Sunday, August 26, 2018

Graphic Grandeur: Russ Heath

Comic book artist Russ Heath worked for Timely (now Marvel) Comics on their Western line and for a while assisted Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder on Little Annie Fanny for Playboy, but is best known for the war comics he drew for DC in the 1960s. Take a look (but first make sure you're wearing your flak jacket):

I'm not sure Mahatma Gandhi would approve, but you have to admit this is some pretty lively comic art.

Need to cool off after all that combat? Let's go for a swim:

Where's the Coast Guard when you need it?

 Where's the game warden when you need him?

Though his career spanned a major revival of superhero comics (today referred to as the "Silver Age"), Heath surprisingly drew very few of those, but here's one he did do:   

I knew she was a tease.

On an assignment for Mad, Heath parodied a superhero...

...who was pretty much a parody to begin with (comics history buffs will note a certain alligator,  a certain cat, a certain phantom, a certain sandwich gourmand, and a certain hyena--there might be others I can't identify, so if you can, please let me know in the comments section.)

Anyone out there care to hum a few bars of the William Tell Overture? It would be a great way to introduce...

...The Lone Ranger! Heath drew the comic strip version of the famous Western hero (I'd say his Tonto is more Jay Silverheels than Johnny Depp.)

 In recent years, Heath drew pretty girls for Glamourpuss, a satirical black-and-white comic book in Canada.

I must have missed the bondage episode, because I don't recall Marlo Thomas ever looking like that. "Oh, Donald!"

Probably the Russ Heath art that was seen by the most eyeballs was not anything on the front or on the inside or a comic book but on the back cover:

Let's move on to another historical period:

 Suppose you plunked down a buck ninety-eight for those Revolutionary War soldiers, what would you actually get?

Bluecoats vs Redcoats. Literally. It's a far cry from that Russ Heath drawing, but I suppose it's just as well. If gunpowder actually did burst forth from those muskets and cannons, it might make a mess of the rec room, and then what would Mom say?

In 1962, this panel drawn by Heath appeared in the DC comic book All American Men at War. A short time later...

...Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein produced this painting:

Look a bit alike, don't they? 

Now, you can go back and forth on this (as I have to myself.) You can argue Lichtenstein, a very well-known artist in his day and certainly not forgotten now, was nothing more than a plagiarist, who achieved fame by ripping off work that at the time was looked down upon and deemed to be more a mass-produced product than actual art, or you can argue he was actually making a statement about America's militaristic culture in much the same way that fellow pop artist Andy Warhol was making a statement about America's consumerist culture with his Campbell soup cans. It's hard to say which, but I do know one thing. The money that changed hands between Lichtenstein and the people (or institution) that bought his painting was much, much greater than the money that exchanged hands between work-for-hire artist Russ Heath and DC comics. Here's what Heath himself had to say about it in 2014:

 I'm afraid the then-84 year old Heaths's memory was a bit off concerning his own work. The "Whaam!" painting he refers to was actually ANOTHER Lichtenstein work based on a comic panel drawn by Irv Novick that also appeared in a 1960s DC war comic. Nevertheless, the point is well-made. Heath and Novick unwittingly helped advance Lichtenstein's career without getting any compensation in return.

If case you're wondering about the Hero Initiative that Heath mentions, it's an organization that helps aging comic book artists, many who spent their careers as benefits-deficient freelancers, help make ends meet. And, as you just read, not only did it make Heath's ends meet, he even got a bottle of wine. Speaking of wine:

A toast to Russ Heath. Rest in peace.


  1. Just found out someone I've long admired died, so expect another obit within the week. The Grim Reaper is a merciless taskmaster.

  2. So much talent! And Little Annie Fannie!

    1. Mitchell, I chose not to show a sample from Little Annie Fanny as Will Elder was the main artist on that. I will say that Heaths work blends in quite well with Elder's. Mad magazine artist Jack Davis also sometime assisted on Annie, and you can definitely tell where Elder ends and Davis bagins. Not so Heath.

  3. Hi, Kirk!

    Yes, I notice that people keep dying, providing you with a steady supply of post fodder. I didn't know Russ Heath by name, but I became familiar with his artwork during boyhood. I secretly read the Little Annie Fannie cartoons that my parents ripped from Playboy, kept in a drawer and produced during parties to entertain their adult friends. I was also a regular reader of Mad Magazine. However I did not read war comics and I am not familiar with Sea Devils or the other comics shown. Felix the Cat is the only character I recognize in that Plastic Sam parody. The only sandwich gourmand I can think of is J. Wellington Wimpy from Popeye, but I don't see him in that group. Those combat illustrations are chock-full of action. It is fascinating to study the detail that went into them.

    Thank you for paying tribute to another great 20th century comic book artist, good buddy Kirk!

    1. Oh, and Lena the Hyena is a character from Li'l Abner. The world's ugliest woman, you never actually saw her face, but Abner creator Al Capp held a contest where participants could send in drawings of her. Basil Wolverton won, thus catapulting him into the top ranks of cartonists.

  4. Everybody who's making a gazillion bucks now in the superhero movie industry should each make a big contribution to the Hero Initiative fund out of respect and gratitude.

  5. He was very talented with his art.

    1. Adam, there's been a lot of great artists in the comic book trade, but it's an industry that's been historically looked down upon. Now, I'm not saying comic books should be regarded as Western Civilization's highest achievement (that would be sitcoms--no, no, just kidding), but I like to point out talent when talent needs pointing out.