Russ Heath, renowned war artist recently celebrated his 88th birthday. At the end of 2007 he favored me with a very enjoyable interview about his long and storied career and why he really doesn’t care much about drawing superheroes.
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 four 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 ’60s 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 ’60s.” 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 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 ’80s. 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 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 2½ 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 ten issues of that, I think. No. I did ten 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 four 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.