At the end of the silver age of comic books (which was sometime the early 70s) there was a well known cigarette ad campaign which would proudly proclaim to the ladies “You’ve come a long way, baby.” But sadly while the wider world of publishing started to open up to women, the comic book biz was — and still today largely a boys club. Now I can already hear the indignation from my fellow fanboys, but here’s the evidence:
Tomorrow is the 80th birthday of a living legend in the field of comics — yet sadly in my humble opinion not enough people today know the name Marie Severin. Yet like a Stan Lee or a Jack Kirby by all rights Severin should be one of a handful of names that every fanboy (and fangurl too) knows. So today in some small way I’m going to try to tell her story in the hopes that she finds a wider level of appreciation for the doors that she opened for so many, and my hope that you’ll all do the same.
Born on August 21st, 1929 Marie Severin grew up in a creative household: Her father was a World War I vet who made his living as a designer for the cosmetics company Elizabeth Arden. Marie secretly aspired to be a stained glass artist, and even attended Pratt for a couple of months taking illustration classes — but after quitting school to try and get started in her field she found herself working away on Wall Street.
But as fate would have it in 1949 her older brother John Severin (who is also another living comic book legend, but that’s a tale for another day) got Marie a coloring gig at EC Comics. Her first coloring work appears in A Moon, a Girl… Romance issue #9. Now I realize today that isn’t unusual, but you need to understand something: Back then that was very rare in that world. There were only three other women in the entire company at this point: Gloria Orlando (who married to Joe Orlando in 1951), Nancy Siegel (who married the publisher in 1955) and the receptionist. As you can see there wasn’t so much of a glass ceiling, but more of a “wedding cake wall” that career minded women would hit in the narrow minded world of the 50s.
During this era Marie worked on almost every aspect of the craft of producing comic books from inking, lettering and coloring to pencils. It’s also important to note that she worked on the main titles at EC like Crime SuspenStories, Haunt of Fear and Weird Science-Fantasy as opposed to the lesser educational titles that EC produced. Unfortunately EC Comics ceased publications by the mid-50s due to the infamous Comics Code censorship crackdown. Out of the ashes of this Mad magazine emerged, but unfortunately Marie had a tough go of it. At first she got some work at Atlas Comics (which would later become Marvel Comics) but an industry downturn pushed her back to Wall Street doing graphics work for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Below: The EC Comics staff in the 50s illustrated by Marie Severin.
Now this may have been the end of this story, and at this point Severin could have left the business for greener pastures, but alas Marie was no quitter! In 1959 she marched right back in the business as the industry started to bounce back into hat would be known as the silver age of comic books. Unlike the innovative work that EC Comics did with every genre from war to romance, this era (which would last until the 70s) was dominated by super heroes. And our hero Marie got into the door of marvel doing unappreciated production coloring work.
Over time Marie went from doing coloring to penciling and inking work: Titles she worked on include The Incredible Hulk, Submariner, X-Men, The Amazing Spider-Man, Iron Man and Daredevil. Although my favorite from this period is Not Brand Echh on which she did some amazing work. This wonderful short series lasted only 13 issues from 1967 until 1969 and was an internal parody of Marvel Comics produced by Marvel Comics. This series really drew on her previous experience at EC Comics, and what makes the series so unusual is that it’s not done in the typical Marvel Comics style of that era — instead it really reminds you of something that you might see in Mad magazine. Not Brand Echh was deliciously cartoony, and credit for that should go to Marie (although other top Marvel artists from that era worked on the book, the best work was done by Severin).
At this point as you may have gathered comic books are a fickle business (even if you’re a man) and as an industry (not too much unlike any other entertainment industry by the way) it’s not very kind to its veterans. By the early 80s the silver age of comic books had come to an end, and many of the creative talents from that era moved on, died or were just replaced by younger cheaper talent. And during this era Marvel kept Marie going in their special projects division which focused on non-comic book work like licensing for toys and film and TV tie-ins comics.
So during this era she plugged away, but working in an unappreciated manner on comics books based on the A-Team and Alf. But you want to know something? Even if you look at her inking and coloring on these lesser titles, her work is really A+. And on the good side half the trick of earning a business as an artist is sometimes just staying in business. But even then if you look at some of the projects where she did get to do the pencils they’re fantastic. Here’s a very fluid looking panel that she created for Marvel’s Fallen Angels #3 from 1987 — frankly to me this looks much better than most of the better known Marvel titles from this era (found via occasionalsuperheroine):
Being a cyclical industry the 90s were a bad time for comic books, and by 1996 after some very poor management Marvel went bankrupt. During this era the company hit bottom and let Marie go as they focused on really bad gimmicks to try and save the company (which didn’t work by the way). And at this point in the story you can see why Marie is a hero to me, firstly being very professional she has always refused to bad mouth Marvel about that era — but more importantly she still didn’t quit the business.
To her credit she kept working on titles doing work for Claypool Comics on titles like Soulsearchers and Company. Around 2003 she was asked to recolor reprints of many of the old EC Comics from the 50s, and at long last she got some recognition for her many years by earning both the Harvey and Eisner awards (which is about as good as you can get). Having come full circle she retired around the middle of this decade, but was still doing small projects here and there.
In 2007 at 78 years old she was hit by a stroke: But alas if you haven’t realized it yet — Marie Severin is not a quitter! She recovered and moved on to an assisted living facility. At this point in time Marie has retired and is no longer drawing comics, but our last reports from the field indicate that she is in high spirits. There’s that old but often ignored baseball expression “it’s not if you win or lose, it’s how you play the game”, well in any creative professional endeavor just being in the game is often winning it. So as one who awakes every day to fight another fight Marie Severin is a real superhero in my book: Sixty years ago she started working in one of the toughest fields and came back time-and-time again and that speaks very highly of someone to me: So happy 80th birthday Marie! To me you’re a real superhero…
Below: A rare layout sketch for a Sub Mariner cover by Marie Severin. My bet is that the cartoony quality of this sketch never made it to the ink phase, but for my money it’s brilliant! Found via theartistschoice.com.
Below: The loving level of chaos and detail is great on this cover of Not Brand Echh #10 from Oct. 1968, illustrated by Marie Severin.