Written by Bryan Stroud
Russell "Russ" Heath, Jr. (born September 29, 1926) is an American artist best known for his comic book work, particularly his war stories for DC Comics and his 1960s art for Playboy magazine's "Little Annie Fanny" feature. He has also produced commercial art, two pieces of which (depicting Roman and Revolutionary War battle scenes for toy soldier sets) became familiar pieces of Americana after gracing the back covers of countless comic books from the early 1960s to early 1970s.
Heath's drawings of fighter jets from DC Comics' All-American Men of War (1952) #89 were used by pop artist Roy Lichtenstein in his oil paintings Blam and Brattata.
Mr. Heath was inducted into the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2009.
It was a privilege to spend time interviewing Russ Heath, one of the true greats of the medium. His superlative work on the war books alone assures him a place in comic book history and how many of those of us of a particular generation saw his Roman Soldiers artwork on the back cover of many a book? I'm glad Russ is still with us.
This interview originally took place over the phone on December 31, 2007.
Bryan Stroud: According to some of the research I did it looks like you began your art career at the tender age of 16. Does that sound about right?
Russ Heath: Yes.
Stroud: What were you doing then?
Heath: Going to high school.
Heath: It was during a summer vacation my father said I should be doing something. He arranged an appointment. From his commuting he knew some people at Holyoke publishing house, so I went over there and they gave me an assignment. I did it and then they gave me another one. Then I went back to school for the winter and the next summer I did it again, etc., etc.
Stroud: Okay. You got the ball rolling pretty quickly.
Heath: Yes. I must say that comics in those days were much cruder.
Stroud: Yeah, a very simplistic styling at the time. They didn’t get very illustrative until many years later, I guess.
Heath: Yeah. Well, if you remember the original Superman, that first issue, it was very sketchy stuff.
Stroud: Absolutely and of course people were just creating the medium at the time. Not very sophisticated.
Heath: Right. Well, a lot of them weren’t artists. They may have started in the rag business in a brownstone. To make a little more money, for about six grand you could put out your own comic book so a lot of them started drawing themselves in their off time and they weren’t even in the business. So it was some pretty radical stuff and they might take them home and have their kids color them. (Chuckle.)
Stroud: Well, it’s a uniquely American creation and it’s interesting how far it’s gone from there. It’s funny to imagine that Superman’s going to be 70 years old next year.
Heath: Hmm. Well, I’ve got him beat.
Stroud: (Laughter.) And good for you. You’re probably best known for your work on the war and adventure titles, but you’ve done quite a bit more, I see: Mystery, western, jungle tales, horror, romance…
Heath: I’ve done it all.
Stroud: MAD magazine, National Lampoon…
Stroud: And even a little bit with Batman and Mr. Miracle, so you even got into the superhero titles a little.
Heath: Right, right. The Batman stuff I think I failed at. It was called “Legends of the Dark Knight.” I did about 5 books, but what I didn’t get, because I’d never done superheroes and so on…not that he’s a superhero, but he’s a costumed hero, and I’m so much of a realist that… You’ve got to get the mood, the intent of the original to make Batman have character. When I drew him, he looks like somebody standing there ready to go to a costume party. You know what I mean? He hasn’t THE BATMAN FLAVOR! Missing that flavor, I think it kind of fell on its face. Then I had some bad coloring as well, which didn’t help.
Stroud: You’ve got no control over that.
Heath: Very little. Now and then I did, but they didn’t want me to because they want me to do another story.
Stroud: How do you think it is that you became the war and adventure guy first and foremost along with Joe Kubert?
Heath: Well, there weren’t a lot of war comics out. It began to get into the era of Vietnam and there was a huge anti-war movement. I’ve had kids…I went to show some kids my books and they’d draw back. What’s the matter?” They’d say, “I don’t want to touch a war book.” “I’m trying to show you the artwork, not the content.” But that’s the way it was. So, you’d go in and give them your story and they’d give you a check and they give you another story. And as long as they keep giving you the same thing that’s probably where you go unless you express a desire to do something else. One of the things that I liked was Westerns. My father was a cowboy for awhile and that was very appealing to me as a little kid. All the kids used to play cowboys and Indians. But I felt my father was a little bit sissified because he’d never killed an Indian.
Heath: Nevertheless, one of the things that’s nice about Westerns or war or scuba, the stuff underwater, is that there’s no straight lines. I think the very worst has got to be Batman in the city with all the windows that have to be ruled. In the west they hacked everything out with axes so the lines shouldn’t be straight. From their lumber to…how do you draw rubble wrong? And underwater you can fade it away in the background and all the better for it.
Stroud: I never thought of that. That does give you all kinds of options that somebody doing a cityscape can’t enjoy.
Heath: I’ve looked at some of the stuff that Alex Ross does and I figure, “My God, he must have a team of helpers.” He must work 90 hours a week and I understand that’s pretty close to it. He must photograph everything. There’s nothing he draws without photographing it, and that in itself is tremendously time consuming, but I was glad to see somebody doing full paintings.
Stroud: Yeah, I’ve been extremely impressed with his work. Of course, everybody has.
Heath: Obviously they’re paying him enough so he can sit down and draw a thousand windows in a splash page.
Stroud: Yeah, and it doesn’t seem to be quite the assembly line as it used to be. I know when he did the recent Justice series they were actually late a couple of times and they just worked around his schedule more or less.
Heath: Right. Scheduling has gone back and forth through the years. In the beginning a guy would get late from…maybe his wife was sick for a week or something so he took care of her and he was late and this was a disaster. And it always falls on the last guy in the line, not the writer. It’s up to the last guy. So then they got this bright idea finally to get stuff on inventory so they’d have it and then tell the artist a false deadline; give him one sooner than they really needed so they’re protected more or less. They can give him more time at the last minute. I had some fights with some of them. I said, “Hey, I don’t want to risk my life going without sleep for 4 days or something to finish if it’s going to lay on your desk for 4 more days. Be honest with me and tell me when you have to have it.” I’ve done things, too, like letter something. They’d say, “Hey, this is gonna really be late because it takes a day for you to send it to us and it takes a day for us to send it to the lettering man and it takes him a day to do it and it takes a day to send it back to us.” I said, “I tell you what: Throw in the price of the lettering and I’ll take an extra half day and send you the thing ready to go.”
Stroud: Oh, so you lettered, too?
Heath: Don’t tell everybody that. I don’t want to get into lettering, really, but as an emergency thing it saved the day a couple of times.
Stroud: Absolutely. That would be a wonderful buffer to be able to have. I didn’t realize you had that skill as well, Mr. Heath.
Heath: Yeah, I did quite a bit when I was doing the syndicated Lone Ranger strip. That was the worst deadline of all, because the newspaper comes out every day of the year. There are no holidays and if you get behind, you’re behind until you make it up. It’s a mess and it’s also a mess because depending on whether you have a Sunday story that’s complete in itself or whether it continues in the daily strip, that’s an art in itself, to be able to write, because a lot of people only take the Sunday paper or only take the daily paper. So it’s got to make sense either way. What you do basically is you advance the story line on the weekends and you have little side stories that have nothing to do with the story line really during the week.
Stroud: Oh, so kind of like a double continuity.
Heath: Yeah. I always like the same story going on in both, but if they’re turned in like two months different it’s quite a job to keep it straight. “Let’s see, let’s go back to that Sunday and see what we were doing.”
Stroud: That does present an entirely new set of problems.
Heath: Well during the 60’s when the world was changing completely…I mean before that no boy had a hair touch his ear and then they started breaking all the rules. You don’t have to wear a necktie, you don’t have to cut your hair, etc., etc. and they started assassinating everybody and having these riots, the Watts riots and all this stuff and I was out there in the middle of it in Chicago and of course back east everything just plodded ahead. I got caught up in it. I was out every night in the middle of it. I got a rep on coming in late. So, to try to make up for being late I would try to do something brand new that had never been done before each week. Some special effects or something. Do a job that would startle them. Then when they got it maybe they wouldn’t remember how late it was.
Stroud: (Laughter.) Go for a little dazzle there. I bet it worked well.
Heath: Kubert was my editor at that time and he’d be on the phone and I’d be coming up with some ridiculous excuse. One time he got angry and he said, “If I had you here, I’d punch you right in the mouth!” (Laughter.) I don’t think he would have, but I certainly understood his point of view because he was frustrated as hell. In fact, he reached a point where he said he’d never give my any more work. He came to that conclusion, but I never got the word, so I didn’t even know, because I started doing National Lampoon stuff and I didn’t realize I was cut off.
Stroud: So, you didn’t even really notice.
Heath: No and that probably still bothers him even today.
Heath: We’re good friends personally. Every chance I get in an interview I say, “Yeah, I was late during the 60’s.” It was implied that I’m never late now and of course everybody’s late some time. What you want to do is try to keep aware of exactly where you’re at.
Stroud: Yeah, that’s consistent with what Joe Giella was telling me. He’s still doing the Mary Worth strip and was having some family matters to deal with and got behind and he said the syndicate hit him with a $1200.00 fine. That gets your attention.
Heath: Yeah, they did that with me, too. What it is, they get charged overtime or time and a half by the engravers if you miss a deadline, so it’s not just a fine to wake you up, it’s their cost. If they have that every week the strip had better make a lot of money or they’re going to drop it. I thought the Lone Ranger was kind of a silly job to do in the 80’s. Imagine this guy in a mask I mean what motel is going to let him stay over? But I thought, “What the hell?” If they get enough papers and if I could make $1,500.00 a week then that would be cool for awhile. They didn’t get any of the bigger papers. All they had was the little towns that you never heard of and of course then they don’t pay much for it. I think 40 papers was about all we had. 60 would have been about the minimum that you’d need. So we both, the syndicate and I came to the conclusion that it was over.
Stroud: How long did it go?
Heath: I did it for 2-1/2 or 3 years, I’m not certain. I was too busy working. Sometimes it took as much as 90 hours a week and never less than 70. You’d get the thing off in the FedEx and then you turned around and got going on the next page.
Stroud: That’s pretty unrelenting pressure it sounds like.
Heath: Yes, it is. Especially if you’re doing an illustrative type strip. You know, doing things like having the Lone Ranger ride by some huge rock formation and a streams reflection, it’s all repeated. The mirror image of him and the rocks and stuff, and you have to watch your line work, too. If you do cross-hatching with the lines too close together, it will turn totally black on you when it’s reduced. The same thing is true in reverse. If your lines are too thin they’ll drop out. Al Williamson had a lot of trouble with some of his stuff because of very fine lines. I noticed in some of the paper copies that I got that a lot of the panels had dropped out to the point that you couldn’t see what was going on. From the time I started comics I ran down as soon as they hit the stands to see how my lines were standing up, you know, if they should be thicker or what would a minimum line be.
Stroud: Sure. It sounds like a good reference for your future efforts. You both pencil and ink. How long did it usually take you to produce a finished page?
Heath: Well, a lot less than it takes to have two guys do it separately, because the penciller then has to indicate all the shadows for the inker, and how does he do that? We finally came to the technique of putting X’s in the areas, but then where does that area end if it’s just fading off or something? See if I’m penciling a face, a half-inch, I don’t put the features in. It’s just an oval. I’ll put the face in when I’m inking it. So it saves a lot of time in stuff you don’t have to draw. You don’t have to put the shading in. You do have to remember what you were going to do, though. “How was I gonna light this?” But usually, you know, you keep it in your head.
Stroud: Ah. All these things you don’t think about when all you have to do is enjoy the finished product.
Heath: Yeah, your wife doesn’t think about it. When I had so many kids, the house I built with a special studio, I lost that, having to turn it into another bedroom. So I ended up working in the dining room, and your wife goes through and goes upstairs and then she hollers down the stairs, “Honey, I forgot to bring the “something” upstairs, it’ll only take you a second, could you throw it up to me?” And she’s right, it only takes a few seconds, but you sit down and you say, “Where the hell was I? What was I doing?” It would take 10 or 12 minutes just to get back where you were.
Heath: I worked all different ways. I worked on the premises, I worked at home. I’d do two years of this until I couldn’t stand it and then I’d do it two years of another way and so on.
Stroud: Did you ever spend any time in the bullpen or did you avoid that?
Heath: Yes, I did in the beginning, especially when Stan Lee hired me. After a couple of months, he came in and said, “You know, you don’t have to come in every day. You can come in once a week and bring it in.” Once they get to trust you.
Stroud: Right. See what you’re capable of.
Heath: Once they can tell what they’re gonna get and when they’re gonna get it.
Stroud: Has anyone else ever inked over you or were you pretty much a one man show?
Heath: Most of my career it’s been very, very little stuff where either I inked somebody else or vice versa. Most of the things I remember is me inking somebody else. I think that happened on Mr. Miracle. That other guy penciled it and I inked it and, adding some sex along with it, or adding sex to the ladies. I inked a couple of things Neal Adams did and I said, “This is ridiculous. You could just make a Xerox and use that as the ink.” You could make it from the pencil because all I was doing was inking exactly his sketchy pencil lines, because I thought that was the way it should be and the way he did it when he does his own stuff. The same thing when I was doing a Kubert job. There’s only one person that should ink Kubert’s work and that’s Kubert. But my opinion doesn’t go very far. A lot of these decisions are made on the spur of the moment. What they need that day or what they think they need.
Stroud: It seems like you were one of the few, and Joe was another one of course, you actually managed to sign your work when that wasn’t a common practice back then. How did you manage that?
Heath: I don’t recall. We all started signing at the same time. About 1950, I’m guessing.
Stroud: You were right in the thick of things when the Silver Age kicked off and did work on the first several issues of The Brave and the Bold when it was a pure adventure title and then Showcase #2 and the entire issue for #3 including the cover. Did that Frogmen title turn into the Sea Devils and if it did how come it took four years?
Heath: I have no idea. When I first started in for Stan Lee at Atlas…you know I get kids today who ask, “Remember when #78, blah, blah, blah and the title…” I say, “When we did our jobs in those days we didn’t even know what book they were going to put it in.” So how do I know what number, for God’s sake? After you’ve done 3500 pages.
Stroud: (Chuckle.) Of course. I just thought it was interesting that Showcase was used as the try out title and they did the Frogmen back in the earlier part and then it just disappeared until…
Heath: I think it was just one of those schemes to keep the editors from getting bored. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me. You go after what you’re trying to read or follow no matter what title it is.
Stroud: It just struck me funny that after a few years they come up with the Sea Devils and it seems to be the same concept.
Heath: I only did about 10 issues of that, I think. No. I did 10 covers and quite a bit more on the inside. The thing that bothered me about that was there were too many characters. That was what was good about Sgt Rock and some of these other ones. They would specialize. They might pull somebody out of the group and have that story be mostly about him, so that it wasn’t too many characters. When you’ve got 4 people in skin-suits you’ve got to have space for balloons, you’ve got to have space for the adversaries. I mean, you can’t draw four people in every panel. And sticking their foot in the scene to indicate they’re around is kind of stupid. So, I didn’t like it because I felt there were too many people to tell a decent story. I think the whole concept of superheroes is idiotic, because who do you pit against them? Then you’ve got invincible heroes and the public and the background people all have to step aside for these people to do their show. That makes a break with the reader and their connection with the hero.
Stroud: You got to do much more human type stories.
Heath: Well I think as they say I was trying hard to do great stuff that would get some attention. I did one called “Easy’s first Tiger.” I had a big splash page of this Tiger tank and when they opened that up, when the package came in, I remember Wolfman, he opened the package and he said, “Oh, my God!” And he ran down the hall to show all the guys and they’d sit and say, “What has that crazy bastard Heath done now?”
Stroud: (Chuckle.) Just your usual excellent work, obviously.
Heath: That was one that I did as a collector’s item because the detail of that tank and the size of it took me an extra day and a half and you’re supposed to be doing 2 to 3 pages a day so that cost me some money. I did another one, a war story for Warren and I did all the tone work. I painted the chemicals on. I did about two months of research in buying the stuff and costumes and stuff before I even put pencil to paper, so that cost me dearly. Again, I was trying to do a collector’s item out of it, and that’s what it became. I ran across one artist when I was trying to hire somebody to help me when I broke my wrist. I called this girl and when I called I said, “This is Russ Heath and you probably don’t know who I am.” It just turned out she was carrying that story on her person at all times. (Chuckle.) You wonder, how about some of the other crazy ones that are out there. Then you find that you’re known…you go to Europe and you go way out in the boonies in the countryside and go to a little teeny town that you don’t even know within hundreds of miles of where you are and you find a little comic book store and you go in and they know who you are! I did that in the Normandy section of France. In Paris, in the cities, you expect that, but apparently there must be thousands and thousands of people who know who I am. England and Germany. I get guys right now calling for commissions from Germany and Brussels and you name it.
Stroud: Oh, wow, so you’re still doing commission work?
Heath: Yeah. I’m still trying to catch up. I had a system and I did a bunch of these big things and I decided to hang them all up on the bulletin board to get an idea of where I was and I forgot to make some connection with the letter and the check and then I thought, “What goes with what?” So there’s a lot of people sitting out there thinking I’m a bad guy. They’re wanting their money back and wondering about the art. But if I live long enough I may get it sorted out. I’ll have to call each one individually and ask them if I owe them anything.
Stroud: And then you’ve got guys like me wasting your time with interviews. (Chuckle.)
Heath: Well that goes with it. Any publicity is good publicity. I was just supposed to be in the T.V. show called Numbers. I spent two days when they were filming that and they built all this stuff. It was supposed to be a comic book convention. It had a big banner made up with “Russ Heath – Legendary War Artist” on it and they blew up some of my art work to put behind my chair and all that and I looked at the damned thing and everything goes by so fast that I couldn’t see me anywhere. Somebody said they saw the banner and the art work, but it goes by so fast that it’s not gonna get the attention. No one’s going to say, “Hey, look, there’s Russ Heath’s name!” It’s just too fast. Boom, boom, boom, boom. They get in 55 pictures per second or something.
Stroud: Pretty hard to focus on any one thing.
Heath: Yeah, but it was fun, though. Very hard. I had to get up at 5:00 to get over to downtown L.A. and find the studio and then you wait and you wait and you wait and they re-shoot and they re-shoot and you’ve got to be silent. Then at 10:00 at night they said you could go. Then they were going to shoot an imaginary comic book sale and they’d put us up front. I don’t know whatever happened to that. Apparently, it didn’t show much. When I left the studio I immediately got lost, so I went back. One of the director ladies said, “I’ll ride with you a few blocks to get you back on the map and I can walk back.” I thought, “It’s pitch black out there.” You’ll be found out in the gutter somewhere. They’ll say, “She was last seen in Russ Heath’s car.” But she made it.
Stroud: It sounds like a long day no matter what.
Heath: Yeah, my God, that’s for four seconds worth of stuff. It’s amazing how much goes into it. It looks like hundreds of thousands of dollars to do an episode.
Stroud: I can only guess. It seems like for years you were destined to work with Bob Kanigher. Was he a good fit as far as a writer and editor?
Heath: Well, originally before I came to comic books I read comic strips in newspapers, and of course somebody like Milton Caniff on Terry and the Pirates makes up the thing and sends it in and they put it in the paper. You didn’t need an editor. All you needed was somebody to open the package and to see that the stuff got to where it was going. So, the whole thing that they developed sitting around with the editor thinking up what to write about, it was foreign to me. I understood that you had to satisfy the editor in the beginning. You won’t know what he wants, so there’ll be some changes, but I once told them, I said, “You know, after two years, if I don’t give you just what you want, either you are not very good at describing what you want, or I’m pretty stupid that I can’t figure out what it is that you want.” If it’s to work, it’s supposed to work. So I never got into it with the editor too much on any of it as far as content. Kanigher, we’d go in, maybe two guys come in the morning, deliver our stuff, get our check and go out and take it to the bank and go have lunch. When we’d come back from lunch, Kanigher had written my story. So, I don’t understand why today you can wait a month and a half because the writer hasn’t done his thing. I thought, “How the hell long?” It took Kanigher lunch time. I think it’s because they came to one point. Instead of just teaching young guys from the older guys they just lowered the boom and said, “Nobody over 40.” Then all the people under 40 didn’t know how to do it. I’ve never seen, in the last number of years, a script that had any form. Every writer makes up his own form. They don’t even know how to make a simple outline. It’s incredible to try to figure a lot of it out. They don’t know the way it’s done and they just do it however they can. It’s unworkable. One time I had this door and they didn’t want any sound effects, but they wanted the door to be slammed. If you don’t write “SLAM!” on there, it’s just a door. It won’t work.
Stroud: That’s right. How else do you convey it?
Heath: You know, not figuring this out, it just makes it look bad. You’ve got to put “SLAM!” on it. I think what it is, they don’t want them to look like old comic books any more, so that’s why they try to get rid of the lettering and any extra space in a balloon is taken away and some of the balloons are like the small nail of your hand. I always figured that the balloons are part of the composition and the artist’s job is to lead the eyes through the story. Right now, they sprinkle them on.
Stroud: Just very haphazard and no thought about the finished product.
Heath: And they’ll use two balloons where one would work and they put them in very unattractive places. It’s hard to follow. “Oh, I’ve got one over here and then I’m supposed to go to the one over there and read that one.” It’s not even clear how to read it. That’s why I’m fighting now for control on this one job they just sent me. They sent me another continued story and they break it up with different artists and this other artist did total painted stuff. So, I’m gonna call them Monday and say, “That’s fine. I want to do that, too.” I use lighting a lot in my stories as part of my technique. All of this computer stuff looks like it’s in a dark fog. There is no light as far as light source or very little lighting. Or if it is it’s completely faked. There’s no reason for it. And again, it’s like they don’t want anybody to have too much control, because they might be not be expendable. (Chuckle.) They like to think everybody’s expendable.
Stroud: Since you were working mostly in war titles, did you have trouble working around the Comics Code at the time since it was so restrictive?
Heath: Well, in the beginning it was pretty bad. If people were drawing a baseball game they didn’t want sweat on the guy’s forehead. That was too violent.
Heath: That was pretty much a pain in the ass, but later on it lightened up. So, when you’d come in for the week you’d get, “Oh, did you hear the new edict?” I’d say, “No, what is it?” “They said they want stubble beards on all the G.I.’s.” So, I went back and I ignored it. I put stubble beards where I wanted and so on. Then they’d come in and “Did you hear the new edict?” “No, what’s the new edict?” “No more stubble beards.” (Chuckle.) I’d put them where I wanted them. Nobody ever said ‘boo.’ In fact, in a lot of Kanigher’s scripts he had these certain things that kept recurring in each story. Not in every story, but things that he typically used here and there like concealing ack-ack guns in haystacks and having Stuka dive-bombers coming down at them and throwing a grenade down the muzzle of a tank. In reality, it would have no affect whatsoever on the muzzle of a tank, I’m sure. Several things that he’d just stick in and if it didn’t advance the story, and I was always looking for more space to draw more; you know, the bigger you can work, the more impressive your scene. So, I would just cross out maybe two pages out of a story and add that space, because you couldn’t change the length of a story because the ads and stuff were all figured out in advance. I got in trouble when I didn’t understand that the first time. We had to cut somebody else’s work up to get enough space, so I had to do it by having the same number of pages, taking out some of the writing that was there. And Kanigher, I think he might have blown a gasket if he’d found out, but I don’t think he ever knew the difference. I never heard ‘boo’ about it.
Stroud: He doesn’t sound to me like he was the most bashful guy.
Heath: No, he was very, very hard to work for. Really a very strange guy. He needed a lot of psychiatric help which he never got.
Stroud: That’s a shame.
Heath: A lot of people just quit and walked out of the office, I think Alex Toth being one of them. John Severin being another one. They just couldn’t put up with it. What I did was I figured he was always hunting for something about each person that’s exploitable and then he’d exploit the hell out of it and make them miserable. So, I thought, “He’s not going to find out what my weak spots are.” Several times he actually hit on my weak spot, but I didn’t react, so he went right on to try to find another one.
Stroud: So you found a way to resist that. Good for you.
Heath: What he used to do at Christmas time, you’d go in and a check for fifty bucks would be waiting for you and he said, “Why don’t you just endorse that over for Christmas Eve?” And I would just smile and break up like he made a joke and walk out with it. And then I found out that some of the other guys were giving him checks for Christmas. He’d go out every January after Christmas and go down to the clothing store and buy about six suits. And I thought, “Holy shit.” When Infantino got in charge and he found out about it and raised a storm and said, “We don’t give gifts around here of more than $2.00.” So liquor was out.
Stroud: That’s only right. Wow. Amazing. It’s kind of funny that you mentioned ad space since a couple of items you did ended up on all kinds of comic books; the Roman solider and Revolutionary solider ads.
Heath: Yeah, I’d like to have a nickel for every one. I got fifty bucks for those two separate pages.
Stroud: Oh, with all that detail?
Heath: With all the detail. So, as I said, if I had five cents for every one of them, I’d be in Florence or somewhere.
Stroud: Yeah. I mean they were printed everywhere.
Heath: A lot of people didn’t know I did them because they didn’t want them signed. I did have a small “HEATH” on the lower left-hand corner of the Revolutionary soldiers and I don’t remember about the Roman soldiers. The kids would blame me, I’d never seen the actual 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.
Stroud: How long did it take you to do those jobs, do you recall?
Heath: I would just consider it a more complicated page. Some pages would have a couple of heads on them and you can see them up there. The landing in Sicily was the landing with a million guys and half of them are speaking in balloons and it takes you three times as long. So, you average it all together. And of course, how detailed your images are makes a difference. Some guys don’t give a crap. They just want the check and other people like to see if they can impress somebody. Do something worthwhile. I’ve had some small satisfactions here and there. Some company called up and said, “We heard you’re an expert in Western stuff and we want some very high class Western stuff. Name your price. Price is no object.” So, I gave them a price and they said, “Oh, my God, that’s terrible. Never mind. We’ll get somebody else.” I said, “No, you won’t. There’s only one other guy that can do what you describe that you want and that’s John Severin and I happen to know his calendar is full up, so have fun looking.”
Stroud: (Chuckle.) Did they come back?
Heath: No. I assume they went ahead with the project. I don’t know.
Stroud: Of all the scripters that you worked with, did you have anybody who was a particular favorite?
Heath: Oh, yeah. By far and away, Archie Goodwin. He started as, I think, an editor at Warren magazines on the black and white stuff and he did some of my stories. I remember he once sent an extra sheet of paper with little thumbnails about an inch and a half high with little stick figures. He said, “I’m just sending you this to show you what I visualize that scene to be, but do what you want. If it’s a help, okay, and if it’s not, just throw it away.” So, I didn’t want to be influenced by his visualizations, so I thought, “I’m gonna set them aside and do the same thing myself and then I’ll compare the two of them and where I think he told the story better, I’ll use his and where I told it better, I’ll use mine.” There were 40 shots and only ONE was different. I thought, “My God is that guy great.” For a writer to be able to visualize that well; it just seemed mathematically impossible.
Stroud: That’s eerie. Obviously, you were on the same wavelength.
Heath: Yeah, the writing suggested so well what should be there.
Stroud: That’s pretty gifted, I’d say.
Heath: Oh, yeah. He was top-notch.
Stroud: And taken from us too soon.
Heath: He wrote a very nice biography for one of the magazines about me. Apparently, it was about some of that package opening stuff, because that line of “What did that crazy bastard Heath do now?” was his line from that thing about me. “What’s he gonna do next?” And he said, “It doesn’t really matter, he could do Mickey Mouse or anything.”
(Chuckle.) Well, one of the things I tried to do…some people draw everything as if it’s made out of the same thing, like modeling clay or something and my thing is skin is supposed to be skin, cloth is cloth, steel tanks are metal and try to see if you can make it appear to be the way it is. They were always talking about all the nuts and bolts. Kubert once said something very nice to his classes at his art school. He was talking about getting photographic reference to do stuff to get it right. “The one exception to that is that you can use Russ Heath’s art work. It is right.”
Stroud: That’s pretty high praise.
Heath: Yes, I thought so.
Stroud: And Joe would know. Now as near as I’ve been able to determine you’ve worked for just about everybody; Marvel, Dell, DC and Warren. Which one was your favorite?
Heath: I only did one story for EC, and that was done so far back that it was pretty crappy looking stuff, I thought. Other things were small, cartoony things here and there added into something and of course I worked on Annie Fannie for Harvey Kurtzman for Playboy magazine.
Stroud: Oh, yeah, right.
Heath: But he said, “Did you get to go to the Chicago mansion?” I said, “Yeah, I lived at the Playboy mansion for over six months, when you put it all together, back and forth, until I finally moved to Chicago. I’d teach scuba diving to some of the bunnies in the pool. “Yeah, that strap goes right through here.”
Stroud: (Chuckle.) Sounds like a rough detail.
Heath: You play your cards very, very close to the vest. It’s like trying to do girls in a dormitory. Once the word’s out that you’ve got loose lips, you’re dead. Dead in the water. They won’t touch you with a 10-foot pole. After all, it’s nobody else’s business.
Stroud: That reminds me that I saw in that DC Special, The Joe Kubert issue, when Joe drew himself in the first few panels there seemed to be some sort of an inside joke where he called you at the Playboy mansion. Did you ever see that?
Stroud: What was that about?
Heath: One of his frustrations was my lateness, so he put me just having fun, you know. “Yeah, yeah, I haven’t slept in days,” and he had me as partying. I thought it was humorous as all get out, but maybe he was drawing me exactly as he thought I was doing.
Stroud: It looked humorous to me. Now, there’s a little confusion. I see where there’s a credit where you may or may not have done Captain America. Do you remember if you did?
Heath: I don’t remember. I would guess that I never did, but I’ve done that before. I said I never did any of the Human Torch and then they come up with a story that’s signed by me and obviously by me and I just had forgotten completely that I ever did it.
Stroud: Okay. I saw where you socialized with Ross Andru a bit.
Heath: We became quite good friends, having lunch together about once a week. Sometimes his wife would come out with him or a couple of other guys or I’d have whatever current girlfriend at the time. We’d hunt down Chinese restaurants, which were a favorite.
Stroud: What was Ross like?
Heath: A real nice guy. Very nice. I got along great with him. When I went on vacation from Chicago I called him and said I’m bringing my girlfriend with me and we’re driving to New York, then we’re going to catch a plane down to the island in the Caribbean and I’d need a place to leave my car when I get to New York, so I parked on his side yard, (Chuckle.) Nine weeks.
Stroud: That’s a true friend there.
Heath: Yeah. He had a neat little sports car. It was an Austin-Healey. I later had an Austin-Healey Sprite. That’s the one with the bug headlights. ’59 was the only year they had those headlights on the hood like that.
Stroud: That must have been a fun little way to get around.
Heath: Yeah, it was really a lot of fun. People would go by and ask, “Do you get in that or do you go belly-whopping on it?”
Stroud: (Laughter.) You spent quite a bit of time in Chicago. When I talked to Jim Mooney he said he loved being able to work remotely from New York. Was that the same experience for you?
Heath: Well, so much was happening in the town and in the country at the time. My children were always thinking I was in danger or something. I said, “No, no.” I’d seen some of the broken windows, but I wasn’t there in any of the action. I wasn’t in school sitting down and all of that stuff. But I was out there at night, chasing girls in my tie-dyed bell-bottoms. Then one of my daughters came out with her boyfriend and stayed awhile with and then got their own apartment. In fact, she’s still in Chicago. Many, many years ago now. My daughter grew up and now I’ve got great-grandchildren. Not that I’ve been able to spend much time with them. I think I’ve seen them once. The one of my other grandchildren made me a great-grandfather again.
Stroud: It seems like back in the day, the daily work; the strip work like on The Lone Ranger and so forth carried more legitimacy than comic books and was a real coveted career path. Did you ever try to pursue that on a permanent basis?
Heath: You mean have my own syndicated strip?
Heath: No, because syndicated strips, illustrative continued stories went out the window because everybody came to the conclusion that people’s time is such that they have a moment or two on the subway and they don’t need to remember back to where the story was yesterday, they just want a one-shot chuckle for the day and the only stuff the reproduced worth a damn was stuff like Pogo or Peanuts or something. The illustrative strips just…I don’t think Milton Caniff, if he were alive, could start an illustrative strip today. They’re not popular any more. Some of them hang on, but you wonder why.
Stroud: That was another thing Joe Giella was telling me. He said, “I learned one thing over all these years of doing Mary Worth. The fan base out there is very, very particular. Heaven forbid you should change anything, because it’s tradition, first and foremost.
Heath: Well they had an illustrative story about this girl in showbiz…I can’t remember the name of it. Anyway, he was a great illustrator. I was cutting out his strips, in fact, and it turns out the next thing I know he’s doing Little Orphan Annie. (Chuckle.) God, what a fate for an illustrative type guy, you know? And I think there was more than that. Somebody else, some illustrator was doing something like Blondie or something. Several really good artists end up doing these silly cartoons.
Stroud: Simple line work type stuff.
Heath: I mean, Little Orphan Annie, for God’s sake. I figured the way the original artist did all the bushes; he stuffed a brush in his ass and wiggled it.
Stroud: (Laughter.) Oh, that’s great.
Heath: You can use that. (Chuckle.)
Stroud: I understand you’ve done commercial art, advertising and a little bit of animation.
Heath: When I was going broke working in New York City, I was working out of Neal Adams’ Continuity Associates Studios, and it just wasn’t paying off, so Gray Morrow asked me to come with him on vacation to California and unbeknownst to me set up appointments with the different studios of animation. So we took our stuff and showed it and the guy made me an offer and it was too good to turn down, so I said “Well, I’ll go home and just stick everything I’ve got into storage, ‘cause I have no idea where I want to live out in L.A., so that’s what I did. The stuff was in storage for 35 years. (Chuckle.) I’d like to have that money back. But everything is here. It came through it. Temperature controlled storage, so my leather couch is fine. Everything came through okay.
Stroud: Good deal. Which animation did you work on?
Heath: Well I started out with Godzilla and then I ended up working on The Lone Ranger for another house and I worked on the American Pop movie, an animated movie that…I forget the guy that did it. He’s the one that did Fritz the Cat, an X-rated one.
Stroud: Oh, yeah, I heard about that one once.
Heath: So, I worked for most of the animation houses sooner or later.
Stroud: I saw an interesting credit listed for you along with Neal Adams and Dick Giordano and Alan Weiss calling you The Crusty Bunkers for something for Marvel in 1974 for Savage Sword of Conan.
Heath: Well, I remember working on one thing which was this blonde guy from the jungle. I can’t remember his name. Big, long blonde hair and he had a big black panther as his associate or assistant or whatever. But I can’t recall the name of the character. But we’d just all work on it. One guy would ink some of the panels, I inked some of the panels, and five other people, you know. We did several jobs. One job was mostly just myself and Neal and the other one was a whole bunch of people. It got so late that Marvel came and took it back and ran down the hall passing out brushes to secretaries and stuff to get it finished, so it’s the worst looking thing you ever saw.
Stroud: (Laughter.) You get 24 hours, here’s what you do with it. He just took too much on, huh?
Heath: Yeah. He would never turn anything down and the smart people knowing that you’re going to get a bad rep, you don’t take on what you can’t do. He got me one client that was a pretty good job. He was writing it because my writer screwed me over and so Neal was gonna fill in and I said, “We’ve got to get that thing written, because they called again.” They wanted it every month in their magazine and he says, “Well, tell them we’ve got it done, but it’s late in the day, we’ll bring it over first thing in the morning. And if they say they have to have it in the morning, we can stay up all night and do it.” So, I said, “Okay,” and so I told them, I lied to them and said we’d bring it over. And then when 5 o’clock comes he walks out of the place with his date for the evening. My jaw fell off my neck.
Stroud: Oh, no.
Heath: That’s not kosher.
Stroud: No, not at all. I think I’d have been furious.
Heath: Yeah. Everybody’s got their complicated side as well as their good side.
Stroud: Sure. Have you seen those new Showcase Presents reprints of your Haunted Tank and House of Mystery and so forth?
Heath: I noticed that it’s only about 4% of my work compared with Joe [Kubert]. Joe’s work is about 98% of those books, or at least the ones I’ve seen, anyway. And of course, I think he kept doing Sgt Rock for a long time after I left, so it eventually wound up that I had done the longest amount of anybody at that time, but when I left I’m sure he did so many more after that and then they put that guy that did the Navy stuff. You know, the story about the destroyer?
Stroud: Was that Captain Storm?
Heath: No, it was the one about the destroyer. Very technical type stuff for a couple of pages or a short story, but mostly it was all his research from being in it, on the destroyer. Anyway, he went on and took on Sgt Rock and ended up doing even more than I had done. They handed him all my pages as reference originally.
Stroud: Rightly so, since you started it all.
Heath: Well, I was there at the beginning. I don’t actually quite remember. I think Joe did a few of the stories and then I was supposed to take over and the first issues I didn’t want people saying, “Whoa! Look at the change here. Look at the difference.” Because they don’t always associate change to be equal or better than or worse than, so you try to cover the change so that they don’t particularly notice and then you can go back more into your own way of doing it, which was what I did. We have a different approach on art. His is very sketchy and loose with things and I’m very tight with everything. All the little details and all the stuff, you know? So, we don’t really deal too well together. Again, if I was inking his stuff, I would probably ink it very close to his drawings instead of any of my own personality in it.
Stroud: Sure, as any good inker would, I imagine. You were talking earlier about how the computer work has changed things quite a bit. Do you think it’s still making comic work a viable field or is it changing it too radically?
Heath: Well, it’s hard for me to believe these books sell, because the storyline is almost gone. It’s like a series of beautifully painted posters. There seems to be no premise in the story, or very little story. But that’s just maybe one of the stages they’re going through. I know when you make a black and white photograph of that computer stuff and print it in black and white there’s hardly any whites or any blacks. It’s all about medium gray. So, values of the colors they’re using are all about the same. For some reason they don’t leave white. It could be a thing about computers not leaving white. Maybe they need something to print. Some light tone or something. I don’t know the technicalities of it. And blacks, it used to be that spotting the blacks was a big deal in the old way, in the old comics. You’d be known for how well your blacks were put and where they were put and so on.
Stroud: Yeah, totally different now, it seems.
Heath: Yeah. I can’t believe how it works. You take real artists and real artists don’t work in concert. One guy makes a painting. Dali or Van Gogh. You wouldn’t go out and get Jack Kirby to sketch your wife’s portrait and then call Norman Rockwell to paint it. I mean they just don’t go together.
Stroud: No, not at all.
Heath: You can’t do art work in concert, as far as I’m concerned. You lose control and of course this color thing. The few jobs that I’ve done have been…some of them have been much more acceptable than others, but the ones that were bad were so bad that it was just worthless to use me to do it.
Stroud: That’s a shame. I hate to sound like a Luddite, because I use computers all the time. Not in an artistic sense.
Heath: I think some of the computer guys are very good at using a computer, but I don’t think a lot of them started out to be artists. You take Norman Rockwell. He’d go study drawing in Germany and color in Paris and you study for about 9 years and then you do covers for the Saturday Evening Post as a starter. People learned their craft. Like being a doctor, it takes about 9 years and comics made it too easy. You go home, bring some stuff in and show it to them and go back and change some stuff and they’ll give you a script. And if it’s good enough or if it can be fixed, they’ll eventually use it, and you say, “My God, I’m a pro.” They kind of learn it as they go, and of course a lot of them in the beginning did not go into the muscles and the bones and…
Heath: Anatomy, yeah. I’d always be pleased when somebody would say, “You know your work looks like there’s somebody in the clothes when you draw it.”
Stroud: That says a lot.
Heath: It’s what I try for.
Stroud: Did you ever spend any time teaching at Joe’s school or get involved with that at all?
Heath: No. I’ve kind of been anti-teaching. One of the things that happened with Joe; that happened even much more with Neal Adams is that suddenly there were a whole bunch of guys that were Neal Adams. And I said, “I don’t need the competition.” If you want Russ Heath, you’ve got to come to me. I’m the best Russ Heath around.
Stroud: (Laughter.) That makes a lot of sense. You don’t need a lot of clones.
Heath: Right, right. Teaching. I’ve been anti-teacher…I hated the teaching mentality that regular school teachers have. That’s the way my damn landlord is. People don’t know how to deal with him and I said, “It’s simple. Think of him as a teacher and we’re all his pupils and that’s why he doesn’t allow us to tell him anything.” A teacher wouldn’t listen to his pupil. He’ll take an idea that you have and three years later, he’ll do it. But then it seems like his idea.
Stroud: Is there anything you hope to be remembered for as a legacy?
Heath: It’s great to be known for where you’re trying to do something that is meaningful and somebody realizes it. That’s always nice. That beats the boredom of just turning it out and turning it in. Especially now that I’m too old to marry rich. (Chuckle.)