GROTH: You started work at Cracked in 1958, I believe?
GROTH: Does that sound approximately…?
SEVERIN: Yes, it sounds right, because I know I’ve been there for an awfully long time.
GROTH: You would have had your 40th anniversary last year at Cracked.
SEVERIN: Yep. [Kiddingly.] Gee, it’s amazing. I’m only 45. I mean, that kid was really younger…yeah, it’s been somewhere around 40 years, something like that.
GROTH: I understand that at approximately the same time you were doing work for National, Charlton.
GROTH: …and Harvey.
SEVERIN: Yes, and one other.
GROTH: And Marvel…
SEVERIN: Well, another one. I’m fishing. Fishing. Let’s see, Sol Brodsky…
SEVERIN: Now wait a second. Sol Brodsky and a friend of his put together a little business, an off and on comic book business, and what did they call themselves? Well, I can’t remember, but I worked for them off and on. There was another outfit a long time ago that nobody remembers. I just ran across a cover I did for them. Oh, and it must have been around this time. It was at the time that Cracked began. It was an unknown company put together by people who didn’t know the business at all. Believe it or not, they relied very heavily on me for suggestions. So you know they didn’t know much!
GROTH: [Laughing.] Uh-oh! This would have been the late ’50s?
SEVERIN: Yeah, it was right about the time I started in on Cracked. They had a satyr little character that ran around. Instead of an Alfred E. Newman, they had a cute little satyr running around.
GROTH: This wasn’t Sick?
SEVERIN: No, I never worked for Sick. Boy, you’ve got me thinking, now. They did have a funny name. What the heck was the name? I think I’m wasting your time.
GROTH: Oh, that’s OK. My time is cheap. Was it a humor magazine, a humor comic?
SEVERIN: Yeah. They were trying to be Cracked and Mad.
GROTH: This wouldn’t be Ross Andru, would it…
GROTH: …who did a humor comic.
SEVERIN: I don’t remember doing that.
GROTH: Well he self-published a humor comic and l don’t know what year that would have been. I’m not sure if it was the ’50s or ’60s. I think it was the ’50s, though. But it was a color comic, not a magazine. Well this is interesting.
SEVERIN: Right. Well, I have the cover inside, but it was a side… Wait a second, do you mind if I leave the phone and try to get it? It’s open on top. Just minute.
GROTH: Sure. No problem.
SEVERIN: [A few seconds later.] I’m not sure if this is the name of it, but it’s called Sporty.
GROTH: Sporty? S-P-O-R-T-Y? Huh.
SEVERIN: Right, and the little satyr is up on top. There’s a framed picture of Lou Burdett, the spitball pitcher. That must be the name of it. You see, this is a color proof so there’s no information on the backside of it. It would have been an ad, anyhow.
GROTH: Now is this a humor comic?
GROTH: May we print this with the interview?
SEVERIN: Yeah, you won’t do much in the way of printing, because I was looking at this. The background behind Lou Burden’s picture is all a dirty, dirty blue, and I have done black and white drawings in there which in turn were colored blue with highlights of white. If you can pick up the white, you might be able to see what I’ve got there. Yeah, OK. I’ll send that along.
GROTH: I also wanted to ask you if you had any photos of yourself.
SEVERIN: I have these packages of 8 x 10, signed. Do you want 25 or….
GROTH: Well, we could sell them in the issue, so send me 200.
SEVERIN: I’ll have to dig them out.
GROTH: Can you tell me how you started working for Cracked?
SEVERIN: Yeah, I can. Give me a moment. [Pause.] So, Brodsky asked me to come over. He told me what the scoop was, that Bob Sproul had contacted him and asked him if he would edit an imitation of Mad. He wanted to know if I’d be interested, and I said, “Sure.” That was it! I did the first cover sketch, by the way, and I didn’t even ask for any money. I said, just give me the jobs. I don’t want to do the covers. So they gave the sketch to Bill Everett! And then he went home and painted it.
GROTH: Is that right? Did you like how that turned out?
SEVERIN: Oh, I didn’t care as long as they were happy. I mean, I didn’t want to work for those prices, though.
GROTH: The pay was not good.
SEVERIN: No, not for the covers. But after I started working for them they got better. But the insides were OK. They were paving halfway decent prices for the insides. I worked for Sol, and then Sol’s office moved over to Sproul’s office, and they had the whole thing concentrated in one building.
GROTH: Sproul was the publisher, right?
SEVERIN: He was the editor/publisher of Cracked. He and his backer started it rolling and he was always at the office covering all of the bases all of the time. He was a very easy man to work for.
GROTH: Was DeFuccio working for Mad at that time?
GROTH: It seems like you remained friends with DeFuccio for a very long time.
SEVERIN: Yeah, I had to. He was my wife’s cousin.
GROTH: Well, that explains that. Of course, I don’t have a whole run of Cracked, but were you in virtually every issue of Cracked from…
GROTH: That was a remarkably steady gig for 40 plus years. I don’t know if the amount of work you were doing for Cracked was consistent from 1958 to the present—but I know you had spurts of doing other freelance work. What would dictate your level of output? Was it just if the just if the opportunity arose?
SEVERIN: Opportunity, yeah. If a guy came along with a good deal that I could fit in my regular schedule, gee, why not?
GROTH: And if the opportunity didn’t arise you would just go golfing or something?
SEVERIN: Yeah, let’s say I’d go golfing. [Laughs.] I could see me on a golf course. I look terrible in knickers.
GROTH: Well, that’s not what I hear, but we’ll talk about that later.
SEVERIN: Somebody said I looked good in knickers? Never mind, I’m just playing. OK…
GROTH: Let me ask you about Cracked, because that’s the place you’ve worked the longest in your career. You’ve been in virtually every issue, haven’t you?
SEVERIN: Well, when it first started, after it got going, I was doing anywhere from ten to 17-18 pages an issue, under different signatures, of course.
GROTH: Did you enjoy doing the humor work as much as the more detailed Western or war material?
SEVERIN: I think I enjoyed the war stuff and the Westerns—it’s like a different department of the building. The humor stuff is over here and that stuff is over there, and I never even thought to make a comparison. No, I feel the same about both of them.
GROTH: But you enjoy doing the humor work?
GROTH: How would you get an assignment from Cracked?
SEVERIN: It varied through the years. The old Cracked, the Bob Sproul Cracked, I would go in because I lived in the neighborhood. Not literally, but I was in Jersey and they were in New York, and I’d go in and see them and we’d talk and shoot the breeze, and he’d give me the script and I’d go in and do it. Or sometimes he might mail it. But usually, I picked it up, because it was a matter of delivering it and picking it up at the same time. Whereas now that I’m out here, they just mail it to me with instructions if it needs any. They just send me the script, and hopefully research when it’s needed. It’s very easy to work for them.
GROTH: Have there been any changes in the way you’ve perceived Cracked over the years or is it essentially the same magazine it was?
SEVERIN: Oh, no. It’s changed. There was one period there—I can’t put date to these things—there was one long period there where it remained pretty static. Well, hopefully not from the reader’s view, but it was aiming in the same direction and had the same target. Then gradually they would change the target, and then all of a sudden it was sold out and bought up by another outfit. Of course, it changed radically at that point. Still in the same category, but it was packaged entirely different and the target was entirely different.
GROTH: The target audience?
SEVERIN: Yeah. I say the target audience, but I don’t mean that literally. They were targeting the audience differently. Basically the audience is the same group. Everybody says, “We’re trying to get an older group.” If that’s the case, you wonder why is Mad putting out that book? The older group appreciates it better than the younger group. We have sort of, as a matter of fact, gone along with that. We have aimed at the younger group, hopefully getting the older group. Whereas Mad does it in reverse. They aim for the older group and hopefully get the younger group. I think they get both of them. And we get a lot of older people, too. I was surprised!
SEVERIN: Oh, yeah, because you might have quite a variety of people writing. The people at Mad seem to be, generally speaking, the same large group constantly contributing. We have that basic group, but we have a lot of people who just bounce in and just bounce out, no steady work from them. You know, it isn’t a regular job with a lot of them I don’t think. I don’t know about this part. I’m talking where I shouldn’t be talking, perhaps. Maybe they do have regulars. But it doesn’t seem to me… Oh, I think about half of them are regulars and half of them are—what would I call them? Whatever. They might not call them anything. They’re getting letters.
GROTH: You seem awfully good-natured about accepting scripts that are below par.
SEVERIN: Well, it’s a job. They’re putting out a magazine, and your job is to do the script that they give you. If you’re lucky and you get a good script and you can show yourself off as being a really great comic—that’s great! But in general, you have to do the job that was given to you unless it’s something drastic. If they’d ask me to do a pornographic job, I’d just turn them back in. But nothing like that is going to come along…Darn it!
GROTH: You’ve said that comics is a job, and it certainty is to the extent that it provides your living and so on, but it’s also your art. Is there any tension between those two priorities? Do you ever feel any conflict between those two?
SEVERIN: No, not at all. Nope, I just get the script and do it.
GROTH: But certainly you must have been compelled to do something that you’re personally invested in, such as (and correct me if I’m wrong) those Savage Tales stories.
SEVERIN: Yeah, I did.
GROTH: Are those more satisfying?
SEVERIN: Yeah, very much so. I see where you’re going with this. Same thing with the Warren stuff and a lot of the stuff that I did at EC. But actually, I was more satisfied with Warren and Savage Tales than the EC stuff, simply because my art had more of my technique. My style, or whatever you call it, had matured and I was able to handle the stuff a lot better. As I said earlier, I thank them for giving me the opportunity to learn how to ink. If you can call what I do inking! I guess you do these days, but in those days, I was going against the flow.
GROTH: You worked for Charlton from ’58 to ’61?
GROTH: Now Charlton was always sort of like…
SEVERIN: Nothing you’ve ever heard of before.
GROTH: Well, you did Billy the Kid. But Charlton was always like B-movies compared to DC’s A line.
SEVERIN: Right. They were, definitely.
GROTH: Can you tell me a little about what working for them was like?
SEVERIN: Yes I can tell you very little. We would meet in an office building, a little bitty old office. It was mostly a waiting room and somebody behind a booth with a telephone. They’d give out the scripts to the guys that were there, and you’d go home and come up and bring them in. Same thing; you get another script and go home. You never saw anybody who didn’t know the workings of the place. You knew darn well that they were hijacking their paper from Canada. Obviously, it was a Mafia operation.
GROTH: Did you have an editor at Charlton?
SEVERIN: It was a man who gave me a script and who would accept it when I brought it back.
GROTH: [Groth laughs.] Not exactly what you call an editor, though.
SEVERIN: No, there was no—nothing! And you were working for insane prices. I don’t remember the period exactly. All I can say is that nobody had any work, hardly, and so you rubbed any damn thing that was coming along. When you worked on Charlton, you did it as fast as you could. That meant that your work wasn’t coming out as well as it should, but this was what they expected. And this is what they got! They seemed to be reasonably happy with everything, so what the heck?
GROTH: And they were real cheapskates?
SEVERIN: They weren’t paying, if you mean the rates. They were terrible rates—atrocious. But beggars can’t be choosers. Either that or, like I said, go out and be a plumber. I’ve got a thing about plumbers or something. I have said plumber at least seven times.
GROTH: You know we ‘re going to get angry letters from the Plumber’s Guild.
SEVERIN: Good God! Maybe they don’t read this stuff.
GROTH: The National Plumber’s Association is going to start picketing our building.
SEVERIN: Oh, lord.
GROTH: Let me ask you about one of your best periods, which was Warren in the ’60s. You did work for Blazing Combat in 1965.
SEVERIN: I don’t remember the date, but yeah, I worked on it.
GROTH: Can you tell me how that came about and who approached you?
SEVERIN: No. I’m telling you, this is awful!
GROTH: I bet someone approached you, because I doubt you would have known who Warren was…
SEVERIN: I don’t know whether I even was aware that Warren was in existence. Oh, wait a minute. Wait a second. I think what might have happened—I can’t bet on this. Harvey was working for Warren at the time and he was doing Help!.
GROTH: That’s right. And you did something for Help!.
SEVERIN: I did two pages in two different issues for him. And perhaps because of this, the editor, might have gone ahead and made contact with me to see if I would work. That must have been it, because as you say, I didn’t even know it was around until Harvey started doing Help!
GROTH: Would the editor have been Russ Jones?
SEVERIN: No, I don’t think so.
GROTH: How about Archie Goodwin?
SEVERIN: Oh, good old Archie Goodwin. Wowee! Good man. There’s mv boy. No, although, wait a second, we did work together on something somewhere.
GROTH: Well, he actually wrote a few of the Hulks you drew…
SEVERIN: I was thinking of something…
GROTH: He wrote the Blazing Combat stories you did, of course.
GROTH: And he also wrote a couple of the stories you did in Savage Tales in the ’80s.
GROTH: When you were approached for Blazing Combat, I’m not sure exactly what you were doing in 1965.
SEVERIN: Me neither.
GROTH: Do you remember if that looked like an exceptional opportunity for you? Did you see that as something that was right down your alley?
SEVERIN: Well, that last part. Yeah, when I saw what kind of work it was going to be, it was down my alley. And of course I took it because I had the room to do it and I would like to do it. Yeah, that was fine. But I didn’t make any big deal out of it. I was glad to…
GROTH: It certainly looked like you put a lot of work into the material.
SEVERIN: I had fun doing those stories. They were good stories, and they gave me the opportunity to use total freedom. Warren is another one of these guys who was really easy to work for. Complete freedom. Just do what I wanted to do, and I did it.
GROTH: Did you meet Warren himself?
GROTH: Can you tell me how you met him?
SEVERIN: The first time I met him was when I turned in a job for Help!. Harvey.
GROTH: Tell me a little about that.
SEVERIN: Well, there’s really not much to tell. I don’t even remember how I started to do it. I know I didn’t meet Harvey Kurtzman in a bar, because he didn’t drink! Where the hell…? Oh, you know what, the secretary up there was what’s her name? Gloria Steinem.
GROTH: That’s right.
SEVERIN: Yeah. Boy, she had the prettiest skin. I came home and my wife’s still mad at me. I came home and I told her, “Shit, this girl I saw up there, she had the smoothest skin.” She clobbered me.
GROTH: I bet it almost made you want to draw pretty girls.
SEVERIN: Almost. I don’t remember how Harvey and I…it seems like we had some kind of a meeting somewhere in a restaurant—Long Chops? Something like that. And we talked and so forth—we were always talking about some darn thing. Anyhow, that’s what started me. I remember we talked about… Oh, it would be ungentlemanly. Never mind. [Pause] I didn’t mean to pique your curiosity.
GROTH: Well, we’re sort of an ungentlemanly magazine, so if you wanted to….
SEVERIN: It was a situation conversation sort of thing that we had one time. It came to mind and I’d just as soon not mention it. I don’t want to goof him.
GROTH: This would have been the early ’60s? Had you kept in touch with Harvey throughout that period?
GROTH: So he would have had to have gotten back in touch with you?
SEVERIN: I don’t really know. I was dealing with Willie Elder, I knew him from school…it was one of those things. Drop it. I don’t have the slightest idea how we did it. I just have some kind of memory that Harvey and I got together to talk about something or other at the restaurant, doing the first page, and then I did a second page, and I would have done a third but the magazine collapsed.
GROTH: Did you meet Warren when you did the Help! work?
SEVERIN: Yeah, that was the first time. And now that I’m thinking about it, I think that was the only time I met him.
GROTH: You never dealt with him during Blazing Combat?
SEVERIN: No, because most of the time I would mail it in, or Michelina would bring it in to New York from Jersey.
GROTH: You were living in New Jersey at this time?
GROTH: What was your impression of Warren?
SEVERIN: He seemed like a nice guy, a business guy. I mean, it wasn’t like I was sitting down and talking to him, either. He was off to the side of my eye and we talked that way. Mainly I was talking to Harvey. I got along with him pretty good. You know, what letters he had written to me, or anything he discussed on the phone or anything like that, I seemed to have no problem. So I guess what you end up saying is he seemed like a nice guy to me.
GROTH: Well, he’s going to be disappointed that he wasn’t more memorable, I think.
SEVERIN: He will?
GROTH: I think so. [Pause.] No, I’m just joking.
SEVERIN: Oh, OK. I’m a little slow.
GROTH: No, I’m only joking.
SEVERIN: Oh, my God. I must have some English blood in me, too. I just realized how that tied together. OK, I got your joke. Oh, lord!
GROTH: You know, I interviewed Warren not too long ago, too.
SEVERIN: Oh, yeah?
GROTH: Believe it or not, he’s thinking about getting back into comics publishing.
SEVERIN: Wonderful! I hope the hell he remembers me.
GROTH: I’ll mention that to him. I’ll say, “Give John Severin a call.”
SEVERIN: I hope I said the right things when you asked me these questions. Wow!
SEVERIN: I did?
SEVERIN: Oh, what were they?
GROTH: I don’t have them, but I think they were sort of Western-style pseudo horror stories. I know you did one called “Dark Rider.”
SEVERIN: Oh, yeah that was that pseudo death image coming after the guy. Then I did one that was a Western also that was a hired hand who was a vampire. I remember a screwy story about a Martian. Oh, never mind. I don’t remember the story. I did a lot of work on it, but I don’t think it was such a great story.
GROTH: They were black-and-white stories, and from what little I’ve seen, it does look like you put a lot of effort into them.
SEVERIN: I love black and white. I hate color. Unless you start out with nice slick paper and you’re going to give it a real color job, forget the color. All it does is…I like black and white movies. You know what it is? I’m colorblind.
GROTH: Yes, I was going to say; you’re colorblind. You’re prejudiced.
SEVERIN: I like black and white much better. I think you can do more with black and white. And unless you’re going to try to be an artist, a real artist, an honest to god artist and paint your comic story—and some guys have done that and succeeded very well (Rich Corben being one)—in general I would rather see it in black and white.
GROTH: Painted comic stories don’t often work out well. There’s something…
SEVERIN: They don’t. No.
GROTH: There’s something about the comics medium that is almost antithetical to painting.
SEVERIN: A lot of wasted energy. A big try, but not much show.
GROTH: Well, you also did a second stint at Warren between ’74 and ’79. I don’t know if you remember this.
GROTH: And I don’t know why you would have had a gap between ’67 and ’74 and then come hack to Warren.
SEVERIN: Didn’t they drop those war books?
GROTH: Well, Blazing Combat ended in ’66.
SEVERIN: Yeah. See maybe that had something to do with it.
GROTH: But you did draw for Eerie in ’67 and ’68, and then stopped and came back and drew some stuff for Creepy between ’74 and 79.
SEVERIN: [Laughs.] If you say so.