John Powers Severin's last piece

Gabe Fowler

John Powers Severin created this illustration for the cover of my newsprint periodical Smoke Signal in August of 2011. Severin is a legendary illustrator, and at 89 years old was one of the last living links to the golden age of pre-Code comic books. I sought him out, and ultimately found him by phoning information in Denver, Colorado, where he resided. I hoped he was still working, and hoped he would do something with me. Pretty intense! Severin was in the first ten issues of Mad magazine, for god's sake.

His name was unique enough that I found him on the first try, and his wife answered the phone. My timing had been oddly fortuitous, she said, because John had been ill, but was feeling better and interested in working. We knocked around some ideas. As Mr. Severin has been associated with Native American imagery since his early days working on western comics in the late 1940's, I suggested an American Indian theme. (Is it still cool to say “Indian?”)

We agreed that the title of the publication could be illustrated by an Indian sending a smoke signal. “Sounds good, but not very funny. All of this other stuff you sent looks funny, humorous.” He had noted this from the old issues I sent him. “Well…” I offered, “Maybe the source of humor come be from what the guy is burning to send the smoke signal?” “Oh sure,” he said, “what if he was burning Mad Magazines?” I hit the ceiling! What an amazing bit of satire from this old-school guy! You see, Mr. Severin purportedly left Mad Magazine in less than amicable circumstances, and ended working for the competition – Cracked Magazine – for 45 years. “Maybe we could have him burning the Mads to send the signal, and someone else could be reading Cracked?” Yes.

Later I called to nervously ask about progress on the project, and Mrs. Severin informed me the original art was already sent out by regular mail. (Gasp!) Somehow it made it, and the image is literally a summary of the man's career, including references to his earliest work (Western imagery), his biggest splash (Mad), and his long-term bread-and-butter (Cracked). It sadly turned out to be his last piece. Mr. Severin passed on February 12, 2012 at age ninety.

Here's a selection of his other work. Below, from Mad Magazine.

From Cracked Magazine

Some Western images, from Prize Comics.

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