Long before Cracked* was ‘America’s Only Humor Site’ deluging its readers in hit-or-miss listicles (5 Stupid, Stupid Things Humanity Has Shot Into Space, 15 Bonkers Crossovers That Somehow Happened, and so on), it was a satirical mag consciously aping Mad Magazine‘s schtick. I don’t know if anybody is actually hanging on to fond memories of it – Fantagraphics’ Kim Thompson famously quipped ‘I don’t think I’m alone in thinking of CRACKED for most of its run as “a bunch of crap, and John Severin” – but it’s undeniable that quite a few great artists have contributed to it over the years (including the aforementioned Severin, who was a powerhouse** whatever you may think of his art).
Cracked was born in 1958 and shuddered its last in 2007 (more about said demise later). Here are a few Severin covers I like!
As a bonus, here is ‘Phooey’ Smythe as depicted by the amazing Jack Davis for the cover of Cracked no. 12 (January, 1960).
* When Cracked Magazine was sold to a group of investors in 2005, it was supposed to return in force with a new design à la ‘lad mags‘ like Maxim. Website Cracked.com launched several months later, outdid its parental unit, and when the magazine folded in 2007 (new design and all), the website stuck around, gaining popularity in exponential numbers. My only interest in it is the fact that Winston Rowntree occasionally contributes articles.
**«After being one of the founding artists for Mad, he began working for the Mad imitation Cracked in the late ’50s and stayed there for nearly 40 years, because he was paid as well as the Mad contributors and was allowed to contribute several features in every issue. In addition to the mountain of work he produced for Cracked, he was simultaneously working for Marvel, Warren and DC. Severin was the consummate professional who editors and art directors knew could draw anything, from a Roman legionary to Cracked mascot Sylvester P. Smythe, and everything in between. Like fellow EC colleagues Jack Davis and Frank Frazetta, Severin could crank out great humor comics with the same facility he drew war, Western and historical tales.» [source]
« Gamma rays are the sort of radiation you should avoid. Want proof? Just remember how the comic strip character “The Hulk” became big, green, and ugly. » — Neil deGrasse Tyson
It may seem a counterintuitive notion, but some artistic virtuosi, while draftsmen supreme, may be sorely lacking in pure design chops, while some otherwise unremarkable craftsmen design splendidly. The same general principle applies to a colour sense, or handwriting. As the cliché goes, the most skilled brain surgeon’s penmanship may just yield sloppy gibberish, what’s wittily described as chicken scratch writing.
My point in this case is that, while Herb Trimpe (1939-2015) has never ranked among the comics industry’s glory boys, I consider him one of its finest cover artists. It’s a special skill and quite a scarce one…
And that’s where this streak ends, as far as I see it: the following few issues feature decent covers, but nothing outstanding. But there were scores of excellent Trimpe Hulk covers to come. The blocky dynamism of his visuals, so easy to underrate, made his covers a reliable breath of fresh air in the mire of formulaic and overwritten Marvel 1970s covers (et tu, Gil Kane?)
« Fistfightin’ may not be your style, Marshall Earp! If you want to crawl, I’ll let ye off easy! » « Crawl, Irish John? I’m going to tie a knot in your cauliflower ears! » — ‘Hired to Die’ (1965)
Happy one hundred and seventy-fourth birthday to Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp (March 19, 1848 – January 13, 1929), bison hunter, teamster, bouncer, saloon-keeper, gambler, brothel owner, pimp, miner, boxing referee, constable, city policeman, county sheriff, and, lest we forget, comic book hero… for several publishers at once!
Mr. Earp had an especially notable run at Charlton (and by far the best title logo), with sixty-one issues of his very own title published between 1956 and 1967. And with Joe Gill scripts, so it’s solid stuff. This is Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal no. 61 (Dec. 1965, Charlton); cover by Pat Masulli and Rocco Mastroserio. I’d saved this one for this occasion, having withheld it from my M/M showcase The Masulli-Mastroserio Cover Deluge of ’65!
« You can’t wake a person who is pretending to be asleep. » — Navajo saying (attributed)
I’ve written before of my appreciation of Joe Gill‘s long-running yet consistent ‘good guy with an edge‘ characterization of Billy Bonney, but I had stuck to the book’s exteriors, namely Warren Sattler’s watercolour covers from the final stage of the series’ original run. I’ve also — twice! (first here, then there) drawn attention to John Severin (1921-2012) and his colossal powers as a cover artist. Today, at long last, we dare to peer inside.
Some may wonder at the up-to-date slickness of our current selection. Bear with me. Sure, it’s old, sure, it’s obscure, and the original comic book it saw print in is on the pricey side… but it’s work that’s found some resolute champions in the intervening sixty years.
After the Charlton comics line made the switch to a mostly-reprints mode (circa 1977-78), executive editor (and cartoonist) George Wildman, possibly nudged along by his colleague Bill Pearson, endeavoured to harvest some dusty gems from the vast archives at his disposal. In this case, six consecutive issues (nos. 124-129) of the long-running Billy the Kid were aimed squarely at the discerning fans with a bold ‘All Severin Art‘ label.
Fast forward to just a couple of years ago. As the nefarious, multifarious Mort Todd* tells it: « I had the extreme honor of working with John for many years as a writer, penciller and editor. When comics creator Bill Black told me he had a complete run of John’s work on Billy the Kid in the form of Charlton’s original photostats, we decided to recolor the work and release it in two volumes. Since the original artwork is lost to history, these photostats are the closest things to the originals to reproduce from. »
When I approached him, Mr. Todd most graciously granted me permission to showcase an excerpt from his restoration of Messrs Gill and Severin’s efforts. If you enjoy this one, do check out morttodd.com for more goodies!
You may have noticed that this Billy the Kid fella displays some awfully progressive attitudes for 1959… and, some might say, even for today. And if you surmised that the story’s writer, Joe Gill, was a card-carrying liberal, you’d be way off the mark. He was, after all, Steve Ditko‘s favourite collaborator**. Gill was, instead, a bonafide conservative, fair-minded, intellectually honest, prudent, sagacious. It would appear that with time and shifting meanings and mores, this once-thriving breed has been overwhelmed by today’s reactionaries, who arguably went so far as to usurp and absorb its very name.
By way of contrast, and speaking of cowboys… Marion Morrison*** (1907-79), better known as “Popular, handsome Hollywood Star John Wayne“, despite his renown as a so-called Conservative Icon, was no conservative… he was just another reactionary. I mean, just consider *his* stance towards African-Americans (« I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people. ») or Native Americans…
Meanwhile, Gill’s Billy the Kid, though thoroughly adept at quick marksmanship and fisticuffs, always sought to defuse conflict and avoid bloodshed through wits and compassion. His idea of paradise (just like his real-life cousin, come to think of it) was to head South of the border into México and hang loose among his amigos, who good-naturedly called him El Chivito.
*whose name basically means “Death Death” in French and German (albeit with an extra D); how cool is that?
**“The comic book story/script writer? It doesn’t matter who follows the first. That first choice is Joe Gill.” — Mr. Ditko, from his preface to Steve Ditko’s 160-page Package no.3 (1999).
Created by Bill Everett, Namor the Sub-Mariner first appeared in Marvel Comics no. 1 (October 1939). The offspring of a human sea captain and a princess of Atlantis (and thus proudly bearing the title of Prince), he possessed the aquatic talents one expects of a regular merman and the exceptional strength of a carnival strongman. The cool thing about Namor is that right off the bat, he was a rather negative character – to be more precise, he was an Enemy of the United States (Everett didn’t mince words or characters, huh?) As Les Daniels states in his Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics (1991), « Namor was a freak in the service of chaos. Although the Sub-Mariner acted like a villain, his cause had some justice, and readers reveled in his assaults on civilization. His enthusiastic fans weren’t offended by the carnage he created as he wrecked everything from ships to skyscrapers. » This chaos culminated in an epic fight with Human Torch in 1941 when Namor took things a little too far and threatened to inundate the whole island of Manhattan. This little skirmish didn’t prevent him from joining the Allies’ side once World War II started, however, which gave a more constructive outlet for his somewhat destructive energies.
Right from the beginning, the Sub-Mariner was a complex character who just wouldn’t fit into the standard good guy/bad guy dichotomy. He underwent through quite a few transformations, disappearing for a bit right after WWII like many of his super-and-anti hero compatriots (but never for more than a couple of years at a time) and resurfacing during the Silver Age as a slightly different character. Namor’s concern about encroaching technology and hate of humanity, his fierce independence, made him a likeable character for those of us who like mavericks. He is a tragic character, a king without a kingdom who finds that Atlantis and its people have been destroyed by nuclear testing. After that, who wouldn’t hold a grudge? Anyway, if you’d like a more cogent overview of the Sub-Mariner’s history, visit The Great Comic Book Heroes.
To get back on topic, given how much time Namor spends underwater, it’s hardly surprising that he quite frequently encounters tentacles.
First, a story scripted and drawn by Bill Everett – who better to introduce the character than his creator? This is “The Octopus-Men!”, printed in The Human Torch no. 38 (August 1954).
Skipping ahead some twenty years, a page from “Namor Agonistes!”, scripted by Roy Thomas, pencilled by Ross Andru and inked by John Severin, printed in Sub-Mariner no. 38 (June 1971). This is sort of an origin story of the Sub-Mariner. Lovely art, n’est-ce pas?
A page from “When Wakes the Kraken!”, scripted by Roy Thomas, pencilled by Sal Buscema and inked by Mike Esposito, printed in Sub-Mariner no. 27 (July 1970):
Oh, let’s have a couple of covers, too.
I mostly sneer at modern “reboots” of Golden or Silver Age characters, but Namor’s appearance in the excellent Thor the Mighty Avenger (Marvel, 2010) was completely à propos. (The series is a happy union of an absorbing story with great graphics – it’s written by Roger Langridge with art by Chris Samnee.) Here’s a page from “Thursday Morning“, published in Thor the Mighty Avenger no. 5 (December 2010).
« I got into the comic business the same way I got into the bubble gum business: somebody gave me a job. » — John Severin
I’ve said it before, and I still feel that way: If you’re going to discuss a career of such length, variety, depth and consistency as John Severin’s (from the late 1940s to the early 2010s!) it’s simply too easy to lose your way in the details, sidebars and bifurcations. Best to pick a small area and stick to it, particularly if you don’t have the luxury of endless pages to devote to the task.
Speaking of sidebars: In this forum, I keep returning to the topic of Israel Waldman and his dodgy, but mesmerizing publishing ventures. The many scattershot titles issued under the IW / Super Comics (1958-1964) banner were printed on shoddy paper (which makes them, nowadays, nearly impossible to find in any sort of decent shape), were sold outside the usual channels (in bags of three through department stores, and not the fancy ones at that), consisted of rather hoary, indifferently-packaged reprints… but foxy businessman Waldman didn’t scrimp on the one count that mattered: he shelled out top dollar to commission top talent to create attractive covers. That sweet old bait-and-switch.
Sure, some of these random assemblages of decaying pulp happen to be good comics, but given the nature of odds, it was bound to happen.
John Powers Severin, born ninety-seven years ago today (Dec. 26, 1921-Feb. 12, 2012), was part of Waldman’s cadre of cover artistes, and he delivered beautifully, as he always did, right to the end of his career.
Here, then, are some highlights of these little-seen Severin pieces. Happy birthday, Mr. Severin!
I’m inordinately fond of Marvel’s brief flirtation with “picture frame” covers, which lasted but a year, opening with books cover-dated November 1971, at the tail end of Stan Lee’s run as editor-in-chief, and fading away less than a year later during Roy Thomas’ tenure. Figures.
This period coincided with one of John Severin’s passages at Marvel. At the time, the self-proclaimed « House of Ideas » was endeavouring to flood the market with crap, aiming to force DC to overextend itself to retain its market share, and, reportedly, to drive Gold Key out of business. So Marvel let loose a torrent of unannounced and unnecessary reprints, at most commissioning new covers to sell the bill of goods.
Tactically, it was a tawdry page out of the infamous Israel Waldman* book: in the late 1950s to mid-60s, the canny cheapjack publisher issued a line of comics (IW/Super) reprinting material he owned and often didn’t, in the case of some of the more nebulous copyrights (namely Quality’s The Spirit, Doll Man and Plastic Man)… accidentally on purpose. Anyhow, Waldman paid a few handpicked freelancers top dollar (to get his money’s worth… I did say he was canny) to create enticing new covers to adorn his shoddy reprint rags. And I do mean rags: the paper stock used was even worse than the low industry standard… just try to find any IW comic book in decent shape nowadays!
But getting back to 1971-72, here’s a chronological and alphabetical sampling of my favourite Severin turd-polishing covers from Marvel’s brief « picture frame » flirtation, out of the 35 or so he created solo at the time. Several of these are refreshingly uncluttered and moody… for Marvel.