GROTH: Can you tell me what your favorite comics were through the ’20s. You mentioned Tarzan…that must have been Hal Foster around ’27, ’28, I think.
SEVERIN: Yeah. That’s right. I remember one… I can’t remember whether it’s the gag line at the end, which is always the same at the end. I think it was called, It’s Pappa Who Pays. And then there was Hans and Fritz. By the way, I was in on the three of them. There was Hans and Fritz, The Katzenjammer Kids, and The Captain and the Kids. I used to go nuts. I would read mine, and run over to my cousin’s and get his in the afternoon. He had The Katzenjammer Kids, and I had The Captain and the Kids.
GROTH: Could you keep them straight?
SEVERIN: We didn’t even bother. It was a one-deal thing, anyway. There wasn’t continuity. It ended that day. So many… Ish Kabibble. That was one that I really got a kick out of. Funny, although I liked Blondie when I got into my teens, I didn’t care for Blondie when I was a kid at all.
GROTH: I was going to ask you if it was primarily the adventure strips that you gravitated toward when you were a kid?
SEVERIN: Yeah. Surprisingly, there weren’t a lot of adventure strips at first. They were all one-day gags. When the adventure stuff came in, it was your Buck Rogers and eventually Flash Gordon. I immediately dropped Buck Rogers and followed Flash Gordon. [Laughs.] I liked the drawing better.
GROTH: Being a man of taste…
SEVERIN: Thank you. The other one was Terry and the Pirates. I got into that before he got too old. He was still the kid who palled around with Pat Ryan.
GROTH: That would have been the mid-to-late ’30s, I think.
SEVERIN: Yeah. To tell you the truth, ordinarily I can rattle off a hundred of those comics but I can’t think of half of these things I used to. The thing is, I have to sit and muse for moment or two, and I don’t want to take your time doing that for the name of some dopey comic.
GROTH: Well, you can always fill them in later and people will think that you have brilliant recall.
SEVERIN: I’ll send you a list. [Laughs.]
GROTH: You’ve mentioned Roy Crane as being a great inspiration to you as a cartoonist.
SEVERIN: Yeah. Very much so.
GROTH: How about Noel Sickles?
SEVERIN: I wasn’t aware of the man’s existence until I met Al Toth, which was in the early ’50s. As a matter of fact, I had seen Noel Sickles’s work. What was the name of the thing he did?
GROTH: Scorchy Smith.
SEVERIN: We didn’t get that newspaper. Whenever I got my hands on it, I would follow this guy’s work, paying no attention to his name, not realizing who he was going to be. But Al Toth….
GROTH: He turned you on to Sickles?
SEVERIN: Yeah. Thought the man was great.
GROTH: That’s not surprising.
SEVERIN: It’s the understatement of the year. [Laughter.]
GROTH: Were you aware at the time how good Crane was? Did you have a good eye when you were a teenager?
SEVERIN: I don’t know. I did think that Crane was absolutely fantastic, I’m not going to go into all the things the man was capable of doing. We all know that. The man was just great. And when I spotted him, of all the people, until Prince Valiant came along, and the later Tarzans… There was a space in there between the early Tarzans, which were black and white, and one four panels across the top page, the full-page Tarzan in the color comics on Sunday. There was a space in there that I somehow missed…lost. Anyhow, Foster was, of course, an influence on me. But Crane was even a bigger influence. Because his storytelling— well, his storytelling was much better than Foster’s. His drawing can’t even compare, but one is an entirely different subject from the other.
GROTH: Young cartoonists may be reading this, so I’d like to press you and ask you if you could tell me what it is you like about Crane so much. What qualities did you see in Crane’s work?
SEVERIN: His simplicity, his directness, his composition. Mainly, I think the main thing was his continuity. His ability to… You sometimes didn’t need even have to read the dialogue to know what was going on unless you wanted to know someone’s name. His storytelling… Look, I’m not good [at this]. I can’t criticize properly. I feel like I’m repeating him by saying he’s good. We all know he’s good. His storytelling is great… we all know that! I think the biggest thing about him was the storytelling ability.
SEVERIN: Yes. They also presented their work in an entirely different way. Crane was more of a comic man…
GROTH: I’m not sure that I would say that storytelling was Foster’s strongpoint, in terms of panel-to-panel continuity?
SEVERIN: Of course, Foster didn’t depend on that. With his captions he filled in big gaps. He could frequently fill the whole page and just give you single illustrations right on through, telling you the story with the captions.
GROTH: But both of those artists influenced you?
SEVERIN: Yes. I think of all the artists in the business, they influenced me the most. Of course, all artists are influenced by everybody that comes along. If a guy has anything that you think is good and you can add to your work, you do it.
NOT NECESSARILY THE NEW YORKER
GROTH: You must have been pretty obsessed with cartooning, because I understand that at the age of 11 or 12, you got a job doing cartoons for something called Hobo News.
SEVERIN: Yeah. They were paying a dollar a cartoon.
GROTH: That’s pretty precocious.
SEVERIN: What, a dollar a cartoon? [Laughter.]
GROTH: That’s pretty precocious, too. But, no, I mean, doing professional cartooning at the age of 11. That even beats out Joe Kubert, I think, who started at age 13.
SEVERIN: I had picked up The Hobo News, I think it cost a dime. Bums would go in and get a whole bunch of this stuff, and they’d go out and peddle it. I think what they did was that they paid for it, and then they’d go out and peddle it for a dime. They’d buy it for a nickel and sell it for a dime. I met a lot of strange guys when I went down there. I used to go down there and do The Hobo News on West 18th Street, I think it was.
GROTH: Was The Hobo News in Long Island?
SEVERIN: No, it was in Brooklyn. West 18th Street I believe. Oh, yes. We skipped a phase here. When it got time for me to go to high school, I was in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
GROTH: Now at some point, you moved from Long Island into Brooklyn, though?
SEVERIN: You see, I didn’t come back into Brooklyn until I was 13. We’ve got two years of work at The Hobo News, apparently. Unless I was mailing them in, which I doubt very strongly. No, sirree.
GROTH: Can you remember how an 11-year-old came to get a gig at The Hobo News? That’s pretty extraordinary.
SEVERIN: I’m thinking that that’s not a true story. I’m thinking that Joe did beat me, after all. Because, I didn’t go to high school until, I was 14?
GROTH: That’s usually when you go.
SEVERIN: It wasn’t until I was in high school that I become aware of The Hobo News. We are missing two years there, and I think that the best thing to do is forget it. I wasn’t as precocious as you said! [Laughs.]
GROTH: I’m actually reading this from the entry in The Encyclopedia of Comics, and it says that you began drawing for Hobo News in ’32, and continued until ’36.
SEVERIN: I don’t know where they get these strange dates. They may be right. But asking me is like asking in a barrel. I worked on The Hobo News most of the time I was in high school simply to make spending money.
GROTH: So probably from 16 to 17 years old.
SEVERIN: Somewhere in there.
GROTH: Can you tell me how you approached them, and what gave you the impetus to do that?
SEVERIN: After looking at The Hobo News, I knew that it was something that I could do. So I drew up about 10 cartoons. I figured maybe they’d buy one or two. I went down there and I approached the boss man. It was in the basement of this building [in a] dopey section of town. Down in the basement they had all the presses, and in the back they had this little office. So they just passed me past all the guys working to the backroom, and I introduced myself, and he [the boss man] looked at the cartoons and bought them. So I said, “Can I come back down next week?” and he said, “Sure.” So I did, and he kept buying them. [Chuckles.] So I kept doing them.
GROTH: What kinds of cartoons were these?
SEVERIN: Just moron cartoons. Dumb cartoons…
GROTH: Gag cartoons?
SEVERIN: Gag cartoons. I’m sorry. Yeah, that would be the term. [Chuckles.] Hey, you’ve got a dangerous guy you’re interviewing.
GROTH: Let me skip back for a second, if you were willing to submit cartoons at the age of 15 or 16, you must have been drawing before that. When did you start drawing?
SEVERIN: When I was about 2. The first thing my mother saved for many years was the first drawing that I did. I was in the high chair, and she was talking to my uncle’s secretary for some damn reason in the kitchen. I remember the whole scene. I remember a lot of things like that, and you ask me the name of some cartoon strip and I don’t even know what you’re talking about! They were drinking tea, and I called it the smoke—isn’t that cute?—the smoke coming out of it. The darling cartoon was saved and passed around for a number of years. And it disappeared like all things—thank God!
GROTH: Did you copy newspaper strips?
SEVERIN: No. I never got to that point. Although, I’ll tell you the truth, I did copy Popeye’s face. I bought a pen with red ink and a pen with blue ink. The kids at school would ask me to tattoo their arms. So I would draw Popeye. And, of course, the red I used for the gizmo around his neck. I colored that red. And I colored the hat red, which wasn’t accurate, but what the hell? That’s the last newspaper strip copying I did until Joe Simon had me do Joe Palooka and Dick Tracy covers.
GROTH: Did you like Segar’s work?
SEVERIN: I wasn’t especially attracted to him for some reason. I got a kick out of the movies when they finally got into the movies, but up to then I didn’t much care for Segar.
GROTH: What do you think prompted you to start drawing at such an early age and keep drawing? Was that your father’s influence?
SEVERIN: I don’t think that I can figure that one out. It’s like, why do you wear shoes? It’s just something that you do. One of the things that I did was draw. I drew in school, and I drew everywhere I went. I had one nun who caught me (they were always catching me at something) drawing while she was reading some important stuff to the class. She thought she’d get me, so she asked me what she had been reading. I told the whole damn thing. She discovered that if she’d leave me alone and let me draw, I wouldn’t daydream. I’d get a lot more out of what was going on, because normally my eyes drifted off to the window. I was more interested in that bird out there, and where he was going to go or where he came from, than in anything they were teaching me in class. They allowed me, most of the time, to just draw, because I did my work. I didn’t get great marks, but you can’t doing it the way I did.
GROTH: Did your parents encourage you?
SEVERIN: In drawing? Sure. They didn’t have to push. Their encouragement was more in the line of just letting me do it. If I had questions, I could go to my father and he could show me certain ways of doing it or maybe even some material he’d tell me about would be easier. He got me interested in using crow quill pens.
GROTH: At what age would that have been?
SEVERIN: Oh, would have been about 12 or 13. After that I started using fountain pens or a dip pen—we had a lot of dip pens in those days.
GROTH: If you didn’t draw characters from newspaper strips and copy styles and so on, did you just draw from life?
SEVERIN: No. I just drew from my head. Supposing I had a page open to let’s say Prince Valiant or something like that. Most likely it would be Tarzan in this case. I would see the way he drew the figures leaning into a sword strike or something like that. It would excite me. I’d go over and I’d start drawing Scottish Highlanders battling away with their claymores using the inspiration from some drawing. One thing would set me off and get me going in a whole direction. I didn’t seem to enjoy copying, so much as using the thing. If I saw a muscle drawn in a certain way that I didn’t know anything about, I’d start incorporating that into my drawings from then on.
GROTH: Was The Hobo News a weekly or a daily?
SEVERIN: A weekly. And it was strictly for bums. They weren’t hobos. Pat (the publisher) might have been a hobo and I met the Brake Beam Kid, who was a well-known character amongst the hobos. They just did a whole batch of things, little excerpts, written matter… And they’d fill the thing just plum full with cartoons. I don’t know where they got them.
GROTH: Was this marketed to hobos?
SEVERIN: A hobo would come down in his raggedy old clothes… He’d come down with a buck, and he’d buy 20 [copies of] Hobo News. And he’d go out on the street corner somewhere, and he’d sell them for a dime a piece. And he’d double his money, and buy himself a bottle of wine.
GROTH: An entrepreneurial effort to keep hobos in wine.
SEVERIN: [Laughs.] Or something. It was amusing to see these guys all around town. As a kid I’d say, “Gee, my cartoons are in there. I wonder if anybody knows.”
GROTH: Now would this have been considered disreputable at the time? To work at The Hobo News?
SEVERIN: I don’t think so. If anybody knew about it, they were amused. It wasn’t that big of a factor in anybody’s life, except perhaps the bums. And mine. It didn’t mean much to anybody else. They’d buy ’em, they’d be amused by ’em, and they’d throw it away. And they’d never look at the name of the artist.
GROTH: Did you sign these cartoons?
SEVERIN: Oh, sure. Not always as my right name, however.
GROTH: A dollar a cartoon was good money.
SEVERIN: It certainly was, ’cause I was sometimes selling 19 or 20 of them a week. Not every week, naturally. But I didn’t have to get a regular job to carry me through high school. It was almost every week— not every week— but almost every week I didn’t have to get a job. I hated to work, I’ll tell you. I didn’t have to get a job then, because I was in high school.