Comic artist Russ Heath, the man who inspired Lichtenstein, dies in Long Beach at 91

Legendary comic artist Russ Heath, whose work served as the direct inspiration behind some of Roy Lichtenstein’s most popular pieces, passed away in Long Beach last week at the age of 91 following a battle with cancer.

His grandson announced Heath’s death via Twitter:

Born in 1926, Heath was an only child raised in New Jersey before moving to Van Nuys—but brought with him inspiration by way of Wild West artists like Will James and Charlie Russell that would spark an illustrious artistic career spanning 1948 all the way to 2011.

While his western and sci-fi work had garnered him attention—his pieces for Timely Comics, later dubbed Atlas Comics, included drawings for Black Rider and All-Western Winners, while also creating the cover for Journey into Mystery #1—his strongest and most respected work came out of an odd dichotomy: The female subject and war time.

In the 1950s, Heath’s work delved into war-based comics, kicking off with Frontline Combat in 1951 for DC comics and starting a long and fruitful relationship with the comic giant.

By 1961, DC had entrusted Heath’s artistic vision, letting the man wander off into odd combat stories like the famed Haunted Tank “character” that was featured in DC’s G.I. Combat series. A partnership with writer and editor Robert Kanigher, the Haunted Tank’s adventures within G.I. Combat would make it DC’s most popular and successful war series (1952-1987), second only to Sgt. Rock (whose character prototype made his first appearance in G.I. Combat #68 and which Heath often contributed toward as an artist).

Roy Lichtenstein's _Whaam!_ (top) and Russ Heath's work from _All-American Men of War #89_.

Roy Lichtenstein’s _Whaam!_ (top) and Russ Heath’s work from _All-American Men of War #89_.

Heath’s combat art was so influential that it became the direct reference for pop artist and museum staple Roy Lichtenstein’s work—for which Heath was not compensated on any level. Various Heath drawings of fighter jets in DC’s All-American Men of War were the uncredited and uncompensated basis for Lichtenstein’s oil paintings Whaam!BlamOkay Hot-Shot, Okay!, and Brattata.

Heath’s other strong ability—his knack for creating and depicting beautiful women that blurred lines between reality and comic fantasy—showed up in Playboy, where his work on the Little Annie Fanny comic strip earned him points among male readers who had long ago ditched comics in favor of more adult musings.

In 2009, Heath was inducted into the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame.

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Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 19 nominations and two additional wins for Best Political Commentary for his work at KCET and Best Blog for Longbeachize, a section of the Long Beach Post. In 2019, he was awarded the Food/Culture Critic of the Year across any platform at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards. Brian currently serves as a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post.
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