Tuesday, February 14, 2012

An Inadequate John Severin Appreciation

I first saw John Severin's work in the pages of Cracked. I want to say it was a parody of one of the Planet of the Apes movies (maybe even the original?) which I had heard about but, at the time, had never actually seen. I wasn't an avid buyer of Cracked or its rival Mad but, based on the handful of issues of each that I had, I actually preferred Cracked. Largely because of Severin's artwork. The lines didn't seem as smooth as what was over in Mad (who's primary parody artist at the time was Mort Drucker) and the text was much more mechanical, but I thought Severin did a better job of consistently capturing actors' likenesses. It was especially evident when I managed to get the issues of both Mad and Cracked that both ran their own parodies of The Empire Strikes Back. I knew these actors, and Severin's just looked better! More like the actors, and not cartoonish approximations of them.

Several years later, I was hunting down obscure early appearances of the Fantastic Four. I managed to learn of a brief cameo of Reed Richards in Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #3, and it had been reprinted (and was therefore cheaper!) in Special Marvel Edition #5. Though the original was by Jack Kirby, this reprint featured a new cover by Severin. I thought it was incredibly well done and spoke well to the grittiness of a war story. Imagine my surprise when it dawned on me that this was the same guy who had done those humor stories I had enjoyed years earlier!

I tracked down some of his other 1960s work for Marvel. Captain Savage and His Leatherneck Raiders. The Nick Fury stories in Strange Tales. And I went back a little earlier. Two-Gun Kid, Gunsmoke Western and the like. Severin did a phenomenal job on war stories and Westerns. His style seem rough and gritty in a way that really suited the genres.

Off and on throughout all this, I wondered about his relationship with this "Marie Severin" whose name kept popping up. Were they siblings? Husband and wife? Totally unrelated, and just happened to share a last name? A minor concern, certainly, but one that seemed to elude my cursory research. (Keep in mind, kids, this is in the days before the internet!) Clearly, though, they were both very talented.

For a combination of reasons, John largely feel off my comic radar for years until he came back for a new take on the Rawhide Kid in 2003. I thought the story was crap -- it didn't even sound remotely appealing from the solicits and writer Ron Zimmerman already proved to be... not ideally suited to comics -- but I bought it exclusively for Severin's art. At 82 years old, he was still absolutely kicking artistic ass!

I can't explain, or even excuse, why I didn't spend more time supporting Severin's art. I saw it rarely, but it always impressed me, even as a kid. The man leaves behind a huge body of fantastic work. And that he was able to bounce between, not only genres, but entire tonal styles, handling everything from slapstick gag comedy to war stories with equal aplomb speaks mightily to his ability. I suppose that I haven't spent more time studying him because I spent so many years with my eyes glued to the superhero sector, and he just tended to work for companies whose product I didn't normally delve into. That's a poor excuse, at best, though.

You'll undoubtedly see various obituaries and remembrances of him in the next day or three. They'll almost certainly do a better job summarizing his career. But that he remained active and showed no appreciable loss of talent well into his 80s is phenomenal. I know a stroke has largely removed his sister from continuing to do any work, but I hope people take this opportunity to not only remember all the great works that John Severin produced, but also take a few moments to thank Marie Severin for hers as well.

1 comment:

tonebone said...

Wow! Your discovery and appreciation of John Severin's art mirrors my own. I, too, found him in Cracked and LOVED his style... It was years later for me, also, when I discovered his "serious" art. He was fantastic at everything he did, from his earliest EC stuff to the Rawhide Kid.