Roy Thomas on the Passing of Marie Severin and Gary Friedrich

Posted by September 3, 2018 Comment

John Cimino, manager and agent for veteran comics creator Roy Thomas, has provided Bleeding Cool with the following statement by Roy, marking the passing of Marie Severin and Gary Friedrich in the same week. He writes:

I lost two good friends this week–and a couple of valued colleagues in the couple of weeks before that.

The valued colleagues, of course, were Steve Ditko and Russ Heath. I hardly knew either of them, particularly Steve, who was always friend to a young Marvel editor/writer in the 1960s, both while he worked there and even after… but still, it’s a loss. Perversely, I was happy to hear he may have died with a million bucks or more to his name… because that means that, however he lived in his later years, it was because he basically wanted to live that way, and not because he had to. Russ–well, Russ was Russ. He was a self-confessed ladies’ man, on top of being a spectacular talent… I remember once when he talked about having “six inches of artwork” at home once, at a party Dann and I attended early in our relationship, and we both felt the double entendre was deliberate. I last ran into him at the CAPS banquet held last November in L.A., and while he was only a shadow of his former self, he still had that sparkle in his eye.

Marie and Gary, though… I knew them both so well that their deaths have hit me hard.

Marie, of course, was working at Marvel, in the production dept.–in fact, except for production manager Sol Brodsky, she pretty much was the production department–when I came to work at Marvel in 1965. Little did we know that, within months, she would be thrown into action drawing actual comics features, first “Dr. Strange” and then The Incredible Hulk, Sub-Mariner, and, best of all, Not Brand Echh. She was something of a conservative, grounding force in the office–not responding well when there was just too much horseplay by people who should’ve been chained to their desks–but she had an impish side to her, as well, as evinced by her multitudes of office cartoons, which would have made a wonderful coffee-table book if only we’d had enough sense to save them all. Marie was never really that interested in drawing continuity, though, and one senses that she was happy to withdraw more to drawing or laying out covers after a few years in the front trenches. It didn’t make her any less valuable… and we won’t even talk about her coloring talent, or else we’d be here all night. (After all, to all of us, once we learned that she had colored much of the fabled EC line, she trailed clouds of glory.) Even in her later years, as Alzheimer’s took its toll and confined her to a nursing facility, she seemed–according to Scott Edleman, Irene Vartanoff, Drew Friedman, and others who visited her and helped Marie and me exchange greetings by proxy–to have a lot of good days, with smiles where others could not have summoned them. I’m moved almost to tears at the recent photo of her holding up a copy of the CRAZY color comics cover where she flawlessly executed a notion of mine that had the Fantastical Four all ganging up in vain on Stuporman… both for the cover itself, and for the memory of the wonderful time I’d had working with her on the Stuporman parody when it had first appeared in NBE. I think it was probably the fondest moment for both of us in NBE… although there’s also our Simple Surfer parody of SILVER SURFER #1… and all the wonderful stories she did with Stan and Gary Friedrich. Many others will probably reminisce by poring over her Doc Strange, Subby, and Hulk… but for me there was nothing to compare with NOT BRAND ECHH.

Gary… well, for me, he’s in a different category even from Marie. We first met circa 1957-58, when I was still in high school (probably not quite yet in college, as I hastily wrote elsewhere), and he came to work at the Palace Theatre in Jackson, MO, where I’d been working for three years or so already. There was a 3-year difference in our ages, but we became good friends… and of course, as the years went by, that age difference mattered less and less. I didn’t know that he was a comics fan I don’t think, until the 1959 night I went down the street to Fulenwider’s drug store and brought back the first SHOWCASE issue featuring the new Green Lantern. Gary enjoyed it too… he was never the comics fan I was, but turned out he had been just old enough to appreciate some of MAD in its color-comics incarnation. In fact, that’s why we dreamed up the concept of BRAND ECHH which we pitched to Stan over lunch one day… only to see him gleefully hijack it and turn into a much more commercial entity than our original idea.

In between, we were part and parcel of a gaggle of teenage boys who drove arise raising mild hell… not the Wild Ones, more like the half-wild ones… though there was that fire he and another guy set to a big sawdust pile at a mill one Halloween, and then rejoined us so we could tell the cops about the fire before it went too far. (Needless to say, he didn’t tell the rest of us that he and the other guy had set the fire in the first place.) And there was the time the city fathers were about to dedicate a big new fountain in the town square near city hall… and Gary and another guy, the night before, dumped some sort of super-soapy substance in it, so that when the water was turned on, bubbles quickly erupted and flowed over the edge of the fountain, to the consternation of one and all. Like I said, the half-wild. I remember how, on 2 or 3 occasions, he and I and one or two friends drove from Jackson to St. Louis, a two-hour trip, just to see the movie “West Side Story” on the big screen; on one occasion we were tired and tried to keep awake on the way home by drinking very cold beer, but that didn’t work out well at all. We’re just lucky that it didn’t work out a whole lot more badly.

Later, I guess in early 62, he founded a rock band called the Gaberlunzies (same name as the riding-around group we’d had earlier), with himself as drummer, me as vocalist, a just-out-of-reform-school Elvis lookalike named Rocky as lead guitarist, and a Cape Girardeau college student named Frank on bass. We had a more or less weekly gig at the Jackson roller rink for a year or two, plus other appearances from time to time, came in at the end of 1963 and destroyed us, since I was the only one who wanted to sing and groups were now in. (Well, Gary and I would occasionally duet on novelty songs like “Paul and Paula” and “Speedy Gonzales,” but otherwise it was just me singing songs by Elvis, Bobby Darin, and the like–and trying to stop Rocky from beating Gary up when Gary couldn’t resist berating a guy who could’ve taken him–and me–apart with one hand tied behind his back.) Those rock’n’roll gigs were the only thing I probably enjoyed (except for the meagre money) more than writing comics years later.

In late 1965, ensconced at Marvel, I convinced Gary to come to New York to join me, partly to get him away from his drinking buddies in Missouri. It didn’t work, of course. Gary continued drinking more than was good for him for some years, but he was never a sullen or nasty drunk… it just wouldn’t do him any good, that’s all. I told him that we could work together on some comics, and convinced Dick Giordano at Charlton to give him a shot… but Gary took to comics writing like Donald Duck to water, and I never had to help him in that department. Matter of fact, when he went on his (2nd) honeymoon for a week and I tried writing a Charlton romance story to help him out, I froze up and couldn’t finish it. Gary had to complete it when he came back. Soon, though, when there was a vacancy at Marvel (probably after the very brief employment of a young playwright named Ron Whyte who thought a lot more of himself than I ever thought of him–or him of me), I had Gary take a Marvel writing test and he was soon employed on staff as well as doing freelance writing.

He wasn’t really made for a staff job, though, and eventually took off for California with a girlfriend. I forget the details–or was it the woman who’d become the third of his eventual five wives? I do know he ended up dealing blackjack in Reno, Nevada, for a little while, before moving to L.A. In 1969 he talked me (with my wife Jeanie) into coming out there so we could drive over to Vegas as see our joint idol, Elvis Presley, on his first appearance there since a disastrous short run in 56 or 57. Great fun–except for driving several hours across the desert with a guy who insisted on smoking. (“Smoky Stover” and “Cochise” were the two nicknames his artist friend John Verpoorten had for him, used scornfully when we’d go to the movies with him and have to sit in the smoking section–yes, they had them in movie theatres in those days.)

Of course, his big triumphs at Marvel, along with some NOT BRAND ECHH work that gets reprinted a lot, were his offbeat SGT. FURY stories about war lovers, medics, and deserters… quite different fare from what I’d done for the feature the year before… work that was “radical” enough that his ink/artist John Severin sometimes got angry about the stories. He did some nice CAPTAIN AMERICA, S.H.I.E.L.D., DAREDEVIL… and of course, famously, out of his notion creating a new motorcycle-riding super-villain called Ghost Rider to combat Daredevil came, right away, one of Marvel’s best-remembered off all its so-called “horror heroes” of the 1970s.

We had a few strains after Gary moved to L.A., then to Missouri, with his third wife, Nancy (the second was named Cindy, for those keeping score… and I’ll be damned if I can recall the name of his first and the moment). Gary’s drinking was getting the better of him, I felt, and his work was being sloppy, and I told him so. He wrote me an angry, probably drunken letter, which I simply returned to him by mail with two words added to it: “You’re fired.” My plan, of course, was to use this bit of “tough love” to get Gary to straighten out before he became irretrievably messed up… but then I left the editor-in-chief position soon afterwards, and my successors had no reason to overlook Gary’s foibles. Lucky for him, John Verpoorten was production manager, and he soon found ways to get Gary writing work from Marvel without bothering to deal with the new editors… ignoring my firing him. That was fine by me, when I found out about it… I just wanted him to straighten out.

Eventually he did. Before he himself passed away too young (age 53) in February 1973, Bill Everett–who had been our sometime roommate in Greenwich Village and on E. 87th Street–razzed him constantly about his drinking… once Bill himself had joined AA so that he and Gary were no longer carousing around together. In the 1980s, I guess it was, Gary–after a fourth marriage, to a Jackson girl named Karen who was a fine person but eventually couldn’t stand the drinking, Gary later told me–Gary started going to AA himself and quit drinking for good. He also met a fine lady named Jean, and they got married in 1988… so his fifth marriage, the good one, lasted the last 30 years of his life. She’s a splendid person, and stood by Gary when, a few years ago, he contracted Parkinson’s disease on top of the near-deafness that had plagued him for years. They lived for some years in Arnold, Missouri, just south of the St. Louis County line–an odd coincidence, since I had taught at Fox High School in Arnold for three years and Gary had occasionally visited me there. They had moved a few miles away to Imperial, MO, before he died. I last visited Gary in April of 2016, when I went back to Missouri to my mother’s funeral. We just had an hour together, and it was hard for him to hear me… but his Parkinson’s didn’t prevent him from being enthusiastic. He seemed to fret more about his abortive attempts to locate a hearing-aid that worked for him than about the Parkinson’s, but maybe that was just an act for my benefit.

I’ve regretted these last few years, that the combination his hearing loss (so no phone) and Parkinson’s (which, along with other health problems, eventually made it difficult for him to compose more than a sentence or two of an e-mail) made us virtually incommunicado. I was looking forward to seeing him when I go back to Jackson this coming February… in fact, I had persuaded the host of the event that is bringing me in to make him a co-guest, and that was in the works. But it was not to be. I heard from Jean that she had had to move him to a nursing facility shortly before, because she could no longer care for him at home… and then that he was in intensive care and not expected to live long, nor did he want his life artificially prolonged (any more than my mother had–but she was in her 90s! to me, Gary was still a youngster). And then, as I was figuring out that I could fly down to Missouri the following week to see him if he was up to receiving visitors, I got the word from Jean’s sister that Gary had passed away the night before.

Well… Gary was a realist. He probably would still have hated the phrase “passed away.” When he was, for some months circa 1964, the editor of one of the Jackson daily newspapers, he had raged about that phrase. “People die,” he’d say, echoing the editor who had trained him–“they don’t ‘pass away’!”

Well, whatever it is… Gary’s done it. We all do it sooner or later. But meanwhile, I think Gary had a pretty good time many, perhaps even most of his years on this planet–especially in his youth, and after he met Jean. How many good years do you need to be able to say that a life was a success?

Gary’s life was a success, and while they are only a tiny part of his legacy, the stories he wrote for Marvel Comics are at least a part of that success. They’ll be around for a long time.

But I’d give them all up forever to have Gary back.

Roy Thomas

(Last Updated September 3, 2018 3:02 pm )