Remembering Russ Heath

Sometimes I learn of news from TV, or when it’s first reported as I sit at my computer. Other times someone next to me sees that news appear on their phone, and they say it aloud. Friday, I was at my comic book store and my manager, who’s got similar tastes and knows all about my G.I. Joe history book, said “Did you see the sad news? Russ Heath died.” That’s fitting, that I was in a comic book shop, and a fellow G.I. Joe fan shared the info.

I never met Heath in person, but we spoke by phone in 2011. It was informal, and I was seeking to commission an original piece of G.I. Joe art from him. This was not an interview for my book — I did mildly inquire about Heath’s time on the G.I. Joe animated series, but that was 25 years prior and he didn’t remember. I asked him about a Bruce Timm anecdote I’d read, about Heath being able to draw model sheets in his sleep. I don’t recall Heath’s response, but it must have been pretty neutral.

I’ve come across a lot of Russ Heath art in researching and writing my book. Much of it as photocopies, some of original. There’s a technical precision that’s always memorable. Heath was the primary character designer for the 1983 G.I. Joe animated miniseries, its 1984 follow-up, the full 1985 season, the second season in 1986, the animated film in 1987, most of the television commercials along the way, and part of the DiC run between 1989 and 1991.

Here’s some original pencil art for G.I. Joe: The Movie:

We often think of characters, of Duke’s eyes or Flint’s ammo belts or Destro’s muscles, but Heath drew vehicles, bases, props, and animals, too. Here’s a model sheet for one of the Battle Force 2000 vehicles, which only shows up for a few frames of animation, in only one of the television commercials.

Much has been made of Heath’s technical precision and attention to detail. That is what got him this job, and his ample history drawing military comics. To wit:

He wasn’t the only designer, but he was the main one, conceiving the animation look of all primary characters in all views (front, three-quarters, side, etc), most secondary characters (and many of their turnaround views), and a lot of costume changes for both kinds of characters.

Jim Sorenson and Bill Forster put together for IDW Publishing two great books stuffed with Russ Heath models (and work by the other model designers from the G.I. Joe cartoon, but clearly Heath is primary here). Each is $20, and all black and white, and lots of fun. (Again: these are not color art books! They’re black and white animation reference books!) And available for order from your local comic book or book store. That cover art seen below isn’t Heath, but is drawn to look like his work.

But of course, Heath’s art is literally not to be seen in G.I. Joe animation. I was first exposed to his work in 1983, but it’s not his drawings that appeared on my television. This is the odd truth of the character designer. Heath drew a few poses, and then storyboarders, layout artists, and animators on two continents drew their own poses and movements in Heath’s style. While his fingerprints are all over G.I. Joe (and a bunch of other ’80s cartoons), it wasn’t until I started reading comic books that I saw a reproduction of his actual line. In one of the fantastic convergences of ’80s culture, Heath in fact drew — pencils and inks — a whole issue of G.I. Joe. This was one of the ones advertised on television, featuring animation that made use of his model sheets!) — issue #24. It’s crisp and smooth, and looks just like the show.

It is here that I am reminded that Heath did not draw the most dynamic poses. (The panel above is an unfair example, just two people standing still, and standing straight. Elsewhere in this issue there are diagonal vectors and figures jumping and hurling themselves. I picked this panel for its sense of menace, and for the scripting, too.) Heath’s work had a reassuring staidness to it. But I don’t mean this as a criticism. Everyone and everything is under control, for lack of a more precise term. “Staid” has a negative connotation, so perhaps a better word is “crisp.” Russ Heath’s work is as crisp as any I’ve seen in all of comics. Heath also came back around 3 years later to ink one more issue — #64 — on top of rookie penciler Ron Wagner. Heath was an artistic hero of Wagner’s, so this was quite a thrill. The issue, again, looks exactly like the show.

Wagner, coming from the Joe Kubert school (and the Larry Hama school) of torsion and cinematic, movie-like panel compositions, offers a lovely compliment for Heath, who utterly takes over. As a comic book reader, I missed all that work that made Heath well-known — the war comics for DC and such. But Heath was popping up in interesting places around 1990. Over writer Mike Baron’s great scripts, he drew a few issues of The Punisher that my brother and I certainly liked —

— and with writer Doug Murray, he drew a dramatic war graphic novel for Marvel called Hearts and Minds.

Murray wrote The ‘Nam, so if you’re a fan of that series, this book fits right in there with it.

(Heath showed up a few years later to draw an issue of The Nam, in fact.)

Last year I came across photocopies of Heath’s models for the wonderful 1989 pilot “Pryde of the X-Men.” This is my favorite 22 minutes of anything X-Men in all of television or film, and Marvel published a graphic novel adaptation of it, in case you’re wondering why this “screen cap” has word balloons–

I had forgotten Heath had worked on the show, but from across the room, those familiar lines, those carefully spotted blacks, in a pile on the floor in a garage in California, I knew it was Heath’s work.

Gosh, they’re just gorgeous. I like seeing the Byrne and the Cockrum through that lens, too.

With modern reprints, I have the opportunity to check out Heath’s first four decades’ worth of work, like this, from Battlefield issue #5, 1952–

Much has been made of Heath’s interest in drawing the female form. Little Annie Fanny was before my time, and isn’t quite my speed, but, yes, Russ Heath drew the female form with aplomb. I’m not interested in G.I. Joe characters being overly sexy, but we can all agree that that is part of, say, the Baroness’ visual. Much of that is Hasbro toy designer Ron Rudat, but in animation, that is all Russ Heath. Besides the lovely image of Pythona, above, I have a few Heath originals of her nude, even though she only appears clothed in G.I. Joe: The Movie. But Heath drew rugged and handsome men, too, and unlike a Joe Kubert, there is a handsomeness in even the most rugged of Heath’s men. Again, I go back to that word, “crisp.”

In the aforementioned 2011, I phoned Heath. He was taking on commissions. (Newsarama then carried a story about him, and the HERO Initiative’s involvement, which helped spread the word about his then-current state of health.) Heath was behind schedule, and so Steve Wyatt, a comics gent well-connected to conventions, artists, and galleries, was acting as Heath’s agent in this matter, and not taking a fee. I had sent off a pile of reference, and a concept, something that felt like it belonged in those first five episodes. The art arrived many months later, and I’m happy to have it, one last Joe image by the artist who created so many, but this one with a background, and color!

Here’s a detail.

Here’s to one of the great artists, Russ Heath.



Filed under Animation, Comic Books, G.I. Joe Behind the Scenes

4 responses to “Remembering Russ Heath

  1. ed

    What a nice tribute to a great artist.

    As an addendum to his GI Joe comic work, he also drew the cover of Marvel Age 56. I don’t see that one mentioned often, but it’s a very nice piece:

  2. Jeff G.

    Didn’t know much about Russ Heath but I remember thinking all these years that I wish every issue of Marvel’s run of G.I.Joe was drawn like issue #24. The way Snake Eyes, Storm Shadow, the Baroness and Cobra Commander looked. Epic! The world has lost another true artist!

  3. Chad

    That commission is amazing! Thanks for the nice tribute article.

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