Sgt. Rock - The Soldier (Our Army at War #239)

Russ Heath was an American comic book artist, who was active from the 1940s well into the 2000s. He has worked in many genres, but was mainly specialized in western and war stories. He is best remembered for his well-documented contributions to the war titles of Stan Lee's Atlas line and DC Comics during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. These included not only stand-alone stories, but also long-running features like 'Haunted Tank' and 'Sgt. Rock'. Together with Joe Kubert and John Severin, he ranks as one of the best American artists of war comics. He was however also able to tackle satirical work, contributing to many rip-offs of MAD magazine, and assisting Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder on 'Little Annie Fanny' in Playboy magazine.

Russell Heath Jr. was born in New York City in 1926, and raised in New Jersey. His father's background as a cowboy led to an early interest in the work of western artists like Will James and Charlie Russell. The young man made his debut as a comic book artist at the early age of 16, doing assignments for Holyoke Publishing during his summer holidays between 1942 and 1944. Among his earliest known works are two installments of the naval feature 'Hammerhead Hawley' in Captain Aero Comics. He was drafted and served stateside in the Air Force for nine months in 1945. Heath finished high school after returning to civilian life in Montclair, New Jersey. He had his first job as an office assistant at the Manhattan-based advertising agency Benton & Bowles, but landed a staff position with the Timely Comics bullpen in 1948.


This gal is mine! (Western Life Romances #1, 1949)

Heath was originally typecasted as an artist of western features, illustrating stories with 'Kid Colt', 'Two-Gun Kid' and 'Rex Hart' throughout the rest of the 1940s. He also turned to other genres when Stan Lee began Timely's Atlas line in the 1950s, including romance, mystery, suspense and war. Besides comic stories, he was also a productive cover illustrator, often working with the gray wash technique. He contributed to a great many of Atlas' suspense/sci fi/mystery/horror anthology titles, including 'Astonishing' (1952-1955), 'Journey into Mystery' (1952-1959), 'Journey into Unknown Worlds' (1951-1956), 'Marvel Tales' (1951-1955), 'Menace' (1953-1954), 'Mystery Tales' (1952-1955), 'Mystic' (1951-1954), 'Spellbound' (1952-1954), 'Strange Tales' (1951-1956), 'Suspense' (1950-1952), and 'Uncanny Tales' (1953-1956). His romance art appeared in 'Girl Comics' (1950-1952), 'Love Romances' (1950-1960) and 'My Own Romance' (1959), while Heath also had a short stint on superheroes in the debut issue of 'Marvel Boy' (1950). His western art continued to appear in the celebrity comic 'Reno Browne, Hollywood's Greatest Cowgirl' (1950) and most notably in the lead stories of 'The Arizona Kid' (1950-1951).

Cover art by Russ HeathCover art by Russ Heath
Cover art by Russ Heath

But from 1951 onwards, Heath showed a great talent for depicting battle scenes in a hyperrealistic and authentic way. His earliest war stories, often written by staffers like Hank Chapman, appeared in the Atlas titles 'Battle' (1952-1960), 'Battle Action' (1952-1956), 'Battlefield' (1952-1955), 'Combat' (1952-1953), 'Combat Casey' (1953-1956), 'Combat Kelly' (1951-1956), 'Marines in Battle' (1954-1955), 'Navy Action' (1954-1955), 'War Adventures' (1952-1953) and 'War Comics' (1951-1957). Heavily influenced by the Korean war, the stories didn't shy away from portrayals of death, torture and other atrocities of war.

No Survivors! (War Comics #8, 1952)
No Survivors! (War Comics #8, 1952)

By 1954 Heath did his first contributions to the war comic books edited by Robert Kanigher at DC Comics. He began working for the company more exclusively from 1956-1957 onwards. His art appeared in the pages of 'All-American Men of War' (1954-1966), 'G.I. Combat' (1957-1974), 'Our Army at War' (1954-1975), 'Our Fighting Forces' (1954-1972) and 'Star Spangled War Stories' (1954-1971). He was the original artist of 'The Haunted Tank' (1961-1974), a feature created by Kanigher for 'G.I. Combat'. It was a mix between war and supernatural stories, and centered around a M3 Stuart tank protected by the ghost of 19th-century Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart. In a 1999 interview with Jon B. Cooke, the artist however expressed his dislike for the feature, as it recycled the same story over and over again. One of Heath's 'Haunted Tank' stories also marked the first appearance of 'The Losers', a group of anti-hero soldiers, which became a regular feature drawn by Ross Andru in 'Our Fighting Forces' in 1970. By 1972 Heath was succeeded as the main artist of 'Haunted Tank' by Sam J. Glanzman. From 1961 onwards, Heath also drew many stories with 'Sgt. Rock', a World War II veteran created by Kanigher and Joe Kubert for 'Our Army at War' in 1959.


The Golden Gladiator (The Brave and the Bold #2)

Between 1955 and 1959 he was also one of the regular artists of 'The Brave and the Bold', when this title was still an anthology about several heroes from past ages. Heath drew the adventures of 'The Golden Gladiator' for the first couple of issues, but then mostly worked on 'Robin Hood' stories written by Bill Finger. Heath and Kanigher furthermore worked together on an issue about underwater adventurers called 'The Frogmen' for the third issue of DC's 'Showcase' series in 1956. The concept later evolved in the comic book series 'Sea Devils', for which Heath provided cover and interior art for the first ten issues. Heath could have fun drawing the mysterious worlds and creatures the scuba adventurers encountered, as well as the underwater textures with effective use of shading. From 1964 onwards, Irv Novick took over art duties, while Ed Herron succeeded Robert Kanigher as the writer.


Sea Devils #7

Already during his Atlas days, Heath had been freelancing for other companies as well. He did one war story for Harvey Kurtzman in the first issue of EC's 'Frontline Combat' in 1951. Lev Gleason published one of his romance stories in 'Boy Loves Girl' #41 of 1953, and he also appeared in the second issue of St. John Publishing's '3-D Comics' by Joe Kubert in 1953. Heath and John Severin were responsible for the two stories in the western-frontier one-shot comic book 'Apache Hunter' by Creative Pictorials in 1954. For Dell Publishing, he drew stories based on the western TV series 'Tales of Wells Fargo' (1961) and 'Laramie' (1962) in the Four Color Comics series. In 1966 he drew a single, but remarkable photo-realistic war story for James Warren's Blazing Combat magazine, from a script by Archie Goodwin.

Mike and Liz Nod Fling a Wing-Ding (Cracked #2, 1958)
Mike and Liz Nod Fling a Wing-Ding (Cracked #2, 1958)

He first tried his hand at comedy with a spoof on Jack Cole's 'Plastic Man' in the 14th issue of MAD ('Plastic Hero Worship Dept.', 1954). It remained his sole contribution to EC's humor title, but he later also worked for other satirical magazines like Whitestone Publishing's Lunatickle (1956) and Harvey Kurtzman's Humbug (1957-1958). Stan Lee also assigned Heath on his short-lived 1950s MAD rip-offs Crazy, Wild, Riot and Snafu. Between 1958 and 1960 he furthermore appeared in other MAD copies like Sol Brodsky's Cracked (Major Magazines), John B. Musacchia's Loco (Satire Publications) and Frantic! (Pierce Publishing). He worked with Kurtzman again when he assisted him and Bill Elder on their 'Little Annie Fanny' strip for Playboy magazine during the 1960s. According to legend, he even spent several months in Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion, before he got kicked out when someone finally noticed he didn't belong there.


Yellow Heat (Vampirella #58, 1977)

Divorced from his wife since the 1950s, Heath enjoyed the bachelor life (hence his time at the Playboy Mansion). This however made him miss his deadlines on a regular base. Joe Kubert, DC's director of publications, was fed up with this and by the mid 1970s, Heath's tenure with DC Comics ended. Luckily for him, he already got regular assignments from the humor magazine National Lampoon, so the artist later remarked he didn't even notice that DC didn't send him any work any longer. He also returned to terror/horror stories for James Warren's magazines Eerie, Creepy and Vampirella between 1976 and 1979. Although he had worked in the genre before, these modern stories by Bill Dubay and Bruce Jones were more explicit and gruesome than his previous Atlas work. When publisher Martin Goodman left Marvel and founded Seaboard Periodicals with its new Atlas line, Heath was present with cover and interior art for 'Planet of Vampires' and 'Thrilling Adventure Stories' (1975). The company pioneered in giving their artists author rights, but the effort already folded in late 1975.

Tough Cop, by Russ Heath 1975
Tough Cop (Thrilling Adventure Stories #2, 1975)

Expanding on his activities, Heath also delved more into commercial art during the 1970s. He had already done advertising work for Florida Oranges in the early 1950s, and his 1960s drawings of Roman and Revolutionary War battle scenes for toy soldier sets had become well-known after appearing as ads on the back covers of many comic books in the early 1970s. These two pieces of art are nowadays treasured as familiar pieces of Americana. In the mid 1970s he was affiliated with Neal Adams and Dick Giordano's Continuity Studios, and worked on books that accompanied 'Star Trek' and 'Space: 1999' themed albums by Power Records, a division of Peter Pan Records. With Adams, he also returned to Marvel Comics for pencilling 'Ka-Zar' (1975)) in some issues of 'Savage Tales', with inking provided by Continuity's inking team, the "Crusty Bunkers". Heath furthermore produced artwork to magazines like Weird Tales (1973), Cheri (1976) and Scholastic Magazine (1976), and did inking chores over Mike Golden's pencils for two issues of 'Mister Miracle' at Marvel Comics in 1978.

Russ Heath had spent seven years of his professional life living in Manhattan, seven in Chicago and seven in Westport, Connecticut, before moving to Van Nuys, California in 1978. He began an additional career in the Los Angeles animation industry, which lasted throughout the 1980s. He storyboarded commercials for Doyle-Dane-Bernbach, L and M, Benton and Bowles, Dancer-Fitzgerald and General Mills. He was a layout artist for the animated series 'Godzilla' (1979), 'The Tarzan/Lone Ranger/Zorro Adventure Hour' (1980-1982), the 'ABC Weekend Specials' (1980), 'Blackstar' (1981) and 'The Kid Super Power Hour with Shazam!' (1981). He was also a background artist and character designer on Ralph Bakshi's 'American Pop' movie (1981). Heath was involved in most animation projects related to Hasbro's 'G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero' toy-line, serving as either model designer or character designer. His tenure began with the original TV series by Marvel and Sunbow Productions (1983-1986), then continued with the feature film 'G.I. Joe: The Movie' (1987) and eventually the subsequent TV series by DIC Entertainment (1989-1991). He furthermore worked as a model designer on the 'RoboCop' TV series (1988) and as character design supervisor on DIC's 'The Karate Kid' animated TV series (1989).


The Lone Ranger (17 July 1983)

Despite his many other activities, Heath continued to work on comics assignments during the 1980s and 1990s, albeit more sporadic. He most notably turned to the field of newspaper comic strips, which he had only briefly ventured into before when he assisted Dan Barry on 'Flash Gordon' and George Wunder on 'Terry and the Pirates' in the 1950s and early 1960s. He filled in for Stan Lynde on the 'Latigo' feature for Field Enterprises from 29 September 1980 until 17 January 1981, after which he returned to 'Flash Gordon' for a couple of months. Between 30 November 1980 and 12 April he drew a weekly comic strip based on the 1981 adventure film 'Condorman' for the Walt Disney Sunday feature 'Treasury of Classic Tales', from a script by Greg Crosby. His longest and only credited work on a syndicated strip was 'The Lone Ranger', which tied in with the 1981 movie 'The Legend of the Lone Ranger'. However the film flopped, and even won several Golden Raspberries, especially for the dubbed performance of lead actor Klinton Spilsbury. The comic strip, written by Cary Bates, only ran in a handful of newspapers through New York Times Special Features from 13 September 1981 until 1 April 1984.


Hearts and Minds

When his career as a newspaper strip artist came to an end, Heath reappeared in the pages of comic books, although mainly as a fill-in artist. He first returned to one of his earliest employers, Timely, which now operated as Marvel Comics. Because of his involvement in the animated series, he drew the 24th issue of the 'G.I. Joe' comic book, written by Larry Hama. He then filled in for Sal Velluto on the 4th issue of 'Marc Spector: Moon Knight' by Chuck Dixon in 1989, and drew issues #26 and #27 of Mike Baron's 'The Punisher'. He returned to that character for its four-issue 'Fortress Miami' storyline (#89-92), written by Chuck Dixon. He furthermore drew a 'The Devil's Brigade' story for 'Clive Barker's Hellraiser' #13 in 1992 and replaced Wayne Vansant in issue #65 of the war series 'The 'Nam', which at the time was also written by Dixon. For Marvel's Epic Comics imprint, Heath provided pencils and inks for the 62-pages graphic novel 'Hearts and Minds: A Vietnam love story' (1990), written by Doug Murray.

Mistress of the Seas, by Russ Heath (Penthouse Men's Adventure Comix)
Pirate Hearts - Mistress of the Seas (Penthouse Men's Adventure Comix #2, 1995)

In the 1990s, Heath once again branched out to other companies. For Disney, he illustrated Peter David's graphic novel adaptation of the 1991 movie 'The Rocketeer', which in turn was based on Dave Stevens' comic book creation. He also returned to DC Comics with a four issue run on 'Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight' (1993) during Doeg Moench's 'Heat' storyline. The artist later expressed he never felt at ease with superheroes, and that he preferred pure realism. He did however return to the character when he alternated with Steve Yeowell on the 52-page story in the 1997 'Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight' annual. Heath drew another 'Haunted Tank' story by Chuck Dixon for the second 'Sgt. Rock Special' (1994), and was then mainly assigned to the 'Big Book of...' humor series by DC's Paradox Press imprint between 1995 and 1999. He showed his skills in parody once again in the installments 'The Big Book of Little Criminals', 'The Big Book of Hoaxes', 'The Big Book of Thugs', 'The Big Book of the Unexplained', 'The Big Book of the Weird Wild West' and 'The Big Book of Vice'. More erotically oriented work by Heath appeared in Penthouse Comix (1995) and 'Bettie Page Comics'(1996) by Dark Horse Comics. Also for Dark Horse, he drew the 'James Bond' story 'Operation Miasma' by Doug Moench for 'Dark Horse Comics' #25 (1994). In 1999 he drew a story featuring Hawkman and Wildcat for the first issue of DC's 'Thrilling Comics', and he also contributed to the 'Our Fanboy at War' story in Mark Evanier and Sergio Aragonés' 'Fanboy' series, along with Jordi Bernet and Marie Severin.

At the turn of the century, Russ Heath was already well into his seventies. Although largely retired, he remained a regular guest at comics conventions and doing art commissions. He also continued to contribute to several comic books throughout the decade, such as the 74th issue of the western-frontier series 'Starman' by James Robinson. He participated in the 13th issue of the funny animal series 'Tom Strong' by Alan Moore and Chris Sprouse (2001), made a story with the Moore creation 'Greyshirt' in cooperation with Rick Veitch for 'Greyshirt: Indigo Sunset' #2 (2002), and contributed the art for the flashback story in Keith Giffen and Paco Medina's 'Suicide Squad' #4 (2002).

Enemy Ace by Russ Heath
Enemy Ace: War in Heaven

He notably drew the second volume of 'Enemy Ace: War in Heaven' (2001), a World War II graphic novel by Garth Ennis starring German fighter pilot Hans von Hammer. The character was created in 1965 by Joe Kubert and Robert Kanigher, who based him on World War I aviation hero Manfred von Richthofen (better known as the Red Baron). Ennis however drew his inspiration from real life pilots like Adolf Galland. 'War in Heaven' shows Von Hammer as a veteran pilot during World War II, who, although no supporter of the Nazi regime, is persuaded to join the Luftwaffe. Throughout the two volumes, "The Hammer of Hell" is gradually exposed to the horrors of war. The first installment was drawn by Christian Alamy and Chris Weston, while the second volume was illustrated by Heath. Heath's storyline shows Von Hammer horrified by the sight of the Dachau concentration camp, and his subsequent attempts to surrender to the allied forces.

Legend by Russ Heath
Legend #2

Heath remarkably enough returned to the superhero genre when he drew the four-issue limited series 'Legend' by Howard Chaykin for DC/Wildstorm in 2005. His final story art for DC Comics was for the 25th issue of western hero 'Jonah Hex' (2008). In 2007 Heath provided art for flashback scenes in several issues Marvel's 'The Immortal Iron Fist' by writers Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction, and artist David Aja. He returned to the title in the following year, alternating on the artwork with Travel Foreman for four new issues written by Duane Swierczynski. In 2010 he illustrated three covers and four pin-ups under the label 'That Russ Heath Girl' for Dave Sim's parody comic book 'glamourpuss'.

Although Russ Heath will always be associated with his hyperrealistic and gritty depictions of the terrors of war, the man had a great versatility. At the same time he switched to lush humorous parody, for which he designed spot-on caricatures and experimented with techniques like wash. He was one of the few artists who signed his own work, already in the early stages of his career. Heath furthermore not only pencilled but also inked most of his own stories, which he said saved him time because he didn't have to produce highly detailed pencil pages and shading instructions. He was occasionally assigned to ink pencils by other artists, such as Neal Adams and Joe Kubert. He didn't find much fulfillment in it though, as he felt only Adam and Kubert themselves could do their own work justice. Kubert in turn was also a big fan of Heath. In his art classes, he advised his students to get either photographic references or Russ Heath artwork as documentation.


Aces Wild from All-American Men of War #89. The first panel inspired Lichtenstein for his BRATTATA painting

Panels from stories by Russ Heath, Irv Novick and Jerry Grandenetti for 'All-American Men of War' #89 (1962) inspired Roy Lichtenstein's paintings 'WHAAM!' (1962), 'BRATTATA' (1962) and 'BLAM!' (1963). A questionable honor, since Lichtenstein generally dismissed comics as mere pulp. Even worse, the man made millions out of his pop-art paintings, while the artists of the source material were never acknowledged nor compensated. Heath for instance spent most of his old age in poverty. He had to rely on financial support for a knee operation from non-profit organizations like the Hero Initiative, which collects funds to help out elderly artists. One of their methods was releasing a comic book called 'Hero Comics', which consists of voluntary contributions by comics artists. One of them was Heath, who in his mid 80s, wrote and drew the one-page comic strip 'Bottle of Wine' (2012), which reflected the artist's sour sentiments regarding Lichtenstein. It was his final published artwork.

Luckily, the man has received much praise during his lifetime. Heath was one of the winners of the Inkpot Awards during the San Diego Comic Con of 1997. He was inducted into the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2009, and in the following years he received the Comic Art Professional Society Sergio Award (2010) and the National Cartoonists Society's Milton Caniff Award (2014). In 2013, an overview exhibition of Russ Heath's artistic career was organized by Florentino Flórez and held in the Casal Solleric in Palma, Spain. IDW released a large format book which accompanied the exhibition, called 'Flesh and Steel: The Art of Russ Heath'. It not only contained an art catalog of Heath's large body of work, but also rare artwork from the artist's personal archives, an interview conducted by Flórez and a complete index of his work.

Russ Heath passed away in August 2018 in a retirement community in Long Beach, after suffering from cancer.


Bottle of Wine (2012)

Interview with Russ Heath on comicsbulletin.com
Russ Heath posts on Ger Apeldoorn's blog

Series and books by Russ Heath in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:

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