Last month Russ Heath, one of my childhood inspirations for becoming an artist, passed away at the age of 91. Working in virtually every genre for all of the major comics publishers (though National/DC seemed to be his primary home from the 1960s through the ’80s) there was always a lot to love in his stories. A meticulous craftsman who also had an excellent sense of drama, Heath became best known for his highly-detailed war comics and drew numerous one-off adventures as well as had lengthy runs illustrating—and sometimes writing, too—the “Haunted Tank” (which he co-created with Robert Kanigher) and “Sgt. Rock” series. As a humorist he also contributed to the 1960s short-lived Trump Magazine, Playboy (assisting on “Little Annie Fanny”), and National Lampoon. Heath was something of an unheralded workhorse for the comics field, the widely-respected go-to guy who, conversely, was often under-appreciated by fans because he did very few superhero stories. And like most under-appreciated workhorses, Russ, unfortunately, often struggled to make ends meet, particularly later in life. Oh, sure, he got awards—an Inkpot, induction into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame, etc.—but when people talked about comics creators Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko or Jim Lee or Alex Ross were some of the artists getting the buzz, not Russ Heath.
Someone who had paid close attention to Heath, though, was Pop-Artist Roy Lichtenstein.
Whether you want to call it “transforming” or “reinterpreting” or “swiping” probably is a matter of perspective, I suppose, but Lichtenstein unquestionably “sampled” panels from several of Russ’ comics without acknowledgment or compensation to create the paintings “WHAAM!”, “Blam”, “Okay Hot-Shot, Okay!”, “Brattata”—all of which went on to sell for many millions of dollars and reside in major collections or museums around the world. (Work by other comics artists also were resources for Lichtenstein’s paintings as detailed here.)
As the New York Times said in their obituary for Russ, “The art world has long debated whether Lichtenstein, who died in 1997, and other artists who worked in this way were creating art or merely copying it. Aficionados of comic book art, who have always felt that the work they love has not gotten the proper respect, are especially defensive of Mr. Heath and others whose drawings were borrowed; admirers of Lichtenstein say he altered and elevated the source material to transform it into an artistic statement. The art critic Tom Lubbock was one who thought that Mr. Heath and others deserved more credit. ‘The cartoon artists, though highly productive, were not naïve, anonymous hacks,’ he wrote in 2004, reviewing a Lichtenstein retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in London for The Independent. ‘A lot of the innovations in Lichtenstein’s pictures are innovations that they came up with first. They were responsible for adapting the convention of the cinematic close-up to the still image. They worked out the dynamic interaction of image, caption, speech bubble and sound effect. They devised those dramatic compositions from which Lichtenstein’s work gets much of its impact. These illustrators, it seems to me, should be co-credited (alongside Lichtenstein) with the paintings to which they made such decisive though involuntary contributions.’”
And years later what did Heath make of the appropriations? Well, as was his nature, he commented in a comic strip.
Lichtenstein once said “I am nominally copying, but I am really restating the copied thing in other terms. In doing that, the original acquires a totally different texture. It isn’t thick or thin brushstrokes, it’s dots and flat colours and unyielding lines.” And critics, with exceptions (as noted in the Times), often agreed, insisting that his works transformed his sources in a number of subtle but crucial ways and on occasion have claimed that the lack of acknowledgment was a further reflection of—or commentary on—the way comics publishers of the day often denied their creators credit for their work. (Which seems like something of a far-reaching specious excuse, if you ask me.) As with all things in the art world, the rightness or wrongness of how something is created or what constitutes “Art” is and will probably always be open to debate. But what do I think? Well…the comics, particularly for the WWII generation, were the cultural touchstone that Lichtenstein capitalized on, exploited, and ultimately profited from. Though isolating, enlarging, and repainting a single panel may well have been transformative and provided an entirely different perspective, meaning or social commentary the resulting paintings could not have existed without their resources and the public’s general familiarity with the comics medium. So, sure, I think at least at the very minimum an acknowledgment of Heath, Novick, and all of the other comics artists would have been appropriate on Lichtenstein’s part; it didn’t happen while he was alive, but his foundation now mentions the resources for at least some of his comics-based paintings.
I’ll also say this…
I love Russ Heath. I always have, I always will—and some of the reasons why are posted below. If, in 50 or 100 years, people are still talking about him because of Roy Lichtenstein’s sampling…well, maybe that’s a good thing and will prompt others to seek out Russ’ art and give him the attention he deserves.