I talked to artist Russ Heath at the Planet Comicon in Kansas City in 2001. This article ran June 1, 2001, about the time that Heath’s issue of Garth Ennis’ “Enemy Ace: War in Heaven” was hitting the stands.
One of the greatest artists of war comics has returned to the genre with the “Enemy Ace: War in Heaven” No. 2. Russ Heath, perhaps best-known for his work on DC’s “Sgt. Rock” and “Balloon Buster,” is considered among the finest war artists ever.Heath got started in the comics industry’s early days because his “father knew a friend of somebody.”
After the summer of drawing comics, Heath returned to high school and later joined the Air Force.
When he returned from the Air Force, he began working at advertising agencies, “sharpening the art director’s pencils.”
“I started looking for better jobs at lunch time,” Heath said, “which is not the best time to look for jobs, because everyone’s at lunch.”
In 1947, he met with Stan Lee at what was then Timely Comics. Heath was making $35 a week and travel cost him $15. Lee offered him $75, and Heath was back in comics.
He started working in animation in 1978. But in animation, “no body of work exists. You ship it off with a guide overseas.”
Heath also prefers comic fandom, where individual artists often have large groups of fans. When the residual payments in comics got better, he returned.
Heath recently finished a six-page story for WildStorm’s “Tom Strong” title, written by Alan Moore (“Watchmen,” “V for Vendetta”).
The issue, No. 13, is on sale now.
“It was difficult,” Heath said. “I’m trying to update my technique.”
Heath said he had adapted a lot of “cross-hatching” into his work while working on DC’s series of “Big Books,” books on a single theme that have several stories. The black-and-white books have lots of nine-panel pages. Cross-hatching is an art technique in which intersecting lines are used to indicate light, shade, etc.
“Most comics have no cross-hatching. It’s all done with color, as it should be,” Heath said. “It worked against Tom Strong rather than for it. Today, the colorists are really good artists who work out the lighting… In my day, the amateur colorists had no idea about lighting.”
Heath said he’s very appreciative of the gains that comic colorists have made during his career. He remembers even as recently as the 1970s, a lot of coloring was subpar.
“I did a job called ‘Son of Satan,’” he said. “I said I’ll do it on the condition that I can color it.”
But Marvel, the publisher, gave the coloring job to someone else, mistakenly believing Heath to be too busy to do it.
“There were so many things that didn’t work without the coloring,” Heath said.
In one scene, Heath had planned to color the figure in the foreground as part of the framing, and bring out people in the background with different color.
But the colorist colored them all, “green hat, purple pants, whatever,” and the effect was lost.
“It evaporates into kind of a paisley print,” he said.
Although Heath has drawn several superhero stories over the years, he’s never been that attracted to the costumed cavaliers.
“I was too literal a person to go along with that,” he said. “I know if Superman jumped over the Empire State Building, I know he would ruin his costume and damn sure crack the pavement when he landed. You’ve left all reality.
“When I did them, I did them too realistically. They looked like someone dressed up to go to a Halloween party.”
Heath considers his best work to be the Sgt. Rock and Haunted Tank stories of the late 1960s.
“It was a period that I went through that I was trying hard to be different. There’s always the best way to tell a story, but you’ve done it 17 times. I thought, ‘How can I do a different thing without sacrificing the storytelling?’”
Heath has more projects in the works, including a Greyshirt story for the WildStorm anthology “Tomorrow Stories.”
He’s also considering doing a series of pinup plates.
“Pretty ladies don’t go out of style,” he said. “The research is fun.”
And he stays busy with cover re-creations.
Heath loves to get the reactions of fans to his work. He attends conventions and is always glad to greet a fan.
“You do it for a lot more than the money,” he said.