In this 2nd and final installment of the John Severin interview, we cover Severin’s time with Stan Lee, the political atmosphere of comics in the ’50s, his work for DC, Marvel, Harvey, Charlton, Classics Illustrated, Warren and the magazine he has worked for since 1958, Cracked. It was a privilege to interview the man, and about time. He is certainly among the great craftsmen in the history of comics, and may even topple Joe Kubert from his position as The Nicest Artist in Comics (sorry, Joe). Throughout the interview sessions (which were all conducted by phone) he was consistently gracious and generous with his time, never complaining (although occasionally joking) about how much of his time I was monopolizing. I was struck by a newly awakened appreciation and love for Severin’s art during the two or three intense months during which I immersed myself in his work and career. One can too easily forget—or take for granted —just how good an artist someone like Severin truly is. It also occurred to me that artists like Severin represent a generational shift: Severin is an artist with a commercial bent who has a mature understanding of and pride in craft and who, by combining that accomplished level of craftsmanship with a distinctive visual point of view and an unpretentious intelligence, creates entertaining and beautifully told stories. It is, quite simply, a kind of creative intelligence that doesn’t exist in comics today and that is to the form’s great detriment. I’d like to thank Severin for providing last issue’s cover, and he and his wife Michelina for copy-editing his interview, and for generally putting up with me for many hours.
GROTH: OK, continuing our discussion of your work at Mad, I assume that stylistic choice was not a conscious strategy of yours. You didn’t sit down and say, “I have to keep it realistic but I also have to retain an exaggerated quality to it.”
SEVERIN: No. Right.
GROTH: It’s something that was intuitive?
SEVERIN: I think it was just the way I knew; just the way Toth does his blacks and whites. That’s the way I think, and that’s the way I draw it.
GROTH: Did you enjoy doing the 10 Mad stories you did?
SEVERIN: Sure. Sure. Now there, there was real lighthearted stuff. I’m thinking right off the bat not only of “Melvin of the Apes,” but “Robin Hood.” I got a kick out or them. I only wished that I had more time to put into those jobs than I did. And I had enough time. It’s just that I’d like to look at the finished job and say, “I could add this. I could add that.” But I never got to that point. It has to go right in then and there. And it is the same today with Cracked. I remember trying to be extra funny with “Robin Hood.” There was no problem with “Melvin.” Harvey wrote a story that was funny all by itself.
GROTH: Did Harvey also provide the layouts for Mad?
SEVERIN: Yeah. [Pause] Wait a second. I want to double check on that. He sure as heck did on “Melvin.” I’m trying to think. I’m sure that he did on “Robin Hood.” I don’t remember any of the others. Oh, I remember one, the first one. The cowboy sitting on the bar, whatever the heck that was.
SEVERIN: “Varmint.” OK, yes. He did the layout on that one. He must have done them all. He didn’t just do mine, he must have done everybody’s.
GROTH: They were all parodies of adventure-oriented material except for one, which was “Bop Jokes. “
SEVERIN: Oh…in that one I mentioned…
GROTH: And that one seemed a little uncharacteristic.
SEVERIN: …Paul Glaser. Well, I do believe Paul Glaser wrote that.
SEVERIN: Well, I wouldn’t bet my fortune on it. Of course, I wouldn’t lose much, but I wouldn’t bet my fortune on that.
GROTH: Well, Kurtzman said, “I didn’t write them. We collected them.”
SEVERIN: Well, all right. OK. That’s good. He must have collected most of them from Paul Glaser.
GROTH: No, he says, “They were ‘Bop Jokes.’ They weren’t mine. I just collected them from our readers.”
SEVERIN: He might have filled it…see…
GROTH: Do you have any recollection of that?
SEVERIN: You see the way rumors get started? I started saying that Paul Glaser did it, and there I go again.
GROTH: Well, you might be right, though.
SEVERIN: No. No, I think there’s a combination of truth there. I think that Kurtzman did collect them. I think, that the main person he collected them from was Paul Glaser. The fact that he said it’s from his readers, he may have gotten some from his readers somewhere, but I think, in the main, he got them from Paul Glaser. Like I said, I won’t bet my fortune on it, but I wouldn’t think that was true.
GROTH: With regard to “Bop Jokes,” were you at all interested in jazz?
SEVERIN: Jazz? Real jazz. This jazz that they call jazz? No.
SEVERIN: I knew nothing about be-bop, nothing whatsoever. I had to be coached as to how to draw these people.
GROTH: You were not naturally inclined to draw these hipsters.
SEVERIN: And I didn’t like the story, either. It just…it wasn’t in tune with me.
GROTH: When EC finally folded, and Mad was the only thing they were publishing, which you were no longer drawing for and therefore out of the fold completely, and you had to work for other companies, did you feel a sense of loss in the sense that the best company was gone and that you were working for lesser companies at the time?
SEVERIN: No. I didn’t even think about it. EC was gone, and I had to move on and take the next step. So I just took it. It would have been nice if the step that I took was at a company that worked the same way, but it worked entirely different. And that’s the way they did it. I had to conform to them.
GROTH: You didn’t mope about this.
SEVERIN: No. It didn’t bother me. It didn’t bother me in that respect.
THE SENATE SUBCOMMITTEE HEARINGS
GROTH: Let me move past EC and take this opportunity to ask you, how you felt about the Senate subcommittee hearing that had such an impact on Gaines and EC and horror comics generally? How were you feeling at the time about that?
SEVERIN: I thought it was kind of a silly…not the fact of the meetings, but the information that was handed out by that Dr. Bepo.
GROTH: Dr. Fredric Wertham.
SEVERIN: But you know, it’s the same argument they give everywhere. See this kid, this kid did this crime because he saw it in the movies. Ten million people see this movie, and one crackpot follows through on something. It isn’t because…all those readers…none of them did it. There’s always someone who gets an idea from somewhere, and this time he got it from a comic or movie or something. I thought they were kind of nutty. The best part was when Gaines held up that picture…[Laughs.]
GROTH: Of the severed head?
SEVERIN: That fool! I was laying on the office floor. Everybody was sitting around. We were all watching it. That’s where I saw it. I was on the floor in the office, and that fool thing. Gaines…he’s a loon!
GROTH: Were a lot of you watching in the EC offices?
SEVERIN: Yeah, we were all in there.
GROTH: Now who would that have been?
SEVERIN: All of us.
GROTH: Jack Davis, Wally Wood….
SEVERIN: I was going to say, if you start naming names I’ll get balled out because I can’t really remember that exactly. Let’s see, my sister was there, Al Feldstein—yeah, I think was there. Willie Elder was there, Harvey Kurtzman was there, Joe Orlando…I can’t remember whether Wally Wood was there or not. I don’t think Jack Davis was there.
SEVERIN: I’m sure Kamen was there, and possibly Graham Ingels. I’m not sure about him, either.
GROTH: What was the discussion like in that room after the…
SEVERIN: I don’t remember but you can well imagine that they were not in favor of the Senate or Dr. Wertham.
GROTH: Was there a general consensus about Gaines’ performance? Was it considered good, bad…
SEVERIN: They laughed. They were amused by the whole thing. Boy, I’m glad that there weren’t any really bad effects of that thing that were permanent, because these crazy people—all of us—we took it very lightly. I did, and I think they did. You’re going to run into some guy who’s going to tell you, “Oh, wow. Afterward we got into a real somber conversation.” No. I don’t remember that at all.
GROTH: There wasn’t the sense that this was catastrophic, and would lead to a…
SEVERIN: What was catastrophic was a little later when Gaines dropped all the books. That was catastrophic!
GROTH: But of course, that was as a result of the pressure that was put on him, to a great extent.
SEVERIN: We didn’t realize that the pressure was that strong at the time we’d have been a lot more serious I’m sure.
GROTH: You said you thought the brouhaha was silly; can you elaborate on your feelings toward the Senate subcommittee hearing, and the book Seduction of the Innocent by Wertham?
SEVERIN: Well, I didn’t read the book, whatever excerpts were tossed at me to examine. These people were nuts. They were as nutty as the people today talking about how we should take all the guns away from everybody and then all the kids will not kill one another in school. The thing is the kid not the comic book, not the movie. I grant you to a point, when society has gotten to a point where your movies are depraved and your comics are violent and everybody’s divorced with no family life and that sort of thing, you’re going to find a number of people who are on the border line who are going to flip! That’s not caused by any one of those things. That’s caused by the whole cultural thing. If a kid who went to a movie and saw a certain thing and went out and imitated it, they picked on him. They don’t pick on the 300,000 who went to the movie and didn’t do a thing so–
GROTH: So you thought that was —
SEVERIN: I thought they were carrying this whole thing out too far just to get their own names in the paper. I mean, what other claim to fame have they got? Wertham—what else has he done?
GROTH: So you think that was really completely overblown?
SEVERIN: Yeah, very much so.
GROTH: Did the consequences, which were primarily the Comics Code and the sanitizing of comics, did you feel that directly in terms of what you could and couldn’t draw?
SEVERIN: Well, to an extent. I was not going to get myself all out of joint just because these people were in the way. I just went around them as well as I could, hitting the flank.