John Severin was a versatile talent, excelling in both drama as well as humor. He drew gritty, realistic battlefield stories ('Two-Fisted Tales', 'Frontline Combat', 'Sgt. Fury'), action-packed cowboy tales ('Lazo Kid', 'Fargo Kid', 'Black Bull', 'American Eagle', 'Kid Colt', 'Rawhide Kid', 'Ringo Kid'), muscle-bound sword & sorcery ('Conan the Barbarian', 'Kull') and brilliant parodies (Mad Magazine, Cracked, 'Rawhide Kid'), all while suffering from colourblindness. His extensive research and eye for realism made his work look far more accurate than any of his colleagues. It ensured a long, productive and diverse career which lasted from the late 1940s well into the early 2010s.
John Powers Severin was born in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1922. His father was an accountant who occasionally worked as a commercial illustrator and designer. John's sister, Marie Severin, would later become a famous comics artist and colorist in her own right. Among the comics he enjoyed were Jimmy Murphy's 'It's Papa Who Pays!', Rudolph Dirks' 'The Katzenjammer Kids', Harry Hershfield's 'Abie the Agent', Chic Young's 'Blondie', Alex Raymond's 'Flash Gordon', Milton Caniff's 'Terry and the Pirates' and 'Male Call', Frank Thorne's 'Red Sonja', Noel Sickles' 'Scorchy Smith' and particularly Roy Crane's 'Buz Sawyer' and Harold Foster's 'Tarzan' and 'Prince Vaillant'. Later in life he also expressed admiration for Jack Davis, Joe Kubert, Charles Marion Russell and René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo's 'Asterix'. In terms of writing he was influenced by Ambrose Bierce and Rudyard Kipling. Severin always claimed that he was more familiar with newspaper comics as a child than actual comic books. When he was 11 years old he published his first gag cartoons in The Hobo News, a cheap newspaper sold to beggars and homeless people for one dime a copy. As cheap as the publication was Severin still got paid for his work, making him perhaps the youngest professional cartoonist ever. "Perhaps", because in a 1999 interview with The Comics Journal, Severin estimated his actual age more at that time to be more between 16 to 17 years old.
Severin attended the High School of Music and Art in New York City, together with Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Al Jaffee and Al Feldstein. He interrupted his studies to serve in the U.S. army during World War II, fighting against the Japanese army. Back in civilian life Severin did advertising illustrations for bubble gum cards and toy boxes. In 1947 he became a contributor to Crestwood Studio, where he illustrated a story by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, which was later inked by Will Elder. This marked the start of his extensive comics career. Severin mostly worked alongside Elder, while his high school friend Colin Dawkins penned stories. For Prize Comics they drew western series like 'Lazo Kid', 'Fargo Kid', 'Black Bull' and 'American Eagle', but also stories for romance and crime titles by Better Publications, National Periodicals and Timely Comics. Even in those days Severin stood out for his meticulous research to get every visual detail right. He had a firm knowledge of the history of the Wild West and the American Civil War, down to the weapons and clothing. The title character of 'American Eagle', for instance, was a remarkable non-stereotypical portrayal of a Native American chief for the time. Severin attributed this to the fact that he just wanted his stories to be realistic and historically accurate.
In 1950 Kurtzman, Elder and Severin joined E.C. Comics. They mostly worked on war comics in the 'Two-Fisted Tales' and 'Frontline Combat' series. Kurtzman wrote the scripts and was editor over each finished story. Severin and Elder took turns in drawing and inking. Kurtzman praised Severin's eye for detail, movement and characterization and said: "He had the talent of an actor. And he also understands movement in space, which is essential in making World War I airplanes move through the sky." Under direction of Al Feldstein, Severin and Elder also crafted various science fiction and fantasy stories in E.C's 'Weird Fantasy' series. The only kind of work he rejected on moral grounds were their horror titles. When William M. Gaines told him that this was a weak excuse for the fact that he just couldn't draw horror Severin made him a drawing so horrific that Gaines had a nightmare afterwards. According to some sources it even made him vomit. Another magazine whose offers Severin refused out of principle was Hugh Hefner's Playboy.
The artist also joined Kurtzman and Elder in the creation of 'Tales Calculated To Drive You Mad', better known as the embryonical version of Mad. Even though he only made ten stories, all of which appeared in the first ten issues (save for issue 8), they still stand among their best and most classic works. With Harvey Kurtzman as scriptwriter, Severin drew pastiches of basic genres, like westerns ('Varmint', issue 1, October 1952), Royal Canadian Police Force tales ('Miltie of the Mounties!' (issue 5, June 1953) and every story about the French Foreign Legion ever created ('Sheik of Araby!', issue 3, January 1953). As readers responded more enthusiastically to Mad's direct parodies Kurtzman and Severin teamed up to make funny spoofs of 'Robin Hood' (issue 4, April 1953), 'Tarzan' (twice as 'Melvin!' (issue 2, December 1952) and 'Melvin of the Apes' (issue 6, August 1953)), 'Treasure Island' (issue 7, October 1953) and 'Shane' ('Sane!', issue 10, April 1954). The most timely of their collaborations was 'Bop Jokes', a visualisation of the hip language and figure of speech used by bebop fans, zoot suits and beatniks. Severin also provided a small illustration to an article scripted by Jerry DeFuccio: 'Exam' (issue 5, June 1953), which summarized the feelings every student has about taking an exam.
While Severin's humoristic work could certainly hold its own against the work of Mad's other looney artists he didn't particularly feel it was his genre. He and Kurtzman had a fall-out over the fact that he preferred using a brush, while Kurtzman insisted that he worked with a pen. By 1953 Mad had become a full-time occupation for Kurtzman and thus he handed over the editorship of 'Two-Fisted Tales' to Severin. This meant that Severin would have to quit working for Mad, but he was grateful to do so, if only because Kurtzman would leave him alone from now on. He was also certain that E.C. had more future than Mad. He drew many more war comics, the majority scripted by Colin Dawkins, but one, 'Dien Ben Fou', penned by John Putnam. Severin also drew five episodes about reporter 'Steve Rampart' for E.C.'s short-lived comic book Extra! (1955).
As fate would have it, E.C. eventually discontinued its publications, while Mad still exists to this day. Severin did have the opportunity to rejoin Mad in 1955, with the prospect of Kurtzman's departure and replacement by Al Feldstein and William M. Gaines as new editors. Yet he had already joined Stan Lee's Atlas Comics (today Marvel). Lee prepared Atlas' own satirical comics magazine, Snafu (1955-1956), at the time and therefore refused to let Severin return to its direct rival. Once again fate didn't work in Severin's favor: Snafu folded after three issues. Atlas' other titles proved to be more durable. Severin drew various western comics like 'Kid Colt', 'Rawhide Kid' and 'The Ringo Kid'. When Atlas became the Marvel group, Severin worked for their whole new range of comics as either a penciler or inker. He worked on 'The Incredible Hulk' and inked Dick Ayers's pencils on 'Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos'. Together with his sister Marie Severin he adapted Robert E. Howard's sword and sorcery character Kull of Atlantis into a comic strip, 'Kull the Conqueror' (1971-1973).
Despite never working for Mad again Severin did become the house cartoonist of a very similar publication, which would become their biggest and most long-lived competitor: Cracked. His work appeared in almost every issue and on nearly every cover. Much like Mort Drucker in Mad he was their official film and TV parodist. Severin wouldn't be Severin if he didn't have his own western comic as well. This was 'Sagebrush', a gag comic about a dwarf-sized cowboy whose hat and brushy moustache were bigger than himself. Severin drew covers for Cracked's paperback reprints and even published comics in different styles and under different signatures to make the magazine appear more "diverse".
He also designed their official mascot, Sylvester P. Smythe, who was Cracked's counterpart of Mad's Alfred E. Neuman, designed by Norman Mingo. Severin remained a mainstay of Cracked from its earliest years in 1958 right up until the magazine was discontinued in 2007, after which it became a succesful infotainment site instead ('Cracked.com'). In hindsight many feel that Severin was literally the only memorable thing about Cracked, which never rose above its image as a cheap Mad knock-off. Some went a step further and felt he wasted his talent there. Severin on the other hand never complained. He just illustrated the scripts given to him. As long as they weren't explicitly sexual or violent he went along and did it.
Still, he could get angry if his creative vision was tempered with too much. He saw his work for Classics Illustrated between 1958 and 1959 as the worst period of his career for that very reason. Over the decades his comics could be enjoyed in James Warren's magazines Eerie, Creepy and Blazing Combat. For DC Comics he contributed to series like 'Desperadoes', 'Suicide Squad', 'Bat Lash' and 'American Century'. He made 'Savage Tales' for Marvel and a controversial reboot of their 'Rawhide Kid' character in 2003 as a homosexual gunslinger (with writer Ron Zimmerman). He furthermore drew western comics and others for Dell, Gilberton, Harvey and Charlton Comics, as well as 'Conan the Barbarian' and 'Hellboy' for Dark Horse Comics. Severin was also a designer for Topps' bubble gum trading cards. He was one of several veteran comics artists to contribute to Matt Groening's 'Bart Simpson Treehouse of Horror 11' (2005), along with Angelo Torres, Al Williamson, Mark Schultz, Len Wein, Berni Wrightson, Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan.
Working quietly for more than half a century, Severin refused to rest on his laurels, still working well up until his eighties and nineties. He was well respected by his colleagues and received an Inkpot Award (1998) and induction into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame in 2003. His work was a major inspiration for artists like Jack Jackson and Jack Kirby, who said that whenever he had to research a historical costume or weapon for a story Severin's drawings were as good as a authentic photo. Severin passed away in 2012.