[Editor’s note; The below is a FICTIONAL obituary of Marie Severin, written to point up the career she could have had, had she been born a man. Sadly many of the honors and accomplishments it mentions never happened. She never won a Rueben or a Grand Prix and she never contributed to Mad as a cartoonist. She did win a Friends of Lulu Award.
The art is all Marie though, and if it weren’t for the endemic sexism in the world and in comics, she could have and should have done all those things.]
As 2018 comes to close, a year that has seen the passing of a number of comics figures, we would like to remember one of the greats we lost. Marie Severin died this year at the age of 89, and we wanted to give her the obituary that she deserved.
Born in Rockaway, New York in 1929, she was the younger sister of noted comics artist John Severin, who died in 2012. Their father was an artist, and while Marie always drew, she thought that she lacked the talent to make it as a professional. It was through her brother John that she got her first job in comics. In 1949 she was working at a bank when he asked for her help in coloring when he worked at EC Comics.
It was at EC that she made her first significant contribution to comics. She became the in house colorist for the company, which then was at its peak, also doing production art and other tasks. Some people called her the company’s in house censor, choosing color schemes and production approaches to underscore some of the gory and violent imagery in the company’s comics. Al Feldstein called her the “conscience of EC” but Severin herself thought that nonsense. A look at the breadth of work she produced shows that while she did at time downplay violence – in later interviews she cited concerns over the content and the battles over censorship and comics, which considering there Congressional committees and televised hearing suggests that she was just smarter and paying more attention than most at the company – her skill at horror was unparalleled. It’s hard to imagine horror and suspense in comics since then without the influence of Severin. She sought to use color to create atmosphere, to highlight the art, to play with the tone, in subtle and complex ways.
From 1949 to 1955 she colored much of the company’s output. When EC changed its approach and began focusing on Mad Magazine, Severin quickly became one of the magazine’s key contributors. She had drawn caricatures of the all boys club that were her co-workers at EC, which besides her brother included Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Wally Wood, Jack Davis, Frank Frazetta, and other legendary artists. She was assigned a one page story when a last minute fill in was needed and the following day turned in a piece that she had rewritten and colored.
That story, solidly in the Will Elder style packed with action, side gags, made an impression on others and she contributed to the next 228 issues of Mad. This work was done at a time when the idea persisted that women could not draw and were not funny – but her work demonstrated that such ideas were nonsense and so was immediately judged for her work and not her gender. The fact that Severin was able to produce great cartooning with such ease and skill, meant that these irrational prejudices were shoved aside and she was hired and continued to be hired.
Severin continued as one of comics’ great humorists for decades. Besides her lengthy association with Mad – collected recently in two volumes – she was a contributor to Cracked, Crazy, Help!, Humbug, National Lampoon, Not Just Brand Echh, Panic, Plop!, Spoof, What The–?!, and for one issue, Spy Magazine.
Like many other EC alums, Severin was known for working in a variety of styles and genres. Though a gifted caricaturist and humorist, her science fiction and fantasy work remains beloved by genre fans. Comics fans know her for her brief run illustrating Doctor Strange in the pages of Strange Tales for Marvel. She replaced Bill Everett, who took over for Steve Ditko, and co-created the Living Tribunal. Prior to this and afterwards she was known for her work drawing covers of Galaxy and other magazines.
Her work in superheroes was limited to her Doctor Strange run and a run of Hulk, which at the time appeared in Tales to Astonish and in his own book. Her most notable superhero work was in humor magazines where she regularly skewered characters and the genre. Though she never wrote any of these stories, the hallmarks of her style of humorous cartooning and her understanding of superheroes and the superhero world were unparalleled.
Kurtzman and Wood are credited with the great superhero parody with Superduperman, which appeared in Mad, and none of Severin’s individual stories ever had the same impact. In part because parodying the X-Men of that period or Magnus Robot Fighter, while they remain exceptional works of cartooning, are simply characters few people knew or cared about. It takes a fan with knowledge of the characters to appreciate and understand all the subtle references and details that she incorporated into those stories.
Severin famously began her career by caricaturing her fellow cartoonists and it was perhaps the fact that she worked in the bullpens at both EC and Marvel, and was known to complete so many tasks for both companies that went far beyond coloring, that she had a familiarity with hundreds of characters and approaches and even though she was not necessarily interested in superheroes, she understood them and had a knowledge base that rivaled any of the writers or fans. Those pages represented that rare occasion that the comics industry laughed at itself.
After her time at EC, Severin worked in the bullpen at Marvel where she was a fill in artist and drew layout designs for cover art which were then passed along to the books’ regular pencilers. She was given the work because while Stan lee’s nickname for her was “Mirthful Marie” he like so many in comics understood that her sensibility and style played a key role in the success of EC. Despite this work, Severin was never compensated for it, nor was she given or even offered the position of Art Director that John Romita had at the company.
As a result she left Marvel and mostly left comics. Instead she found success in other fields where companies put her talents to good work and didn’t pay her less or refuse to work with her because of her gender. Her skills at caricature and capturing likenesses which Mad and other publications had put to such good use meant that she found work in advertising and elsewhere.
Along with Mort Drucker and Jack Davis, Severin was one of a handful of figures who emerged from comics into the wider world of pop culture and American art and design. Particularly in the 1960s and 1970s – in many ways a highpoint of illustration before photography took over to a greater degree – the three of them were drawing film posters, magazine covers, record albums, and advertising work. The reach and influence of Mad Magazine at the time was such that their work served as something of a tryout for other industries.
Severin continued to work in comics in various ways, and attend conventions, though much of her later work was advertising or design work for comics-related products. Something which was noted paid much more than she had ever made actually drawing Hulk and Doctor Strange and other characters years before.
One of her final works was also one of her earliest works. In 2003, the book B. Krigstein was published by Fantagraphics, collected the work of the late artist and Severin recolored some of the stories reprinted in the book that she had originally worked on, which led to a series of interviews in various publications about her long career. The book was awarded the Eisner and Harvey Awards that year.
Severin suffered a stroke in 2007. The following year she received the Reuben Award from the National Cartoonists Society, the third woman to receive the prize and the fifth person to receive it primarily for contributions to Mad Magazine.
In 2016 controversy erupted before the annual Angouleme Festival International de la Bande Desinée over the festival’s lack of any women on the longlist to be awarded the festival’s Grand Prix de la ville d’Angouleme. The prize, given to a cartoonist for their body of work, had been given to only a single woman in the festival’s history. Many creators originally up for the prize boycotted and withdrew their names from consideration. The committee ultimately awarded that year’s prize to Ms. Severin.
Only the fifth American to receive the award – after Will Eisner, Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman and Bill Watterson – the decision to award it to Severin was at the time controversial. Since then it has come out that a number of men were put forward, but people were unable to come to a consensus. When Severin’s name was put forward, the vote was unanimous.
Severin was chosen for her body of work. For her connection to EC Comics, to Mad, to Silver Age superhero comics. Her work represents the ways that comics managed to penetrate the counterculture and transform it and society at large. She represented the ways that the medium has its connections to illustration and design through the work she and her contemporaries had been doing in recent decades, but also through the influence of her father, who was an illustrator, and that early tradition of illustration that so influenced early comics.
Moreover the selection of Ms. Severin was widely seen to represent the women of her generation, and women in comics more broadly. She stood for the women with talent – more talent than a lot of men who were given opportunities – but who were shunted aside to coloring or production work. She represented the women whose work editors would not even consider because of their gender. She represented the women who were shut out of comics, shut out of illustration, shut out of advertising, and so many other fields. Women who some people continue to erase from history, claiming that they had no talent or did not apply or did not even exist.
She represented the women whose skills exceeded their opportunities. Women for whom no matter how well they did a job, were never offered the chances that men were given who lacked the same track record. Women passed over time and again, first because they were too young to be worth considering, and then because they were too old to be worth considering.
Marie Severin’s work and life represented comics. A beat up, stepchild of a medium not taken seriously, not given respect, but who worked and toiled and put out work which may or may not have been acknowledged. Marie Severin did not just represent comics, she represented what comics could have been, and perhaps, what it still can be.
Rest in Peace, Ms. Severin.