Welcome to the seventh part of our multi-part look at the great EC cartoonists.
In previous columns we discussed the comics of:
And this week we discuss the comics of the great John Severin.
John Severin had one of the longest and most fruitful careers of any comics artist. He started in the industry way back in 1947, when he joined Joe Simon and Jack Kirby at their Crestwood Comics line. He didn’t stop drawing until nearly the time of his death in 2012; Severin’s final tale, for Dark Horse’s Witchfinder: Lost and Gone Forever, appeared around the time of his unfortunate passing.
The thing about Severin is that he never lost it. He never lost the spark, the spatial sense or the outstanding brush control that was part of his professional life for nearly 65 years (sixty five years!!), and as shown in Fantagraphic’s collection of his 1951-54 EC war stories, Bomb Run and Other Stories, Sev was a brilliant artist when he had only a few years of experience under his belt and only improved through the years.
This book collects the 32 war stories that Severin created with his friend and longtime collaborator Harvey Kurtzman, a great cartoonist himself, and does a wonderful job of showing his versatility and intelligent approach to his work.
As I often do with these articles, I’ll share some wonderful work from this book as I discuss Severin’s art. Show don’t tell, right?
Kurtzman laid out all the panels in his EC war comics, but he couldn’t control the way that his artists drew people, backgrounds or the emotion of the events that were depicted in the stories. So while this nice panel progression in the second tier of “War Story!” (above) was probably Kurtzman’s creation, Severin was responsible for the ever-increasing look of horror on the face of the gung-ho soldier.
His use of subtle changes of line to emphasize that fear is wonderful. Notice the widening eyes on the man’s face and the small changes around his mouth that emphasize the pain of the situation.
In fact, the men in these stories – and as war comics from the 1950s there are virtually no women in them – are consumed by their emotions. Comics are an outstanding medium for conveying intense emotions in clean and powerful way with simple lines. Look at the tier of panels above from “D-Day!” or the anger on George Washington’s face, below, in “Washington”) to see how effective Severin was at displaying the raw passion and fear of wartime.
The slashing lines on the soldier’s face above are pointing downward, emphasizing that his efforts to climb are both a battle against gravity and against his own confidence and fear. The head is placed, claustrophobically, up against the word balloons in the story above, with clearance only appearing after he has valiantly made it to the top.
It’s an emotionalism that’s almost operatic in intensity, and it’s that sort of emotionalism in stuff like early Marvel Comics stories that people mock in those comics, when the emotions seem so out of context with the stories being portrayed. But set in a milieu like wartime, when the stakes were literally life and death and bullets were always hovering over characters’ heads like ants on a picnic lunch, this raw emotion cuts through the reader’s complacent, quiet couch time and puts him in the theatre of war, helping us to feel the same sorts of emotions that these characters do.
That’s an interesting paradox in these stories: while they’re scrupulously (maybe notoriously) well researched, with every button and helmet ribbon precisely perfect in every panel, it’s the human side of these stories that give them their considerable power. We may notice that the Alamo looks exactly on-model on the page above, but what really stands out are the raw emotions of the soldier on the bottom tier. Severin does a beautiful job of portraying the complex panoply of emotions that the man is feeling, showing real ambiguity in his presentation.
That’s the fascinating paradox of John Severin’s war comics, and of Kurtzman’s war comics in general. A story like “Night Patrol!” may have all the details of the soldier’s uniforms correct, portray their formations precisely and even be photo-referenced from the landscape of the region in which these men hike. But what really stands out here (maybe my favorite piece in the book due to its noir feel) is the sense that the men are trapped by their surroundings and their job, oppressed by the desolate landscape, unfeeling sky and cold rain that conspire to make their lives miserable.
The bleakness of the setting perfectly suits the bleakness of the events, providing a powerful feedback loop that gives “Night Patrol” its tremendous power. Again, the reality of the situation combines with the emotions of the story being told to produce a tale that emulates reality in all its grimness.
The suspense in some of these stories is almost agonizing at times. “Buzz Bomb” tells the story of German bombs at the end of World War II that would buzz overhead like bees, then go silent when they were ready to drop. From all accounts, that moment when sol
diers waited for the bombs to drop was one of the most agonizing of the war.
Kurtzman and Severin create beautiful storytelling in the page above – notice the fear building on the soldier’s faces when the bomb gets quiet, then the release of the explosion, followed quickly by the buzzing of the bomb starting all over again. The look on the man’s face in the final panel is a perfect noir moment, showing the emotional torture and scars that these events are leaving in him and building the story adroitly.
Even when the stories don’t focus on people, as in “War Machines” (about the US attacks on Iwo Jima during World War II), Severin brings the landscape and atmosphere of the place alive through smart decisions. He uses Craftint paper for this piece, a unique sort of paper enhanced with chemicals that would produce the gorgeous tonal effects on display in this piece. There may be no people on display in this tale, but he still brings energy and passion to the piece. It comes alive on black and white on beautiful paper.
There’s so much intense storytelling and smart artwork on display in this book. I love in “Bomb Run” how two pages comment on each other with parallel narration that shows joy on one page and horror on the next. Or in “Weak Link” how the forest almost seems alive with peril around the soldiers as the ground and trees are almost black smudges that imply deep fear. Or in the way that “Geronimo” is as much about the Americans seeking to kill the great Native American leader as about Geronimo himself – even while it purports to be a profile of the Native American.
It seems I wrap up each one of these pieces about the EC artists by telling you that you need to buy this book and study the oustanding work of these classic cartoonists. Based on what you read and saw above, do you see any exception here? John Severin was one of the greatest cartoonists ever to lift a pencil. That fact was as true in 1952 as it was in 2012.