Russ Heath 1926-2018

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There’s this myth about the comics industry that its history is filled with hacks. And while it does have its share of hacks (as every industry does), I think it has a better batting average than most. In fact, when any true comics aficionado out there decides to make a  list of great comic artists, they’ll no doubt find that their list gets long in a hurry. Among the names that will make any such list is that of Russ Heath.

Heath got his full-time start at Timely doing work on westerns and at least one Captain America story, “Fate Fixed a Fight,” from Captain America Comics #71 (March 1949). As the superhero trend died in the early 50s, Heath would do most of his work in the sci-fi, crime, horror, and war genres. He would continue his work in the latter category with EC comics, to much acclaim, before settling in at DC by the early 60s.

Sea Devils was also among his more high-profile work during this time.

In the 70s, he’d get a lot of work on Warren’s B&W mags.

A sample page of Heath’s contribution to Creepy #83 (Oct. 1976).

 

Heath was also once drafted to help out fellow EC alums Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder on their Playboy strip “Little Annie Fanny” when they were up against a deadline, flying out to Chicago’s Playboy Mansion to do so—and then stuck around at the mansion for several months afterward because he was having too much fun to bear leaving.

But perhaps most famously (or infamously), it was Heath’s comic-book art for one of DC’s war books that was lifted for several pop-art paintings by Roy Lichtenstein. Heath went uncredited and unpaid for this despite the fact that Lichtenstein essentially swiped his art completely.

Although he came up during a period when comic art was normally simple, Heath’s work was absolutely rich with detail. He was quite ahead of his time in that respect. Just look at another sample of one his later pieces for Warren:

Opening title page of “Yellow Heat,” from Vampirella #58 (Mar. 1977).

 

…Feel free to tell your eyes “you’re welcome.”

As mentioned previously, I didn’t buy many war books at the time they were originally published, nor did I read too many issues of Warren’s Creepy or Eerie, but when I caught up to them later, I was blown away but some of the work I saw—particularly Heath’s. For a more detailed overview of his life and career, check out the write-up from The Comics Journal here.

R.I.P., Russ Heath.

Empty Chairs

In the wake of all these recent deaths among legendary comics creators, Paul Levitz offered some perspective, courtesy of his Facebook page.

September 1 at 2:21 PM ·

With the recent run of deaths of comic creators from the generation who worked from the ‘50s onward, it occurs to me that depth of emotional reactions from those of us who came into comics may use some explanation. Like so many out there, we had grown up on the work of folks like Steve Ditko and Russ Heath, who were consistent presences in our comics spinner racks every week or two. But not to diminish the grief of those of you who only knew these folks through their work (and getting to know Steve, for example, was a hell of a challenge), but these were members of a VERY small community that my generation was admitted to in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. My best estimate is that there was only enough work going around in 1972 when I started for about 200 full time jobs or solid freelance existences in American comics, and although there were always a number of folks who weren’t full timers, most comics were done by people for whom this was the primary source of income. Most of the folks (90% perhaps) were in the NY metro area in the days before FedEx (much less digital), and besides working together, shared studio spaces, apartments, poker games, volleyball and softball in Central Park, dinners and movie nights.

Think about how small a community of 200 is…maybe a graduating class in suburban high school? While not everyone hung out together (Marie Severin never sketched me, to my great regret, Russ and I had sort of a nodding acquaintance since he was one of the few who had departed New York by then, and I didn’t do a eulogy posting for Gary Friedrich because we didn’t even meet until years after he left comics), but everyone knew everyone, and had both creative and personal feelings for each other. And most of us were together for much more than the four years of high school. So when one of us goes, it’s not just the loss of their magic from our reading pleasure, it’s the reaper standing by the desk that might have been next to ours in class.

I was extraordinarily lucky as a young man to get to work with some of comics’ first generation, and to become friends with many people who were a decade or more older than I am. But it feels awfully weird to look around that community in my head and count the empty chairs, and I don’t think I’m the only one feeling that way.

If you “only” miss these folks for their work, thanks for your sympathy and for your support whether from buying their work years ago or donating to Hero Initiative. But if members of the community get a bit weepy, maybe this will help you understand why.

Paul Levitz

It’s heartbreaking to see it in such terms, but it’s also the harsh reality that we inevitably must face: Once this generation has faded from the Earth, they’ll be gone forever, never to be seen nor heard from again. It will be an agonizing loss and there’s no way to avoid it.

 

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