Russ Heath is first an “unknown Sergeant” who then became a Five-Star General in the battle theater of comic book art. The tyro Heath hit the ground running. From his earliest works he rapidly developed a dazzling record of consistent and brilliant draftsmanship. Like so many “illustrational cartoonists” of his generation, Heath’s youthful goal was to become a top-flight magazine illustrator for the “slicks”, magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, and so on.
Typically, as with other veterans of the Great Depression and WW II, he survived his own “ trial under fire” by means of a hard-driven work ethic.Russ Heath received little formal art training, but like so many other comic books artists, he was accepted into the comic book work force during high school and toiled at his craft while on the job. And also like so many comic book artists, he was to remain “signed-up” in the comics field far longer than he had ever anticipated, as those original “slick” markets he had dreamed of starring in atrophied or vanished completely. He became a “Career Man”!
Heath excelled at the horror, romance, crime, western, and war genres. He was also quite adept and drawing the attractive female form. This talent was to serve him well. Russ Heath remarked that he had never cared for illustrating the long-underwear, union suit, super-hero titles, although he did indeed draw a few. While most enthusiasts remember him well for his grim and grisly Atlas war and horror covers, as well as his strikingly realistic DC war stories, Russ Heath also had a fruitful, long-term relationship with Harvey Kurtzman. He worked with Harvey on EC’s Mad, and Frontline Combat, and also on Playboy’s “Little Annie Fanny”. In fact, it was working on the lucrative Little Annie Fanny account that afforded Russ the economic means to produce his incredible run on the Sgt. Rock feature for Our Army at War!
Pressure Point!: The Art of Sgt. Rock
Sgt. Rock, the ultimate American W.W.II topkick, was birthed and “booted” by Robert Kanigher. The Rock’s legend has been immortalized by the finest artists in the comic book field, talents such as Ross Andru, Jerry Grandenetti, Irv Novick, Doug Wildey, George Evans, Dan Spiegle, Sam Glanzman, Dick Ayers, and Lee Elias. However, the artist who “took the point” with Sgt. Rock was Joe Kubert. Kubert had his combat antenna tuned for the feature with his “emotional”, searing and expressive line quality and his dramatic storytelling. Kubert’s art fused well with the war-torn Kanigher psychodramas. The two men thus became renowned as the fabulous K-K team in the 1960s.
Although he had already “earned his stripes” with superlative artwork on DC’s “Haunted Tank” feature (in G. I. Combat), Russ Heath was ultimately “volunteered” to meet the supreme challenge of assuming the art duties on Sgt. Rock as Joe Kubert “rotated out” Kanigher and became the “High Command” of the DC war titles. Rather than being cowed or shell-shocked by this new tour of duty, Heath was galvanized and charged ahead boldly to create sublime vistas of vivid, dreamlike war tales. Heath honed the emotional edge of Kanigher’s sagas. His photorealistic drawing skills and mastery of reflected light combined seamlessly with a very cinematic approach to comics storytelling and “staging”. Each issue seemed to be an epic comic book version of a Sam Fuller war film. Heath’s attention to detail was gripping, dramatic, and magical. Russ Heath put on an all-out blitz for quality, and only the high paying “Little Annie Fanny” feature allowed him to lavishly toil away with the time needed for such quality. When Heath produced the remarkable story, “Give and Take,” for Warren’s Blazing Combat # 4 (6/66), scripted by Archie Godwin, he mustered his talents and showed he was ready for a new challenge. Kanigher’s all too human icon, Sgt. Rock, provided the venue. Heath’s run on Our Army at War ranks among the best comic book art and storytelling of all time! He had climbed in the funnybook ranks from a unknown Sergeant to a Five-Star General!
Battle Harvest: The Best Russ Heath Rocks!
While Heath had worked on the Sgt. Rock feature in 1961, 1962, 1966, 1967 and 1968, it was in 1969 that Heath began his most magical run. DC had changed from using “large” original art ( 12” X 18”) to a smaller sized page (10” X 15”). This shift, while probably instituted as a money saving convenience, also seemed to have a nice “side effect”. The artists composed their panel flow or page layouts as a dynamically designed whole, rather than as a straightforward series of independently composed panels. When Joe Kubert became editor in 1968, the DC war books began using a unique signature format of a double-page splash on page numbers two and three of each comic book, rather than the more traditional page one splash. Heath produced some eye-poppingly dramatic double-page splash scenes. He also remained faithful to the storylines and did not disrupt them simply to dazzle.
Here then is a roll call of what I salute as Heath’s ten best,
Five-Star, Sgt. Rock battle tales.
(The stories are written by Robert Kanigher unless otherwise noted. )
OAAW # 208 (6/69),
“A Piece of Rag... A Hank of Hair,” 13 pgs.
OAAW #212 (11/69), “The Quiet War,” 14 pgs.
OAAW # 213 (12/69) , “A Letter for Bulldozer,” 14 pgs,
OAAW # 219 (5/70), “Yesterday’s Hero,” Kubert?, 13 pgs.
OAAW # 221 (7/70), “ Hang-Up,” Kubert?, 12 pgs.
OAAW # 226 (12/70). “Death Stop,” Heath, 14 pgs.
OAAW # 235 (9/71), “Pressure Point,” 12 pgs.
OAAW # 244 (4/72), “Easy’s First Tiger,” Heath, 14 pgs.
OAAW # 256 (4/73), “School for Sergeants,” 14 pgs.
OAAW # 257 (6/73), “The Castaway,” 14 pgs.
About the author:
Don Mangus returns for another tour of duty with this essay on Russ Heath and his service as the artist on Sgt. Rock. When he's not on a bivouac with the combat-happy Joes of Easy Company, Don can be contacted at:
DC War Comics List