RUSS HEATH 1926-2018
August 25, 2018
NCS member and Milton Caniff Award winner Russ Heath has passed away at age 91 in Long Beach, California. Russ had a storied career in cartooning that spanned eight decades, beginning in 1948 and lasting until his retirement in 2011.
After a short stint in the military at the end of WWII, Russ began his career at Manhattan’s Benton and Bowles advertising agency. Not long after in 1947, Russ landed a staff position at Timely Comics, the 1940s predecessor of Marvel Comics, for $75 a week. His first comic book work was a Kid Colt story that appeared in Wild Western #4, and he drew several westerns in the waning years of the ’40s in titles such as All Western Winners, Arizona Kid, Black Rider, and Western Outlaws.
As Timely morphed into Atlas Comics in the 1950s, Heath expanded his repertoire to include the genres of horror, science fiction, super hero, war, crime, and humor in titles like Marvel Tales, Journey Into Mystery, Marvel Boy, Strange Tales, Battle Action, Justice, and Menace. He also began to take on freelance assignments for other publishers such as EC where he drew war stories for Harvey Kurtzman’s Frontline Combat and a Plastic Man parody for MAD #14.
Russ’s impeccable attention to realistic detail in his drawings made him attractive to editor Robert Kanigher who was running DC’s line of war comics. From the 1950s through the 1970s Russ contributed a mountain of pages to DC war titles such as Our Army At War, G.I. Combat, All American Men of War, Star Spangled War Stories, and Our Fighting Forces. Also with Kanigher, Heath co-created The Haunted Tank in G.I. Combat #87, and co-created DC’s Sea Devils, a series about a team of scuba-diving adventurers. DC Comics writer and executive Paul Levitz described Heath in 2010 as a “master of texture and lighting and meticulous levels of detail. Given the chance he’d draw every barnacle on a sunken pirate ship.”
Russ became well-known for the authenticity of his military comics. He would buy uniforms and equipment from Army surplus stores to use as reference, which fellow war comics artist Joe Kubert said “…set him apart. He could illustrate mechanical things like rifles and tanks in a realistic way that few other artists could. He would build models of the things he would draw prior to drawing them and his stuff would come out right on the button. Other artists used to keep what they called a swipe file – pictures of things they may have to draw someday that they could use for reference. Russ’ work was so good, other artists used it as reference.”
One sore spot in Russ’s run as a DC war comics artist came when pop artist Roy Lichtenstein used various Heath drawings of fighter jets from All-American Men of War as the basis for his pop-art paintings Whaam!, Blam, Okay Hot-Shot, Okay!, and Brattata. The images were taken by Lichtenstein without compensation or credit to Russ and the paintings went on to sell for millions of dollars.
Russ was as adept at humor as he was at realism. Though he only contributed a few articles to MAD, he drew humor features for several of MAD’s imitators, including Harvey Kurtzman’s Humbug, venerable MAD competitor Cracked, the short-lived Atlas magazine Snafu, and Atlas’s MAD comic knock-offs, Crazy, Wild and Riot. His most well-known contributions to comedic comics appeared in the pages of Playboy. Russ was one of a few elite artists who occasionally worked with Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder on Little Annie Fanny. Anyone who ever spent time with Russ has heard him tell the legendary story of how he took up residence at the Playboy Mansion, and next to hearing it from the horse’s mouth, NCS member Mark Evanier tells it best: “One time when deadlines were nearing meltdown, Harvey Kurtzman called Heath in to assist in a marathon work session at the Playboy Mansion in Chicago. Russ flew in and was given a room there, and spent many days aiding Kurtzman and artist Will Elder in getting one installment done of the strip. When it was completed, Kurtzman and Elder left…but Heath just stayed. And stayed. And stayed some more. He had a free room as well as free meals whenever he wanted them from Hef’s 24-hour kitchen. He also had access to whatever young ladies were lounging about…so he thought, ‘Why leave?’ He decided to live there until someone told him to get out…and for months, no one did. Everyone just kind of assumed he belonged there. It took quite a while before someone realized he didn’t and threw him and his drawing table out.”
Russ also dabbled in advertising, and a few of his most famous images appeared on the backs of comic books in the 1960s and ‘70s. He is the artist responsible for those advertisements for toy soldier sets depicting Roman and Revolutionary War battle scenes. As Russ recalled: “I got fifty 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.”
Never one to limit himself, Russ also worked in the animation field on shows such as G.I. Joe, Godzilla, and The Karate Kid, and returned to the western genre drawing the revived The Lone Ranger comic strip from 1981 to 1984.
In later years, Russ was honored for his many contributions to the comic arts. He received an Inkpot Award in 1997, was inducted into the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2009, and received the Comic Art Professional Society (CAPS) Sergio Award in 2010. In 2014, the National Cartoonists Society awarded Russ the Milton Caniff Award at the annual Reuben Awards in San Diego, CA, and inducted him into the NCS Hall of Fame.
Russ Heath was a true legend in the realm of cartoonists and comic artists, an artists artist who could do it all. He will remain an inspiration and a teacher to cartoonists for generations to come. On a personal level, those who knew Russ will miss his wit and humor, his stories and bad jokes, and his genial friendship.