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.

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