From the TCJ Archives

The John Severin Interview Parts I & II


GROTH: I wanted to ask you a few questions about your work habits in the '50s—you wrote some of your stories, but most of them were for you.

SEVERIN: Oh, no. No. It's only here and there that I would write story because I'm not a writer.

GROTH: Well, you say that, but in fact your stories were all well written.

SEVERIN: That's because I'm not a writer. Well, that sounds funny. What I mean is, my idea might be all right but since I'm not a writer I have no organizational thinking. So it takes me quite some time to put the thing together. As a result, it's a little bit better than if I'd just dashed it off. This is the only reason. You're not going to copy down what I'm saying now, are you?

GROTH: Oh, yes.

SEVERIN: Oh, shoot. Let me start over then. It's going to sound like gibberish again. Let me say this. I only wrote a few stories here and there. It took me too long since I wasn't a writer.

Two-Fisted Tales #41 (February 1955) written, penciled and inked by John Severin ©1955 EC Comics

GROTH: I see. One story you wrote was "Code of Honor." Do you remember that?

SEVERIN: Duel? Dueling?


SEVERIN: Yeah. Yeah. It was rather wordy.

GROTH: But all the EC stories were wordy, and yours was no more wordy than any others.

SEVERIN: Well, that's good.

GROTH: But it was very tightly and well written. How did you learn to write? Was it based on Kurtzman's and Feldstein's templates?

SEVERIN: No. Oh, I'll betcha I know what was a great influence on me—Ambrose Bierce. Although his stuff wasn't comic booky—

GROTH: No, it wasn't.

SEVERIN: —some of that stuff was really fabulous. Which reminds me, George Woodbridge has my—well, I loaned him a book about Ambrose Bierce in the '50s and I've never heard from him since. [Laughs.] Never loan a book.

GROTH: Not if you want to see it again. I understand you also like Kipling?

SEVERIN: Yeah, up to a point. I don't like all Kipling. I like the military stuff. It's a little bit Englishy, candy sort of stuff.

GROTH: How do you mean that?

SEVERIN: It's too much of a good thing.

GROTH: Too flowery?

SEVERIN: Well, that's a good way to put it. Yeah.

GROTH: I understand you also like Arthur Conan Doyle?

SEVERIN: Again, up to a point. He bores the hell out of me most of the time. But I do like most of his Sherlock Holmes'.

GROTH: What about his adventure stuff? Is that the stuff that bores you?

SEVERIN: Yeah. I read him, but I'm not overly excited about him.

GROTH: It's curious that all three authors you mentioned are English.

SEVERIN: I'm not an Anglophile.

GROTH: Are there any American writers that you particularly like?

SEVERIN: American writers, I can't even think of any. You have to give me the names then I can perhaps remember whether I've read them. I used to read an awful lot of science fiction. Who's that Russian writer?


SEVERIN: I've read his stuff, but no, not him. He's American, he has a big long Russian name. [Pause.] It isn't important. He was a well-known science-fiction writer and he's a scientist.

GROTH: It's curious that you read science fiction but you really don't care to draw it very much.

SEVERIN: No, but I went through a phase where I read every science fiction short story that was out. So even to this day, when I start reading a story or a comic that's a science fiction story, I know how it's going to end. Because this this is a story taken from a book that I read. Another thing I used to read was mysteries. I'd read about ten short stories a week of mysteries, and approximately the same amount of science fiction. I was loaded with that stuff.

GROTH: Would this have been in the '50s?

SEVERIN: Somewhere in there, yeah. Well, even earlier, because it would have been when I was riding the subways.

GROTH: Why did you enjoy science fiction so much but you didn't care to draw it?

SEVERIN: Well, drawing is a really personal thing with me, whereas reading is just for pure entertainment. If something isn't real, I almost can't draw it. That's one of my problems with science fiction since it's all make-believe. And I can do anything I want, but I find no real basis to start with because I'm not really attuned to it. You see, my drawings, the little people that I draw, they're real people to me.

GROTH: You once said, as a matter of fact, "I don't draw a comic book person, I draw another kind of human being.”

SEVERIN: [Laughing.] OK. I don't remember saying that, but I'll go with that. That doesn't mean I'm putting down the comic book person. What I mean is there are methods: faces, embraces, hero types, poses even. Although I may have used every one of these things at one time or another, in general I sort of—let's say I went my own way.

GROTH: It seems to me that you're talking more about clichés that comic book artists or maybe lazy comic book artists resort to?

SEVERIN: Oh, yeah. Definitely. Because people like Russ Heath or Joe Kubert drew real people, or their version of real people. You saw Joe Kubert's feeling attitude when he drew the person (or Russ, or Toth, or anybody). And that applies to me, too, I'm sure.

GROTH: Let me ask you a little about your working methods. If you were writing the story, would you write the entire story first and then start drawing it?

SEVERIN: Oh, yeah. Oh, I have to. I'm one of those people who do one, two, three. Unless you're talking about research. And I don't mind finding (redoing) something and then adding it in to what I've already done. But in general, I go one, two, three. At first I layout the story and what should happen. Then I break it down into sequences and then tie it together. Then I get to drawing it.

GROTH: You said you usually complete one panel before going to the next panel.

SEVERIN: Yeah, it drives me nuts to—I remember when I first got into the business, I'd see guys—bounce around, even when they were inking! This really got me. I'd see a telephone all inked on a page and that's the only thing that was inked. Everything else was penciled. There must be a lot of German blood in my background. It has to be one, two, three. Ein, swei, drei.

GROTH: It violates your sense of order. Now when you say you complete one panel before going to the next, does that mean you ink it as well?


GROTH: So you pencil and ink each panel before going to the next one?

SEVERIN: In the meantime it gives me plenty of time to think what that next panel is going to do and what needs to be added to this to follow through on that. If I go too fast, I can miss an awful lot of things that I would like to have put in there.

GROTH: When you ink the first panel, second panel, third panel, and so on in sequence—before you've completely penciled out the rest of the pages, does that hamper your ability to design the page as a complete unit?

SEVERIN: I never design the page. Not in advance. As I go, I will say, "Well, I'm going to have to put darks in this because this area is too light," and so on. But it's spot work. I think you can see that when you look at my work, because there's no overall design. I never did understand why that was necessary, as a matter of fact, by the time you're through putting in all this design and then they put color haphazardly any way they want, it just destroys the whole thing as far as I am concerned. Besides that, I have difficulty sometimes putting in black. I don't really use blacks and whites as much as I should. You can take somebody—well let's take Russ Heath. He and I have about the same more or less attitude toward putting in the proper details in the proper places. But he will design a lot more than I and use his blacks much better than I ever will. And we don't have to talk about Toth using blacks, do we?

GROTH: Some cartoonists do design the page as a whole.

SEVERIN: I imagine a lot. From what I've seen of the newer science fiction storiesthe fantasy stuff, I guess, more than science fiction—you more or less have to. I don't think I could ever do fantasy. Not in the true sense. Or no, I take that back. In the true sense, I probably could, fantasy being what it is. But the fantasy of the comic book, I don't follow it. I don't follow the stories, as a matter of fact.

GROTH: I can't imagine you read too many comic books now.

SEVERIN: Not too often, no. Except my own. I read and reread them. [Joking.]

GROTH: You didn't write too many of your stories—


GROTH: But what would be the occasion that you would write them? Why would you have able to write the ones you did?

SEVERIN: I'd get an idea. Or I'd remember some. Well, I did one story for Warren about a guy—this was World War II on the islands—who collected gold teeth from the dead. That was from personal experience. Then there was a story in the Civil War later on in the new Two-Fisted Tales where—"The Sniper," I think it was called. Or it should have been, because that's what it was about. It turned out that the [Confederate] sniper had been raised with the Union sniper who took him out.

GROTH: Yeah, that was called “Sharpshooter.”

SEVERIN: Oh, all right. That was something that I'd just been dying to do ever since I'd read Ambrose Bierce. You know, it was an Ambrose Bierce type of thing.

GROTH: Right. But writing did not come naturally to you?

SEVERIN: No. It's hard.

Sequence from "Sharpshooter" in Two-Fisted Tales #40 (December 1954) by John Severin ©1954 EC Comics

GROTH: Now one thing you said, which I thought was very interesting, was, “I don't know how you write if you don't draw. In fact, I don't know how you can write if you don't draw."

SEVERIN: Well, yeah. That was sort of a comment on so many of the editors in this business. It is very difficult for me to understand how a guy can write a script, put in all sorts of sequences, continuity, and come to a logical conclusion without getting bogged down here and there because he doesn't know how much or how little should or could be put into a panel. How to tell a story better. There's only a couple of the writers that I've known who haven't actually been artists. For example, George Gladir who has done a lot of comedy stuff, worked for Archie for years.  I remember where there would be a lead-in panel to a story in a Western, and they would have four or five cowboys riding down the middle of the street. A lady is running into a door, the drunk falling, the laundry man running up the street dropping his laundry, and three dogs barking, and there's a squirrel up in a tree, and on and on. The picture didn't come across because there was too much there.

GROTH: That makes a lot of sense. I've always thought that the best cartoonists were the ones who wrote and drew their own material. Of course, it occurs to me that the best writers at EC were also artists: Feldstein and Kurtzman.

SEVERIN: Yeah. Right. And John Craig.

GROTH: So they were able to think visually....

SEVERIN: You take Johnny Hart in the newspapers. You know, with B.C.? Holy mackerel! Try to get somebody else to write it. I know that they can come up with individual gags that were similar to his, but to continually write it? Nah. That's him. He must be doing it all the way down the line.


GROTH: When you were working in the '50s, for EC, with Harvey and for other publishers, was there a sense of community among your fellow artists? Did you hang out with them and engage in shoptalk and so forth?

SEVERIN: I think "hanging out" would apply more to high school days when Harvey would take me home for his parents' Friday night Seder. By the '50s most everyone was married and living in different areas. It was more of getting together in each other's homes, or theater parties with Bill Gaines. Harvey liked to have get-togethers. Wally Wood would bring his guitar and Jack Davis had a "one-man band." Tatiana Wood played the fife (I think it was a fife) and we played game and had fun.

GROTH: Can I ask you who your closest friends were in the business?

SEVERIN: They all hated me. [Laughs.] I'm embarrassed to tell you. Well, let's see... Everett, Toth—and of course Russ Heath. We do not want to forget him. I guess he was the closest. Joe Maneely, Joe Kubert, of course...absolutely. I guess Joe Kubert and Russ Heath were the closest, with Al Toth coming in a close third, and Bill Everett. I can't remember the names of the people in the business! Ah. My God in heaven! Aside from the EC guys. I'm discounting them because we've already talked about them. We were all friends up there. Most of them, we had known each other since high school. So discounting that part of it, that's sort of it, I guess. Well, John Edwing, later on.


SEVERIN: John Edwing, a cartoonist/writer for Mad. We did a book for... can you think of a publisher? A real publisher?

GROTH: You mean like Random House?

SEVERIN: There you go! Random House. (You're really good at this!) Yeah, we did a book for Random House. A book of cartoons. It was called Once Upon a Dungeon.

GROTH: Oh, yes. I think you did that around '68?

SEVERIN: I don't remember. It sold out remarkably fast I was glad to hear. And I assumed that we were going to follow it up, as the editor, whoever the devil that was, suggested when we first turned our stuff in. But he left the place immediately. I guess they found out he was the editor of that damn book and they kicked him out. At any rate, the thing fell through. The second book. But the first sold very rapidly and they never followed it up for some reason. Wait a second. That was not for Random House. That was for something like Penguin Pocketbooks or something like that. The thing for Random House was a book...

GROTH: Lewis and Clark?

SEVERIN: Lewis and Clark. I forget. [Jocular.] You know, when you get in the big time, you sort of forget all these little things.

GROTH: What was that book, Lewis and Clark?

SEVERIN: It was a hardcover landmark thing, one of those things. A step-up book for kids. Chock full of illustrations to keep them happy. Big type to let them read. A lot of fun to do but kind of a waste of time money-wise. Because after taking the time off from comics to do it, I ended up with the same amount of money. It sounds like an awful lot of money if you're not doing anything else. But when you're dropping comics to do it...that's why I never went and did any more. One was enough. It was a lot of fun, but geez! Unless they were going to pay me twice the rates, you know...on top of that, I had to go and pick up all my old contacts again. "Hey. Hey! I'm back! I'm back!"

GROTH: You said that one of your closer friends in the industry was Toth?


GROTH: Can you tell me a little bit about what Toth was like in the '50s? He was a really superlative artist as early as the '50s.

SEVERIN: When I say that he was a friend of mine and all, that doesn't mean that I know a hell of a lot about him. I met him, became friends with him, saw him a couple of times. We went to a couple of these meetings where people who lived in Europe came over here and they were going to hire a bunch of artists to do some work and Toth and I would be in the group. We'd think about it and leave. Forget the whole thing. Just a big bunch of hot air. It happened a couple of times. Gil Kane was with one of the groups. I don't think Toth was in that group. But Gil Kane was in this other group. It was from England, I did something, but it was very small and I dropped it immediately because this was a wingding job. You shouldn't trust any of the people, especially since they were English. You know how the English are.

GROTH: Of course.

Panel from "Night Patrol" in Frontline Combat #8 (September 1952) written by Harvey Kurtzman, penciled by John Severin and inked by Will Elder ©1952 EC Comics

SEVERIN: Of course. So back to Toth. I was saying that just because I was friendly with him doesn’t mean that I know much about him that could help you. He'd come over to the house. Even when we were out here. He was going somewhere. Oh, he was going down to Texas, and for some reason he came by and stayed overnight. We shot a bunch of photographs and then he went on down there.

GROTH: Didn't Joe Kubert stop by your place in a trailer?

SEVERIN: Yeah. I remember Joe had gone down to Mexico City. He took the family with him all the way down there. On the way back, I don't remember whether they went in through California or in through Arizona, but they most likely went in through California and came across and stopped over at our place. So the whole family, both families, were piled up on the patio having a good old time. Lot of fun to see the guy. Hadn't seen him in a long time. Of course, Russ Heath was always popping in.

GROTH: I saw him a few months ago.

SEVERIN: He's looking great. Almost as good as me. I told him that, too.

GROTH: When you guys would get together, whether it was in the '50s, '60s, '70s, whatever, would you guys talk about artists in the business and other....

SEVERIN: No. We'd mostly just talk.

GROTH: Just talk about other stuff?


GROTH: Toth was so good so young, not unlike yourself.

SEVERIN: But this guy was good a lot before me, younger than me. Wow! This guy's an ace.

GROTH: Toth is probably a few years younger than you?

SEVERIN: Yeah, but that didn't matter. He was working before I was.

GROTH: Was he really intense about it? Was he really focused on cartooning?

SEVERIN: Oh, yes. I say yes as if I know what I'm talking about! He was always considering different artists and their ability, their worth. And different things that he might do to improve not only his own work, but to improve the idea of comic art. I don't know about intense.

GROTH: Were these interests something that you shared with him?

SEVERIN: I was interested in what he had to say. It never had occurred to me to do half of the things that he even mentioned.

GROTH: Is that right?

SEVERIN: My focus was out of focus. I did my kind of stuff, and I tried to do the kind of stories that I like, and I didn't think any further than that. Any wasn't for the business. I tried to improve my own work. I didn't even think about trying to improve the field of comic artwork. It just wasn't my thing. I would think of anything that would add to my work. The craft into it, or perhaps different kinds of papers, or whatever.

GROTH: You mentioned Gil Kane earlier. Did you know him?


GROTH: Can you tell me how you interacted with him or what your impressions of him were?

SEVERIN: I didn't have a hell of a lot of interaction with him. He was what he was. One time...I don't know I inked several of his covers. That worked out Jim-dandy! Then he came out here to some kind of a—what the hell did he come out here for? A whole bunch of Marvel people came out here to be in some damn convention. Anyhow, I invited them all over. I didn't invite them. I wouldn't have invited them. My wife invited the whole shooting match over to the house. So we sat around eating and drinking and shooting the bull about anything and everything. That's as far as it goes with Gil. I know him, I liked him, he's there. He certainly is. There are times when he surprises the hell out of you. Out of the clear blue he starts in on some of his philosophy. I don't know what he's talking about! It's interesting to listen to, though.

GROTH: An artist I wanted to ask you about because he's done a lot of war material, is Sam Glanzman. Are you familiar with his work?

SEVERIN: Yeah. More or less. I haven't seen much of his stuff, but he got the pictures right and he got the feeling right. Naturally, you can see I would be looking for more detail, but what is there is good. I would like to ink a guy like that and put in the details that I find missing, which would be, I think, terrible. It would almost be insulting. It's one thing to correct a real mistake, but to go through and add details because the other guy didn't put them in and you want them in—that's not right.

GROTH: What did you think of Kirby's work?

SEVERIN: Oh, boy.

GROTH: Because he sort of rides that fence between—I mean, there's a reality there—

SEVERIN: Yeah, I know what you mean.

GROTH: —but there's also a very exonerated heroism.

SEVERIN: See, I don't actually—this is hard to say, or, it's hard for me to put across and I find it kind of dangerous to talk about.

GROTH: You have mixed feelings about—

SEVERIN: [Jokingly.] The workings of the mind of Severin are something really to behold. Kirby's pictures are good. Kirby's continuity is good. His dynamic, the energy that puts into his artwork is great. But his actual drawing drives me nuts! I don't mean that his figures are out of proportion or something. Under certain conditions I understand that. But I mean his general drawing. I don't mean that it's bad drawing. It's just that it's lacking something for me, personally, for me to sit down and really enjoy it. I can only enjoy those other things that I mentioned—the composition, the dynamic energy, it's all there, but I don't actually like his drawing. You can understand. A guy like me, who likes Roy Crane and Foster, and you throw Kirby at him—whooeee! You're coming in from left field. And yet, the guy was fabulous.

GROTH: I can see where he would be the antithesis of the kind of work you would appreciate.