By Jim McLauchlin, Special to Newsarama, Photos by Lori Matsumoto
posted: 14 March 2011 06:58 pm ET
Updated April 13: The following story was originally published on March 14, 2011. Since that time its author Jim McLauchlin has helped produce the following two videos - tributes to both the professional and personal influence Russ Heath has over two of the industry's most successful creators - Mark Waid and Howard Chaykin.
McLauchlin also sends along this update on the status of Russ Heath and his new knee. "Russ is BLOWING up the recovery curve. Back at home, and had a (hopefully) final appointment with the aftercare specialist last week.”
Original story: You’re in the driver’s seat of your car when you hear a painful sound. It’s a gnashing, almost metal-on-metal noise, the kind of grind that definitely says this is a problem beyond your ability to fix. A specialist will have to be called. Thousands of dollars. Damn.
But look at the steering column. There’s nothing in the ignition. The car is turned off. Your keys are still in your hand. The painful noise isn’t coming from under the hood.
Look further to your right. The passenger door is open, and a white-haired man in a bulky black sweater is folding himself gingerly into the front seat. He’s smart enough to take his time. He’s proud, doesn’t want to acknowledge the pain. But you can see as one of his teeth bites into the corner of his lip. Russ Heath is now in your car. He exhales. “Bone on bone,” he says. “I guess I gotta get that fixed soon.”
Soon can’t come soon enough for the 84-year-old artist and resident of Van Nuys, a dingy neighborhood in Los Angeles situated right where “residential” meets “industrial” meets “the porn industry.” Heath is well known as the artist of many of DC Comics’ famous war comics of he 1960s—Sgt. Rock, All-American Men of War, Our Army at War, he worked on ’em all. He’s also well known for logging a nine-year stint as an artist on Playboy’s “Little Annie Fanny”—and living in Chicago’s Playboy Mansion for a bit while doing it.
But that was the 1960s, and this is a new millennium. These days, Heath squeaks by on Social Security and occasional commission jobs. He drives a 13-year-old Honda Civic with a clutch, and now needs knee replacement surgery. After surgery, well...he’ll need a car with an automatic transmission, that’s for sure. He lives in Van Nuys because he can’t afford to move and because inertia is hard to overcome. But with surgery, expensive rehab—20% of which Medicare won’t cover—and the loss of commission income during rehabilitation, can an 84-year-old man even afford Van Nuys? What’s he going to do now that he needs to find an automatic to drive?
Russ Heath will make it. ’Cause Russ Heath has friends.
"I do it because he’s Russ Heath."
There’s a Norm’s restaurant right at the corner of Woodman Ave. and Sherman Way in Van Nuys. It exhibits that space-age, “Googie”-style architecture that so many buildings in L.A. that date to the early ’60s do. More importantly, it’s got a neon sign that proudly proclaims, “Open 24 hours. We never close!” And for that, Steve Wyatt is grateful.
Wyatt is a 46-year-old lifelong comic fan and comic show dealer. He lives in Bakersfield, but makes a 197-mile round trip to Van Nuys frequently. Why? Because Russ Heath needs him to.
“I’ve been to that Norm’s many, many times,” Wyatt says. Wyatt has become Heath’s “agent” by default, helping him schedule and manage the collectors who commission Heath for a specific drawing of their own, usually recreations of his war or Western covers from the 1950s and ’60s. “I help Russ out with his jobs, and I don’t take a cut, I don’t make any money off him,” Wyatt says. “I do it because he’s Russ Heath. And in the principle of the matter, he’s 84 years old. He needs the money more than I do.”
When Wyatt says Russ Heath, he says it in almost reverent tones. Because, you see, there’s always a story with Russ Heath.
Heath just happened to be browsing Wyatt’s dealer table at San Diego Comic-Con many years ago when he suddenly realized his wallet was missing. “And he’s freaking out, ‘Oh, everything’s in there! My cash! My credit cards!,’” Wyatt recalls. “So I asked him, ‘Hey you need some cash? Just a couple hundred dollars to get you through as you cancel your credit cards?’ He said, ‘No, I gotta go retrace my steps, find it.’”
Fortunately, Heath quickly found his wallet. He returned to Wyatt’s table. “He said, ‘Who are you? And why did you offer me, a total stranger, some money?,’” Wyatt continues. “I said, ‘You’re not a stranger to me. You’re Russ Heath. I’ve been a fan of your artwork forever! I wasn’t going to worry about it.’” Heath took Wyatt out to dinner that night as a thank-you, and the fluke friendship started.
“Now I come down as often as possible; help him out as much as possible,” Wyatt says. “I’ve helped sell old comics for him, I help organize his paperwork. I do whatever I can to help him.”
Sometimes, it’s hard work. But Wyatt certainly doesn’t mind. “I’m very fortunate to know him. He’s one of the coolest guys I’ve ever met,” Wyatt says. “He’s really funny. He’s that fun guy at the bar telling jokes. He’s just a great guy to be around.”
The waitress at Norm’s today is all business. Her gray hair is pulled into a tight bun as staccato questions burst from her lips and a blue pen flies across her order pad. “Baked potato, hash browns, mashed or French fries?” “Would you like to add soup or salad for an additional 99¢?” Russ appreciates her efficiency in taking an order. “I’m a slow eater, so I like to make up time where I can,” he remarks. He also likes the tone of her voice. A hearing aid helps Russ out these days. “I could hear her just great,” he says. “Sometimes I have trouble, usually based on someone’s pitch. But she’s right in the right register for me to hear.”
The hearing aid is just a little problematic. “But if it gives me problems, sometimes I sprinkle some salt on the battery.”
Hey, Russ—does that work?
“Don’t know,” he smiles. “The cops arrested me for a-salt and battery.”
“I have to draw to live.”
Jokes come easy. Walking comes hard these days. And that’s odd, because Russ Heath is the last guy you’d expect to slow down. Even into his 70s, Russ was running six miles a day and playing tennis four times a week. But today, as he wears an old pair of tennis shorts, you can see that the right knee is visibly swollen, 50% larger than the other. “It doesn’t hurt that bad,” he shrugs. “It just doesn’t function. I don’t walk too far. Maybe 50 yards at a stretch.”
Knee replacement surgery and the lengthy rehab on the other side are inevitable, but not something Russ is looking forward to. “By the time I get this one done, they might tell me I need to get the other done,” he says. “That’s all I worry about.”
There’s that, and the money. Social Security more or less takes care of the rent and basic expenses. Sometimes more, sometimes less. “I have to draw to live,” Russ says. But the comic industry is borderline-phobic about hiring anyone over the age of 50, and Russ Heath turned that page on the calendar during the Carter administration. New jobs do pop up, notably short “flashback” scenes in Marvel Comics’ The Immortal Iron Fist, but they’re small. Commission work is there, but it’s sporadic. Russ Heath lives check to check and commission to commission. The potential loss of those commission checks while he’s rehabbing from surgery creates a rock in Russ Heath’s gut that hurts way more than the knee.
"It was a labor of love—and a lot of money!"
When it comes to the commissions—hell, anything he draws—Russ Heath is meticulous. Walk into his modest, one-bedroom apartment in Van Nuys, and you’ll see a smattering of commission works-in-progress tacked up on one wall. There are Westerns, war scenes, aa recreation of Marvel Age #63 featuring featuring the X-Men. Are all...well, drop-dead gorgeous. And they all exhibit Heath’s attention to detail.
He holds up a piece he’s working on, a recreation of Atlas Comics’ Battlefront #26 from 1954. “See those stars there?,” he asks. “I’m inking around every one of them. No spatter. It’s the only way to do it right.”
Spot-on is the only way Russ Heath knows how to do things. Back in 1961, when he started working on Sea Devils, a comic about a team of undersea adventurers for DC Comics, Russ also “coincidentally” became the president of the Newark Skin-Divers Club. “You get a better idea of how the bodies would look floating underwater,” he says.
Heath keeps World War II helmets and bayonets in his apartment for reference, and...didn’t we say there was always a story with Russ Heath?
Heath did exactly one story for Blazing Combat, the well remembered but short-lived Warren Publishing war series from 1965-66. The series was known for having the top artists in the field, and Russ brought his A-game.
“I knew I was going up against all the best—Reed Crandall, Wally Wood, my old pal Johnny Severin. So I wanted to do my best,” Heath says today. “Where a story would normally take me a week to draw, I took a month and a half on this one. I went out to an army surplus store, and I bought GI dungarees, a dummy hand grenade, everything. I took them to a Playboy photographer who was a friend of mine, and shot about 40 reference shots. I drew everything from reference, both from the items themselves, and the photos, where we used different lighting. I did the craft-tinting, where you make two different shades of gray by treating the paper with chemicals, and then went back in by hand and crosshatched everything. It was a labor of love—and a lot of money! I got way behind on some other jobs by taking a month and a half on this one.”
The story, “Give and Take” from Blazing Combat #4, is remembered as one of Heath’s finest. And there’s more. “It became, ironically, a story that saved me later,” Heath says. “One time I was behind on work because I broke my wrist, so I went to a buddy and asked him if he knew any hot-shot art students who could help me spot blacks and do some backgrounds because there was only so much I could do with the bum wrist. He knew of this girl who he thought would fit the bill, and he gave me her number. I called her up and said, ‘This is Russ Heath,’ and she almost started freaking out on the other end. Little did I know, but she had read that issue of Blazing Combat and liked my story so much that she kept it on her person at all times! Used to carry it in her purse! She told me when I called her, it was like getting a call from God. But she helped me out and got me through until my wrist healed. And she was a helluva nice person, a great assistant.”
"I’d usually stop and have a Scotch.”
Russ Heath thinks very, very little about his own mortality. “Every male member in my family was dead by age 70,” he says. “This is a gift; more than I ever expected.”
The gifts of Russ Heath’s life include—yep—that stint as a border in Hef’s place. You know—Playboy Mansion.
Heath was part of a four-man team in New York—including fellow artists Harvey Kurtzman, Al Jaffee, and Will Elder—who produced Playboy’s “Little Annie Fanny” throughout the 1960s. Kurtzman was the boss, but Heath was elected to be the man who would fly the strips to Chicago for Publisher Hugh Hefner’s approval.
“It was hell, because everything had to be okayed by Hef personally, and he always wanted these changes, and he wanted the strip to run in every issue,” Heath says. “He was fantastically busy writing ‘The Playboy Manifesto’ or whatever his epistle was at the time, and sometimes I’d sit around and wait for two, three weeks at a time, then we’d get the changes with no time to finish them. We’d have to cut the pages up and Al would do two panels here while Harvey would be working on one and I’d do half a page over there. It was a mess.”
Finally, Heath went to his boss, Harvey Kurtzman, to ask for a raise. He didn’t get it. So Russ Heath quit...for a couple hours. “Hef got word of that, and he phoned me up immediately. He said, ‘I’ll double your salary, and pay to move you, body and furniture, to Chicago.”
So Heath hopped a plane and moved into a third-floor apartment at 1340 N. State Parkway in Chicago—Playboy Mansion. Heath lived there for six months while he looked (maybe just a little slowly...) for his own place. “While I was there, I could just throw my wallet in a bureau drawer, and never have to touch it,” Heath says. “We had 24-hour kitchen service with great chefs. If I had laundry, I’d just give it to the houseman and he’d send it out to be cleaned. There was no way I could spend money!”
Playboy Mansion in the ’60s was the cocktail party destination in the nation. Heath met actor Cliff Robertson, comedian Mort Sahl, late-night talk show legend Johnny Carson, and many more during his stay there. “In the living room at night, you’d have 10 people all hanging around drinking and chatting, 10 total strangers,” Heath recalls. “But by morning, by God, you’d be pretty good friends.
The scenery was nice, too. “There were always a few Bunnies hanging around in the living room as well, or sometimes living in the mansion. They’d use the mansion for some of their photo shoots, too,” Heath says. “On those days, I’d leave my door open, saying I wanted some fresh air. Invariably, some Bunny would come in to look over my shoulder to see what I was doing, and I’d look over hers to see if I wanted to keep working or...go have a Scotch. I’d usually stop and have a Scotch.”
“Before he could get back to me, he died."
Russ Heath had a brush with another famous person—pop-art painter Roy Lichtenstein.
In the 1960s, Lichtenstein gained fame by reproducing comic book panels as giant canvases, adding large “Ben-Day dots” to his work, similar to the comic print registration dots. Lichtenstein’s paintings have sold for millions of dollars, while the artists he swiped from received zero. Some have hailed Lichtenstein as a modern art master who brought the gutter-art of comic books into the rarefied air of the “legitimate” art world. Some deride Lichtenstein as a common thief.
Lichtenstein’s signature work is titled “Whaam!,” an image of a fighter jet being blown apart in mid-air. As you might imagine, yes...it came from a Russ Heath story published in DC Comics’ All-American Men of War #89. The original sold for over $4 million. Hell, 1967-era prints of “Whaam!” have sold for as much as $23,000. Russ Heath is surprisingly not bitter. Or at least he wouldn’t be if he had just got that glass of wine.
“They exhibited it at the Museum of Modern Art when I was living in New York, and they invited be to come and be a guest for the opening,” Heath remembers. “But I was chasing a deadline. Couldn’t make it.”
In a cruel twist of fate, “Whaam!” was later exhibited in Chicago while Heath was living there, and later still in Los Angeles after Heath had moved to Van Nuys. Each time, he could not make the opening night gala festivities. He finally called Lichtenstein.
“Before he could get back to me, he died,” Heath says. “Anything to get out of buying me a cocktail, right? I figure I missed a free glass of wine, maybe three if you count all the showings. Someone owes me.”
“He’s one vital bastard.”
Fear not: Russ Heath will have his drink. He thinks very, very little about his own mortality. But he has other plans. “I told my son we can go buy my coffin, but we’re not going to get it lined yet,” he says. “First, I wanna put 600 pounds of ice and beer in it, and have a party. I’m gonna get my use out of it.”
While he waits for the party to start, Russ Heath will keep drawing. “Russ is slowing down in life,” Steve Wyatt notes, “but his hand, his eyes and his brain are in perfect working order, and that’s what he needs. Russ is a perfectionist in his work. And he loves his work. His work now is as good as it was 20 years ago, which is as good as it was 20 years before that. He’s an unusual talent, one in a million.”
That talent is recognized. Russ Heath has his new knee. On January 27, Russ went under the knife in Tarzana, a nicer neighborhood of Los Angeles. He’s currently spending a few weeks in a rehab facility, building strength and regaining range of motion. The Hero Initiative, the charity that helps comic book creators in medical or financial need, provided funding for Russ’ operation and recovery. Howard Chaykin, who says he “spent way too much time drawing pictures of warplanes bombing my homework as a kid in school,” is on Hero’s Board of Directors. And yes, Chaykin became a comic artist himself, inspired, in part, by Russ Heath.
“As a society, we’re not taking care of the people we need to. I think it’s imperative that we find a way to do that, and more practically, find the money,” Chaykin says when asked of the financial pinch Russ Heath and many like him are in.
For Chaykin, a lifelong dream was realized in 2005, when he wrote Legend for DC Comics, based on the novel Gladiator by Philip Wylie. The story was drawn by Russ Heath. “He’s one vital bastard,” Chaykin laughs when asked to describe Heath. “Russ is not a doddering old man. He’s still working, and still working with an amazingly high level of craftsmanship. He deserves all the attention and love we can give him.”
The attention is coming back. The love is, too, along with a new knee and a new start. You see, there’s always a story with Russ Heath. And the final chapter is yet to be written.
Afterword: You and Russ Heath
Wanna do a little something to help Russ Heath? The easiest thing to do is buy one of the many new books collecting Russ’ previous material. Russ receives a very small royalty on copies sold, but enough sales add up. Most are available via Amazon.com, or major comic retailers such as AtomicComics.com or MyComicShop.com.
Showcase Presents: The Haunted Tank vol. 1
Showcase Presents: The Haunted Tank vol. 2
Showcase Presents: Sgt. Rock vol. 1
Showcase Presents: Sgt. Rock vol. 2
Showcase Presents: Sgt. Rock vol. 3
Enemy Ace: War in Heaven
Jonah Hex vol. 5
The Immortal Iron Fist vol. 1
The Immortal Iron Fist vol. 2
The Immortal Iron Fist vol. 3
The Immortal Iron Fist vol. 4
The Immortal Iron Fist Omnibus
And of course, Russ is available for commissions as well. Contact Steve Wyatt at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Hero Initiative is helping Russ with several thousand dollars in aid to pay for groceries, art supplies, medical expenses, and expensive rehabilitation associated with his knee replacement surgery. For more information or to donate, check out: www.HeroInitiative.org
The Comic Art Professional Society of Los Angeles has also been instrumental in providing aid and comfort to Russ Heath. Learn more about them at: www.CAPSCentral.org
Get-well cards and well wishes to Russ Heath are always heartily encouraged. You can send them to Russ care of Hero Initiative at:
11301 Olympic Blvd., #587
Los Angeles, CA 90064
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