THE LAST MIDCENTURY was a rocky time for comics, as superhero and horror stories came under attack, romance and satire were on the rise, and then a new wave of war stories gained traction. To weather such tumultuous times, it helped to have the virtuosic versatility of a Jack Kirby or Jerry Robinson — illustrators who could deftly do it all.

Russ Heath is one such artist.

Heath broke into comics as a teenager during World War II, and showed an early flair for Western, but as Congress and comics code began to alter the industry, Heath pivoted nimbly to sci-fi and crime, adventure to humor (including MAD) — and ultimately has become best known as a master of DC war stories like G.I. Combat.

This week, the National Cartoonists Society announced that Heath will receive its career Milton Caniff Award, which goes to great cartoonists who have not won the group’s Reuben Award for outstanding cartoonist of the year.

“It’s very humbling to put your best effort into something for so many years, and not really know if it's appreciated,” Heath tells Comic Riffs, “and then to find out that people have been paying attention and following what you've been doing.

“To know that my peers in the NCS have noticed my work, and are giving me this award is really a great honor,” adds Heath, e-mailing from the Los Angeles area where he’s based.

Russ Heath’s artistic flair has graced everything from swordsmen to soldiers, divers to gunfighters. (RUSS HEATH / Self-Portrait/courtesy of the NCS )

In announcing the award, the NCS cites Heath’s stature within the industry, as well as his amazing range.

“To refer to Russ heath as merely a ‘legend’ in comics is a gross understatement,” NCS President Tom Richmond tells Comic Riffs. “It's hard to imagine an artist who did more influential more in more different aspects of comic art. ...

“This honor is very well-deserved.”

The Caniff prize will be presented at the NCS Reuben Awards banquet, May 24 in San Diego.

(“All-American Men of War,” drawn by Russ Heath /courtesy of the NCS )