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An Unpublished Conversation with Russ Heath

This interview with Russ Heath was conducted by TCJ publisher Gary Groth for information-gathering purposes on October 9, 2008, and has never previously been published.

GARY GROTH: You were working with Harvey Kurtzman around ’57. How did you know him?

RUSS HEATH: I met him when he was doing the Hey Look strip for Stan Lee up in the Empire State Building and we became friends and went out for lunch. And then he started feeding me little things at lunches and I eventually did a couple things in Mad. I did Help! and Humbug and, of course, Little Annie Fanny for years and years and years. In fact, Hefner moved me out to Chicago because I’d been asking Harvey for a raise for a year, and he says, “You’re working for Playboy magazine!”

I say, “I can’t feed that to my kids.”

He didn’t pay any attention. I got fed up with him one time. He came down one morning to pick some stuff up at 7:30 from my apartment from where he lives, and he didn’t tell me he was bringing all his daughters with him. So I open the door, haven’t been to bed yet. I’m in my briefs and a T-shirt and they all come running and screaming. A little politeness would have warned me to open the door with some clothes on, right? [Laughter.] And then, this one kid took my spy glasses apart and flushed the lenses down the toilet. That didn’t please me too much.

But anyway, we cut the pages apart so Willy could work on half of one page while I’m working on the other half and that means cutting all the tissues that were taped on. And, you know, tissues and tape and sticky — it becomes a complete mess. And so I’m sitting there after he left and I thought, “That’s it, I’ve had it!” I waited for him to get home and I called him and I said, “Why don’t you come back down here and pick all this stuff up? I’m done, I’m through.” So he panicked and by 5 o’clock Hefner’s on the phone and says, “I’ll double your salary. I’ll give you my old office to work out of and I’ll physically move you to Chicago.” Well, that was an offer I couldn’t refuse so that’s how I moved to Chicago.

And you lived in the mansion?

For a time. Once I was legitimately in Chicago, I was supposed to get my own apartment, which I did. One of them was very close to the mansion and I was in and out of the mansion all the time.

Was the mansion a non-stop orgy like we think it is?

No, no. I remember Al Jaffee, Willy, Harvey, myself and maybe that was it. We were brought out to get the second or the third issue and put it finally to bed. And we worked on it in what were then a bunch of apartments.

And Willy, Al Jaffee, and myself were in one room and Willy had this pair of pants, he called him “paint pants.” He just wiped his brush on the pants, so they’re multi-colored. And so, one night I took them after we went to bed and I cut every third stitch on the whole thing and folded them back up and put them by his bed. [Laughter.]

1963 Little Annie Fannie page, with art by Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, and Russ Heath

So the next morning, everyone’s hanging around to see the explosion when he realizes this. And he was unbelievable. He’s standing in front of the mirror in the bathroom and just talking away. And he’s pulling all the spare parts of his pants. His pants are now four inches bigger because I opened up where they’d been taken in. They were four inches bigger than when he took them off the night before! [Laughter.] And he’s looking at his beard and at the same time pulling all the spare materials to the back and then he finishes that and he looks at his nose or something and then he goes and absent-mindedly pulls it all to the front again. And we’re going crazy. We can’t laugh without giving it away. And nothing would work. And finally we’re going down the main stairway to breakfast and I thought, “There may be some girls down there,” and his goddamned pants, I expected them to fall off of him at any moment. So I yanked on them. I said, “These stupid paint pants!” We’ve been at him for days. I’d say, “What’s the stink in here?” and Al would say, “I think it’s Willie’s pants.” Stuff like that. [Laughter.] So anyway, I yanked on them and they opened up from the zipper at the bottom all the way to his to his belt in the back, completely exposing his ass. And anybody else would have gone upstairs and put pants on. He just folded them over and held them. And he didn’t know and he still doesn’t know that somebody’s been messing with him. He just thinks they are coming apart. He’s sitting there at breakfast and my gag isn’t going over ’cause he doesn’t know it. So I leaned down — I had all these pockets cut off in my pockets — so I pretended to lean down and pick them up and I said, “Peter they’re dropping off, these things, and I handed him his pockets.” [Laughter.]

Now he began to understand and he says, “You ruined my good paint pants!” And of course, I had bought him a new pair, which I had under the counter, and whipped those out. And then he went the opposite way and ended up being so grateful for a new pair of pants. It was a funny bit.

That’s pretty great. What was your relationship with Al Jaffee?

I never met Jaffee up until that time, I don’t believe. And we became good friends, joking around, living in the same room in that apartment, or close to it. And I remember going out to his house one time on a weekend for a barbecue in the neighborhood and met all his neighbors. They all used to just wander around — one of them’s got ice cubes, one of them’s got meat, and they have a barbecue. And he took us out on his little motorboat.

I guess that marriage broke apart. He was hysterical. His lawn was about four or five inches long and his wife had been after him, so he goes down in the basement, disappears for a couple hours. Suddenly we hear this engine start up and the doors prop open to the basement, outdoor doors. And he comes out of there with the thing going full blast. He had taken a washing-machine motor out of his wife’s washing machine and grafted it into the thing and that’s how it was running.

Grafted it into a lawnmower?

Yeah. Took his regular lawnmower and made a power mower out of it. [Laughter.] I don’t know what the hell she did her wash with after that …

So it wasn’t a power mower to begin with?

No. Anyway, he was complaining that the mower didn’t work and so he went down and took the motor out of his wife’s washing machine, grafted the thing in there and came up with a thing running like crazy.

And created a power mower. I didn’t know he was that handy.

Well, ask him about it.

I will, I will.

He’s just a wonderful peach of a guy. And then, let’s see, of course, Harvey I knew all along working all the magazines. We kept on having lunch. It took me years later to realize that I was like the first artist on the outside of the inner circle for EC and never quite broke into the inner circle. If I had asked him to go to lunch more … I finally realized that I was getting a job every time we’d go to lunch. So I could have broken through that barrier. And then I found out years later that the head of EC, was giving them, every year, a trip to Europe or Japan or Iceland or Mexico.

Right after Mad started, right.

Oh my god. I missed out. Didn’t do that right.

“Plastic Sam!” in Mad #14, August 1953 © EC Publications

Well, you’re not ordinarily thought of as a humor guy. You’re more of a realistic artist. So I was a little surprised to see your humor work in here, but it’s really great.

I did a thing in Mad magazine called “Plastic Sam.” And on the first opening shot — I forget what you call them — in the window of a building, there’s a picture of me sleeping on the desk. [Laughter.] Just as a little side thing I throw in.

Now, you didn’t go to the High School of Music and Art, did you?

No, I’m about the only one that didn’t out of that whole lot. An awful lot of them did. I was there later as a guest when Harvey was teaching. He wanted famous people to come in for his class and handed me a brush. I was so hung over, I didn’t know what I was doing. [Groth laughs.] I faked it and nobody ever knew.

This was when he was teaching at SVA?

When he was teaching, yeah. I was at his house an awful lot of times and I remember his studio was the attic, and he’d run up the stairs, just winding, not winding in circles but winding in landings. And he’d run up these stairs every time. So, I think that’s how he kept in shape.

So you met him at Timely when you were both working for Stan Lee?

Yeah, way back in the late ’40s. And we were friends ever since. Of course, I stayed in Chicago and left the Little Annie Fanny feature.

When you worked on Little Annie Fanny, how exactly did you work on it? What were you given? Were you given breakdowns?

First Harvey would take letterhead-sized paper and he would do them in black and white with the story and so on and he would pencil in black and white. He’d pencil even the dark shadowing. I’ve got some of them here, somewhere. Anyway, after Hef would give his OK in his little marginal notes, he’d take it back and do the same thing all over in color to suggest the color scheme for the whole thing. Those were gorgeous. Those were watercolors.

And then we’d start. I’d take a full-sized sheet which was way big, like two feet wide and three feet high or whatever it was, and lay the thing out. And Willy would pencil some tissues that were put in on certain panels and I would do some and fix. I did a lot of fixing. ’Cause a lot of the artists that were paid to help out were so individualistic that they didn’t look like Annie Fanny or anybody but themselves. When you take the individuality away from an artist, what you’re left with is nothing but painting ability. When I say painting ability, I mean the ability to put paint on paper.

I remember taking panels out completely with an electric eraser and fixing the ones that weren’t right. And Harvey used me because he knew Hefner liked the way I did women. So Harvey would test what Hefner was going to say by asking me, ’cause I could tell him pretty much right on. So what we did was, there was no rules and that was what was the most confusing thing to everybody. They said, “Well, did you do the color and did you do the pencils or did you do the background?” I said, “We cut the page apart and one guy did the left-hand side of the page and the other guy did the right.” That was rare to cut the page apart. That was in extreme emergency. I might have done the background of the first three panels, he might have done it.

I have one page of a Flash Gordon type of thing with space helmets and stuff. I did all the background on that page and then, in the first panel, I did Flash and he did Annie. And then, the next one, I did Annie and he did the guy. And it was just completely arbitrary, bounced all over the place.

Am I correct in assuming you had to essentially imitate Elder’s painting technique?

Pretty much so. My Annie Fannys have a little more bones in her body than his. His were very soft, unrealistically soft. Nobody could be that soft without being fat. So I can tell all my women from his women. In most cases, it was a 50-50. I’d know if it was Willie and me or Willie and me and a bunch of other guys doing little bits. Frazetta’s was only a few panels actually. But I never worked on any of the stories that Jack Davis worked on. Willie was number one artist and Jack Davis was number two. Or Willie was number one and I was number two.

But you would actually pencil as well as paint?

Yeah. Everybody did everything.

I see. I originally thought Elder would pencil everything and then you guys, like you and Jack Davis and Al Jaffee and Arnold Roth were called in to paint.

No. Well, most of them were only on an issue or two because it didn’t fit. Like Paul Coker and Arnold Roth. So far away from Annie Fanny that Harvey had me do a lot of retouching to bring it back close enough that the layperson wouldn’t know the difference.

What medium did you use?

Watercolors, the little pens that you buy for your children. In some cases, you get little tubes of it, [but] it’s pretty much the same thing.

It was all watercolors? No gouache?

What’s gouache?

Gouache is a paint. It comes out of a tube.

Something I never got around to, I guess.

Did you have a good time doing that or was it just a pain in the ass?

Well, it was a tremendous amount of work, hour-wise. And, in fact, I think it was the most expensive feature in the magazine. It was just that there were so many different things and people on it, I think it was something like $4,000 a page. But it didn’t line our pockets with gold.

Because there were just so many people involved and so much work involved?

So much work. It was like painting the Sistine Chapel.

Do you think that was necessary? I mean, do you think it could have been streamlined?

I think so, but it’s a delicate thing. You’ve got an awful lot of different personalities between Harvey and Willie, and a lot of times Harvey would say, “When I tell you to fix something that Willie did, don’t show it to him afterward, he gets upset. Just do it.” Political things going on so that he wouldn’t get upset.

I assume you were involved and other guys were involved just because Elder wasn’t fast enough?

Yeah. Later when everybody quit, including Jack Davis, and it was just Willie and Harvey, Willie’s total output for the year was twelve pages—that’s a page a month. So it didn’t work out to be enough. Hefner wanted about eight pages in every issue and that was impossible.

That wasn’t going to happen.

And we did, I think, one issue that had like eight pages. I drew a picture of me and Willie drew a picture of him and somebody did Hefner and somebody did Harvey. It was a Christmas issue and we’re down at the bottom. I remember.

I remember one time at the mansion Arnold Roth brought his saxophone and he’s going to do us a number, and we’re all standing around. And he launches into another story and he kept doing this and we’d been standing, everybody had been waiting there. He puts the thing up to his mouth, he’s about to start, and then he launches into more talk. And we ended up just crying tears from the laughter because he didn’t start for like forty-five minutes. [Laughter.]

But his stories were good?

Yeah, oh yeah. But he was doing it deliberately. It was hysterical.

It sounds like it was a lot of fun in some ways.

And we got to make out with the women. I’m not going to say anything except that I had more than my share.

Right, right. Did you get to know Jack Davis at all?

A little bit. I knew him more from the lunches we had before we went to Chicago. I never saw him, ’cause he didn’t go out to the mansion, to my knowledge. He was always staying back east. He always had all these other commercial commitments from his agent — he’d bring an armload every morning. I think he pretty well just sat at his desk and did them.

When did you quit Little Annie Fanny?

It was about ’69 or so. Not sure exactly what year, I know we started in ’61 or ’62. I really quit because the money didn’t add up and the tremendous thing that nobody could figure out who did what. I wanted to do something that when I put my name on it people would know it was mine.

Do you know who took your place?

Oh, nobody took my place at the time. I think Jack Davis was there a little bit longer than when I left. I’m sure of it, ’cause I remember seeing his stuff. I think Harvey got somebody to help write it and I can’t remember his name.

Larry Siegel?

Yes, right.

It seems weird to me that he would need help writing it, because it was only five or six pages, three times a year. Why would he need help writing that?

I give up. They tried reviving it a few years ago. I got wind of it and they showed me some issues and they had hired two guys, I don’t know where they got them from, but from the comic-book world, I’m sure. And it didn’t work at all. And I called up Michelle Urri, head of the cartoon department, and I said, “Why didn’t you call me for god's sakes? I was one of the ones who created it.”

And she said, “We didn’t know if you were still working or alive.” [Laughter.]

I said, “Well, you could have tried a phone call.”

Yeah, really. Send out a search party.

I sent her a whole bunch of stuff pertinent to how I might assist in helping the situations. And it took her almost a year before she sent me my samples back. Nothing ever came of it.

Well, let me switch gears for a second. You worked on Blazing Combat, which started in ’65, and was edited by Archie Goodwin. Do you remember how you were pulled into that?

I don’t remember particularly. I remember working for quite a long period, not steady but back and forth, for Warren. It was such a great thing. No one could spoil your stuff with bad color, you know what I mean? And so, it was a real pleasure. You could make it as painterly as you wanted to.

And as I recall, you worked in wash.

Yeah, for tone. And that was the most fun I ever had with the work. A lot of people really loved it. I consider some of my very best work to be done for the Warren books.

Yeah, I think so too.

There was one where everything went up in atomic bombs at the end. And another one that was an African native, he’s a young boy and he’s fallen in love with this enemy captured girl. And at the end, he kills a lion and they say, “OK, you can have her.” And that made him a man. And it turns out he wanted to boil her and cook her and eat her. [Laughter.]

From “Give and Take” in Blazing Combat #4. Heath modeled most of the characters in the story on himself. © J. Michael Catron


Was that in Blazing Combat or was that in one of the horror books?

I don’t know which one it was in. Some of it was in Vampirella, some of it was in Eerie. Half the time, you don’t know what magazine your stuff is going to appear in.

Well, Blazing Combat was obviously war stories you were doing.

That particular story was done in ’66. I remember what I did was, I heard that for this issue all my greatest guys from EC were all going to be in it. Woody and all the best of them. And I thought, “Man, I’ve really got to do something to knock the socks off them, to keep up with my peers here, or I’ll look bad.” So I took photographs. I got one of the photographers from Playboy and we went down on a Saturday when it was closed and went in and took forty different shots. And I brought a lot of stuff. I had my helmet and I had stuff like that. I had a shotgun that I changed over in the drawing. I did 40, trying to make a collectors piece out of it, which I was successful in doing because everybody just thought that was the best thing I’d ever done.

And, in fact, I went to hire a girl one time to help me when I broke my wrist. I was working at that moment for DC on Sergeant Rock. And I called up somebody there in Chicago and I said, “You know some young talented student who can help me out? And maybe I could pay them something and charge the rest like they’re getting a lesson or something.” So they sent over this girl, and I called her up, and I said, “This is Russ Heath.” And she starts hollering and going on. She had seen that story about a wine bottle that Archie wrote. She liked that story so much, she had it on her person at all times. It was in her bag. So it seemed to her like God was calling or something. [Laughter.]

That’s a good position to be in.

I was so happy she wasn’t gorgeous, because I thought I could get some work done.

So how did you know Archie [Goodwin]?

I think I met him about the time he started at Warren if I didn’t meet him at one of the comic houses. Not sure. But I have great esteem for him. One time he sent some stick figures, breakdown, one page for the story. The scene as he imagined it. He said, “You don’t have to follow it. If it’s of any use to you, go ahead.” So I thought, “I don’t want to look at this, because it’ll influence me. So I’ll do my own stick figures and then I’ll compare the two. And where I think I told the story better, I’ll use that and where he did, I’ll use his.”

Out of forty pictures, there was one that was different. The rest were exactly the same. Talk about being able to visualize. That’s unbelievable. And I was just freaked out. He did a very nice story about me for one of the magazines, for one of the cons that were going on back in New York.

What was your working relationship with Warren like?

I got along with him better than other people seemed to. Some of them had trouble with him. I did have one personal thing with him later on when we were doing the Help! thing. I took a girlfriend who happened to be Asian over to the office and he was just pissed off because things weren’t functioning at the moment. And he made some remark about race: “People should stop bringing their foreign girls around here.”

I walked out of the office and I called Harvey and I said, “I don’t mind taking the man’s money but I will not ever go to his office again. So I can work through you to do this sort of stuff.” So we didn’t speak for like a year, Warren and I. And one day, I finally ran into him in a bar and he seemed nice and I thought, “What the hell, I’m not going to carry a grudge forever.” So I mended it right there.

But he said something you considered a racist remark?

Well, see, most people would know that it wasn’t meant that way but she could have taken it totally seriously. It left just a real bad taste in my mouth. He was just irritated to hell. But he and I have been friends since. So if now and then something happens, nobody to blame, it’s just like “the dog bit the kid and the kid screamed and the mother kicked the dog,” you know what I mean?

But otherwise he was good to work for?

Yeah. He’d give me all kinds of reference material. One was a big book, I think it was about a $50 book, and I said, “I will take care of it. I will guard it with my life.” That was for that African native thing. And years and years and years later I’m going through my library and there it is and I said, “Holy crap, I never gave it back to him.” You can’t keep track of everything. [Laughter.]

From “Give and Take” in Blazing Combat #4.

Did you particularly enjoy doing the war stories for Archie?

I would do anything for Archie. I worked for two or three editors there. They would give me three scripts and I would pick the one I wanted to do and send the other two back, which was neat. I used to go for the joke. I couldn’t believe that nobody had ever done a thing on the Lone Ranger with the silver bullets and werewolves. So I did this thing where, in the last panel, Ranger comes out and shoots the werewolf. To me, it cracked me up. But it was a lot of fun to draw. The one where I had this guy killing his family one at a time at home, I tried to get the kid’s room really cuddly with little teddy bears to get everybody feeling the way you should before you drop the bomb on them. [Laughs.] That grabbed a lot of people.

When Archie was writing Blazing Combat, he told me that he was pretty much against the Vietnam War at the time. Did you have any political leanings?

I had some against horror earlier. In fact, somebody at Warren sent me a script about, what are dead people called when they walk around?

Zombies.

Yeah, zombies. And I said, “I don’t believe in zombies.” My thing is to be a realist. I want people to believe what I’m drawing is real. So I said, “I don’t want to have anything on my coffee table that my little children, who are a bunch of little girls, 2 or 3 years old, could pick up and read. I don’t want to do something like that.” So, at that particular time in their life, I shied away. And I think Warren even put an article in one of the columns of the magazine that said that I had turned it down, sent it back and said, “Give me a good axe murder.” [Laughter.]

Did you have any political leanings about war or Vietnam back when you were working on Blazing Combat?

Well, I don’t recall too much. Of course, I was very much anti-Nixon. What pissed me off is that he’s dismissed from office, he’s judged guilty of a felony or whatever the hell the whole thing boiled down to, and then they allow him to go to China. And, of course, as kids keep growing up and growing older and passing on, the new ones that weren’t there when he did all this crap are saying, “Isn’t it wonderful, he went to China?” And I don’t like that. It’s not right. I said I wouldn’t allow him in my house. [Laughter.]


2 Responses to An Unpublished Conversation with Russ Heath

  1. Bob Levin says:

    A perfect — and timely — note to end on.

  2. Steven C Ringgenberg says:

    Very nice interview with Russ Heath. He had some great stories from his time in the business. He was one of the best artists to ever work in the comics medium, too.

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