The Heap. Artist: John Belfi.


Medium: Comic books
Published by: Hillman Periodicals
First Appeared: 1942
Creators: Harry Stein (writer) and Mort Leav (artist)
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Air Fighters Comics, published by Hillman Periodicals, was, as the name implies, a comic book devoted exclusively to flying adventurers, in the tradition of the comic strip Smilin' Jack,

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… the pulp magazine Air Wonder Stories, the radio show Captain Midnight and other popular American entertainment of the 20th century's first half. So how did a shambling muck monster wind up in it?

Well, it might be because that shambling muck monster started out as a flying adventurer — a World War I German ace, to be exact. But a more likely reason is that it just kinda happened. He was apparently intended merely as a menace for one of the comic's less prominent regulars to fight, returned, became a recurring character, and eventually starred in his own series.

The Heap was comics' very first shambling muck monster, tho he was undoubtedly inspired by Theodore Sturgeon's 1940 short story, "It", the template for all shambling muck monsters to come. "It" told of a man who died in a swamp, fermented in a broth of rotting vegetation, and eventually rose again, half man, half fetid vegetable matter, to wreak vengeance upon his foes. Another prominent "It"-inspired comic book character of the 1940s was DC's Solomon Grundy, who bedeviled Green Lantern starting in 1944.

In The Heap's case, the man in the muck was Baron von Emmelmann, who had everything to live for — wealth, social position, loving wife, baby he hadn't yet seen, etc. — when, on October 12, 1918, his plane was shot down over Poland's Wausau Swamp. Lying lifeless as his body slowly merged with the morass, he had nothing left but his will to live, to rise, to return to the world of humans. It took more than 20 years, but rise he did — in the back pages of Air Fighters #3 (December, 1942), where he met Sky Wolf, a minor Blackhawk knock-off.

At the end of that story, The Heap was apparently dead, but you know how it is with monsters. He was back a few months later, back again a few months after that, etc. Readers seemed to like him because although mindless, he wasn't really a bad guy. It's true, he did occasionally eat farm animals whole, but that's only because he couldn't breathe, and needed the oxygen in their blood. The only humans he harmed were themselves bad guys, such as Nazis and Japanese officers.

When World War II ended, Sky Wolf's raison d'etre was gone, as were those of most of his Air Fighters Comics compatriots. The comic was re-titled after its lead feature, Airboy, and one by one, the aviators in the back pages drifted off into comic book limbo (Sky Wolf's final appearance was in the January, 1947 issue). As for The Heap, his series began in vol. 3 #9 (October, 1946). When, as the 1950s approached, horror became a prominent genre in comics, The Heap was even featured on a few covers. The series lasted as long as Hillman Periodicals itself did, ending in the final issue of Airboy Comics (vol. 10 #4, May, 1953).

By about 1955, The Comics Code Authority had put an end to horror comic books, so it was a couple of decades before shambling muck monsters were seen again in that medium. But in the early 1970s, Code strictures were relaxed, making horror once again a viable comic book genre. Marvel Comics launched Man-Thing, DC launched Swamp Thing, and a very minor publisher named Skywald launched … The Heap. Skywald's version debuted in the second issue (March, 1971) of Psycho, a comic book formatted like Mad or Vampirella, i.e., magazine-size and printed in black and white. He also, briefly, appeared in a comic published in the regular format. Skywald faded from the scene a few years later.

It's unlikely Skywald, which had been in the habit of making free use of the properties of its defunct brethren, bothered to secure authorization from Hillman, but The Heap's next publisher, Eclipse Enterprises, did. It bought Hillman's properties before launching a revival of Airboy in 1986, and made The Heap a supporting character there. When Eclipse went bankrupt, its assets were purchased by Todd McFarlane, whose popular character, Spawn, which first appeared in 1992, had made him a millionaire. McFarlane gave the name to a monster that looks like a cross between The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Alien. This version of The Heap, which seems to have no connection at all to the original (instead of a German air ace, he's reconstructed from an American street derelict), has been used only as an occasional supporting character.

Which seems to have taken the character full circle. From here — who knows?


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Text ©2001-08 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Hillman Periodicals.