From the TCJ Archives

The John Severin Interview Parts I & II


GROTH: You weren't crazy about EC's horror stories—

SEVERIN: I didn't think they were good business. I think they were great business monetarily, but I meant, personally, I didn't want to be involved with blood and guts. It's all right in war, but their blood and guts—you actually were seeing the blood and the guts! I don't think that's—the fact is, if I were to do a horror story, you'd never see any blood and guts. They may be intimated, and it'd probably scare the hell out of you more!

GROTH: Were you ever asked or approached about doing a horror story? About doing any of the horror work?

SEVERIN: See, that's my real excuse for not doing it. [Laughter.]

GROTH: [Jokingly.] Now we get to it!

SEVERIN: Now we've gotten down to it. They never asked me! No, I don't remember if they did. In fact, I pulled a couple of gags on Gaines, which was why I was double thinking here. It was some remark about someone saying, "You can't even do it!" So I did a drawing—probably it was Bill, that stinker. I did a picture of a foot. A large ax head had dropped and caught the foot and the instep and had broken the foot right on through to the floor. And I showed all the bones gop and gook and everything running out and dribbling here and there. I gave it to him, and he had a bad dream.

GROTH: [Laughing.] He did?

SEVERIN: He told me that, anyhow. He says, “That son-of-a-bitch Severin, he sends me this drawing and I had a bad dream about it." [Laughs.]

GROTH: So you proved you could do it.

SEVERIN: Yeah. He sent me a photograph of himself one time. I told him, "I'm going out West and I probably won't be seeing you, so would you please send me a nice big old 5x7"or 8x10' or something like that to remember you by?" So he sent it to me, and he wrote on it something to the effect of  "To Severin...”

GROTH: I think you said you pretty much took every job that was given to you back then because you needed the money and you were young and so on...


GROTH: Would you have taken the horror work if they gave it to you?


GROTH: Because of moral reasons?


GROTH: Were you aware of the kind of controversy there was within the office about the horror work? I know Kurtzman was very much opposed to it.

SEVERIN: Yeah. I know Harvey felt the same as I in this respect.

GROTH: I think Jack Davis had qualms about it.

SEVERIN: Well, he sure followed through on it though. He put in some of the goriest stories.

GROTH: But I gather he was not entirely comfortable with it.

SEVERIN: Oh, probably not. No. But he did it anyhow. I just couldn't do it myself. Harvey told me he had shown some of my work to Hefner. The end result was—it was a very short conversation, I guarantee you—but Hefner said, "Sure, tell him to send some samples around." Apparently Harvey was trying to get it across to me that Hefner liked what I did. But I said, “That's crazy. I'm not going to work for Playboy.

GROTH: You know, it's funny you should say that. Why did you say you would never work for Playboy? Is that because you just thought the magazine was inappropriate for your...

SEVERIN: It's just that they're pushing a way of thinking that's totally opposed to... I'm like the guy that says, "I buy Playboy. I don't read it, I just look at the cartoons." I don't want to be in there, in the same category.

GROTH: Would that again be for moral reasons?

SEVERIN: Yeah. Yeah.

GROTH: Hmmm. Can you describe that “way of thinking'' that you're not very comfortable with?

SEVERIN: No. I don't know how to do that. [Laughter.]

GROTH: In one of the text pieces in the hardcover Mad compilations, the person interviewing Kurtzman mentions that there are a lot of sexy girls in Mad Magazine. He says, "Two stories start out with characters chasing girls." And Kurtzman says, "That's Marx Brothers sex.” And the interviewer said, “That's one place where John Severin couldn't or wouldn't do it." And Kurtzman says, "No, John didn't have a feel for sex. There're guys who do, and guys who don't.” And you evidently were one who didn't.

SEVERIN: Yeah. You know, that's the truth. It's no mark against a guy who has it, because like I was saying before, when I would draw a girl, you're going to go out on the street and be able to find her. But I defy you to find some of those girls in those romance stories, people like that out on the street. They just don't exist here, and I just don't have a feel for that sort of thing. And the sex market...I mean, gee. If somebody's interested in a dirty story, let's say (I'm equating dirty stories and sex, unfortunately, but you know what I mean), I might be able to rig up a dirty story. I might be able to draw the darn thing. But I'm not going to do it. Not for public consumption for damn sure! Because I don't think I should foster the idea. Not that anybody is going to buy the thing because Severin's in it, but Severin doesn't want to be in it. [Laughs.] That's not my kettle of tea.

GROTH: Are you familiar with Frank Thorne?

SEVERIN: Yes. I like his work.

Sequence from "Robert. E. Lee" in Two-Fisted Tales #35 (October 1953) written by Harvey Kurtzman, penciled and inked by John Severin ©1953 EC Comics

GROTH: He's done a lot of sexual comics work in the last 10 or 15 years.

SEVERIN: Absolutely. Yeah. I've seen a couple of jobs that he's done, and he's still good in spite of that.

GROTH: He's a great, great draftsman.

SEVERIN: He sure is.


GROTH: [Laughs.] At a certain point in the Two-Fisted run, my understanding is that Harvey asked you to take over the editing.


GROTH: Why did Harvey want you for the job?

SEVERIN: He loved me. Seriously. The reason he was leaving it was obvious. The time element was something! It was always hanging around his neck. So since I was interested in all of this, he asked me if I would like to do it. And I said, "Sure." That was my reason, as a matter of fact, for dropping out of Mad. When I took over the editorship of Two-Fisted Tales, that not only meant that I was going to be the editor, take that spot, but I was also going to be doing some of the jobs in that book. I knew, of course, that Mad was only good tor a couple of months. [Groth laughs.] One of my great decisions. So I took [Two-Fisted Tales] over. Actually, I just thought it would be great to get on Two-Fisted Tales and do anything I wanted to on warfare and so forth. So that's what I did. Just joking about the Mad thing—and it had nothing to do with my decision. "This is a lot of fun, but that's all it is.''

GROTH: Theoretically, couldn't you have continued your Mad work and just dropped some work from another publisher?


GROTH: But you thought that American Eagle would be more stable than Mad, I guess?

SEVERIN: Well, I just liked it more. I didn't even think about its longevity or anything. I just was having a lot of fun with it. Hell, I would have liked to have gone on and put out a hardcover book on it, or all these crazy ideas you get, especially when you don't have the money. When you have the money, you're a lot more careful about what you think of investing it in.

GROTH: You said, "When Harvey asked if I would handle Two-Fisted Tales, I didn't know whether I should do it or not. Then I decided what the heck? Maybe I could have some fun with it, because I like all kinds of adventure stories. It's a variety book. I wouldn't have to keep if a war thing. I didn't want to keep doing the same Korean War thing over and over.”

SEVERIN: Oh, no.

GROTH: "And l contacted Colin Dawkins, and l said, 'Hey, you're going to help me and write scripts.'" I wanted to explore how you changed the direction of Two- Fisted Tales. You preferred light-hearted adventure stories to the more tragic dimension that Kurtzman brought to the book.

SEVERIN: Oh, I see what you mean. I would agree. Right.

GROTH: It also seems to me that you tended to romanticize war stories whereas Kurtzman tended to de-romanticize them.


GROTH: You would agree with that!

SEVERIN: Absolutely.

GROTH: When you were doing the stories for Harvey, was there any tug-of-war there because these weren't quite the stories that you yourself would have chosen to do?

From "Warpath" in Two-Fisted Tales #37 (April 1954) written by Colin Dawkins and drawn by John Severin ©1954 EC Comics

SEVERIN: No. Harvey was really good about that sort of thing. He had given it over to me, and it was up to me to pick out what I wanted to do and I would live or die by my decision.

GROTH: Actually, I meant when you were drawing the stories Harvey wrote, was there a tug-of-war inside of you or between you, because...

SEVERIN: Not really. No.

GROTH: ...because they weren't quite the stories you...

SEVERIN: Because of what I said before about changing something. If there was something there that I really felt [needed changing], I would actually contact Harvey and double-check with him first because he was the editor. But this may have happened once. When I tell story, I tell it my way. I aim for entertainment value. Sometimes I'll tell you things just to make darn sure that you enjoy it.

GROTH: Were you aware at the time that there was a gravity to Kurtzman's stories that you wanted to get away from?

SEVERIN: Yeah. Well, I didn't mind the gravity as long as he was doing it, if he was giving me the job to do and I was enjoying the pictures that he was asking me to draw. In a lot of cases, I even agreed with his point of view. It's just that I maybe agreed with it as long as it was his, but I wouldn't agree for me to do it. I had another point of view. Things are bad enough in this world. If you're going to do a comic book to entertain people, I don't necessarily want to preach to them. You can do that on Sunday somewhere, but in the meantime, whether you're doing Westerns or what, try to make it light and airy and entertaining. As a matter of fact...oh, well. It's too bad more things aren't done that way. For example, (what I would consider a good example), a John Wayne movie. You come away from that, you've enjoyed yourself. You've had a good time. And there you are. That's all I want. That and I want someone to work on my face and make me look exactly like him. But I can't find any plastic surgeon. What are you going to do? I'm stuck with the same old mug!

GROTH: So if you contrasted a John Wayne movie to a Sam Fuller movie [Severin likes this] you'd be more on the Wayne side...

SEVERIN: [Laughs.] Oh, well.

GROTH: ...and Kurtzman would be more on the Fuller side. It struck me (and I guess I'm just asking if you could comment on this), that your best stories in the issues you edited were the adventure stories starring Ruby Ed, who was a terrific character.

SEVERIN: Ah, I had nothing to do with the writing on that one. Those were written completely by Dawkins. Those were characters he dreamed up. I did the designing and that was all I had to do with this. He did the writing, everything on that.

GROTH: They were terrific adventure stories.

SEVERIN: I loved them. I like what I did. I drew them and I love them. He [Colin Dawkins] was a good writer. Too bad he was in advertising.

GROTH: Your adventure stories, the ones with Ruby Ed Coffee, the one titled "Uranium," I think (that storyline which went through two or three issues of Two-Fisted) are pretty traditional adventure stories. But the one thing that struck me about them is that there's a maturity to them that you don't see in today's equivalent. Stories like that are usually populated with kids; in your stories, they were adults. Did that just reflect the times? Harrison Ford is an adult, but Indiana Jones is the sort of thing I'm talking about, which is basically kids stuff, where an adult acts like a teenager. You know what I'm talking about?

SEVERIN: No, I think I know what you mean. I have to speak first from my end. I related his stories to the stories I had read, the real Doc Savage in the pulps not the stuff they have in the comics. Colin had talked to me long before we had ever thought about getting together and doing this sort of thing. Ruby Ed, and he'd have a world-wide network of people that he could work with, and so on and so forth. It sounded good to me. It sounded like my old Doc Savage stuff. I liked that. But as far as it being — I know what you mean when you say it was mature, but I can't put my finger on the reason for it.

GROTH: Well, it was refreshing. You know, your Ruby Ed character looks like a slightly more handsome Spiro Agnew. I don't know if you mad that connection.

SEVERIN: Oh, geez! No, I didn't!

GROTH: And I make no value judgment, but—

SEVERIN: I didn't even think about Spiro Agnew in those days. Isn't that funny. I'll tell you one thing though, one of those characters was based on Ham—Doc Savage had that lawyer. What the devil was the lawyer's name?

GROTH: Ham was the big guy?

SEVERIN: That was Rennie. Well, forget that Ham thing. I don't know where it came from. And the other guy was based on Captain Easy. So what a motley mess of gook we have here.

GROTH: The stories that seemed to me to be less satisfying were the war stories that seemed to me to require more serious edge, specifically, “Dien Ben Fou.”

SEVERIN: Oh, that was written by John Putnam. You know, he worked for Mad.

GROTH: Yes. Right. He does seem very un-Kurtzman-like in the sense that it tended to romanticize the French defeat when it was really just a horrible, ignominious defeat...

SEVERIN: Yeah, well, I didn' a matter of fact, I didn't even know the French were in Vietnam.

GROTH: I think almost nobody did at that point.

SEVERIN: No, so the whole thing was foreign to me, and I was asking John, “'Courbineau,' 'Juteau'—what is this?” And he says, “It's just the French army.” “Oh, swell, where's the French army?” And we went around and around. He was terribly excited about that story. He was just on edge. He just had to get that story done.

GROTH: So that was a story that he felt pretty deeply about.

SEVERIN: Yes. Very deeply. I couldn't imagine why. He didn't have any relatives out there, and he wasn't a Vietnamese himself. He had a remarkable collection of flat military vintages though. He had a bureau with small drawers, these flats... Do you know what a military flat is?

GROTH: A military flat?

SEVERIN: They're military miniatures, little lead figures—soldiers. And they're flat. They're not rounded. They're sculpted on both sides, but looking at them dead on it's like a straight up and down pencil. And he had the best collection I ever saw of Napoleonic figures. Great. Why did I tell you that?

GROTH: Well, I think it's good, because it adds little details and completes the picture, so to speak.

SEVERIN: Everything you say reminds me of something else, though. You could go on for three days like this and never get enough to finish your article.

GROTH: Or we could have a 10-part interview.

SEVERIN: That'd be great. They'd love that!

GROTH: You also had a character that appeared in Extra.

SEVERIN: Oh, the reporter.

GROTH: Yes. Rampart.

SEVERIN: Rampart?

GROTH: Slick Rampart.

SEVERIN: John Craig wrote those things. He worked up there regularly. Every time you went there, there he was working. That was his desk.

GROTH: You did a strip called "Camera” that was in Extra, and the notes accompanying it say Colin Dawkins wrote that.


GROTH: So John Craig did not write all of the...

SEVERIN: Are you kidding? In "Camera”? Now tell me all about this. I'm learning something.

GROTH: The notes say, "the Colin Dawkins script for Camera is a one-gimmick affair, but the dialogue is snappy enough."

SEVERIN: Whose notes are these?

GROTH: These are notes by someone named Max Allan Collins.

SEVERIN: And this story "Camera" was in...

GROTH: Extra #1.

SEVERIN: Extra #l? I'll have to look at it. I was under the impression that John wrote them all because he had it in his mind, in his story there was an office desk and in each story one member of the staff would go out and complete the story, which in the long run would tie together. Am I right?


SEVERIN: It's been a long nine. OK. This is the reason why I can't imagine him having anyone else writing these things for him.

GROTH: Because Collins writes, “The second Dawkins Extra strip, 'Stromboli,' features Steve Rampart.” And he refers to it as the better of the Dawkins' stories.

SEVERIN: "Stromboli”? Damn. I don't remember Colin writing that.

GROTH: There seems to be a question about that. He asks if Johnny Craig could have written the sequel to "Algiers,” that follows in the otherwise untitled Steve Rampart story. But he says it doesn't read like Craig.

SEVERIN: I don't remember. I remember the title, "Stromboli," but I don't remember whether it was Dawkins or not. I don't even want to get in the argument because I don't have enough of a memory on it. He may have written it because I was to draw it. However, I was not aware of Colin writing for anyone other than me.

GROTH: Dawkins said (and this isn't about Extra, this is about Two-Fisted Tales), "l can remember that Harvey hated it, because we had gone away from his kind of book...”

SEVERIN: Yeah, he wasn't happy.

GROTH: "...but he had no input at all."

SEVERIN: No, he didn't.

GROTH: "I didn't see much of Harvey in those days. John, of course, saw him a lot, because he was turning art work in, that sort of thing." Can you tell me what Harvey's reaction to your Two-Fisted was? He was not in favor of the direction you took it in?

SEVERIN: Well, I think that he wasn't. But he was so busy with what he was doing.

GROTH: What was his objection?

SEVERIN: Mainly that it was... Well, you know how somebody who creates something and has it working for him for a long time and someone else comes in and alters it. You know how they're going to feel, even though Two-Fisted was on its way out under Harvey.

GROTH: Yeah, right.

SEVERIN: Well, he felt that way. Not only that, in order to stress the point I had the title changed to The New Two-Fisted Tales. Then I had run a strip of figures down the side so that people could see what kind of a magazine it was by the little characters along the side there. And of course, the stories... I don't think he complained much about the stories themselves, but as a group, all four stories were leading in another direction. As you said, a light-hearted adventure thing rather than a dour preachy sort of thing.

GROTH: Here's something interesting that I'd like to ask you about. Dawkins says, "Harvey and John, although I knew they admired each other, fought like dogs from word one.” [Severin chuckles.] "I think they were at war in a way, and there was nothing that we could have done that would have satisfied Harvey at that particular point."

SEVERIN: Unfortunately, that is about the way it was.

GROTH: What did you and Harvey fight about? Because Harvey didn't have any real editorial input any more.

SEVERIN: I know, but it was a personality thing stemming back to U.S. Grant. From that point on, he and I found problems with one another. And if there weren't any problems, we'd figure out one. It was one of those things where you'd gotten sore at the guy (both of us, you know) and you always over-criticized in your mind what that guy was doing, or his reasons. So you were never completely satisfied or happy with what he did. And that's the way it was. That's it in a nutshell.

GROTH: When you took over editing Two-Fisted Tales, would you and Harvey argue about the story content?

SEVERIN: No. No, he rarely said anything much that I remember. Now listen, you know me. He might have looked over my shoulder a number of times and I paid no attention, or I don't remember. I am sure that they somehow or other had to go through his hands. But any overt reaction on his part, I don't remember there being any.

GROTH: You told me a funny anecdote the other day that I'd like to ask you to repeat. It was about how the story “Stromboli,” which was in Extra #2, was altered after you'd drawn it.

SEVERIN: Oh, yes, to the extent that they took the knife blades out of the hands of the people so that the people were ostensibly stabbing as far as their hands were concerned, but there were no blades. [Laughs.] I never could figure what they thought they were doing. It would have been a lot smarter to turn it back to me. I mean EC, after seeing what they had done. The story was written where a guy was mugged and stabbed. And all these guys are going around pointing their hands in a strange fashions at the guy and no knives!

GROTH: Yes. And I see that now, looking at it. One of them appears to be stabbed. [Groth laughs.] You drew the story and turned it in, and you were not told that anything had to be changed?

SEVERIN: Not that I remember, no. Johnny Craig certainly wouldn't have said anything. He thought that knives were cool and part of the story.

GROTH: And you didn't know it was changed until you saw it printed?

SEVERIN: Yep. And the blades were gone! [Chuckles.]

GROTH: Did you find that annoying?

SEVERIN: I was annoyed not that they took the blades out—that's their business—but the thing is...there was a vacuum there that I had filled with a knife. Now, you have to fill it with something else! And that annoyed me that all the people concerned, whoever they were, from the guy in charge of the Comics Code to the guy who knew about it at EC (and I don't know who that would have been) they should have done it themselves. It would have been OK with me. Or have me do it. That would have been even better. But no, it didn't annoy me further than that. I tell you, the Comics Code, it used to be funny. You could have people shooting, but you couldn't have any blaze coming out of the barrel of the gun. You could have smoke. Now, would you tell me what in the world that was about? A puff of smoke, which I had already drawn, and a little blaze. They'd take the blaze out. Now that made the kid not want to kill other kids? I don't understand the thinking of these people.

GROTH: Who was editing Extra?

SEVERIN: Oh, Johnny took care of the whole thing. He basically wrote and put the whole thing together.

GROTH: [It's] a little surprising that he didn't ask you to redraw that.

SEVERIN: He may not have known himself. This was a very strange time.

Panel from "The Trap" in Two-Fisted Tales #26 (March 1952) written by Harvey Kurtzman, drawn by John Severin ©1952 EC Comics

GROTH: I see. So you think maybe it went straight to Gaines or something?

SEVERIN: I have no idea. I don't think that Gaines would have given it over to John. It may even be—listen, with my memory—John may have even said, "Severin, they took the blades out. What do you think about that?" And I might have said, "Tell them to go to hell, and let it ride." I don't know what I did.

GROTH: When you were drawing stories for EC, and at the same time you were drawing American Eagle, I think, did you have a sense as to who your audience was? Did you think it was primarily kids?

SEVERIN: Oh, yeah. It didn't occur to me that it was adults. I just assumed it was kids anywhere from 8 up to say 15. After that, I thought they were maturing.

GROTH: I interviewed Harvey in 1981, and in that interview he said (and it sounds a little melancholy), "John and I drifted apart. We sometimes worked well together, and sometimes there were tensions. And unhappily, we did drift apart."

SEVERIN: Yeah, that's the way it was. He's right.

GROTH: That's your feeling?

SEVERIN: Yeah. It's too bad, because he had a lot to offer...well, it's not too bad. He did the offering. He got out there and did his thing. But it's too bad that the two of us couldn't have been together on some of this stuff, because I think we could have worked on a side issue that would have been advantageous to both of us and made us feel good, if nothing else. But it all started way back there when it had gotten personal. Of course, I'm a very calm, easy-going sort of fellow. I'm sure anybody who you have talked to have... Well, some things happened to me. Anyhow. I'm just joking here.

GROTH: Uh-huh.

SEVERIN: It didn't take a hell of a lot in those days to get me annoyed and apparently he was in the same boat. So between the two of us we messed up a pretty good friendship.

GROTH: Did you see Harvey much after that?

SEVERIN: Yeah, well not much, but I mean I saw him. Like when he went over to Warren...

GROTH: Oh, that's right.

SEVERIN: ...and they were putting out Help!, I did a couple of things for him over there. And as a result of this, I sort of ended up, when Warren started doing those comic books, getting into them. That was a lot of fun.