Russ Heath continues our fascinating conversation with memories of doing battle with the Comics Code, the tremendous compliment Joe Kubert paid him, adventures in the Playboy Mansion, time at Continuity Associates and the reason some kids were upset with him when they ordered the Roman Soldier sets.
Click here to read part one.
Bryan Stroud for Comics Bulletin: 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?
Russ 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 effect 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.” 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 “RH” 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.
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.)