Goodbye To A Comics Craftsman
♦ Tripwire’s senior editor Andrew Colman pays tribute to Russ Heath, who has just died at the age of 91…
Russ Heath, who passed away on 23 August, was perhaps the great anomaly in American comics – a virtuoso, craftsman artist beloved by fandom and his peers, but never really mentioned in the same breath as more hallowed names such as Eisner, Fine, Schomburg, Kirby, Frazetta, Adams, Wrightson or Miller. This despite one of the cleanest lines in comics, his versatility, and attention to detail. And the fact that his work was, from the mid-1950s onwards, breathtakingly good.
Raised in New Jersey, Heath, after a brief spell in the army, managed to get a position at Timely Comics (Marvel Comics’ 1940s iteration) at the tail end of the company’s hero – dominated, Golden Age period. It was at this juncture that super-hero titles began their across the board decline, with other genres taking over – initially western and romance comics. Having been influenced by western artists in the first place, Heath was assigned to illustrate stories featuring classic characters like Two-Gun Kid and Kid Colt. By the 1950s, other genres started to dominate the marketplace, chiefly horror, crime and science fiction. Heath became far busier during what became known as the pre-code era of the medium, with his publisher, now called Atlas, one of the pre-eminent players.
It was here that his style began to evolve in earnest, his work on earlier Atlas books such as Marvel Boy (one of his rare super-hero efforts) and Venus leading to art assignments on anthology horror titles such as Menace, Mystic, Marvel Tales, Spellbound, Strange Tales and Journey into Mystery. Along with Bill Everett and Joe Maneely, Heath’s work defined Atlas’s signature look, his already fine lines taking on a photoreal edge – while his equally masterful colleagues verged towards Ingels-esque grotesquery, Heath’s focus remained on clarity, detail, and movement. He could provide busy covers but usually opted for simplicity and dynamism, especially in his work for Atlas’s burgeoning war line, the genre for which he is best remembered.
Apart from a few war books for E.C., Heath’s association with the genre had begun at Atlas, but became synonymous with the artist when he arrived at DC Comics in the mid 1950s, working on what would later be known as the “Big 5” war books – Our Army At War, G.I. Combat, Star Spangled War Stories, Our Fighting Forces and All-American Men of War. Despite working on almost as many DC war stories throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s as Joe Kubert, Heath was generally considered to be the junior partner of the two, his colleague thought of as the visionary who breathed characterization into DC’s best-known war property, Sgt. Rock, along with the almost as significant Enemy Ace. This despite Kubert’s acknowledgment of Heath’s genius and superiority when it came to authenticity in the depiction of war. Heath would often purchase military regalia or build scale models to assist his work, becoming the guide for all budding war artists to follow.
Nevertheless it was his brilliant art that of course stole the show – the cross-hatching, duotone, close-ups and hugely influential use of shadows (Neal Adams and Mike Mignola would no doubt consider him an influence) that he perfected during his tenure at Atlas and especially DC – nobody delineated facial expression like Heath, his fluid, painstakingly-rendered work making him as key a war artist as anyone.
And yet his profile as an artist was never as large as it might have been, his efforts infrequently namechecked by later pencillers. His fans, of course, knew how great and significant an artist he was, his regular presence and accessibility at conventions maintaining his relationship with them. In later years, when the acrimony over Roy Lichtenstein swiping his work for his paintings would boil over (despite the “Whaam” painting borrowing the panel in question from Irv Novick!) Heath was always philosophical and never embittered.
So why isn’t Russ Heath viewed as a superstar artist on a par with those aforementioned legends? To be fair those artists either were more historically pivotal or arrived during a later, more developed era for fandom. Heath was innovative while his style evolved, but the answer to that conundrum is that he never really worked on super-hero comics. His first standout work coincided with the unregulated oddity that was the Atom Age, and although his time at DC encompassed the company’s return to spandex super beings, he was either never offered any projects in that department, (unlike Kubert, who worked on Hawkman) or rejected them. Surprising given the often mediocre work gracing so many of DC’s flagship books in the 1960s. And in the second half of the 60s Heath also got work moonlighting on the satirical comic strip Little Annie Fanny, a marker that saw him gradually move away from the mainstream in his later years.
Either way, he will continue to retain his place in fandom due to the timeless and consistent excellence of his work. One of the last great artists of the classic era has left us, and with him another link with that halcyon age. But there will always be his wondrous art, waiting to be discovered.