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August 27, 2018


Russell "Russ" Heath Jr., 1926-2018

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By SC Ringgenberg
Special To The Comics Reporter


imageThe word legend often gets bandied about when referring to some of the most venerable comics artists, some of whom are frankly unworthy of the appellation. However, Russ Heath the comics artist really was a legend, though he was always more of a realistic illustrator in the mold of artists like Alex Raymond and Hal Foster -- an early inspiration. As he said in a 2002 interview in Comic Book Marketplace, "I wouldn't even use the word cartoonist. I don't even like it for myself."

Although Heath had originally intended to crack the slick magazines like Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post as an illustrator, that career was not be. So, for year after year, he quietly produced hundreds and hundreds of pages of gorgeous artwork, mostly for DC, but also for Warren, Timely/Marvel, the 1970s Atlas imprint, and even made forays into the 3-D arena during its heyday of the 1950s under editor Joe Kubert. Aside from his realistic art, Heath also contributed to humor magazines like Mad -- both in its comic book and magazine incarnations -- Trump, Wild, National Lampoon and Cracked.

Heath's humor work included a long stint working with Will Elder and Harvey Kurtzman on the "Little Annie Fannie" strip for Playboy, from 1962 through 1969. While assisting Kurtzman, Heath even lived for a brief time in the Chicago-era Playboy Mansion after traveling there to assist Kurtzman and Elder on a tight deadline. Heath took up residence there, ordering meals from the mansion's kitchen, having his dry cleaning sent out, and taking advantage of being around so many beautiful women before the mansion management realized he was still there and asked him to leave.

Heath's last work in comics took the form of covers he did for the Aardvark-Vanaheim comic Glamourpuss. To the last, Heath was unfailingly meticulous about accuracy in his work. Editors knew that if you needed an artist who could accurately depict every bolt, port and flange on a Tiger tank, Russ Heath was the go-to guy. His flair for costuming and realistic period detail was also put to good use by DC Comics on series such as "The Golden Gladiator" and "Robin Hood" in the The Brave and the Bold title when it still featured swashbuckling adventures like the above-named strips and Kubert's "Viking Prince."

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The source of his penchant for realism was Heath's father, as he explained in a 2002 interview for Comic Book Marketplace:
"My father... had been a cowboy, and when we'd go to these Saturday afternoon movies. You know, at the movies they had these continuous things, like Tom Mix or The Lone Ranger, serials I guess it was, and he'd say, 'Oh, no self-respecting cowboy would wear that fancy thingamabob there,' you know. So I, you know, he says, 'Anybody that was really in there, that was a cowboy would know that, you know, that fancy hopped-up costume, and that, I guess, got me on the trail to be authentic so that the people, your audience, might believe that you might have some knowledge of what the heck you're drawing."
Heath worked in the comics business for more seven decades, beginning with Timely in the late 1940s, but is probably best-known for the war and western comics he did for DC, Marvel, and Warren. However, Heath's comics work included humor, crime, science fiction, and horror comics, in addition to a smattering of superhero stories (Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, Son of Satan, The Punisher, Marvel Boy, The Human Torch) and covers. He was never very comfortable with the superhero genre, as he mentioned in another part of his Comic Book Marketplace interview.
"... when I do some characters in capes or costumes, they look like they're ready to go to a Halloween party, you know. They don't look convincing... the one thing I missed completely was to get into the feeling and character and you know, not be so absolutely literal in everything, I mean, because to get into the character as it was meant... envisioned to be... my stuff, to me, here and there there's terribly stiff panels of [Batman] standing there looking, again, like he should go to a costume party."
imageAmong his notable achievements outside of superheroes are the co-creation of "The Haunted Tank" in Our Army at War and Sea Devils -- both in collaboration with longtime DC writer/editor Robert Kanigher. Heath also did some work for Kurtzman on the Mad comic book and the early issues of its magazine incarnation, then went on to work with Kurtzman again on Trump, and assisted Will Elder with drawing "Annie Fannie" whenever they were in a deadline crunch -- which was fairly often.

"Annie Fannie" was not Heath's sole effort as a ghost artist. He also assisted syndicated cartoonists like George Wunder on Terry and the Pirates, Dan Barry on Flash Gordon, and Stan Lynde on his western series, Latigo. Heath took on the art chores for the syndicated Lone Ranger newspaper strip from 1981 through 1984, but it's fair to say that he spent the vast majority of his career toiling away in the comic book salt mines. Some of his more notable latter-day assignments were drawing the graphic novel adaptation of the film made from Dave Stevens' The Rocketeer and inking a Shadow graphic novel (The Shadow: Hitler's Astrologer) over Michael Kaluta's pencils.

Heath also created two widely-seen advertisements for toy sets featuring Revolutionary War soldiers and Roman Legionaries that ran in the interiors and back covers of comic books from the 60s to the 70s. Heath was not allowed to sign either of these pieces, but he did manage to sneak his initials into the Revolutionary War soldiers ad. Sharp-eyed fans of his work recognized his clean, superbly realistic rendering and relished them as excellent examples of his style. Kids conned into buying the toys these ads were advertising were less enthusiastic.

As Heath noted in a two-part 2007 interview ("A Tribute to the Silver Age of DC Comics"):
"I got 50 bucks for those two separate pages. ... A lot of people didn't know I did them because [the client] didn't want them signed. I did have a small "RH" on the lower left-hand corner of the Revolutionary soldiers and I don't remember about the Roman soldiers. Then [customers] would blame me [when the actual toys were not as depicted]; I'd never seen the damned things, because they're like a bas relief or whatever they call it. They're not fully formed, not three dimensional. It would be flat things that were shaped a little and the kids felt gypped and they figured that it was my fault."
In 1962, Heath drew a panel in a story for the DC war comic All-American Men of War #89 that was subsequently swiped by pop art practitioner Roy Lichtenstein and formed the basis for his paintings Whaam! and Blam. With the possible exception of his work on DC's war comics like Sgt. Rock and The Haunted Tank, these are undoubtedly Heath's images best known to the general public, even though Lichtenstein rendered Heath's original compositions in his own style.

Heath retired from comics in the 2000s, though he continued creating commissions. Like many of the people who worked in comics, Heath didn't get rich from his comics work. He was forced to live on a small pension, slim royalties from DC generated by reprints of his work, and the occasional art commission. His health in later years sometimes prevented him from, such as when he had a total knee replacement in 2011.

During his long career, Heath created a small army of fans based on the general excellence of his work throughout the time he was active in comics. Among the honors awarded Heath are a Comic-Con International Inkpot Award in 1997. Heath was inducted into the Will Eisner Comics Industry Awards Hall of Fame in 2009.

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* Jim Salicrup wrote in to correct the obituary's claim for Heath's last work.

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