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Russ Heath Retrospective in Palma Mallorca

Posted: January 16, 2013

Some of the very finest exhibitions of American comic book art in recent years are being organised at the Casal Solleric in Palma Mallorca, Spain. You may have seen their spectacular English-Spanish catalogues for the late greats, Wally Wood and John Buscema, now made more widely available through American publishers IDW. The exciting news is that their next major retrospective will be a Flesh and Steel: The Art of Russ Heath from January 24th to April 7th, curated by Florentino Flórez Fernández.

Heath’s long career spanned Marvel (or Atlas) Fifties horror, westerns, jungle girls and adventure to DC’s gritty war comics, notably Sergeant Rock, and from stunning black-and-white tonal work for Warren’s magazines Creepy, Eerie, Vampirella and Blazing Combat (above) to latterday work including an issue of Marvel’s Son of Satan, a favourite of mine, to very recent commissions. Because best of all, Heath is still alive, aged 86, and has lived to see this celebration of his masterful artistry. Be sure to keep a look out for the accompanying catalogue.

With a major Roy Lichtenstein Retrospective due to open next month at Tate Modern in London, it’s heartening that one of the unsung artists who was appropriated by Lichtenstein more than once, most famously with Irv Novick on “Whaam!” (below), should receive a museum art show of this calibre of his very own.

Jim McLauchlin at Newsarama reported March 14th, 2011:  “Lichtenstein’s signature work is titled “Whaam!,” an image of a fighter jet being blown apart in mid-air. As you might imagine, yes…it came from a Russ Heath story published in DC Comics’ All-American Men of War #89. The original sold for over $4 million. Hell, 1967-era prints of “Whaam!” have sold for as much as $23,000. Russ Heath is surprisingly not bitter. Or at least he wouldn’t be if he had just got that glass of wine.

“They exhibited it at the Museum of Modern Art when I was living in New York, and they invited be to come and be a guest for the opening,” Heath remembers. “But I was chasing a deadline. Couldn’t make it.” In a cruel twist of fate, “Whaam!” was later exhibited in Chicago while Heath was living there, and later still in Los Angeles after Heath had moved to Van Nuys. Each time, he could not make the opening night gala festivities. He finally called Lichtenstein.

“Before he could get back to me, he died,” Heath says. “Anything to get out of buying me a cocktail, right? I figure I missed a free glass of wine, maybe three if you count all the showings. Someone owes me.” “

You can read more about Lichtenstein’s “Whaam!” in my introductory essay to the Cult Fiction exhibition. To be more accurate, the main composition for “Whaam!” comes from the Irv Novick panel shown above, but one glaring difference is the exploding plane on the right. Looking through my copy of All-American Men of War #89, it looks to me that Lichtenstein’s plane is probably based on a different story, another panel, in the very same comic book, this time by Russ Heath : ‘Aces Wild’, page 3, panel 3.

I also suspect that the attacking plane itself on the right has been adapted from a third source as it is drawn quite differently and with the kind of detail and observation that Lichtenstein would not naturally introduce himself. I wonder - has someone identified the source of this plane in “Whaam!”?


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