Jesse Marinoff Reyes ( Jesse Marinoff Reyes Design, Maplewood, N.J.)
The COVER OF THE DAY Conquers All! EC Comics veteran John Severin has been one of my favorite comic book artists for more years than I can remember, at least 40 years or more. Whether you were a fan of his work at EC, Warren, or Marvel—notably on westerns or war stories—or even his work on MAD’s primary contemporary rival, Cracked—Severin’s impact on the history of comics is well established. Although her career in comics began several years later than John Severin’s in earnest, holding a hallowed place in comics history in her own right is Severin’s sister, and another all-time favorite, Marie Severin.
There may be another brother-and-sister tandem in comics, but I am not aware of them, and if so, they certainly have not had the same impact on the history of the form as the Severins.
I first discovered Marie Severin’s work in early issues of The Incredible Hulk, where Marie (for the sake of differentiation, I will note the siblings by their first names) was penciller—similarly, when I was a child, it was John’s inking on Marie’s successor as penciller on the same Incredible Hulk, Herb Trimpe, that made me aware of his work for the first time. Marie’s career began at EC when John needed a colorist—an underrated skill especially in the pre-digital era but one that many fans of the Silver and Bronze Age of Comics note as being essential to the evolution of comics, especially when Marie was involved. She contributed as a member of the production team at EC, working on material as disparate as romance titles (her first credited work was on a romance title in 1949), war, and EC’s notorious horror comics—where she is noted to have given particular panels a single color background in order to tone down especially gruesome graphic scenes (also an interesting graphic choice on its own merits—think about this influence on the gory movies of the 1960s and 1970s). Even though Marie was not a headliner like her brother John, she was as involved in the core of the EC lineup from 1953-1955 working on Crime Suspenstories, Haunt of Fear, Shock Suspenstories, Panic, and Weird Science-Fantasy.
In the wake of EC’s demise, Marie worked at Marvel’s predecessor, Atlas, until the late-1950s economic downturn forced her to find work at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York doing everything from TV graphics to an educational comic book (teaming up with brother John). When Atlas got back on its feet as the reorganized Marvel Comics, Marie returned to the production department in 1959. We may never have experienced Marie’s work beyond the anonymity of production had it not been for a request from Esquire magazine for a comic artist to illustrate a piece on the “college drug culture.” Production head Sol Brodsky offered Esquire Marie (as Marvel stars Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, etc., were on deadline). Marie’s work on Esquire was such that Stan Lee—in a moment of surprising grace, eschewed the industry norm of manning its staff box with “white shirts wearing ties” and in another of the bold experiments that helped catapult Marvel past more established competition, assigned Marie to succeed series co-creator Steve Ditko as penciller on Doctor Strange. For the next couple of decades, Marie’s work graced the aforementioned Incredible Hulk, Sub-Mariner, Iron Man, Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish, Chamber of Darkness, The Cat, Conan The Barbarian, Captain Marvel, Daredevil, The Defenders, The Amazing Spider-Man, X-Men—and a string of humorous and self-referential Marvel parodies, Not Brand Echh!, Spoof, Arrgh!, and the MAD magazine-like, Crazy (Marie’s skills on humor and satire echoed the classic, early MAD comics, where she was no doubt exposed to the process while in Bill Gaines company at EC) and the list goes on. Former Marvel editor-and-chief Roy Thomas has said of Marie, “Marie Severin is a triple threat. She can color, she can draw superheroes, and she’s all but incomparable at humor. She is, quite possibly, one of the most underrated people in the history of comics.”
Meanwhile, her brother John had been a star at EC—part of a group that included Al Williamson, Frank Frazetta, Wally Wood, Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, and Al Feldstein (the latter three attended the High School of Music and Art in New York City together with John and future-MAD artist Al Jaffee); and with Wood, Elder, Jack Davis, and Harvey Kurtzman, were the original five artists on the launch of MAD. Also at EC, John was the lead artist on Two-Fisted Tales—firmly establishing John’s bona fides in the genre of heroic adventure. When EC folded in the wake of the inauguration of the Comics Code in the mid-50s, John joined the Marvel predecessor Atlas as had Marie, and remained through its rebirth as Marvel as both a penciller, inker, or both—making an especially significant contribution to Marvel’s war comics, especially Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandoes (later on Captain Savage, The ‘Nam and Semper Fi) and dozens of superhero titles—were I to laundry list them we would be here for hours. As noted, John was also the principal artist (covers and movie parody stories) on the MAD-competition, Cracked magazine. He was also an important contributor to Jim Warren’s comics magazines Creepy and Blazing Combat (a mirror of the war comics John did in the 1950s at EC). By most calculations John Severin is considered one of the 100 greatest comic book artists of all time.
John’s inking is distinctive on his own work and that of others—upon whom some would say, “smothering.” Not a bad thing—even if most pencillers ended up looking like John’s own afterwards. With his trademark crisp, short brush lines, John could make a relatively ordinary penciller extraordinary. On a superior penciller, John’s collaboration would make the work transcendent. Which brings us to today’s cover, the second issue of Kull The Conqueror.
In the early 1970s, Marvel (and competitor DC) either launched storylines in its established titles that would jolt the everyday predictability of comics stories, or launched new titles that were either groundbreaking or if somehow familiar, brought to a higher level of surprising quality. In 1970, Marvel began this with the launch of (the creation of 1930s pulp writer) Robert E. Howard’s Conan The Barbarian in 1970 by scripter Roy Thomas and artist Barry Smith (later Windsor-Smith), which established sword and sorcery as a new and exciting genre in comics—much admired and imitated at the time. In the wake of Conan’s successful launch, Marvel tried an adaptation of another of Howard’s barbarian heroes, King Kull of Atlantis, run as a test in Creatures on the Loose #10 in 1971‚ with Conan-plotter Thomas, and Bernie Wrightson as illustrator, and with a cover by Herb Trimpe inked by Marie Severin. This was followed up with a first series of comics with King Kull as the central character, Kull The Conqueror—with the first issue pencilled by Ross Andru and inked by (EC veteran) Wally Wood, and a cover by Marie Severin. By the second issue, pictured here, Marvel got it right however briefly, by installing Marie as penciller and brother John as inker. If you were wondering about my above comment on John being a transcendent collaborator working with a superior penciller, this tandem is it! From this second issue through issue ten (and a followup story published as the cover feature in Monsters on the Prowl #16), the short-lived series was perhaps one of the great comics of the 1970s—though inexplicably under-appreciated. Much Like the fictional Kull himself, Kull The Conqueror was somewhat doomed to exist in the same stable as Conan The Barbarian—the more well known barbarian “brand.” Pity, readers then and enthusiasts now would be well advised not to ignore this brilliant title. Kull was brought back with another, longer-lived series, Kull The Destroyer (19 issues beginning in 1973 with other creative teams, notably penciller Mike Ploog unfortunately paired with a different inker on every issue of the five he worked on) and even a sword and sorcery-themed magazine series, Kull and the Barbarians (three issues in 1975), but none were as esthetically satisfying as Kull The Conqueror. With Marie’s serious heroic style—described as having developed the kind of proportioning and body language similar to a Gene Colan but with a line weight and stability more akin to the inhouse style of Marvel as embodied by a John Buscema, along with brother John’s singular inking style and sense of drama, Marie and John achieved something that suggested a hybrid of Barry Smith’s best work on Conan (which developed later on his run on the title) and the storybook adventure standard in comics of any stripe, Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant.
Kull The Conqueror, No. 2
Marvel Comics, September, 1971 issue
Illustration (inker): John Severin
— with John Severin.
JMR:Yes, in 1970: John inked his pencils on Jack Kirby layouts in Nick Fury Agent of S.H.E.I.L.D #16 (Marie did the cover for this, and issue #17) and John was an inker on a Herb Trimpe cover on issue #18.
Re: Herb Trimpe:
Trimpe was an underrated artist for quite a few years (that’s been changing lately). He did solid work on Nick Fury, The Hulk—even an excellent turn on Machine Man (three issues of a four-issue series done in 1984) with Barry Windsor-Smith inking—a several other titles. Trimpe patterned his style after the EC guys like Feldstein and Elder (through the prism of the Marvel in-house style and Jack Kirby). He wasn’t a visionary, but he was a good narrative artist with a good sense of the dynamic. I loved it when Severin inked him on The Hulk—and so did he, since Severin WAS an EC guy.
…There very well may have been a Wood/Severin collaboration. I don’t know if at Marvel, but possibly at EC (need more research).
According to comicbookdb.com, John did work on Our Fighting Forces (The Losers), beginning September 1971, #133-137, #140, #141, #143, and #148 (Joe Kubert covers) and also Our Army at War (Sgt. Rock), #267 April, 1974 with a Kubert cover….and Wood was at Marvel in the early 1970s—he worked on that two-for-one book, Astonishing Tales—splitting Kazar with Doctor Doom (Wood did the Doctor Doom stories for the first four issues 1970-71)….Wood also worked on The Cat, and the first issue of King Kull….so Wood did work on it. And to draw this all together with my post (above) on the Trimpe/Severin cover‚ Linda Fite married Herb Trimpe….