From the TCJ Archives

The John Severin Interview Parts I & II


GROTH: What was the attitude among the artists toward the company when you were working there?

SEVERIN: Well, everybody hated Stan Lee, of course.

GROTH: Right.

SEVERIN: He was such a nasty son of a...[theatrical stop] Oh, attitude. Oh, yeah. I don't remember attitude. I'm sure there were attitudes. Different guys would have feelings about individual things, but it wasn't so big as to be an attitude towards the company, like "Let's go on strike," or something.

GROTH: Were people generally pleased at working there?

SEVERIN: It seems like it. They stayed there.

GROTH: In the mid-'50s, there was talk about starting a union.

SEVERIN: Oh, yeah.

GROTH: Bernie Krigstein was involved, and an artist named Pierce was involved.

SEVERIN: It was such an insane idea. Absolutely insane.

GROTH: You were aware of that?

SEVERIN: Oh, yeah. They came to me and asked me if I would be interested in it.

GROTH: Can you tell me a little about...?

SEVERIN: I declared war immediately on it. No, it was insane. What they were going to do was rate the artists: A, B, C or 1, 2, 3 or some dizzy thing like that. And when an editor would call up (I'm making this up. This is just an example. This isn't exactly what would happen) he would say, “Give me a number A.” And A get paid a certain amount per page, C would be you could name your price, the editor could, and he would get that amount of—I can't even...

GROTH: That level of artist.

SEVERIN: Thank you. My mind just disappears every now and then.

GROTH: I'm here to help.

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

SEVERIN: But, you can see how insane that would be. In the first place, there was no chance for a guy to go off on his own and do anything. You had to sit around and wait and see if anybody's going to call you. Well, supposing they only wanted to call the letter B. Does that mean A and C and D don't get work at all? Just B's? This is nuts. I think they were trying to figure out ways for the poorer artists, who were just run-of-the-mill, to get regular work. And my attitude was, if he couldn't get work because his work wasn't good enough, then he should go out and become a plumber.

GROTH: Did you learn all of this by attending a meeting?

SEVERIN: No. But the guy approached me directly and he was not one of the two names you mentioned.

GROTH: Do you remember who it was?

SEVERIN: Even if I heard the name I don't think I'd remember. I can only remember his height and his hair color and his build. I might recognize him if I saw him, but his name would mean nothing.

GROTH: Not Krigstein.

SEVERIN: No, I knew him.

GROTH: Did you know who Pierce Rice was?

SEVERIN: I've heard the name but I don't think I've ever met him. I don't even know what he did.

GROTH: So you thought that starting a union was, practically, impossible.

SEVERIN: It was impractical. It was ridiculous. The whole concept was insane.

GROTH: Ostensibly, a union or a guild is supposed to secure more money and rights for the artist, and watch out for their well-being. Did you think that had any advantage?

SEVERIN: Well, I'll watch over my own. And if they're not going to give me any work because I'm not good enough, well then, I'd better go out and be a plumber myself.

GROTH: The terms under which you worked were essentially dictated by the company.

SEVERIN: What terms are we speaking about?

GROTH: The terms of employment. The amount of money you were to receive, the rights you would get (i.e., none), the level of creative freedom you had, things like that.


GROTH: Irrespective of how much profit they would actually make. I mean, they might make a lot of money off your or they might make little money, or whatever, but they were going to give you what they were going to give you, take it or leave it. And ostensible, the guild was supposed to look at how profitable the industry was and try to ratchet rates up...

SEVERIN: Yeah, to make sure we earned enough money to pay our dues. They're sitting around making these deals for us, and that's all they can do. No, the hell with them. I'll work on my own. If the only way I could get a job was by being in the union I might have second thoughts. But as long as I still have a choice and I'm a free American, I'm going to do it the American way.

GROTH: You prefer a much more laissez-faire system.

SEVERIN: Right, because there were an awful lot of guys who were just there. That's all they were. Names to people that were never heard of again. It was a good living for them, it was the best they could do. If they weren't good enough to stand the competition, like I say, become a plumber.

GROTH: There are many artists in the history of comics who should have been plumbers.

SEVERIN: Gosh, I guess there are people who think I should have been. Oh, what the hell. But anyhow, what were you going to say?

GROTH: I was just going to say that a good project for somebody would be to write the history of the attempt to form unions in the '50s, because I've talked to a number of artists about it and have pieced together what little information there is about that.

SEVERIN: I'm just curious about something. What was the average view of the thing? Were they for or against it?

GROTH: Of course, it depends on who you talk to. I interviewed Pierce Rice, and he was involved in it although he didn't remember a lot about it. I think he was generally in favor of it, but he felt that it was virtually impossible to do given the declining economic condition and the general precariousness of the field at that time.

SEVERIN: Even if they were good, can you just imagine...if the artist doesn't like the pay, go somewhere else.

GROTH: It seems to me that an advantage of having a guild or union would be that they could secure rights for you. That they could say, "Look, we want the artist to have subsidiary rights, or if you sell this thing to the movies he gets a cut of it.” You know, things like that I think could be really beneficial to you.

SEVERIN: It's too easy to have gaps in a case like this. What the heck are you going to do? You can't even follow these things down. I'd just change my style and they wouldn't know who the heck it was.

GROTH: I'm not sure you could ever change your style.

SEVERIN: Oh, yeah.

GROTH: Because your style has been remarkably consistent from the late '40s.

SEVERIN: Yeah, but the truth of the matter is I've done many Jobs for Cracked, for example, where I don't sign my name. I sign another name and I have another style. Most of the time, people don't know it's me.

GROTH: Is that right?

SEVERIN: Yeah. Not recently. In the past, 35 of the 40 years I'd switch around my styles. Yeah, Bob Sproul said it was great, because it looks like we have five artists working for us.

GROTH: That's interesting. Because for many, many years, ever since I was a kid, I could spot your style a mile away. It's so distinctive.

SEVERIN: My regular style is distinctive. Al Feldstein said that I had an old-fashioned style. I belong in the 1880s.

GROTH: Well, that could be a compliment, I think.

SEVERIN: In a way it could be.


GROTH: What happened to your original art throughout your career? Did you keep a lot of your original art, or was that...

SEVERIN: No, it wasn't until I started working for Timely the last time, Marvel I should say, and left Marvel. It wasn't until I had left Marvel and they decided to empty out their warehouse that I was even aware that the artwork was still around. I had assumed that they threw the darn stuff out! I had never gotten any artwork. Even the stuff at EC, I would gladly have bought the stuff from Bill [Gaines]. Apparently, someone told me later, he had offered the artists an opportunity to buy it before he put it up for auction or sold it or whatever he did with it. He never let me know about it. That's the only thing I have against Bill Gaines. Just because I was working for the opposition, he just never let me know that he was selling the artwork that I had done for him. I would have bought some of that stuff. It would have been fun to have.

GROTH: That's a little petty.

SEVERIN: I thought so. If I have the story right, it was petty. If I don't have the story right, I apologize. Well, it's too late to apologize to him, but I apologize to his ghost.

GROTH: Gaines kept the artwork, and I believe all of the companies kept the artwork then. Marvel cleared out their vaults in the mid-'80s.

SEVERIN: Oh, really? I didn't know it was that late. I know I did get a bunch of stuff then, but...

GROTH: Did you resent not getting your artwork returned generally?

SEVERIN: I didn't know that it was anything... You see, my idea was that you did the artwork, they owned it, they paid for it, they can flush it down the toilet. I don't care what they do! I did my job. When I found out that they kept it, it was, "Hey! It would be nice if I could have some of that stuff!" And then when they started turning it back, I became annoyed in some cases when I discovered that there were people who just walked in and walked off with artwork, some of it being mine, and I'd like to belt them one in the head. But it's too late for that. Until that occurred it didn't bother me at all because I didn't know it existed.

GROTH: What was Warren's policy on the artwork? Did he keep it?

SEVERIN: Gee, you know I don't remember.

GROTH: I assure you'd know if you got it all back.

SEVERIN: That's true, by George.

GROTH: I mean, you a have a big pile of art sitting around somewhere.

SEVERIN: I might have a job here or there, but I don't remember any policy whatsoever. Isn't that weird?

GROTH: That is weird. Did you sign a contract with Warren?

SEVERIN: No, I didn't sign a contract with anybody except those funny checks with the stamp on the back.

GROTH: Do you have a contract with Cracked?


GROTH: In lieu of a contract, if an artist sells work for publication, that means that he owns the work. Did you know that?

SEVERIN: Well, Cracked sends me my artwork back now.

GROTH: Actually, what I meant is the reproduction rights.

SEVERIN: Oh. I don't look into that. You're going to find out how stupid I am. I'm going to ask you a question... Are you telling me that if I don't sign a contract I have the ability to go out and reprint my own work?

GROTH: That's what I'm telling you.

SEVERIN: Well, that would be a dumb thing to do, wouldn't it? Cracked would say, “You like that job, Severin? Do you wanna keep it?”

GROTH: Well, that's true, but look at your Warren work, though. If you have the rights to your Warren, that's something that might be of value.

SEVERIN: Well, that's true. I just might look into that, but knowing me I'll probably forget.

GROTH: It's interesting that you've never signed a contract.

SEVERIN: I'm not a good businessman.

GROTH: It could actually be to your benefit to sign a contract, though.

SEVERIN: Well, I don't know. Since I don't know the other side, I can't evaluate....

GROTH: Of course, a lot of the times you signed the check. So you endorsed the check and signed a de facto contract.

SEVERIN: When it was stamped on the back, that kind of was the contract.

GROTH: Looking back over your career, are you pretty pleased? Do you have any regrets?

SEVERIN: Oh, I'm sure everybody has them. There's always something that you know damn well you goofed up by not doing or by doing. But today is the day, you know. The fan is on me, it's cooling me off in this hot weather, so what the hell do I care about yesterday. Tomorrow I'm worried about, but yesterday's gone.

GROTH: It sounds like you made a pretty good living in comics.

SEVERIN: Pretty good. I can't really complain, no.

GROTH: Because there are a lot of professionals who are bitter about their career in comics and how they were treated.

SEVERIN: In what way?

GROTH: Well, the fact that they were never able to make enough money to save and they don't have a pension. Things like that.

SEVERIN: Yeah, but you're not working for those kinds of organizations. You want that kind of an organization, you become, I guess, a plumber!

GROTH: Plumbers might have the same complaint.

SEVERIN: Don't be a freelance plumber, though.