Thursday, March 15, 2012

Mirthful Marie

Who says a comic book has to be good?  Marie Severin does!  She's been an artist, an inker, a colourist.  She's worked in production, doing touch ups and corrections, and designing cover layouts and house ads.  And she could draw superheroes, barbarians, and humour with equal aplomb.

Marie was born in Oceanside, Long Island, in 1929.  She and her brother John grew up in an artistic household, where her father fostered their talent and encouraged them, but she otherwise had no formal art training, except for a brief stint at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School, co-founded in 1947 by Tarzan artist Burne Hogarth.  Her parents wanted her to go to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where her father had gone, but Marie was more interested in getting out there and making money.

Her brother John was working as an artist at EC comics, where, in those early days, the paper quality was poor and the colouring often done by the engraver, who didn't care about artistic integrity.  John told publisher William Gaines that his sister could do a far superior job.  She was hired, and ended up colouring virtually all of the EC line of comics, as well as working in the production department.

Marie learned her craft while on the job.  "I just picked it up being in the production department, learning how this stuff was reproduced.  They sent me to the plant a couple of times..."

Marie says Gaines and writer/editor Al Feldstein "had a great pride in what they were doing" with EC comics, and that pride rubbed off on her: "I would also proofread the colours. They would send a 'flat', they called it, of the books, the whole book, and you would check that the colour was in the line, that they interpreted it correctly."

For Marie, mood was an important part of colouring.  Colour was "like music in the background. I think of coloring as the music in comic books."  She was diligent: "I would be a little more thoughtful in the scenery and costuming of people, be a little more realistic, and I tried to introduce interesting colours and pastels," says Marie.  "So I made a reputation there and it hung on."

Starting in the early 1970s, Russ Cochran published a series of large-sized EC portfolios and had Marie hand-colour a small number of the black and white prints.
At EC Marie shared an office with Harvey Kurtzman, creator of MAD, where she sometimes doubled as his research assistant, "because Harvey Kurtzman loved to have all the details correct on his war stories, even down to I had to go to the armoury once with a duffel bag full of books to see if I could verify things with it, and I had a camera and I had to photograph how a soldier loads and shoots a bazooka...and I was a young lady then walking around in heels.  You feel like a jerk, you know...but that was part of the job, too.  But I think it was that they wanted to do a good job to make it sell, and they just took a lot of pride in their work."

Although Marie was learning the art of storytelling while on the job at EC, she felt she wasn't ready to draw comics.  "I never even approached anybody to do that.  My stuff was very amateurish."  She also felt intimidated by the top-notch artists in the company's fold: "When you're surrounded by guys like John Severin, [Jack] Davis, [Wally] Wood, [Johnny] Craig, etc., you know your place!"

Fantastic EC fan club sketch by Marie, early '50s.  She can be seen near top right.

But the graphic gore in titles like TALES FROM THE CRYPT, VAULT OF HORROR, HAUNT OF FEAR and CRIME SUSPENSTORIES didn't escape the attention of crusaders like psychiatrist Frederick Wertham, who suggested that such comics corroded the moral and mental health of children.  Attacked by Sen. Kefauver and betrayed by the Comics Magazine Association of America, Gaines eventually cancelled all of the EC titles except MAD, which became a black and white magazine in 1955, beyond the reach of the Comics Code, so Marie had to seek work elsewhere.

She was gone, but not forgotten by Bill Gaines (and the entire EC staff), who thought she was a "living doll".  In 1972 he said: "She was also probably the best damn colourist in the history of the comic industry.  She's gone on to much better and greater things today, but I'll always think of Marie as my colourist."

Al Feldstein added: "You have to give Marie Severin credit for selling a lot of the covers that were done in black and white, but were really brought to life by her colour."

Throughout her career Marie drew cartoons and caricatures of her co-workers.  "Mr. Lee" was apparently a staffer on the business end at Entertaining Comics.  As you can see, they played rough at the EC offices.  It's all fun and games until someone loses an eye -- or gets shot in the back three times.

Marie and her brother went to work for Stan Lee at Atlas Comics, but not for long.  According to Stan Lee, publisher Martin Goodman made a bad decision: he gave up his own distribution company and went with the American News Company, which then went out of business a couple of weeks later, leaving Atlas without a distributor.  Atlas had to downsize their line of comics -- and their staff.  Says Marie, "Everything just died.  Stan had to decimate, and it was just awful for him.  He must have been miserable."  Still, Marie says Atlas comics, now adhering to the Comics Code, weren't selling anyway, because "there wasn't anybody getting shot, or killed, or cut up, or anything..."

For the next several years Marie did a variety of commercial art jobs.  In 1964, bored and wanting to get back into comic books, she sought employment at Harvey Comics, which gave her "the runaround", so she tried Marvel (formerly Atlas), whose new superhero comics were selling like hotcakes.  "I went in to Stan with this portfolio with all this stuff in it, and Stan never looked at it."  He didn't need to.  He was already familiar with Marie's many talents, and, anyway, they needed a hand in the production department for Marvel's rapidly expanding line of comics.  Stan was jumping with joy when she showed up.

She also shared colouring chores with Archie Comics artist Stan Goldberg, "although he [Stan Lee] liked Stan Goldberg's colouring better than mine!"

With the sudden departure of SPIDER-MAN and DR. STRANGE artist Steve Ditko in 1966, she and another newly-returned artist, John Romita, were charged with illustrating those titles.  "They had nobody else to do it," says Marie.  "I was never that ambitious; I never came into the office saying, "Ooh, I want to do Dr. Strange."  Marie was to make it a habit of colouring her own work:  "I always tried to color everything I did. It needed all the help it could get," she says.  "I draw for the color of it. I think of it while I'm drawing it."

Strange Tales #158 (July 1967)

She and John Romita and Herb Trimpe were the last artists that Stan had time to work closely with; he would talk over plots with them and analyse their pencilled pages panel by panel, making suggestions.  "I thought it was a great learning experience," says Marie.

Next, Marie started drawing the Hulk for TALES TO ASTONISH in 1967.  "So often girls start out and everyone wants them to draw pretty things and they're taught to draw pretty things and then they can't draw the Hulk.  See, I didn't care.  I draw awful things, and hideous things, and fun things and silly things."

Tales To Astonish #93 (July 1967)

Tales To Astonish #100 (February 1968)

The Incredible Hulk #105 (July 1968)

Alas, Marie was taken off THE INCREDIBLE HULK (as TALES TO ASTONISH was now called) in 1968, and given the task of drawing the Submariner.  Her replacement on THE INCREDIBLE HULK was Herb Trimpe, perhaps the Hulk's most famous artist, with inks by her brother John.  Says Marie ruefully: "I wanted John with me on the Hulk, but they put me on Submariner, and Herb and John worked on the Hulk, and I was very disappointed.  I wanted to see what John would do with my Hulk..."

Sub-Mariner #9 (January 1969)

Splash page (no pun intended) for Sub-Mariner #19 (November 1969).  Marie drew the whole furshlugginer Marvel Bullpen into the scene.  Above Subby is John Verpoorten (with camera); behind him is Marie herself; to her right, with glasses, is Roy Thomas; below him, Morrie Kuramoto; leaning over Subby is Gary Friedrich; at top, running towards group, is Tony Mortellaro; the bald guy at top right is Larry Lieber (the family surrounding Larry are friends of Marie's); waving to the reader at middle right is Stu Schwartzberg; lower down, in the Hawaiian t-shirt, is Sol Brodsky; beside him with the towel is Mike Esposito; and beside Mike (or behind him, if you will) is Don Heck; grinning at the reader above the credits is Bill Everett; gasping in awe in the striped tank top is Herb Trimpe; above Herb, with the goatee, is Stan Lee (whoever he is); beside Stan is John Romita (with towel); the lady with the bathing cap next to John Verpoorten is Flo Steinberg; behind Flo is Frank Giacoia.  There were a couple of other staffers Marie couldn't identify.

Perhaps her most famous -- or infamous -- "correction" was in 1968, when she altered Jim Steranko's mind-blowing cover for THE HULK KING-SIZE SPECIAL #1 by redrawing the Hulk's face.  (Incidentally, she also illustrated the issue.)  If anything, Marie's version of the Hulk was much cuter.

Jim Steranko's original art for Hulk King-Size Special #1 (1968).

Though she admitted to liking Batman and Superman as a young girl, Marie says she wasn't that interested in drawing superheroes, was never a fan.  As with some of the older generation of comic book professionals, drawing comics was more of a job to her, that put a roof over her head and food on the table.

A full-page illustration by Marie from STRANGE TALES #158 (July 1967) was used as the cover for Pink Floyd's 1968 album A Saucerful of Secrets.

Pink Floyd's A Saucerful of Secrets (June 1968) album cover, a collage using much of Marie's art from a Dr. Strange comic, obscured somewhat by a psychedelic haze.

During this period (1967-1969), Marie was also contributing to Marvel's self-parodying humour comic, NOT BRAND ECHH.  (According to the indicia in the first four issues, the comic was actually called "Brand Ecch".)  Humour being her strongest suit, she is well-remembered for her stint on that short-lived title, reminiscent of early issues of MAD.

Original cover art for Not Brand Echh #3 (October 1967).

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Marie also drew or designed a great many covers for just about every Marvel title.  If she didn't care for superheroes, it certainly didn't show in her work.  Her rough cover layouts from this period, even if given to other artists to work from, are often works of art in themselves.  Her figures are bold and dynamic, the action ferocious and explosive and gripping, with a level of violence toned down by other artists.  She was outdoing the men at their own game, letting loose as the heroes and villains smashed through brick walls and pulverized and mangled each other furiously, almost murderously.  The bold lines and brush strokes made it seem like Marie held her pencils and brushes in an angry, clenched fist.

Marie's powerful cover for Marvel Tales #28 (October 1970), inked by comics veteran Bill Everett.  Occasionally the two would collaborate, and use the signature "E7V".

Commercially, CONAN THE BARBARIAN, Marvel's adaptation of Robert E. Howard's sword and sorcery hero, wasn't doing too well, but they gave his other, earlier hero, Kull, a shot, in CREATURES ON THE LOOSE #10 (March 1971), drawn by fan-favourite Bernie Wrightson.  (The original cover by Wrightson was rejected, and a new one drawn by Herb Trimpe, inked and coloured by Marie Severin.)

KULL THE CONQUEROR #1 (June 1971) followed, with art by Ross Andru.  Andru also did the cover, but his figure of Kull left a little to be desired, so once again Marie was called in to make changes.  Andru's backgrounds were left intact, but Marie pasted up her own drawing of Kull.

Original art for the cover of Kull the Conqueror #1 (June 1971).  As you can see, Marie pasted her drawing of Kull over Ross Andru's drawing.  The Andru/Buscema signature was removed for the printed cover.

Marie and John Severin, cover for Kull the Conqueror #4 (September 1972).

Marie finally got to work with her brother John, illustrating KULL THE CONQUEROR #2 (September 1971).  Apparently, she'd wanted to work with him for years.  An item from the Marvel Bullpen Bulletins for November 1968 reads: "Every time we wanna make Merry MARIE SEVERIN happy, we promise that her brother, Long-JOHN SEVERIN, will soon be inking one of her ginchy yarns!  (And, he will -- soon as he gets the time!"  Of her dramatic work, KULL was the only comic she was satisfied with, "because that was so much like the storybooks that, when John and I were kids, we loved so much, because it was done with that old-fashioned tradition, and we always liked Howard Pyle and the old fairy tale books."

Despite Marie's wonderful pencils and John's detailed inks, the book was put on hiatus, but the brother/sister team continued where they left off the following year, with issue #3 (July 1972).  Mike Ploog, another amazing artist, took over with the eleventh issue.  Marie and John would later team up for some Kull portfolios.
Illustration for a Kull portfolio, without John's inks.

Marie drew the origin issue of THE CAT in 1972, with fellow EC artist Wally Wood, who inked her pencils.  The Severin/Wood art was gorgeous, but Marie was embarrassed by her old friend's usual sense of feminine pulchritude: "Oh my God, Woody drew it like she's wearing Saran Wrap!"

The Cat #1 (November 1972)

The nickname says it all!

As a staffer Marie worked nine to five, but took pages home with her if she needed to finish something.  "I usually was pretty honest about how I vouchered it," she says.

Though NOT BRAND ECHH was cancelled, Marvel provided Marie with other outlets for humour, notably SPOOF, ARRGH!, and the black and white magazine, CRAZY.  SPOOF debuted in 1970, with parodies of "Dark Shadows" and "The Mod Squad" by Marie -- and then disappeared.  It resurfaced with issue #2, over two years later, but, like ARRGH!, it was cancelled before long.

This is supposed to be a cover rough for Dracula Lives! magazine, but Marie seems to have gone above and beyond the call of duty.

Marie's greatest humour triumph was as a contributor to CRAZY MAGAZINE, which debuted in 1973.  Perhaps inspired by the contemporary MAD, it was at first world's apart from their more famous competitor.  MAD was mostly lucid -- it tried to make sense of an incomprehensible world.  CRAZY was absolutely insane, with no rhyme or reason.  Eventually, especially after whacko writer/editor Steve Gerber quit the magazine, the once hilarious mag became a poor MAD imitation, along the lines of CRACKED (where Marie's brother was now working), filled with hack writers and artists.  Marie also left the mag before long, but not before winning the comic book industry's Shazam award for best penciller in the humour division for both 1973 and 1974, as well as for best humour story, "Kaspar the Dead Baby" (from CRAZY #8), along with writer Marv Wolfman.

Marie's outrageous art for the back cover of Crazy Magazine #7 (October 1974).

Marie's even more outer and more rageous art, for the back cover of Crazy Magazine #8 (December 1974).

One of the great artist/inker teams was John Buscema and Alfredo Alcala.  Their black and white work in SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN is equalled by few and unsurpassed.  In 1977 Marie did these two giants justice when Conan appeared in the second issue of the slick magazine MARVEL SUPER SPECIAL, where perhaps her most beautiful paint job was reproduced in full colour.

Unfortunately, by the mid-1970s Marie was needed in the production department more and more, which gave her less and less time to draw.  Most of her work was seen in house ads.  Marvel wanted younger, hipper writers and artists, the work for the older generation was drying up, and Marie's contract was terminated in 1996. Her comics output may have been sporadic after the '70s, but she never lost her hand, and her artwork for DC's BATMAN BLACK AND WHITE VOL. 2 (2003) is just as fabulous as ever.

Though she finds today's computer colouring "gorgeous", she says "I think it's overdone when a page of colouring takes somebody half a day to paint and it's read in about three seconds.  The economy doesn't make sense to me."

Stan Lee said in a 1998 interview: "She was great at humorous cartoons; she did the Hulk and all these serious strips, one of the best colourists in the business; she's a wonderful person with a great sense of humour; always cheerful and great to work with.  She was also stylized; you could always recognise her work, with that slight touch of cartooniness in the serious artwork that gave it a certain charm.  I'm crazy about Marie."

Below, all of Marie's covers for NOT BRAND ECHH.  Jack Kirby drew the cover of the first issue, and Marie did the remaining twelve.

Not Brand Echh #2 (September 1967)

Not Brand Echh #3 (October 1967)

Not Brand Echh #4 (November 1967)

Not Brand Echh #5 (December 1967)

Not Brand Echh #6 (February 1968)

Not Brand Echh #7 (April 1968)

Not Brand Echh #8 (June 1968)

Not Brand Echh #9 (August 1968)

Not Brand Echh #10 (October 1968)

Not Brand Echh #11 (December 1968)

Not Brand Echh #12 (February 1969)

Not Brand Echh #13 (May 1969)