rather large chicken coop. This was not in Jersey City, you understand. This was now out in Long Island. They had a rather large chicken coop that they cleaned out completely, put in a heater, and had some old folks living in it. I don’t know whether they were related or what, but they had a husband and wife in there. They had it all insulated. Offhand, people were doing all kinds of things to help one another. In a way, it was similar to the way people helped one another during World War II. I guess you need some sort of a great calamity for everyone to pull together.
GROTH: When did you move from Jersey City to Long Island?
SEVERIN: We moved from Jersey City when I was approximately one month old, and I moved into Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. From there we moved out to Long Island to start school.
GROTH: Wasn’t Long Island at that time much more rural?
SEVERIN: Very much so. I was around chickens and farmers and boats constantly. And beaches. God, I can tell you all about beaches in the old days. There were beaches that weren’t beaches [chuckles] until years later when somebody would discover them and totally wipe them out as far as I was concerned and bring in stands and admissions for all kinds of things.
GROTH: Kind of a Coney Island atmosphere?
SEVERIN: Right. It was really, as you said… the rural atmosphere even extended to the beaches.
GROTH: May I ask you what your father did?
SEVERIN: Lemme see… what was he? [Laughs.]
GROTH: Your sister listed him once as a major influence on her; was he an artist?
SEVERIN: Yes, he was. He did some commercial art, but in the main he was an accountant for a number of… He started out in the oil companies.
GROTH: Like Standard Oil?
SEVERIN: There was another one…Tidewater Oil Company. I don’t remember the other one. He was an accountant for a number of things, started working for Elizabeth Arden and she selected him because of… I don’t know how he started doing some artwork for her, but he she liked what he did.
GROTH: Now, Elizabeth Arden was a fashion designer?
SEVERIN: No. Cosmetics. He ended up doing designs for boxes, and… You know that little blue horse? Well, you probably don’t. Anyhow, he was the one who started that ball rolling. He worked for Elizabeth Arden for years, and years, and years until he died.
GROTH: So he made his living as a commercial illustrator, a designer.
SEVERIN: More or less. He split 50/50 between being an accountant, which is kind of weird, being an accountant and an artist at the same time… [Laugh.]
GROTH: Did you inherit any of his accounting skills?
SEVERIN: God no. Lordy, lord no. [Groth laughs.] I understand math, but I can’t do the arithmetic.
GROTH: Did you inherit any of his accounting skills?
GROTH: And I assume your mother was probably a housekeeper?
GROTH: I mean, she kept the family?
SEVERIN: Yeah. In those days, that’s what mothers did. It was their home and they fixed it and kept it and held the family together and made arrangements for everything.
GROTH: Do you have more than one sibling?
SEVERIN: No, just one.
GROTH: Just Marie.
SEVERIN: Contrary to popular belief, she’s not my wife. [Groth laughs.] I read that somewhere. So and so, so and so and his wife Marie. [Laughs.]
GROTH: We’ll make sure everyone knows that after this interview. [Laughter.] Can you tell me what your childhood was like? What it was like growing up? What you did? What the atmosphere was like? What your parents were like, and so on?
SEVERIN: Very friendly…very friendly people to me. They were friendly to other people, too, I gather. Least ways, we didn’t have any enemies that I know of. I enjoyed total freedom. I wandered hither, thither, and yon with and without anyone. I didn’t necessarily have to have somebody with me to take off and go a half a dozen miles. Walk the railroad tracks, go swimming, bicycling all over the countryside. Swipe pumpkins—only around Halloween I’d swipe pumpkins. I hope that the police aren’t still looking for me. I used to be good at it—boy! [Laughs.] I just think I had a very normal childhood. I had a very pleasant childhood. I enjoyed the openness of the countryside, and at the same time everything was more or less convenient. Convenient in the terms that you’d use in those days. Today, if you have to walk a half a mile, it’s a very inconvenient thing. Whereas, you’d do that every day to go to the store. No problem. It was nice. Houses weren’t jammed up together. There’d be two or three right together and then there’d be a whole block or two of nothing around. When you got a normal block, the number of cars might be maybe three. Kids would play out in the street and play stickball. When they paved the streets, why, you’d play roller-skate hockey. You weren’t worried about being hit by a car. In the first place, the dumb things only went about 25 miles an hour.
GROTH: Is that right?
SEVERIN: Well, you know, the speed limit. I remember one of my uncles coming back, he had taken a trip, and he says to my father, “Jack, you know, I really hit it. I was going 50 miles an hour most of the time.” He put on his goggles. [Laughs.]
GROTH: My father played stickball. Can you tell me what stickball is? That’s not something people know about now.
SEVERIN: It’s baseball with a rubber ball and a stick, which you would take from a broom, or a mop, or what have you, whatever you’d find. When you played in the streets, you’d pick sewers, or trees, or maybe a telephone pole as your bases. We always pitched underhanded, like softball. There you were!
GROTH: Did you play it with a stick and a rubber ball because no one could really afford a baseball bat and a baseball?
SEVERIN: No, the baseball bat and gloves—I had them when I was a kid. The thing is, you’d have to go to a lot or out in the sand dunes. Well, hell’s bells, not in the sand dunes. You can’t play baseball in the sand dunes. You need more area when you use the hard ball. We’d play hardball all the time. Do you happen to remember a book written by Booth Tarkington… Penrod and Sam?
GROTH: I know the author, but not the book.
SEVERIN: Well, in there they had a game called “bonded prisoner.” I thought it was great, so I got it going amongst the kids. What it was there were two sides and everybody had a stick sword. If you managed to touch the other guy he was your bonded prisoner. The only way he could be freed would be by a member of his own team coming in and touching him with the hilt of the sword. Of course, it was kind of difficult to defend yourself and touch your friend with the hilt of the sword at the same time. That was the trick of it all. We all had a big kick out of it.
GROTH: Sounds like there were a lot of kids to play within that area.
SEVERIN: Well, yeah. In those days, in spite of the fact that there wasn’t much money around, people seemed to have bunches of kids.
GROTH: Was there a school nearby?
SEVERIN: Not nearby by today’s rules! Sometimes I would take a train for one or two stops. Sometime I’d just bicycle the whole thing. It wasn’t terribly far. At most it was three miles, and in some cases it was only maybe two miles. So it was walkable.
GROTH: So as a small child you would take a train and walk?
SEVERIN: Fortunately, as a kid, I was lucky enough to live only about a half a mile from school. There wasn’t much problem there. And two of my cousins were going to the same school, so that helped.
GROTH: I believe that you said you primarily got interested in comics through a love of newspaper strips rather than comic books.
SEVERIN: Yeah. I go along with that. Newspaper strips were very attractive to me and I followed them all. I got in on [Hal] Foster’s Tarzan as soon as it started. Good God, I remember comics that people don’t even believe existed. I loved comics, especially the Sunday comics. Matter of fact. I’d even go over to my cousins’ house every Sunday afternoon and they got a different newspaper than we did. I’d go over there and borrow their comic’s thing [section] because I’d finish the one that we got. But comic books… I was totally unaware of comic books. When I got into my teens, I saw one comic book on a stand, it was a Western (I don’t remember the name of it). It was an artist I had seen in pulps. I used to love pulp magazines, Detective Doc Savage, Daredevil Aces, Battle Aces, and all that stuff. G8’s Battle Aces. After I picked that off the stand and looked at it, I didn’t see it any more. It wasn’t until I was in the army and I passed one guy’s place in… it wasn’t exactly a foxhole, sort of a tent foxhole. There was a boy coming into it. So having all sorts of important things to do, I sat down and looked through this boy commando thing and found it rather interesting. I had never really perused a comic before. I got out of the service and I still wasn’t aware of comics being in existence. It seems hard to believe now, when I think about how much time I’ve put in on comics, that I was totally unaware of it.
GROTH: As a kid, would you say that you were much more interested in comics than most kids, that you had a much more heightened interest in newspaper strips?
SEVERIN: That’s kind of hard to say, because at that time, there wasn’t much to amuse kids. They had to make do and use their brains. Everybody read the comics. The kid who lived in the lot behind us (he didn’t live in the lot, but you know what I mean) had an aunt over in England who used to send him English comics. I remember his name. God Almighty, it came to me just now as I was saying it, isn’t that weird? Georgie Hoyt. Don’t put that down. He’ll sue me! [Laughs.] He used to give me the English comics when he was through with them. She’d save up about two months and send them all at once. It seemed like everybody read comics.
GROTH: There was so much less media to entertain at the time.
SEVERIN: You had your radio. You had…
GROTH: You didn’t have television.
SEVERIN: No. You had the radio, stealing pumpkins, going out fishing, playing baseball, all of the normal things that people sort of did. Mow the lawn or a nickel… all kinds of crazy things. Much more interesting. If you weren’t aware of what’s going on today and you were to go back and compare the two lifestyles, it was more interesting. And yet, we have more things of interest today. It may not make too much sense. I wouldn’t go back to those days, because I like what we have today. But living in those days was much more pleasant.
GROTH: It’s interesting that you say it was much more pleasant but you wouldn’t go back to those days.
SEVERIN: Well, in the first place it’s ridiculous—you can’t go back. Oh, I don’t mean physically. Even if they were to throw away everything, you could never regain the feeling, the mindset that people had in those days because they’d gone through a number of years to get to that mindset. You just can’t come upon it. It has to build up.
GROTH: I assume your family listened to the radio?
SEVERIN: Oh, yeah.
GROTH: Did you all listen to it together, like people today watch television together?
SEVERIN: Well, sometimes. Unlike the ads on TV that show the old days, mommy, daddy, little boy, little girl, and even the cotton-pickin’ dog, all sitting around that little old radio… No. [Laughs.] Maybe if an atomic bomb went off, everybody might come to the…
GROTH: But that wouldn’t have happened in 1921 either.
SEVERIN: That’s true, too. No, you’d listen to the radio. Like, I’d be lying on the floor doing my homework and I’d turn on the radio and… Of course, that was the best way to do your homework, is to listen to the radio it the same time!
GROTH: Did you listen to radio drama?
SEVERIN: Yeah. Sometimes they were almost a half [an] hour long. The 15 minute ones were the best, because they were in and out and gone. The writers really wrote well, because they had to [in order] to get it all in 15 minutes. I heard the first Buck Rogers and I heard the first Tarzan. Did you know Tarzan was on the radio?
GROTH: I’m not sure I knew that.
SEVERIN: And the first Buck Rogers, I’d just turned the radio on. It was afternoon, after school—maybe it was in the summer time for all I know. I was by the radio and I turned it on, and I heard this booming voice [lowers voice] “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.” And all this noise. Of course, the announcer was like the caption in comics. He kept the thing going. He would tell you what was going on, and they’d give you the background music for what was happening, and then the actors would come in with the sound effects and all that.
GROTH: I assume that it was probably as vivid and exciting to you then as television and the Internet is today for kids.
SEVERIN: Certainly. As a matter a fact, it was for me… You have to remember I went through that, so maybe I’m putting myself… It was better for me because I was using my imagination and I could create a lot more inside my head without even trying than they can do with all of the effects that they give you on TV, although I certainly enjoy the stuff. If it weren’t for the imagination, your comic artists wouldn’t be able to do a damn thing.