The comics artist John Severin, who died earlier this week at the age of 90, was one of the last living, working links to the golden age of pre-Code comic books, as exemplified by Harvey Kurtzman's Mad and the other output from the EC Comics line. Severin was one of the principal artists on Mad and Kurtzman's war comics, Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales. Early in his career, Severin became renowned for his careful attention to detail, evident especially in his work on those historically minded, tragedy-laced war comics. His style was less broadly cartoonish and more naturalistic than the other major contributors to Mad (Will Elder, Wally Wood, Jack Davis, etc.), but in his work there as well, he adapted his skillful draftsmanship and talent for creating sharply defined characters to the title's humorous scripts.
Severin and Kurtzman had a falling out towards the end of their time at EC, and when the Comics Code Authority effectively destroyed EC as a comic book company and Mad went to magazine size, Severin jumped to Atlas Comics a few years before it transformed into Marvel in 1961. While Kurtzman and some of the other mavericks who had worked at EC devoted years of their lives to trying to create another haven for bold, innovative comics, Severin knuckled down and went to work. In the 1960s and 1970s, he did so on such series as Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos, The Incredible Hulk, Conan The Barbarian, and many other Marvel titles.
Increasingly, however, Severin became identified with that most stubbornly durable of all Mad imitators, Cracked magazine. Cracked was happy to assign him as much work per issue as he could deliver—and Severin liked to work. Over the course of a 45-year association with the magazine, he turned out hundreds of pages for them, becoming firmly established as their chief cover artist, as well as illustrator of the movie and TV parodies that were the bread and butter of any Mad clone. He also exercised the chops he'd developed at EC by drawing war and horror stories for Warren Publishing's black-and-white comics magazines Blazing Combat and Creepy.
Born in 1921, Severin first sold his drawings to The Hobo News—a monthly paper "of the hoboes, by the hoboes, and for the hoboes"—when he was just 10 years old. After a stint in the Army during World War II, he joined Kurtzman and Will Elder at the Charles William Harvey Studio, doing advertising work and commercial designs. In 1947, he broke into comics when he was hired by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby to work for their Crestwood Publications imprint Prize Comics, where he came to specialize in Western comics. In an obituary post at his blog, Mark Evanier writes, "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."
In the past dozen years, Severin had begun to do more comic book work again, after several years of focusing on Cracked. He returned to an industry that had begun to see his steady stream of dependably solid, if unflashy work—which he had produced in almost every genre over the course of more than half a century—as a legendary achievement. The list of projects he worked on in his 80s includes Howard Chaykin's American Century, DC's 2008 reboot of Sergio Aragones' Western hero Bat Lash, and Marvel's notorious 2003 Rawhide Kid miniseries—which, in the name of cheap laughs, outed the classic gunfighter hero as gay. His surviving family includes his sister Marie Severin, another distinguished cartoonist who did time in both the EC and Marvel bullpens. In 2003, John Severin was named to the Will Eisner Award Hall Of Fame.
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