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John Severin, R.I.P.


John Severin, hailed as one of comics' great illustrators, has left us at the age of 90. He was much admired for his work on war and western comics, to which he brought a serious sense of authenticity and research. And he was also known for his work in humor. For years, he was the star artist of Cracked magazine and sixty years ago, his work appeared in the first issue of MAD.

Severin began drawing at such an early age that he was having work published by age ten. He attended the High School of Music and Art in New York where he became friends with many comic book superstars of the future including Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Al Jaffee and Al Feldstein. He would later share a studio with some of those men and work with Kurtzman and Feldstein at EC Comics. (Severin not only drew for EC but was also an editor there for a while.) For a time, he and Elder were a team with Severin penciling and Elder inking. Their first professional assignment, which predated EC, appears to have been a story in a 1948 issue of Headline Comics, published by Prize. The job was given to them by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.

Most of Severin's work through the fifties was for Prize, EC and for Timely/Atlas, which is now known as Marvel. In the sixties, he worked mainly for Marvel (on Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, among other features), for Warren Publishing and for Cracked. Later, he worked for DC, Dark Horse and many other companies. Often, he was cast in the role of inker where he usually overpowered the pencilers, outputting finished work that at first glance looked like pure John Severin. It also always looked very, very good. Among his happiest jobs were the few (too few, he felt) times when he was engaged to ink pencil art done by his sister, Marie. Marie followed her older brother into the comic book industry, colored his work and the work of others at EC, then became a valuable member of the Marvel art staff. (Marie is currently recovering from a stroke.)

I had the pleasure — and that it was — to interview John privately at the one Comic-Con International he attended and to also see one of my comic book scripts illustrated by him.  I wish there had been more of both.  I'd been warned before our conversation that he was a serious man who had strident, right-wing political opinions but we got along great even when the conversation veered unexpectedly into a discussion of Vietnam.  He did not particularly enjoy the convention experience so he was rarely seen at them.  That was a shame if not for him then for the legions of fans, including many professionals.  All would have liked the chance to tell him how inspiring his artwork was.  Even Jack Kirby used to say that when he had to research some historical costume or weapon for a story, it was just as good to use a John Severin drawing as it was to find a photo of the real thing.  They don't make 'em like that anymore.