Clark Dimond's interview with John Severin
John Severin died in Denver February 12 at the age of 90, Here Clark Dimond and John Severin talk about EC and Wally Wood. Recorded over two decades ago, it was published in Against the Grain: Mad Artist Wallace Wood
(2003). © 2012 Bhob Stewart and Clark Dimond.
World War II was receding into memory. In a deserted reception room of a publishing firm, two men met for the first time. The war had sent them both to Eniwetok, Guam, and Japan. Both had served in airborne divisions. And both were artists. John Severin describes the encounter in this interview with Clark Dimond, taped September 26, 1985, in Denver, Colorado.
Clark Dimond: You say Wood came down from Massachusetts?
That’s my memory. I would still say to this day that he came down from Massachusetts, but listen, he could have said Wisconsin or Minnesota.
This was the Charles William Harvey Studio?
No. All this talk with Woody was done in a publisher’s office around 44th St. between 5th and 7th.
Not a major publisher?
No, there were hundreds of these guys there for awhile. They’d put out a couple of books for maybe a year and they’d disappear. You’d never hear from them, or of them again. What happened... the only person in this small lobby, foyer, office waiting room with a sofa and a couple of chairs when I walked in was this guy in the overcoat with the short collar. It was like an apartment.
You were there showing your work?
I was going to. I never did. Never did. That I remember. It was wintertime, or leastways it was cold time. Nobody else seemed to be there. It was a very weird situation. I’d noticed this guy’s portfolio when I came in. The portfolio was black. It was easily six or eight inches thick. I saw a Paratrooper’s pin on his lapel. We got to talking because I had been in the Airborne. He told me he’d been in New York for a couple of weeks trying to get work in the comics, and he’d had no luck at all.
This was ’49 or so? It must have been pretty early on.
It had to be. ’49’s a good year. Yeah, I’m sure it was ’49. And he said he’d had no luck at all. He was going back the next day or the day after. He was going to return to Massachusetts, and I said, “Gee, let me see your work.” He showed me a couple of pages and... How the hell this guy didn’t get work, I don’t care who it was, I don’t understand. I mean, if he wasn’t lying to me, if he’d really come down here to get into comics, and he’d seen comics companies, and they hadn’t accepted him, I couldn’t understand it, because the guys in the business were not as good. The work wasn’t totally professional, but boy it was so good. About two days on the job, and he’d have had it made, see. And so I said, “Jeez, I can’t understand how you haven’t gotten a job. Boy, there must be something we can do. Why don’t you come over to the studio I share with a couple of guys?” I said, “Maybe we can work up some kind of a deal.” So I don’t remember if we saw anybody in this office. Maybe we did. There was nobody talking to us.
You were just sitting there...
Just waiting for somebody to come out. Bringing us coffee or anything. So we left. He came over to the Charles William Harvey Studio. We never changed the name after I bought in. He [Charles Stern] went to Paris. We didn’t change the name because it had gotten known. Charlie Stern walked in,and we looked at Woody’s work with Harvey and Willie [Kurtzman and Elder] and everybody agreed with me. The guy’s work is fantastic.
Was it science-fiction?
It was all the stuff you ever... Lots of big trees, gnarled trees, and hero types, Flash Gordon standing around, and girls in their filmy Alex Raymond gowns, and weird monsters, lots of dinosaurs, lots of science-fiction. A lot of the work was done on illustration board and took up more space, naturally, but it was a thick portfolio. We decided what we should do was call Will Eisner. This guy would be perfect for him.
To work as an assistant?
Yeah. Because Will Eisner apparently was using lots of guys. They set up an appointment, and Woody went down there. And never returned. That was it. He learned I don’t know how much from Will Eisner.
This was before you or Kurtzman got together with EC.
Harvey was working for Timely/ Marvel. Willie and I were partners working for whoever the hell would hire us. I couldn’t ink, and Willie was not too good at drawing. So the combination worked out, and we both made money on the deal. It was later that Harvey made contact with EC.
So Wood went down and became...
One with Will Eisner.
Is that where he ran into Harrison?
I don’t know. For a short while Woody disappeared. He would come in the studio once in awhile and say hello, just make some sort of contact, but I had no idea what he did. For about the period of a year all I heard from him was that he was working and busy. Since I was just breaking in my¬self, I really didn’t give a damn about anything except me getting going. I was glad that he was working, and he seemed to be doing very well.
When Wood broke into EC he was working with Harry Harrison. Then he hooked up with Joe Orlando.
I went up to the studio there one day. Of course, I had seen their work. I noticed it was different. It was fabulous how Joe had gone along with Woody, hand in glove. Orlando couldn’t do it alone; he had to have Woody standing right next to him. The same is true of [Angelo] Torres and [Al] Williamson. For awhile, they were sitting side by side.
Even when he tried to draw Wood you could see the Orlando: he has his own style.
It’s stiffer; it doesn’t flow as well. I don’t mean the drawing, I mean the ink line. It’s a more solid, staid line than Woody’s.
So Woody dropped out of sight for awhile...
The next time he and I made any real contact was when he started working at EC.
You came in with Kurtzman, right? Wood was already working for Feldstein then.
Yes, he was. I’m sure. Right. Harvey and I talked about this idea: Woody was one of the four guys that was going to be in this Mad
Harvey was thinking up. Harvey knew who to give the jobs to. That’s what made EC so different. You didn’t just walk into an office, you were part of a group. You drank coffee with the publisher, you argued with the editor, you loaned cigarettes to the mail boy. And it showed! It showed! They shot the breeze one around the other and came up with ideas. Not in a formal manner. I mean, it wasn’t “Run it up the flagpole...” These guys didn’t have any flagpole. They didn’t even have a flag. They just sat around and shot the breeze. “Hey, that was a good idea...”
This was going on most of the time?
Yeah. You might go in there sometime and find two people in the office. The next time you might find eight. And it was the conversations back and forth over the editor’s desk, with him saying, “Bill has an idea. Why don’t you do this? Why don’t you do that?” And it went on and on and on all the time. Whether or not many good ideas came out of this is totally unimportant. The thing was the feeling was so totally different from any other comic company that, sort of, inside, you wanted to do your best for these guys. For the guys. Whereas you did your best for the other people because you wanted a paycheck—and wanted another script so you could get another paycheck. I wouldn’t say I did it for the love of it, personally, but you wanted to do your best for them for some reason. It was like your own neighborhood gang.
Well, everybody was roughly of an age.
Yeah. They were.
A cohesive group of young turks. This story in Frontline Combat #15, “Perimeter,” “kiddie drawing” raised to some higher level.
It’s on a higher level is what it is. You're right. But this is the appeal he had. If you analyze Woody’s drawing, you’ll find that it’s totally distorted, all out of proportion. But who the hell cares? Look. You know what that figure’s [in “Perimeter” splash foreground] doing but if you analyze that thing, those legs come from hips that are [expansive gesture] far apart. One leg is over there, and one leg is over here, he’ll do it any old time, and it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. His storytelling ability, his black and white. He just makes a very entertaining picture. That is all that is required. That’s why you like Feldstein, his pictures are something else: they’re entertaining. Woody does a much better job, though. He’s got a looseness to his inking that’s very attractive. Wood doesn’t draw helmets that fit on the head. Okay, who cares? The thing is good. Look on the cheeks of this guy here [page two, panel seven above]. Unbelievable. The guy has obviously got a box lunch in his mouth. Never mattered to me with him. Never.
That’s because he’s got a way of making you feel like you’re there.
Ridiculous to say, but he’s good. Yes, he’s good. A lot of guys learned about highlights from him—lighting from both sides. The dark scene with the highlighting he probably got from Eisner, but it seems to me he had it before he got to Eisner.
Sometimes Wood gets so photographic that it almost outdoes that amazing piece of Russ Heath’s for
Blazing Combat #4.
That’s one that will go down in history.
And “Atom Bomb,” in Two-Fisted Tales #33, I don’t understand how he got the time or energy to turn it out like that.
He was a workaholic. In between playing the guitar.
Oh, he played guitar?
Yeah. He played at parties.
I never heard him play that I remember. He’d give me advice on playing, though.
One time when I was living in Jersey, he wanted me to buy him a gun. Considering the way he went, I’m sure glad I didn’t get that thing for him. Because it might have been the one that did it. Not that it would matter, but it might have made me feel funny.
Yeah, but you can’t... I mean.... In going back over the early stories (and he wasn’t writing them, I agree) you see panel after panel of guys blowing their own heads off. The horror, the crime, the shock.
Oh, I wouldn’t have felt guilty, because that’s his decision in the final analysis. But that wouldn’t have given him the idea, though. That’s just a coincidence. For instance, maybe I’ve drawn a lot of guys... I haven’t, though.
But you don’t know how you’re gonna die.
Yeah. But I’m not gonna blow my brains out.
It’s a ghoulish approach to comics, but I get a pretty strange feeling when I see those Alex Raymond panels of car crashes. That’s coincidence in its way, but—
It makes sense, though. For instance, Raymond was in¬terested in cars, and he put cars in his stories. Cracking up cars and having car chases was a good thing to do for him. It happens that since he owned cars and liked cars, he got himself killed in one. Woody liked guns and so forth. That’s why he could draw the stuff that way. He was interested in those kind of stories, and that’s why they gave them to him. So it happens that at the end he decided to use a gun. I’m sure that if he collected Sherman tanks he might have crawled under the treads. But what’re you gonna do? A guy drowns because he’s around water. Or hangs because he plays with ropes. You can’t go into too much coincidence on these things. Woody avoided more than he coped. If he didn’t like a place he stayed away from it. And making a decision: he would be inclined to let the rest of them make a decision. And if it was okay, he’d go along, and if it wasn’t, he just wouldn’t do it. But he wouldn’t get too involved in making the positive decision. I guess all this stuff got to be a little too much for him. You know, it was not going to be worth it. To him.
Well, it was also the fact that he was very determinedly a comic artist.
That was his life.
He wouldn’t edit
Witzend. It had some interesting pieces in it, but it never seemed to cohere into a whole.
It needed a force behind it and Woody wasn’t a force. His work was his force. As you say, that was Woody on the paper more than in real life. He put everything he had into that stuff. You wouldn’t have found out as much about Woody talking to him as you would looking at his work. I liked him. He had a great sense of humor. It was wry; but it was quiet, retiring, removed. “Keep me in the corner.” Even when he was quiet and restrained he got some kind of respect. It was due to the work and the fact that he didn’t do anything to cause anybody to get mad at him. He didn’t swear, he didn’t drink too much—I don’t know, he might have got to winging it later on. But he’s just a good guy. He had certain respect offered him. They’d ask for his opinions, since he never gave them. “What do you think, Woody?” You don’t do that to someone you have no respect for. What can I tell you? I liked Tatjana very much. She’s great. Very interesting gal.
He destroyed his own erotica.
I didn’t know he did much of it at all. I would suspect it from certain things, but I only know he did it for certain magazines. For a buck at that particular moment. He did go for a lot of nudies running around. But I accepted those for what they were, and of course I nearly flipped when somebody showed me... what was it in? Hustler
The filthy stuff? It was in
Yeah. But even when Woody did that, it didn’t have that dirty feeling. Isn’t that funny? It was just straight flat out pornography. It was about as dirty as those little eight-page books were, but he could do things like that and get away with it. Another guy could do the same damn thing and get shot down.
Wood did it all. Could do it all. He was serious about it.
But there are a lot of them out there, a lot of people in this business all through the years who have... It was their life. Nothing on the side like wives, girl¬friends, church. It was the focal point of anything that they did. But Wood was more so than any one person that I know. He was totally wrapped up in it. A quick contrast, not to bring me in: there are guys like me in the business who treat it like a business. It’s the way I earn a living. But not so with these guys. This is their whole life. It is central to what they are doing. What they do that isn’t directly involved with comics is on the fringe of the same kind of thinking, the same philosophy. The musicians you say he hung out with probably were involved in that kind of thinking and some of it would go comic and some of it would go another direction. Dope, I don’t know.
No, dope wasn’t one of Wood’s problems.
No, I don’t mean him. All this meshwork. It goes in different directions. I mean, I was trying to find out where this stuff in Heavy Metal
came from, and I assumed—
You’re making the assumption that it came from drugs.
You have to smoke marijuana to understand Lampoon
You have seen Flo Steinberg’s Big Apple, right? No parody more vicious than self parody.
But you see, no matter what you looked at, you always got the feeling it’s somehow amusing. You didn’t ever feel cruddy; he would draw cruddy people, and they looked cruddy. But the picture didn’t come off as a cruddy picture. [In Wood’s “My Word,” Big Apple
] I think this is one of the funniest things in this splash [the kid with the erection, lower left]. What is that thing? It isn’t a real human being. But that’s Woody. My sister is so embarassed to have done work in here.
Oh, I think Big Apple is great. I always liked Flo Steinberg.
Yeah. I do too. She’s cra-azy.
She gets the credit for this. In some ways, it’s got more editorial direction than
Flo has more to say than Woody would say. Not that he could say, but that he would say. Woody wouldn’t. Why wouldn’t Woody? I don’t know. Woody would. Would he? The only other thing is the personality side of Woody—what can you say? I enjoyed him. I think he liked me. The only contact I ever had with him business-wise was the one job we did together in which I managed to screw up his pencils. Totally.
Which job was that?
It wasn’t for EC. It was [“Creeps” in Creepy
#78] for Warren. Wood did the pencils. They were looking for some bum to do the inks, and they gave it to me. I don’t mean that you’d look at it and throw up, but when you realize it was Woody, it was no longer Woody when I got through with it. Nor was it me. Which might have been a little help. I had done about three jobs with, I think it was Infantino, and the editor sent me a “Woody.” Would I like to do it? Sure. Be interesting. But Woody didn’t put it on the right kind of paper for me; he had a tooth on his paper. I like a slicker paper. The most tooth I want is what you get on Duo Shade. Strathmore with the chemicals in the paper gives it a tooth. That’s the only tooth I want, because I can’t loosen up, my pens scratch all over. Starting with the wrong kind of paper I managed to goof it. I would have liked to see a good Woody job come out of it. Be nice. But I didn’t even do a good Severin inking job, if there is such a thing. It didn’t come out Severin; it sure wasn’t Wood—but you can see the two of us are there. And maybe that’s the problem. Two people who are either too strong for one another. Or something. Maybe too much alike. He and I aren’t alike at all, as a matter of fact.
Certainly at EC you were never combined.
Oh, no. They didn’t do much combining at all at EC. I think it’s been a big mistake in the business. I don’t mean each individual instance has been a mistake. Sometimes it’s been good. But the idea of combining the artists, I mean the inker and the penciller, that’s a bad deal. You dilute both people.
You’re not doing a service to either artist.
Now and then you find an exception, but that proves the rule. But I have to draw it, and like Woody in a way, and why I can understand him—being that way, I put me in there. And if I draw it, if I ink it, it’s alive. Then I get on to the next one. But when somebody else draws it, it’s just a matter of making it ready for production. And I really cannot get into the stuff. A nose is a nose is a nose is a nose. It means nothing. But when I draw a nose, it’s a particular nose. On this particular guy. Who has a particular soul. That I created. [laughs
] As a result, I’ll louse anybody up.
"The Million Year Picnic" Weird Fantasy #21 (September-October 1953)
John Severin by Marie Severin
Labels: clark dimond, severin, wood