I first met Russ Heath at a CAPS meeting in 2006 or so, but really got to know him when he was the recipient of the 2010 Sergio Award, and I was involved in the preparations, especially the program book and slideshow for the evening. That was when I learned a lot more about him and came to recognize how much of my childhood he had drawn.
Aside from all those war comics, most notably Sea Devils and Haunted Tank, Russ ghosted Playboy’s Little Annie Fanny comic for a while, during which time he lived and worked at the Chicago Playboy Mansion, where he hung out with Shel Silverstein and a cast of other notables. When his work on the strip came to an end, he just stayed on at the Mansion, until they eventually reminded him that he had no reason to be there anymore. He packed up and moved on. After some time, he came to Los Angeles to work for Hanna-Barbera and other animation studios for many years.
Another of Russ’ claims to fame is his having been ripped off by notorious charlatan Roy Lichtenstein. One day in 1962, Lichtenstein walked down to the corner newsstand near his studio and bought a copy of DC Comics’ All-American Men at War #89, took it back to the studio, threw it on the overhead projector, and cranked out about a half-dozen paintings based on (swiped from) panels in that comic book, which he then sold for millions of dollars each. Naturally, the fine art types prattled on about “recontextualizing” and “found art” and bla bla bla, but the fact is, that kind of talk is fine when the found art in question is a soup can or a urinal or some other functional item, but Lichtenstein got rich off the backs of his fellow artists, people every bit as talented (in most cases far superior to him) but who were sneered at for engaging in “commercial art.” Russ Heath was a great artist, and could have been the darling of the fine art crowd if he’d had the stomach for the BS they spew. But he would rather draw than pimp himself, and never got the accolades he deserved.
As I said on Facebook this afternoon, aside from his enviable talent, Russ was quite the character. He was what they used to call irascible; cranky but in a fun curmudgeonly way, always quick with a (usually off-color) joke, but with pretty strong opinions about comics and a lot of other things.
Some years ago, I got a call from my friend Scott Shaw! telling me that Russ had to go into the hospital for a problem with his knee, and asked if I could go to the hospital to visit Russ. So I drove over to Tarzana and saw Russ. He seemed okay but a bit nervous, so I stayed and chatted with him until he was ready to go to sleep. It was a pleasure to spend time with him and listen to his stories, so I was happy to spend the time there. Later, I was told that Russ had been very agitated prior to my arrival and the hospital staff was getting worried about “handling” him, and were grateful that a friendly face had shown up. Russ never forgot it either. I went from being one of the new guys at CAPS to being a friend who showed up when I was needed. I wish I had showed up more often, because Russ was fascinating, and I could have learned a lot from him.
Last year, CAPS threw a 90th birthday party for him. It was supposed to be at our usual meeting place, but there was some miscommunication, the building was locked up and nobody could be found to unlock. We ended up convening in the back room at a local restaurant and a good time was had by all.
Russ was “an artist’s artist”; he was never the comics equivalent of a superstar, but the pros respected him and cited him as an influence and inspiration. He perfectly balanced photographic realism with terrific design sense and solid storytelling. He knew how to put together a page. What a lot of his admirers overlooked was that he could be funny and draw funny. His western parodies for National Lampoon were fantastic, and way back in the ’50s, he drew for MAD. Here’s the first page of “Plastic Sam. You can see the rest at Jeff Overturf’s blog.
In his later years, Russ was unable to drive, and he lived alone. Every week, volunteers from the Hero Initiative came out to his apartment, drove him to the grocery store, and then took him to lunch at one or another of his favorite restaurants, where they got to spend time listening to his incredible stories over food and drink. I regret that I was only able to do that on one occasion due to other demands on my time.
A few years back, I was at San Diego Comic Con and ran into Tom Kenny, the voice of Spongebob Squarepants; I’ve met Tom a few times, and I know him just well enough to no longer be completely surprised when he recognizes and remembers me. Tom’s a great guy and a huge fan of comics. Tom’s waiting for an elevator at the hotel while we chat, so I decide to jump in and ride up with him. When we get in the elevator, there’s Russ, sitting in a wheelchair, a concession to the rigors of conventions. Tom freaks out quietly behind him, excitedly pointing and mouthing to me, “that’s Russ Heath!” I can’t resist. I say “wanna meet him?” Then I turn to Russ and speak up because I know his hearing aid battery is probably low. I get his attention, introduce Tom, hands are shaken, and the moment ends when the elevator doors open at Russ’ floor. His assistant wheels him out. Tom tells me “he has absolutely no idea who I am.” He was still giddy from the encounter anyway. It remains one of my more fun memories of Comic-Con.
Another great Comic-Con memory was when Russ was inducted into the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2009. The other inductees that year were Harold Gray, Graham Ingels, Matt Baker, Reed Crandall, and Jerry Iger, all of whom were deceased. Russ, being Russ, stepped up to the microphone and said “I’m glad I’m alive to receive this.” Most people assumed he was commenting on the fact that all the others were posthumous awards, but really he was commenting on how long the award show was; he had expected to die while waiting to get to his award. Like I said, he was a funny guy.
Russ moved out of his apartment and into an assisted living center in May of this year; he was settling in, and some artist friends had bought him some new art supplies, so he was back to work on commissions.
Last year, I had the idea to print Russ’ original panels as fine art so that everyone could see how much better his work was. My friend Steve Wyatt arranged for a comics dealer to lend me All-American Men at War #89 for a day. I scanned the relevant pages at 1200 dpi, cleaned up one of Russ’ more iconic images, and digitally printed it on canvas at about 30″ x 60″, considerably smaller than Lichtenstein’s but far larger than the 1-1/2″ x 3″ panel from the comic. My plan was to have Russ sign it and then auction it off and give him the money. I never got down to see him, so it remains unsigned. I’m not sure what I’ll do with it, but in the meantime, as a final tribute to Russ, I’m posting the image here so you can see what ought to be gracing the wall of the Yale Gallery.
Happy trails, Russ. I’ll miss you and I’ll hoist a glass in your memory.