by Mort Todd
Like many kids growing up in the 1970s, I first became familiar with John Severin through his art on The Incredible Hulk and Sgt. Fury (over the pencils of Herb Trimpe and Dick Ayers respectively), DC war comics and, of course, Cracked.
As a more obsessive collector I became aware of his full body of work, picking up old copies of his S.H.I.E.L.D. work in Strange Tales, Atlas Comics titles and EC-Mad reprints. Little did I realize, some ten years later, I would become his “boss” at Cracked and one of the best creative relationships I’ve ever enjoyed!
I first got hired at Cracked as a creative consultant, based a lot on my youth. New owners had bought the magazine from the original publisher, Bob Sproul, and they moved the editorial offices to New York from Florida. They were not particularly happy with the new editor hired to package the magazine and its many reprints. The material he gathered was bad, even by Cracked‘s lowest standards, and looked like reprints from Sick magazine (which they later were revealed to be!). The worst part of it, there was no John Severin in the magazine!
Though my role was to inject some relevance to the magazine (the editor was still doing Nixon jokes in the Reagan era), my first mission was to get Severin back on board! I made it very clear to the publishers, that without Severin, there was no Cracked. It’s no stretch to say that the only reason Cracked survived for over 40 years, when other humor magazines fell to the wayside, was because of the professionalism and versatility of the artist John Severin.
There were dozens of issues of Cracked where John ended up drawing a third or even half of each issue. Mostly known as the star artist for TV and movie parodies, John drew supplemental stories in alternating styles, ranging from “big foot” cartoony stuff to mimicking other styles while working in a variety of mediums. Some may think black and white print a limiting medium compared to color, but John would stretch any limits by working in pen & ink, wash, gouache, zipatone, tone overlays, and famously, his use of duo shade paper. (Craftint Duoshade is paper used by editorial cartoonists and has invisible tones and cross-hatching that becomes visible with a chemical applied by brush or pen). John even painted almost every single cover, plus hundreds of other Cracked-related covers, despite being colorblind! Every now and then, a green flame would show up on a cover and he always made E.T. non-pink because of this condition.
So, when I started at Cracked, there had been 3 releases without any Severin contributions! Sacrilege! The editor hadn’t been able to get Severin, saying he demanded too much of a page rate. I explained to the publishers that with no Severin, there was no Cracked, so they authorized me to get Severin back … at almost any cost. I got Severin’s phone number from Larry Hama’s office at Marvel Comics (he was just about the only editor using Severin at the time) and I began an association with him that has positively altered my life.
As it turned out, the Cracked editor had contacted Severin, offered him a very lousy rate… and demanded a kickback on his pay! The editor was not only reprinting material from other publishers’ magazines, but when he did commission new work, he forced the artists to turn over some of their pay to him! John Severin would have none of this and turned the editor down. We settled on a page rate of $500 (at a time when most Marvel pages were around $125 for pencils & inks) and $1500 for covers, on his condition that he only work with me and not have to deal with the other editor. Within an issue or two, that editor was gone and I took the reins of Cracked as Editor-in-Chief for the next five years.
And what a damn fun ride it was! Sev and I would probably spend up to ten hours a week on the phone, and it wasn’t all just Cracked business. As a comic geek, I would always ask about his career, from Crestwood, EC and Atlas to Cracked, as well as all the legendary creators he worked with. Discussions would also range from films and history to religion and politics. John had some pretty strong convictions that I admired.
For Cracked articles, I would try to dig up as much reference for artists as possible, particularly for celebrity parodies. It was a little tough in those pre-digital 1980s! One of the many great things about Severin was his eye for detail, so if there were ever any historical elements in a story, John would have the reference … in his head! Weapons, clothing, cars, buildings, furniture; anything from the beginning of time until, as he told me, about 1947, he wouldn’t need any reference. Mark Evanier recently related that “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.”
I also enjoyed working with John on my Monsters Attack! magazine. He did some fantastic covers and stories that we collaborated on and I asked him why he hadn’t done more horror comics, especially at EC. John told me that his work was too anatomically correct for EC. He had done a sample for Bill Gaines of a severed limb that was so realistic it made Gaines ill. Imagine Gaines trying to rationalize that on the stand at the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency!
Not only was Severin an incredible good artist and prolific, he was fast! There were many times over the years that pages were lost in the mail, changes were needed, or missed deadlines (by other artists!), and Severin would come through and whip out some new artwork in the nick of time! Sometimes overnight! And he was no hack, in fact, quite the perfectionist. Many Severin originals would have a bit of correction he did with paste-ups or white-out and ink over it. Sometimes he even drew tone effects with his pen to match the duo shade on the rest of the page! If he had painted a full cover and didn’t like it, he would redo it. For one cover, he included the shredded up first version of it. My art director Cliff Mott repaired the torn cover and darn if we could see what was wrong with the first version!
Although I worked with him almost daily, I never met him personally until I was at Cracked for a few years. We were planning Cracked‘s 30th Anniversary party and wanted John and his wonderful wife Michelina to attend. The problem was the Severins lived in Denver, Colorado, we were in New York and Severin didn’t fly. We ended up booking them a first class suite on a train from Denver, which took a few days, and he arrived at Grand Central Station like a movie star in the golden age. He was a bear of a man and resembled a cross between John Wayne and Orson Welles (the beard, not the girth).
Over the course of the next few days, we had parties, dinners and a convention event for the anniversary and John, despite his shy nature, was quite the raconteur and spent a lot of time talking with fans. All of the legends of the comics industry, both old friends and newer talent, came out to greet John on this rare East Coast sojourn and pay homage to the master.
Personally, John made a great impact on me as an artist, writer, editor and by inspiring me to do my best in all things. There were a few times he inked my pencils and… wow! One illustration had a superhero throwing a car, and you could see underneath it. My pencils were pretty loose, but when the art came back, every nut and bolt, along with the transmission, axels and tire treads were there! Since it was in my nutty sense of perspective I thought, “Gee, if I need too, I can swipe this next time I gotta draw the underside of cars!” After Cracked, we continued to work on a few projects together, at Marvel and a newspaper comic strip called “Biografix.”
A lasting significant influence on me of John’s involves liquor. Trying to live the role of the hard-drinking New York City magazine editor, I had tried a variety of spirits but never one I was comfortable with. As a Christmas gift, Severin sent me a bottle of Bushmills whiskey and I discovered my elixir of choice! After that, we both knew what to send each other for gifts! Ironically, despite being a devout Catholic (the Severins had 12 kids!), Bushmills is from the world’s oldest Protestant distillery. When I heard of John’s passing, I ordered him a shot and poured it on the ground out of respect for my missing homie.
John Severin was a one-of-a-kind, dynamic personality with a full life and he left an amazing legacy that people will enjoy for generations to come. He has a wonderful family and a work ethic that kept him drawing to the end. He had recently drawn a fantastic cover for a periodical called Smoke Signals, that featured some Native Americans burning copies of Cracked.
The final proof that Severin is Cracked and Cracked is Severin is the fact that the magazine thrived for years, under Mad’s massive shadow … when Severin was contributing. In the early 2000s, when Cracked ownership changed hands, they couldn’t afford Severin and the magazine went out of business. When it was relaunched a few years later as a slick, color magazine, Severin (and I) decided not to contribute because of the questionable editorial direction, and it bombed. Now that it has been sold again, it has resurfaced as a humor website, and quite entertaining, but as a magazine, since there is no Severin, there is no Cracked.
Mort Todd is the former Editor-in-Chief of Cracked Magazine.
John Severin died February 12, 2012 at age 90, after a 60-year career in comics, 45 of them spent at Cracked.
For more about Severin’s career at Cracked, see Mark Arnold’s new two volume history of the magazine, If You’re Cracked, You’re Happy! featuring a recent cover by Severin.