Tuesday, February 14, 2012

JOHN SEVERIN (1920 - 2012)

Comics legend John Severin passed away last week, February 12, at age 90. Personally, he was in my top five comic book artists, living or dead. While he could draw any genre, Severin distinguised himself in the fields of humor, western and war comics.
What is it about Severin? Severin said it best in his 1999 Comics Journal interview. He described what he liked about one of his artistic heroes, cartoonist Roy Crane, but it applies to himself: "His simplicity, his directness, his composition...I think the biggest thing about him was the storytelling ability." (read the complete TCJ interview here.
I grew up reading Severin in the pages of CRACKED Magazine. He was their primary cover and premiere interior artist for 40 years. There may be better caricaturists, a la Jack Davis, but no one was better at dead-on likenesses, which served him well in the hundreds of movie and TV show parodies that he did.

In comics circles, however, the CRACKED work is almost tangential, and what Severin is praised for is his long and varied comics career. His first comics work came in the late 1940s for Prize Comics. He was the mainstay artist for "Prize Comics Western" for eight years, his longest tenure on any comic book title. Simultaneously with Prize was his work for EC Comics. From 1950-55, Severin was a key member in what is still hailed as the finest assemblage of comics talent at one company at one time. He's best remembered for his work on the war comic titles "Frontline Combat" and "Two-Fisted Tales", but also contributed to the fledgling "MAD" and had his own, post-Code series "Extra!", about a globe-trotting investigative reporter.

In the mid-1950s, as EC folded, he was working for Atlas Comics, doing war books (Battle, Marines in Action) and westerns (Kid Colt, Kid Slade, Rawhide Kid, Etc. Kid). He also worked a couple of years for Charlton, doing yet another "Kid" western - Billy the Kid. After he started with CRACKED in the late 50s, his comic work becomes sporadic. He did do regular stories for the Warren magazines (Creepy, Eerie) in the 1960s, as well as their briefly run war title, Blazing Combat, which served as a pseudo reunion of EC creators.

Most comic book fans know him from his work as occasional penciler but primarily an inker on "Sgt. Fury & his Howling Commandoes" for Marvel (1967-70). His style dominated those he inked, with Dick Ayers pencils looking more like Severin work in the finished product. He did the same favor to Herb Trimpe's "Incredible Hulk" for a couple of years after that. He also found a magic sibling blend with sister Marie for the art on "Kull the Conqueror" (1972-73). At this same time, Severin was inking himself as penciler for a 19 issue run on DC's "Our Fighting Forces", drawing 'The Losers', a ragtag group of WWII heroes.

Severin's 1980s comic book work is rare and precious. A stint drawing Enemy Ace for DC, a run of stories from different wars for Marvel's "Semper Fi", a companion to their popular series "The 'Nam." He also echoed his Warren work, returning to the magazine stands on Marvel's "Savage Tales", where his unparalleled knack for historical accuracy elevated the stories yet again.

Outside of CRACKED, Severin disappeared from comics in the 1990s, though still working for the ever-fading (and ultimately cancelled) CRACKED. He was virtually unseen in comics until he was asked to draw a western for DC's Homage Studios imprint. "Desperadoes: Quiet of the Grave" showed the comics world that he hadn't lost a step in 50 years, and he became sought after for other special projects, mostly westerns, including Bat Lash and a return to his 1950s character, Rawhide Kid. The Rawhide Kid mini-series was controversial for making its title character gay. Some found it offensive, some saw it as progressive, but it really was a campy send-up in the vein of a Cracked Mag parody. After other minis and one-shots followed, until his most recent and likely final work - Witchfinder, which places a British occult investigator in the Old West. Ending where he began, drawing Indians and gunfighters.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

RONALD SEARLE (1920-2011)

I just realized I left the late Ronald Searle of my survey of those cartoonists who passed in 2011. This is a grievous oversight, as Searle's contribution to his field was immense. Here's a glimpse of his humor from an early collection of his work. I also recommend this Searle tribute site. The following is from The Penguin Ronald Searle (1960, Penguin Books, London):

Thursday, February 2, 2012


It's here! Steve Canyon Vol 1: 1947-1948 by Milton Caniff was released by the Library of American Comics this week. The book is in the same format as the Complete Terry & the Pirates series and begins a wonderful extension into the second half of Caniff's life and work. Bruce Canwell gives context in his essay on what this transtion from 'Terry' to 'Steve' meant not only to Caniff professionally but the country culturally. While the early years of "Canyon" have been reprinted several times in the past 60 years, this is the best they've ever looked. Kudos to the team of Canwell, Lorraine Turner and Dean Mullaney.

Volume 3 of the "Steve Canyon" TV show is almost here. John Ellis of the Caniff Estate had hoped for a Christmas miracle, but sadly it wasn't to be. The good news is, the slipcases that will ship with preorders of volume 3 which hold all 3 volumes are in John's hands. You can read his latest update on the Steve Canyon DVD blog.

In celebration of Steve Canyon's 65th anniversary, Caniffite extraordinaire Russ Maheras posted this tribute on his comics blog at Salon.com.

OK, let's just call it a Canyon lollapalooza edition of Caniff News. Hermes Press has announced Volume 2 of "Steve Canyon: The Complete Comics Series". Volume 1, released last year, reprinted all seven Canyon issues of Dell Comics "Four Color" series. This volume will reprint the Harvey Comics "Steve Canyon" series #1-6, the previously unpublished issue #7, as well as the rare one shots "Secret Missions", "Strictly for the Smart Birds" and "Harvey Hits #52".

In related news, Hermes also announced Volume 2 of Johnny Hazard by Frank Robbins. Robbins was an artist of the Caniff school, with a little more cartoon exaggeration. These "Hazard" strips haven't been reprinted since the 1986 series done by Tony Raiola and Ken Pierce. This was solicited in the last Previews, but according to Amazon isn't due until August.

Lucy Caswell, the founder of what is now the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, was honored last year by National Cartoonists Society. She was awarded the prestigious Silver T-Square, which, according to the NCS, is given "to persons who have demonstrated outstanding dedication or service to the Society or the profession." Past recipients have primarily been cartoonists like Milton Caniff, who won in 1957. Other recipients have been industry types, such as publishers and editors, as well as two U.S. Presidents.

I caught up with Caswell and asked her about the experience: "It was a special time. As I said in my acceptance remarks, because I was privileged to know and work with Milton Caniff, one of the NCS founders, and because Billy Ireland was his mentor, I feel like things have come full circle with our naming the library after Ireland [thanks to a major gift from Ireland’s granddaughter]."

Although she has passed the torch of leadership of the library on to Jenny Robb, Caswell is still very much involved. "I am working on aspects of our new facility," she told me, "the renovation of historic Sullivant hall, exhibitions, collections and development."

Caswell also wrote the introduction to last year's "Caniff: A Visual Biography", which can be purchased here.