I have to reveal & plead total ignorance for not knowing that the great Russ Heath — renown for war and other comics for publishers ranging from Timely in the 1940s to EC in the 1950s to DC in the 1960s to Warren’s Blazing Combat — was the illustrator for the backcover illustrations of Roman and Revolutionary war soldiers marketed for years on the backs of comic books.
How did I finally get a clue? A recent book about comic book advertisements — Mail-order Mysteries (Kirk Demarais, Insight Editions, 2011)– gave me the first idea. This nicely-produced book provides the straight dope on dozens of these items, ranging from X-Ray Spex (that name later adopted by a seminal early punk band), the Charles Atlas Fitness Program, the Polaris (cardboard) Nuclear Sub, the Vacutex Blackhead Remover, and yes, the Roman and Revolutionary War soldiers so ably illustrated by Russ Heath.
And what kid would not have dreamt about these soldiers — assuming they were rich enough for the $2.98 price, or lucky enough to talk their parents into forking it over (“it’s a rip-off,” was the retort from the author’s parents; although the word “rip-off” didn’t arrive in my neighborhood until the 1970s, my parents essentially provided the same sentiment… didn’t everyone’s?!?). Sadly, the soldiers were almost 2-D thin — on the order of a refrigerator magnet… and although they had stands, it’s hard to imagine them standing upright.
This is an entertaining and fun book. Each spread covers one item and includes the original ad, a photograph of the product (how did he track these down?) as well as accompanying packaging and advertising imagery. A “Customer Satisfaction” box at the end provides the author’s final general sentiment, and yes, most were rip-offs. But the product of Demarais’ research is one that historians of, oh, the year 3000, might find revealing… and today’s pop culture aficionados, comic book mavens, and coffee tables are sure to be pleased.
And what of Russ Heath? He is still with us, but at age 85 has fallen on bad health. In 2011, a call went out for help with his surgery expenses. “As a society, we’re not taking care of the people we need to. I think it’s imperative that we find a way to do that, and more practically, find the money,” said artist Howard Chaykin in a 2011 interview. Said comics writer Mark Waid: “This guy gave you joy… this artist or this writer did something that you enjoyed over the years, and now they’re in a bad place…. we owe them.” The Hero Initiative, a not-for-profit corporation that has provided support for many veterans in the comics industry, was able to help provide medical services for Heath; find out more about it here.
Thanks to JB Winter for turning me on to this book.