Comic Book Artist Edited by Jon B. Cooke Comic Book Artist, Eisner Award winner for "Best Comics-Related Magazine", celebrates the lives and works of great cartoonists, writers and editors from all eras through in-depth interviews, feature articles, and unpublished art.

Heath recreation of his cover for an issue of Sea Devils. Courtesy of the artist. Sea Devils ©1999 DC Comics, Inc.

T Russ Heath of Easy Co.

Interview with the Artist on His DC War Comics Duty

Conducted by Jon B. Cooke
Transcribed by Jon B. Knutson

From Comic Book Artist Special Edition

It is legend that in the early '70s, when a new job would arrive at the DC offices from Russ' Chicago studio, all work would stop, and the bullpen would wait in nervous anticipation as the package was unwrapped, so they could be the first to see the latest opus from a master.

In a comic con program book, renowned writer/editor Archie Goodwin wrote in his tribute to Russ: "Artist's artist. That's something you read somewhere. I haven't heard anyone in comics actually say it. What I do hear said is: 'You see what that crazy bastard Heath did this month?' And everyone stops and looks at the new 'Sgt. Rock' and shakes their head. Then they go back to their drawing boards or their typewriters or wherever, and maybe they work a little longer, try a little harder. And maybe it has nothing to do with a crazy bastard like Russ Heath. But maybe it does."

After over 50 years in the industry, Russ is still hard at work producing glorious work, and he continues to be our inspiration. Look for a special tribute issue in the coming year. The artist was interviewed on July 22, 1999, and he copyedited the transcript.


COMIC BOOK ARTIST: While you worked for Timely/Atlas with Stan Lee, were you looking to get a gig at DC?

RUSS HEATH: Well, the business in those days, it used to be up one year and down the next, and so on - sometimes a lot worse, and sometimes not so bad - but there was a big break around 1950, somewhere in there, and I ended up doing some of Joe Kubert's 3-D book, Tor. And then I went over to DC and showed my stuff to Bob Kanigher, and he gave me a war story to draw.

CBA: How did you get hooked up with Kubert? Was it through Joe, or his partner, Norm Maurer?

RUSS: Well, they were working together at St. John's offices, and I was going everywhere - I had a list of 15 places to go - and I went over there, and I talked to Norm first. As I'm about to open my portfolio, Kubert walks in and says, "He doesn't have to show that. He's okay." Which was very flattering!

CBA: Was "Golden Gladiator" [from The Brave and the Bold] your first DC work?

RUSS: The first was a war story, I think it was a winter story about ice and then, when I finished that one, I got another one. . . I'm not sure of the order of when the "Golden Gladiator" thing. . .

CBA: Were stories being tailored to you? Did you have particular strengths that Bob Kanigher saw?

RUSS: Well, they'd start you on a feature. I did some "Robin Hood," and some "Golden Gladiator." It's like, "All right, you've done the 'Golden Gladiator,' and we've got this stuff on hand, so we'll give you some 'Robin Hood.'"

CBA: As part of Bob's group of artists, were you exclusively on his books?

RUSS: It wasn't by design; you were just working for him, and someone else was working for Julie Schwartz.

CBA: Did you hang out at all with any of the other Kanigher regulars, like Mort Drucker or Gene Colan?

RUSS: Mort was so tied up with MAD magazine. I did hang around with Ross Andru, and we became good friends. I had lunch with Ross about once a week - sometimes his wife would come along - I was usually with a girlfriend, and the four of us would go.

CBA: Were Ross' pencils something to marvel at? Were you particularly a fan of his stuff? Because I always hear artists raving about Ross Andru's pencils.

RUSS: I liked some of the things that they did, but I was more of an illustrator than a cartoonist. Someone like Shelley Moldoff always had a comic approach - like [Fawcett's] Captain Marvel - whereas I was trying to be an illustrator. I read that Moldoff interview in The Comics Journal [#214] and I realized that he was saying the way they drew Batman in the old days, was better than the guys who are doing it now for animation - it was a better take on the character, because it was a comic approach.

CBA: In the late '50s, for a long period of time in their war books, DC was doing basically short stories, and then they started to do series. I think they started with "Sgt. Rock."

RUSS: "The Haunted Tank" started somewhere in there, too.

CBA: Exactly. Were you looking to do a regular strip, or did it just fall in your lap?

RUSS: I didn't like "The Haunted Tank" [in G.I. Combat] as much, although I probably didn't say so - it wasn't good business policy to be negative about anything. You don't know what it does if the writer hears that, and he doesn't want to write for you anymore. You kept your mouth shut. "The Haunted Tank" I liked less because there was always the same four characters - J.E.B. Stuart plus his three buddies - virtually the same story every issue: He'd be talking to this ghost, over and over again. I couldn't believe kids kept wanting to look at it.

CBA: You did hundreds of pages of "The Haunted Tank," didn't you?

RUSS: Yeah, it was probably the longest thing I did.

CBA: And you did that strip for 10 years?

RUSS: I don't know, I have no idea of the years. In those days, in the early days, and before that, it was like "That was my job," and the guy who lives next door is a butcher, and you go off to work, and you worked fast. It wasn't like having a career; it was what you did. And you had a little control over your wages by how many pages you could turn out. A lot of the guys tried to turn it out as fast as possible, and did, but I felt they became hack artists, and I was afraid I'd become a hack, and I wouldn't be able to do good stuff. So, I decided I wasn't going to go for the gold.

CBA: What was your dream at the time? Was it you wanted to remain good, and just didn't want to be like so many other artists who'd churn out pages and maximize their productivity? What were you holding out for?

RUSS: It's like that time I did that story for Blazing Combat, "Give and Take." [For a detailed interview on Heath's Warren work, see CBA #4.] All the guys working on that book who were my peers were doing excellent work. I knew I had to work to the best of my ability against that quality. So, I worked my ass off on that one story in particular, which turned out to be what many people think is the best story in that issue. It's ironic, and I guess it was just happenstance, but everybody turned in a great job on that issue [#4].

CBA: You said in an earlier interview that while you were doing Sea Devils you spent time with a young lady who was going to art school, and she influenced you?

RUSS: She'd been to three art schools, and she moved in with me. I had gotten sick of going over and getting her clothes, and I said, "Why the hell don't you just bring all your clothes over here?" So we set up dual drawing boards. She had no experience, and her work leaned more towards fashion, but she was good at it. She wasn't into comics. But if you go to art school, and you learn some of the rules, like negative space....

CBA: That rubbed off onto you?

RUSS: Yeah, I had no concept of negative space. Once I realized what it was, I could tell what was wrong with my stuff. Before, it was accidental. This panel worked, that one didn't, and I didn't know why.

CBA: Did you do an enormous amount of research before that?

RUSS: Well, from the time I was a kid, my father used to take me to all these Western movies. On Saturday mornings, they'd have these serials, like Tom Mix, and my father, having been a cowboy, would point things out to me and say, "Oh, no cowboy in his right mind would wear a boot with a heel like that," or "The spurs are on wrong." So, I felt I should try to convince the readers that I knew what I was drawing. And I'd better get it right! Of course, illustrators use a lot of photo research, and of course, you have to know how to interpret the photo; you can't just copy it.

CBA: How did Sea Devils develop? Was that Bob Kanigher's book?

RUSS: Yeah. I guess I was there from the first issue. It started in Showcase, then it got its own book, and I guess I did about 10 or 12 covers and interiors. Whether the covers exactly paralleled the interiors, or what, I can't recall.

CBA: Did you feel you were going to town with the covers? Because they certainly looked it.

RUSS: Yeah, I was trying. I'm paying for it now in doing re-creations! That one with the sunken ship, you know, and some of them were so complicated... almost painted. I just finished a complicated one - it's fun doing them right, like the way the should have been done, and the way they should have been colored, because I didn't have control of the coloring when I initially did the covers. In 98% of all the work I did, I had no color input at all. Color is so important. The colorists weren't artists, and didn't appreciate lighting, using white. They were afraid if they brought it in and something was white, it was like you were lazy and not coloring the whole thing.

CBA: If memory serves, there was some interesting processes used on a number of your covers.

RUSS: The gray tones? Yeah, well, they found it was too expensive to do full-color separations, and they wanted to head in that direction, so they felt if they added tone, they could do it that way. It wasn't such a great idea. You mix gray with a color, and you get mud. It was terribly dull....

Possibly Russ's epitome as one of DC's finest war artists: The double-page splash to "Easy's First Tiger," Our Army at War #244. This also features a very rare turn of Russ as writer. Courtesy of the artist. ©1999 DC Comics, Inc.

CBA: Did you enjoy working on Sea Devils?

RUSS: Well, there were positives and negatives; it certainly was a lot better because of the background - or lack thereof. Underwater, everything could be... you know, you can't make a lump of coral too big or too small, it was whatever you drew it as. Whereas if you're drawing a goddamn building, you know, you'd go crazy. One thing I didn't want to do was stories based in Manhattan. So, with Westerns, the buildings were rough-hewn and didn't have to have all the straight lines, because the more they wiggled, the more authentic they looked. So, it was very good in that sense. But, the four people in Sea Devils would drive you nuts, because you can't draw four people in every panel, or you can't do an arm reaching into the panel to represent two of them, and then draw two of them. I mean, it was a real dumb thing, and of course, if you divide your heroes by four, each one only has one-fourth of the value - it waters it down. So, when you have a single or perhaps two people, you can do more effective storytelling. I think that's why such things as Terry and the Pirates would go on for a year-and-a-half with just Terry, or a year- and-a-half with just Pat... some with both of them, just because it's so hard to do a story about a herd of people. I had taught SCUBA-diving, I got compliments about the attitudes of the bodies and so forth. It was fairly convincing, having done it myself. I knew what a swimmer looked like.

CBA: And there were good sales from the war stories, that got him to make an attempt adding Pterodactyls and other dinosaurs?

RUSS: Yeah, all that kind of crazy stuff. What was really something else was that they passed these edicts down, and you haven't been there in two weeks, and "Oh, did you hear about the new rule? All the GI's are supposed to have stubble beards." And you'd go in two weeks later, and "Oh, did you hear the new rule? No more stubble beards." So I figured, they don't know what they want, I'm just going to draw it the way I want to. Nobody ever said anything. Sometimes in the Kanigher stories, he'd have a lot of things like the tank hidden in a hay-stack, and throwing the grenade down the muzzle of the tank, and stuff like that which appeared multiple times in different stories. I would - maybe to get more room if it didn't conflict with the storyline - ignore the redundant scenes and spread it out focusing on something else, and get more room. He either didn't care, or didn't realize I was doing that.

CBA: You took liberties with Bob's scripts, eh?

RUSS: I don't know how he'll take the news.

CBA: He had a notorious reputation with a number of people as being quite an angry guy.

RUSS: We originally - way, way back, you know, before '50 - cartoonists came to work in a short-sleeved sportshirt and dress slacks. One day I went in and he's telling one artist that he's not getting the feeling of this thing, and he makes the guy get down on the floor to get the feeling right.

CBA: To get him to pose?

RUSS: To get him rolling around on the floor and I thought, "Dammit, I'm not going to do that!" So I started wearing a suit and tie. I think Gil Kane picked that up, and everybody wore a suit for a while there.

CBA: So they wouldn't have to roll on the floor?

RUSS: "I'll be damned if I'm going to get down on the floor in my good suit!"

CBA: Were some of you scared to death about working with certain editors?

RUSS: We weren't scared to death, but some of us were more religious about following rules than others, and of course, it depended on how much demand the artist was in. If a guy had a couple of weak pages, he'd be nervous. There weren't too many changes made to my stuff, and I think the better you got, if you had any intelligence, you started anticipating what an editor was going to change, so you did it the way he wanted it in the first place. To me, the most successful editor is one who hardly ever changes anything, because he's explained what he wanted so well to the artist, and the artist is bringing him what he wants.

CBA: During this same time, you were becoming a dominant war artist, along with Joe Kubert. Did you hang out with Joe at all?

RUSS: Yeah, I went out to his house a few times, and we went to a health club or something or other. And we'd go to lunch. He'd always marvel that when we'd go somewhere to have a hamburger, and I'd have a vodka tonic, a martini or something with my hamburger, and he'd have a glass of milk. "You know how much you paid? Your lunch is twice as expensive as mine." I think he thought this was idiotic - but we became good friends.

When I went to Chicago, I was working by mail, it was a different time, and a different age, and I spent almost every evening going out in my sandals and my bellbottoms, going into bars and partying, and bringing people along to party, and carrying on and so forth. That's what was going on in those days, part of the '60s. I started being late with my deadlines, and Kubert would get very justifiably angry, and I remember one time he got so mad he said, "If I had you here in New York, I'd punch you right in the face!" And I didn't blame him! In fact, that's one of the things where I started improving my stuff a lot. I was trying to make up for being late, I wanted to dazzle... if they're distracted by how neat it looked, they're not going to come down so hard on me for being late - or so I thought. Later on, they wised up, and started making longer deadlines. All that pressure disappeared, because if they knew you were usually late, they'd give you a deadline two weeks before they really needed it. Finally, I heard - I didn't realize this - but apparently, because of the lateness, I didn't get a call back... it very well could be true. But Joe and I remained good friends.

CBA: Do you remember how you got "Sgt. Rock"?

RUSS: I don't really know the facts... I'm guessing that Joe wanted to do less of it, or wanted to do more of something else. I remember the first story I did, I tried to ape his style a little bit, so there wouldn't be a sudden shock to the reader; you can see it in the first story I did. I'd do my version of his explosions. Years later, somebody said, "How does it feel to be known for not just your work, but known for 'Russ Heath explosions'?" and I thought that was kind of neat.

CBA: Marv Wolfman told of opening up a job from you and just being floored. Mark Hanerfeld remembers vividly opening up your "Easy's First Tiger" [Our Army at War #244] story, Neal Adams hovering over him, dying to look at the work.

RUSS: They'd gather around the office to see what I'd done. Archie Goodwin wrote a flattering piece about that in a convention program.

CBA: With your strength as a renderer of the female form, were you ever interested in doing a regular heroine adventure strip, like "Black Canary"? Skintight costumes look awfully good.

RUSS: Not back in those days, because most of the stuff was censored even if it happened to just look sexy. When did Wonder Woman ever look sexy? Not until the TV show.

CBA: Man, you would've done one bodacious Wonder Woman!

RUSS: They wouldn't have allowed it; if I'd drawn it like I wanted to, they wouldn't have accepted it. I stuck some stuff in the war stories here and there, like a nurse....

CBA: What would you call your high point working at DC? What was the most memorable, pleasant experience you had?

RUSS: Oh, I think when I look through the "Sgt. Rock" stories. Each one had a special deal. As much as they were alike, they were all different. I liked to interject something to make the stories more interesting, like snow... there was a story we did about blood, by having it on top of the snow, it made it different. I'd make one a rainy thing, to establish weather, instead of just hanging back in limbo, make it winter, and get a chance to draw different clothes and there was the snow effect, too. There was a "Sgt. Rock" job where he gets his voicebox temporarily cut, which was a neat winter story... there were a couple of good winter war stories.

These are just excerpts from Russ Heath's interview.

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