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:
My grandfather and legendary comic artist Russ Heath passed away last night. His mastery of the craft of illustration encouraged me to pursue the arts and it is a joy to see my son now filling his own sketchbooks. Thank you for passing along the joys of drawing and storytelling. pic.twitter.com/CNE2QvRG6W
— Lee Kosa (@leekosa) August 24, 2018
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).
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!, Blam, Okay 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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