From the TCJ Archives

The John Severin Interview Parts I & II


GROTH: When Gaines dropped the books, you had stopped working on Mad. And when Gaines started the new trend stuff, which included Extra. And when he dropped the books, you were pretty much out of EC at that point?


GROTH: And that would have been around 1955?

SEVERIN: OK. I think that I went to work for Stan Lee again.

Cracked #237 (August 1988) written, penciled and inked by John Severin ©1988 Globe Communications Corp

GROTH: Would you have done that immediately after EC folded, because they were giving you X amount of work and you had to replace that work?

SEVERIN: No, I had stopped working for EC before they folded, the next day you go down to the other guy's place and see if he has an opening there and he welcomed me with open arms. He didn't kiss me or anything.

GROTH: If he had, it would have made a better story, though.

SEVERIN: It sure would. Boy would it make a better story. My kids would hear that...

GROTH: Did you literally go to see Stan Lee?


GROTH: And he was working at Timely. Can you tell me a little about what happened? Did you make an appointment and go over there and just pitch yourself?

SEVERIN: No. I just went up and told the girl in the open box who I was and that I would like to see Stan Lee if she could arrange it. And Stan Lee came out and we talked about price. He said, "How would three dollars a page strike you?" And I said “Swell.” Or was it 30 dollars? It was some ridiculous amount. Anyhow, they put me in the...what do they call these rooms where they...

GROTH: Conference room?

SEVERIN: No, you're on the right track. It wasn't a conference room. No, he had given me the job and I had a room full of artists. Bullpen.

GROTH: The bullpen. Yes.

SEVERIN: Yeah, I went into the bullpen. And the first job that they handed me was one of Sid Shores' called "The Black Rider." Yeah, I think it was "Black Rider.” And so I started working there.

GROTH: Now when you say Syd Shores', did that mean that Syd Shores penciled it?

SEVERIN: Yeah. He would sit in the other room and turn out all this art. Tons and tons of artwork. And then the pages would get passed around to everybody and they'd all ink. I never did understand how that all worked out but it always looked right. You know?

GROTH: So you worked in the Marvel offices?


GROTH: In the bullpen?


GROTH: Previously you worked at home. Correct?


GROTH: When did the studio with Harvey actually dissolve?

SEVERIN: It was after Mad had started and it couldn't have been too long after that because Charlie Stern had already gone to France to become a Frenchman, and Willie and I were working more or less regularly. So was Harvey. I cannot place it for you. It was just after Mad had started.

GROTH: So you either worked at home or in the studio previously, and at Timely you worked in their offices?

SEVERIN: Yeah. I had worked with them previous to this situation, too.

GROTH: Yes. You actually did work for Marvel as far back as '48, I think.

SEVERIN: Yes. That was in the Empire State Building. I have no memories of that except that Stan and I had a peculiar ability to dress the same on several days. It would be funny during the week. He'd come in with—oh, I'm just making this up as I go along—dungarees and a plaid shirt. That would be the day that I'd come in with dungarees and a plaid shirt. And in those days, I weighed approximately the same as Stan Lee still weighs. So people would mistake us. We were the same size we both had high foreheads, and it was amusing. From the rear, we resembled one another.

GROTH: You must be taller, though?

SEVERIN: A little bit. From the front, of course, I'm prettier.

GROTH: Right.

SEVERIN: Don't tell Stan that.

GROTH: I was going to mention that, too.

SEVERIN: Don't do that!

GROTH: So before you went to Stan Lee after EC went under, you knew him?


GROTH: And had established something of a working relationship with him?

SEVERIN: Oh, yeah. As a matter of fact, while I was working at EC, I wrote him a semi-nasty tongue-in-cheek letter about the fact that all the artists in all of his war books, were tracing panels right out of Harvey's books. And I cut out the panels from both books and pasted them down side by side and sent the whole letter to him. So he made a luncheon engagement at Longchamps and explained to me why they were doing that. He said, “I didn't know they were doing that. You know, the artists are imitating the artists at EC with all that military stuff because they find that's good research.” I was just kidding him. I got a nice swordfish steak out of it. I figure, maybe I ought to write some more letters.

GROTH: But you didn't take any serious umbrage at that?

SEVERIN: No. What the heck do I care? The thing was, it got to be ridiculous when, on any given page, there were three panels that were right out of Harvey's stories. It was kind of silly at this point. I just wanted him to know that I had noted this. He's a good guy.

GROTH: Can you give me your impression of Stan Lee at that time? What was he like?

SEVERIN: He's always the same! I just saw him out there in San Diego last year. Not too long ago. And there he was. Same old guy. Same wife. Same conversation.

GROTH: So he was always full ol' bonhomme?

SEVERIN: Yes. He was always that way. Even when he's angry...I don't mean that he doesn't come across, but you don't fear him. If some idiot like me gets real angry you kind of wonder, "Is he going to throw the bottle at  me?” And I don't mean that I'm violent, but I mean... Come to think of it, I might throw the bottle, though. As long as it was empty.

GROTH: Waste not want not.

SEVERIN: Yes. Stan Lee has always been a pretty easygoing guy with me, anyhow. And I'm sure with everybody else.

GROTH: And so he was easy to work with?

SEVERIN: Yeah. I remember one time. Here I go again? Did I tell you about the pistol bit?

GROTH: With Joe Kubert?

SEVERIN: No, with Stan Lee.


From "Varmint" in Mad #1 (October 1952) written Harvey Kurtzman, penciled and inked by John Severin ©1952 EC Comics

SEVERIN: Well, this time it was me. I went out at lunchtime. Around the corner from the Empire State Building there was an antique gun place. I went in there to buy the Remington Cap and Bull. And the guy said, "OK, but I'll have to sell you half of it on this side, make out a bill. Half of it on the other side, make out a bill." Anyhow, I bought the two pieces, and he put them in separate bags. I went back to the offices after lunch and put the gun back together and everybody looked at it and so on and so forth.

I stuck it in my waist, and I went in to Stan Lee's office. He sat at the end or his office behind a bunch of windows, and there seemed to be row of girls on either side, secretaries doing different things. So I walked down the line there, went up to Stan Lee, pulled out the the gun and stuck it at him and I said. "Stan. I came in for a raise." And he looked up, put his finger in the barrel and said, "Severin, get the hell out of here." Easy-going? Yeah, that was an easy-going guy.

GROTH: Good sense of humor!

SEVERIN: Well, he also saw the same Douglas Fairbanks movie. Douglas Fairbanks was working with some German agent. One of them pulled out a Luger and he stuck his finger in the barrel. I didn't remember that until Stan did it.

GROTH: When you started working for him, that must have been around '54; did you work in the office full-time?

SEVERIN: Yeah. I ended up in this big bullpen sitting next to Bill Everett and Joe Maneely. And across was Carl...[Pause.]

GROTH: Burgos?

pencils by Severin

SEVERIN: Burgos, Sol Brodsky, Danny...whatever. Yeah, a whole bunch of people. Joe Maneely and I used to swap artwork back and forth. He would draw a page with all this stuff and leave out the backgrounds. You know, towns and that sort of thing. Not people and stuff. And I would sit there and draw in the saloons and all this stuff in simple outlines. In the meantime, he's doing the same thing with one of my jobs. Sometimes we'd have the same story! He'd be doing one page and I'd be doing the other. He'd do the first; I'd do the second. He'd do the third, and so on and so forth.

GROTH: Was that true of all of these artists then? Everyone would work on everyone else's pages!

SEVERIN: No. This was just these two lunatics in there.

GROTH: Just you and Joe Maneely?

SEVERIN: I just adapted my style to his, which was reasonably easy. Not my artwork or his artwork, but the style.

GROTH: In general, did the artists in that room do all their own work, pencils and inks, or did they...

SEVERIN: Yeah, because...

GROTH: ...or mere there distinct demarcations between inkers and pencilers at that time?

SEVERIN: No, not in that room. In that room, Stan would want a cover from Everett— he'd give him the job. And Everett would do the whole thing. Like that all the way around. My sister was in that room, too. She was a colorist with them. And she ended up doing touching up and whiting out.

GROTH: Did you get to know Everett?

SEVERIN: Oh, yeah. I've got a picture, stories of us over in his house at Jersey with his kids. We brought our family over. Yeah, we used to visit back and forth quite a bit, go out to lunch a lot.

GROTH: He must've been a good 10 years older than you.

SEVERIN: Let me see. Well, he became an officer in the service...yeah, he was way into his 30s—all right, he was pushing 40. And I was just going into my 30s. He was, as you said, about 10 years older than me, but he was a rather boyish type of a guy. He never ceased telling us how he and Martin Goodwin started Timely. I never did understand that story, but I went along with it.

GROTH: Did you like his work?


GROTH: You did not? But you got along really well with him?

SEVERIN: Oh, yeah.

GROTH: That's interesting. You liked Joe Maneely's work?

SEVERIN: Yeah. Yes, I did like it. It was very direct.

GROTH: Maneely died tragically.

SEVERIN: Yeah. That's what I get for going out and drinking with the guy.

GROTH: Were you close to him?

SEVERIN: Yeah. I'd go down to the Jersey shore and visit his family, and they would come over to our house. We used to eat lunch together a lot. And when we'd get paid, we'd go out and drink a lot. And that's what he did that night. We all went out drinking, and he drank a little too much, and he stepped off the platform.

GROTH: Were you with him at the time?

SEVERIN: No. Thank God, no. I went in another direction. I didn't take the train at all.

GROTH: I see. But it was right after you guys had hung out for a while?


GROTH: You were married at the time?

SEVERIN: Yeah, when you're young like that and you're stupid, you're doubly stupid. Anyhow it whacked me between the eyes.

GROTH: Well, back to Stan Lee and—

SEVERIN: Yeah. I can tell one thing, when you mentioned the office up there, at Stan Lee's (I forget what we called it) Atlas or whatever...

GROTH: Timely, I think.

SEVERIN: I remember that Stan Lee was just...well, let's drop that and start in a different direction. One day Al Feldstein called me up at the office and told me that they were considering bringing out Mad again, only this time in a slick fashion. And he was trying to contact all of the artists who had been in Mad and wanted to know if I would be interested in coming back. And I said, "Well, that sounds good, but I'm going to have to check with Stan Lee, because it happens that he's working on a new production called Snafu." Nobody remembers Snafu, but that was his imitation of Mad. with him." Well, Stan, of course wouldn't listen to me. He said, "No sirree Bob." So I told Al that I couldn't go back, Stan wouldn't give me permission—which I really didn't expect him to since I was not only working there but working on the same kind of a book more or less. So I never did get back on Mad.

GROTH: That story's actually in my notes. I wanted to ask you something about that. Stan objected to your working for Mad because Mad would be regarded as competition?

SEVERIN: Yeah, Mad would be in competition with him. And also, I was being paid a salary up there at Atlas/Timely/Marvel—whatever.

GROTH: Were you on salary, technically? Or were you paid piecework?

SEVERIN: Well, I was on salary and given freelance to take home.

GROTH: You were not often on salary at a company, were you? Most

of the work you did throughout your career...

SEVERIN: Yeah, there were only two times in my life that I was on salary and that was the first time I worked for Stan Lee up at the Empire State Building and the second time...same company, around 1950.

GROTH: Why would you be put on salary as opposed to just being paid piecework? Why would he offer you that...?

Panel from "the Landing" in Frontline Combat #7 (July 1952) written by Harvey Kurtzman, penciled by John Severin and inked by Will Elder ©1952 EC Comics

SEVERIN: I don't know. Everybody who was working there was on salary. It was just like a big bullpen. Only the second time that I was there, instead of working on any and everybody's artwork back and forth, it was more direct. Maneely would do his, Vergas would do his, and I would do mine. Once in a while we'd switch around on things, but generally you just weren't doing every other page. There were too many different styles at that time that each guy had developed. You couldn't swap a Maneely for Everett very easily.

GROTH: Did you have any preference as to being on salary vs. being paid by the page?

SEVERIN: No, as long as the money was American!

GROTH: Did you actually sit down and try to figure out which one was more to your advantage?

SEVERIN: Yeah, well that was easy. When there were no jobs around, and somebody was going to offer you a job on salary, you would take it. So that was pretty easy.

GROTH: [Laughs.] Right.

SEVERIN: No, but seriously. Because a little while later, things began to open up a little so I left. Because it would be better for me to do work I wanted to do (good or bad) for whoever I wanted to or whoever would hire me. But at the time I went to Stan Lee. I should say Atlas, but Stan Lee is like the big monograph out there. The Comics Code had just come in and a lot of people were having problems with that. So I was going to grab whatever I could at the moment. I found that there was some stuff open at DC. Almost the same day I went over to DC and got a job with them (that was when I first started working for Kanigher).

GROTH: The '50s was a period where the industry contracted. Did you feel a pinch?

Cracked #12 (November 1962) penciled by John Severin ©1962 Major Magazine Inc.

SEVERIN: Yeah, I did. I left Atlas (I can't think of what name to call it any more)...that was because of the pinch. They were cutting back and drooping artists all around the place. In fact, they got rid of the whole bullpen. Everybody was going on freelance. Not knowing how much freelance [work] was handy, I figured the best thing to do was to go and get some from somebody else, too. The best stuff I did, I think, was later on for Atlas. Who was that editor? He's Oriental. And Carl Potts, also.

GROTH: Oh. Larry Hama?

SEVERIN: Yeah, right‑him! Some of the best stuff I've done was for them, as well as the stuff I did for Warren. I think the stuff I did for Warren and for Hama were some of the best things that I've done. At least, I like them the best.

GROTH: I think so, too. In fact, I want to talk about both of those. It seems like your career is spotted with exceptional highlights. I would say the Warren work in the '60s and the Savage Tales stories which were in the '80s…

SEVERIN: Yeah, right. They [Savage Tales] were much later.

GROTH: Let me ask you this about your stint at Atlas, though. At Stan Lee's company, or I guess I should say Martin Goodman's company.

SEVERIN: [Chuckles.] We all do that.

GROTH: How long were you actually an employee at Marvel? Do you remember?

SEVERIN: Approximately two years. Yes, it must have been two years, because I remember they had to give me baby gifts two years in a row.

GROTH: [Laughs.] I see.

SEVERIN: He said, "How long can we keep you here, John?" "My, God," he said, "Are you going to do this every year?” And I said, "Well, hopefully."

GROTH: As an employee, does that mean that you basically got there at nine and left at five?

SEVERIN: Yeah, basically. Yeah.

GROTH: And you got a weekly salary?

SEVERIN: Right. And we would take work home, either work that we didn't finish or a separate job that was given to us specifically for freelance. But if we were working on something in the office then that needed to be done in a hurry and we took it home. He was giving us freelance for that, too.

GROTH: Did you get any benefits being an employee? Like medical benefits, or...

SEVERIN: Yeah, I think so. I'm not much on that stuff. My wife is the one who takes care of all the thinking in the family. I just do the doing.

GROTH: [Jocular] Yeah, well I want to interview your wife after you so...

SEVERIN: [Laughs.] That'd be interesting.

GROTH: Get the other perspective here. When you did freelance work, at least through the '50s, did you ever sign anything? Did you ever sign a contract or...?

SEVERIN: Oh, no. As a matter of fact, I avoided it. I don't remember ever signing a contract; my wife does that.

GROTH: Did they have that stamp on the back of the check in the '50s in which you gave up all your rights, and so forth?

SEVERIN: Yes. I remember that. Funny, I hadn't thought of that in a hundred years. Yeah, they did. But Michelina says she always avoided it. She also signs my contracts and says she has done so with Marvel, and some situations out of the comic field.

GROTH: So at least most of the time, they did have a contract of sorts by way of those stipulations on the back of their checks.

SEVERIN: Yeah, in a way you got it. But at least it wasn't voluntary.

GROTH: You were coerced into signing this contract.

SEVERIN: You take the check this way or don't take it all.

GROTH: Right. You seem to indicate some pride in not having signed formal contracts.

SEVERIN: Well, I don't like... If the guy doesn't trust me, the hell with him! Here I am trusting him and he wants me to sign a piece of paper to—nah!

GROTH: You know, a contract could protect you, though, as well.

SEVERIN: Well, if I get backed into a corner and it's really necessary I'm not averse to signing one, but I try to avoid it.

GROTH: Just because you feel the relationship should be based on trust?


GROTH: Is it safe to say that you were always scrambling for work in the '50s, post-EC, when things started to contract...?

SEVERIN: That sort of looks like, as you said, the word “scrambling” would fit that sort—of what do you call it? But no, I wasn't scrambling.

GROTH: That's probably too loaded.

SEVERIN: Yes. I would just go around and get on my hands and knees and beg! I seem to have gotten the jobs. I don't remember the period too well. It was something to do with Korea, things like that. But aside from that, there wasn't much going on.

GROTH: It seems like you were awfully lucky because you almost always managed to get jobs where you were drawing Westerns or war stories, which were your fortes.

SEVERIN: See what happens when you get down and beg?

GROTH: You worked for Stan Lee for a couple of years. Did you work for any other company during the time you were an employee at Marvel or Atlas? Would they allow you to do that?

SEVERIN: There was no…nobody said anything about it. I guess if it was in direct competition, I don't think they'd like it. You see, it was kind of pointless, because I could get all of the freelance [work] I wanted to take home at night.

GROTH: So you really didn't need to.

SEVERIN: I could do maybe two or three panels in the evening. By the end of the week I had a page or two done and it was in addition to my salary. It was really nice. So there was no need. I don't think I did. I don't think I worked for anybody during that period.

GROTH: As to the freelance work you would take home, you would basically take home a full script? Tell me how that worked.

SEVERIN: Sometimes you could take home a job, a full script, and turn it in as you finished it. Or, if you were working on something in the office and it needed to be done in a hurry, you would take it home finish off half a page at home.

GROTH: I know I'm asking you really minute kinds of questions, and you might not immediately remember, but I'm going to ask you anyway. When you would take home, say half a page that you were working on, you had a half a page to complete, how would you voucher that?

SEVERIN: Half a page.

GROTH: You would just give them a piece of paper at the end of the week saying, “This is how much work I did at home?”

SEVERIN: I think it was Wednesdays. On Wednesdays we would turn in a voucher for all of the freelance that we did.

GROTH: And you would just list everything that you did?

SEVERIN: Yeah, and Stan would OK it. And by Friday, I would get paid for that as well as my regular salary. I think it was Wednesdays they did that, so they could work out the checks on Thursday. Yeah, that was it.

GROTH: Were you paid by the page or were you paid by the hour?

SEVERIN: Oh, you mean on freelance? By the amount of work I did by the page.

GROTH: So you would just count up all those half page here and panels there?

SEVERIN: Yeah. You would'd lie like the devil. You'd put down...I'm only kidding. Some people thought it'd be kind of cute to pad it a little bit.

GROTH: That would be easy to disprove, though.

SEVERIN: Yeah, it isn't worth the trouble.