There’s a sadness today as news of the passing of Russ Heath makes the rounds. Heath was a phenomenal artist – bridging the gap between the lush illustrative work of classic works – like Hal Foster on Prince Valiant , with the brutal, sweaty sense of urgency found in modern comic art. He work was technically solid and dynamically riveting. When a tank blew up in a Russ Heath story, readers could almost feel the intense heat of it and probably flinched just a little to avoid the blast.
Health leaves with world with a voluminous body of work. I’m grateful there is still so much Russ Heath work out there to experience, but if he could’ve just drawn one more exploding Messerschmidt WWII plane that would have been pretty great too.
Heath’s art is inspiring and brilliant. He knew how to illustrate, how to tell a story, and wow, did he know how to ink. I’m not sure I ever heard him talk about “line weight” or “rim lighting” but every inked page of his is worth 10 times it’s weight in art lessons.
I remember his stories about times with larger-than-life personalities, both in and out of the comics industry. He’d talk about Hefner and he had his fair share of Joe Kubert stories too. During a panel with Mike Gold at Baltimore Comic Con, I remember him expressing displeasure with the grim and gritty trend in comics. He had illustrated a Batman and Catwoman story for Batman: Legend of the Dark Knight, but the villain used Wolverine like claws on his woman victims. Heath was not a supporter of that trend – but professional that he was, he still drew the hell out if.
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Back when we were publishing Captain Action comics with Moonstone Books, my business partner and I had carte blanche to seek out the best artists to provide covers for the series. Generally, with a little pluck and tenacity, we were able to get our favorites on board. When you make a comic and have a legendary artist like Dick Giordano or Murphy Anderson on board, it feels pretty good, let me tell you.
One guy on the top of our shortlist was Russ Heath. He had been difficult to get in touch with, but that was more a function of old age and ill health than anything else. One passionate fan, with his heart in the right place, was acting as Heath’s agent, and he helped us connect. So we had arranged to meet Russ Heath at the San Diego Comic-Con one year.
Heath was a cantankerous rapscallion, and at the time, I couldn’t help but think, “Wow- we caught him on a good day.” He was upbeat and fun and funny to speak with. I wasn’t sure we just connected or if he was like to everyone. I think it was the latter case. Oh, I flashed my geek credentials by listing obscure Russ Heath art as among my favorites, but he wasn’t having any of that. He was happy we were all that at that time and place and it seemed as simple as that. And then, with a conspiratorial glint in his eyes, he asked if we’d like to see something special.
The only answer was “Of course!”
From below the table, Heath pulled out a series of Shadow color illustrations he had recently completed. I know the character pretty well, but even I had never seen them before. Each oversize masterpiece had that pulp feel. Part of it was colors, part of was the emotion in each scene and part of it came from the fact that The Shadow was always rescuing a glamorous dame-in-distress.
Now, when I think of Russ Heath, my mind generally conjures up a gritty war scene. However, Russ was also very skilled at drawing beautiful woman. Like so many artists (and non-artists, in fact) that was a topic in which he had a life-long interest in. Many times Russ would tell the stories about how he lived at the Playboy mansion for a period of time. In these illustrations he was sharing with us, the woman was simply stunning. In fact, I don’t think The Shadow ever had it so good.
But then Russ revealed the human side of it all. There was a personal story behind these masterful illustrations. Like all great stories, there was a girl involved, and while I didn’t get the details, there was a broken heart involved too.
Every time I’d meet Russ Heath there was a similar pattern. I kind of already had put him on a pedestal, and then he’d tell a story or do something that would make me put him on a HIGHER pedestal. And that would be immediately followed by a round of gracious humility and genuine humanity. He’d come back to earth, or plummet back to earth, and he was one of us again. He’d have that glint of mischief in his eye, inviting you to conspire with him, but he’d be one of us.
Just one of us… with incredible talent and the ability to astonish generations with his storytelling.