From the TCJ Archives

The John Severin Interview Parts I & II


GROTH: From the time you started comics through about 1953 or '54 was a period of enormous learning and growth and maturation for you. During that period, you began inking your own work, and even colored some of your work.

SEVERIN: Some of it, yes.

GROTH: I think you colored a couple of stories in Two-Fisted Tales, and some of the American Eagle stories. I'm curious about that because you're color-blind.


GROTH: Did that impede you in coloring your own work?

SEVERIN: You're not kidding. Well, see, the thing is...I studied colors, because I don't know what the hell I'm doing with a lot of the colors, especially when they get into the pastel color area. I studied as much as I could about color and what different colors would do to other colors. And as a result, I sometimes could make combinations like a background color that would go very well with a foreground color. People would think you know what you're doing. I didn't know what I was doing. I had read that those two colors would go together. One time Harvey was trying to work out the color on a cover of I think it was Front-Line Combat, and I told him to make it blue with orange lettering. And he said, "Blue and orange? [Laughs.] You're kidding." And I said, "No. It'll work." And he loved it. As long as my color bottles have all the names on them and nobody (no dirty doer) switches them, I'm OK. But every once in a while I run into a real problem. I go dashing off to my wife. “What the heck am I doing here?" There are certain shades that just blend.

GROTH: Now what would occasion coloring your stories for American Eagle or Two-Fisted? Why would you be asked to do that?

SEVERIN: I wasn't. I asked them if I could.

GROTH: And why would you have done that?

SEVERIN: At that time, comics were....I have an Indian scene, all right? The plains, a couple of guys on horseback, and some trees or something....They needed some color on the page, so they might put red in the sky! A red sky? Are you out of your mind? "What's the matter with you? This is comics." Well, I wanted a blue sky. So, I figured if I did it, I would get my blue skies, and if we needed color I'd just put it into the costume. Or sometimes overlay, so you can put color on somebody in the foreground. You know, you can do that. But for normal things, they were supposed to be the normal colors.

GROTH: And when you would ask to do the coloring, is that because you felt particularly strongly about that particular story's coloring?

SEVERIN: Well, if you're talking about American Eagle stuff, no. I just wanted to do all of the American Eagle. When it was done at EC, I haven't the slightest idea how come I did it.

GROTH: [Laughs.] I see. Now why would you do it for American Eagle?

SEVERIN: Because I wanted the thing to be colored naturally to reinforce the idea that this was real stuff, as much as possible. I think, as a matter of fact, there was one war story...there was a scene. These guys—they were in Korea and they're out on patrol and it's nighttime, and it's raining like a bat out of Hades. I colored everything blue in the whole thing, different shades of blue. The guys, the uniforms were different. The helmet would be one color blue, the raincoat would be another, and the rain coming down was different again. But I only used that one color of blue—just different hues.

GROTH: I have an American Eagle story called "Surprise Attack" in which the coloring looks somewhat experimental for the period.

SEVERIN: What was the story?

GROTH: It's called "Surprise Attack," and you penciled and inked it. There are several monochromatic panels. One, for example, takes place at night, where a soldier is being shot in the chest with an arrow.

SEVERIN: Gee, I don't remember that.

GROTH: I was wondering if you colored that, because it looked like there was more attention paid to the coloring.

SEVERIN: I don't know, I remember the title, but I don't remember anything else. But "Surprise Attack," that's an ordinary title.

GROTH: Was the story that you colored in predominantly blue shades called "Night Patrol?"

SEVERIN: That's the one I'm talking about.

GROTH: It's funny, because Kurtzman actually takes credit for coloring it.

SEVERIN: Really?

GROTH: Yeah.

SEVERIN: Well I'm a son-of-a-gun. He was the one who bragged to me about....oh, well. It isn't too important. What the hell?

GROTH: But you did that?

SEVERIN: Yeah. Let him have the credit. What the hell?

GROTH: Well, no. We should try to be historically accurate....

SEVERIN: But how can we? You've got one dead guy and one liar!


GROTH: Let me ask you how you felt about Gaines. Was he easy to work for?

SEVERIN: I enjoyed Bill's [Gaines] company because he was so open and ready to laugh at anything. I pulled a number of funny stunts on him. I thought they were fun. One of them, I really got him. I really got him one time. Do you want to hear it?

GROTH: Oh, yes.

SEVERIN: The mail used to come to their offices at 10 o'clock in the morning. The day that I pulled this gag on them, I got there before the mailman came. Now, they had a slot in their door that allowed me to drop my letter in, and the mail to come later would be dropped on top of it, and it was great, because my letter wasn't on top. Here's what the letter was. I had done the first job for Harvey, "War Story" it was called. I got a piece of rice paper, and got out my books of Chinese calligraphy and I wrote a whole letter on this rice paper using all their signs interposing the title of "War Story.” So it was [makes unintelligible pseudo-Chinese sounds] *(*($&##$&# War Story, *$*%**#* War Story. And I did this whole letter, put it in an envelope, aged it, and with the right letters, like 7's and I's and, well, various letters, I used a stamp pad and I made various letters and a cancellation mark. And I made a square area in the corner and I designed an inspection stamp, signed it all, and wrinkled it a little bit—not too much—but just enough that it wouldn't stand out. They got it and went out of their minds, totally. Gaines thought, "What in the hell is it?" So he sent it to the United Nations and the people up there couldn't make heads nor tails out of it. They said that it was a dialect from the continent and they don't know this dialect. Well, to make a long story short, they sent it to Columbia University and so on and so forth. Nobody could make heads nor tails out of it, but it was quite obvious that Harvey's war story had gone across big. So about a year later, we were at a party. Now mind you, off and on this letter would come up in conversation. And about a year later, we were having as usual a Christmas party...well, it doesn't matter. It was one of those parties, probably a Christmas party. He was standing up leaning against his desk and I went over to him with a glass in hand. Everyone had a glass in hand. I went over and I said, "Bill, you know that letter that you got from the Chinese people or something. I forget what it was. Do you remember that?" He says, "Yeah." And I said, "Well, you know, I had an awful time writing that." And he looked at me, and he looked down at his glass, and he yelled at the top of his voice, "Everybody, stop! This son-of-a-bitch." Tongue in cheek, he was giving me a real dressing down. He nearly died laughing when he found out what had happened. He said that was the best gag that had ever been pulled on him. [Laughs.]

GROTH: That's great.

SEVERIN: Oh, Lord! Boy, I'd liked to have been paid for that letter. Do you know how long it took me?

GROTH: Was that sort of thing uncharacteristic of you?

SEVERIN: Oh, no. I do things like that every now and then.

GROTH: Is that right?

SEVERIN: Oh, I enjoy them. Those kinds of things, they don't hurt a soul. I've got another story about Bill Elder.

GROTH: Well, you know...

SEVERIN: [Pleads.] Real quick?

GROTH: One of my jobs here was to crowbar as many Elder stories out of you as possible.

SEVERIN: Oh really?

GROTH: I welcome them.

SEVERIN: As I said before, Bill had a bachelor party for me. I didn't know anything about it. They had told my wife, went out on a date and over to the hotel. I didn't understand why the maître d' had us guided down the hall to a dark room but the minute I came in, I found out, of course. All these people, in there. And who comes running, amongst these people who were congratulating Michelina and myself? Willie Elder comes running up with his arms across his chest. He had taken every knife, fork, and spoon in the whole room and brought them up as a gift to us. [Groth laughs.] He had knives and forks in his pockets, in his arms—they were loaded in his arms. It was unbelievable. And he pulled a couple of other stunts later on, but I mean, this story could go on for days. But listen, these are the kinds of people I love.


SEVERIN: They also shot Joe Kubert that night.

GROTH: They shot him? With what?

SEVERIN: A pistol. Bill Gaines was at the head of the table, Al Toth was on his right side, Joe Kubert was on his left side. If you remember, Gaines was going to be involved in 3D comics. And Joe Kubert apparently had beaten him to the draw. OK? So they used that as the excuse. Bill turns around and says, "What do we do with traitors?" And Al says, "We shoot "em!" And he pulls out this blank pistol and he shot, what do you call them [blanks]? Well, Bill Elder is down at my end of the table by my father and me. He hears the shot and he throws himself off on the floor backward in the chair. The waiters ran out of the room thinking that somebody had been assassinated! It was an uproar! It was fabulous. It was crazy. Elder got in on the gag and made it twice as good as it was by throwing himself out of the chair.

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

GROTH: Just spontaneously. That's great. How did Joe react to this?

SEVERIN: Oh, with total, utter surprise. And then, of course, he started laughing like the devil. He sat still and laughed like crazy, jiggling up and down.

GROTH: So you think Feldstein and Gaines had this planned? That's great.

SEVERIN: [Sighs.] I'm out of breath talking about that story.

GROTH: Now, did you know Joe Kubert much?

SEVERIN: Yeah. Through the years we bumped into each other a lot. We have a running gag. The first time I met him he was a slim-ish guy with muscles like Charles Atlas.

GROTH: Is that right?

SEVERIN: Yeah. And when he was introduced to me, I took one look at the muscles, grabbed his hand, and slowly sank to the floor. He looked at me and started laughing. Again, because I was making believe he was so strong he was taking me to the floor. Well, every time we shake hands now, regardless of where it is the same thing. I grab his hand and I slowly sink to the floor. Yeah, I just saw him up Massachusetts at the Words and Pictures [Museum].

GROTH: I assume you like Joe's work?

SEVERIN: Oh, yes. Very much.


GROTH: You started working for Mad from the first issue, and you had a story in every issue through #10. Did Harvey approach you about working in Mad?

SEVERIN: Again, Mad was one of these things that we had even talked about between us. At the studio. How the conversation started—not the idea. The idea of Mad was in his head before. But how we got talking about it was that I was drawing some of these screwball Westerns. I draw a lot to entertain myself and I was drawing funny characters in a very realistic way. He asked me if I thought that that sort of thing would sell. And I said, "Hell, I don't know. I never tried it." He says, "Well here, I got this idea..." and then we started talking. And gee, I thought the thing was great. And either that moment, or a day later, when Bill Elder got in on the conversation, we ended up, the three of us, talking about who he would have in the book. As a matter of fact, I think that was the first time that...oh, the hell with that, because I don't know for sure. But anyhow, I said, "You know that guy"—I was speaking of Jack Davis—“You know that guy that you had do the Western." "Oh, yes, he had done a job in Two-Fisted Tales." I said, "He looks like he could draw funny stuff." "And then there would be Wally Wood," and he said, "You and Bill." I said, "Yeah." Of course, Bill and I would be one job. And Bill and I both immediately said, "And you." He said, "No. No. Not me." And we said, "Yes. Yes. You have to be. You..." And we went around and around and around but it ended up he didn't want to be in Mad, he wanted to do the writing of Mad and so forth. We talked about the thing before he even brought the samples in. As a matter of fact, he brought some of my stuff down as samples to Al and Bill to see if, you know, he could get the idea across...

GROTH: Humor drawings?

SEVERIN: Yeah. One time, many years later, Jerry DeFucchio asked me if I had the samples with me and I mistakenly gave him the wrong stuff. They didn't remember the artwork that I sent out. But that wasn't the stuff that I gave Harvey when he went down there. I think the stuff that I gave him was pen and ink stuff and the samples that I had thought were the ones were done with my...oh, it doesn't matter.

GROTH: Were you enthusiastic about doing humor?

SEVERIN: This wasn't my aim in life, but any time there was a chance to have some fun and make jokes I was ready. And I had always done it with my artwork.

GROTH: Do you think you were well suited for humor?

SEVERIN: Well, that's for the other guy to say. I enjoyed doing it. If they laughed, well then I must have been suited. If they didn't laugh, well I should have been fired.

GROTH: It's interesting because the notes in Mad—I'm not sure who wrote them. I think it was someone named Bob Stewart. But he indicates that he didn't think that you were well suited for humor, and I wanted to read this to you and ask you what you thought of it. He wrote that “'Sane' was Severin's last Mad appearance. And I doubt if many missed him when he departed because he was never a Mad artist in the true spirit.”


GROTH: "Severin lacked the flexibility and caricaturing ability of Wood, the accurate copying skill of Elder, and even though he handled a pen with a sketchy roughness that was similar to Davis, he didn't have the Davis flair for exaggeration and comic imagery."

SEVERIN: Everything he said is true.

GROTH: You think so?

SEVERIN: Yeah. The thing is...

GROTH: And yet...

SEVERIN: ...the humor side of it, though, when he mentions that....I think that that is partly colored by the person who was viewing it. Another time I've viewed somebody's humor and think it was great. But what he said about the practical side—the pen line or the inflexibility—those things might be true. Because I never was...even in Cracked today. If you picked up a Cracked, the people draw funny funny-pictures that to me, defeats the purpose of the humor. What I was saying was, you look at that stuff and then you look at mine, you see my stuff was almost serious.


SEVERIN: And the reason is, I think the thing is funnier if you have a serious person getting pie in the face than if you have a silly-looking jackass acting like a goon. He gets hit with a pie, you figure, "To hell with it? Who cares?" So in my vague attempts to do it that way, I probably don't hit the mark with as many people as I could if I were to change, alter it. Still, I enjoy doing it my way.

GROTH: Well, you must certainly think you're good at humor because you've been doing it for almost 50 years now.

SEVERIN: Well, I like it. But I'm willing to take any kind of criticism along those lines because sometimes it helps. And other times I realize that I just couldn't change. If I end up by being wrong I just...I would have an awful time changing it.

GROTH: You have a marvelous sequence in a Prize Western comic. I don't know if you would remember this, but the story is titled "Puk Wudgies."

SEVERIN: Oh, yes.

GROTH: Do you remember that?


GROTH: There was a marvelous one-page sequence which was told in beautiful visual rhythms and broad humor. It has to do with a kid and his dad and the dad is climbing up on a tree and the kid is showing him that there is a knife up there he wants his dad to get. This underscores one of the truths about your work, which is that it always rides a razor's edge between seriousness and humor. I'm thinking of some of the Civil War stuff especially, and even though there's a realism to it, and you can believe it, there's also a cartooniness about it that gives it a greater expressiveness than a hyper-realistic approach would. I say “cartoony” the best sense of the word, because I think that...

SEVERIN: I think I know what you mean, though.

GROTH: Do you agree with that?

SEVERIN: I'm...well, sort of. Yes.

GROTH: I mean, if it was too realistic, it wouldn't be comics. If it was realism in a photographic or literal sense it wouldn't be comics, you would lose the fluidity that storytelling in comics needs, and that kind of cartooniness that comics needs. Yet it retains a realism, so you can believe the death, the drama, and so forth. [Pause.] I don't know if you can respond to that.

SEVERIN: While I'm sitting here, my mind had drifted and I was drifting into what you were saying, saying to myself, "Gee, I never thought these things. It's nice that somebody actually sits around and asks..." I'm going on like that. “They come on with some nice remarks about my work—" And then you stopped talking. And I realized, "What the hell did I do?" I missed something here.

GROTH: Well, someone's got to sit down and analyze this stuff.

SEVERIN: Actually, it's very nice to have you say these things: the good, the bad, and the indifferent. I like them all, because it means somebody was looking. You know?