So Swamp Thing is running amuck, I think is where we left things, rearing up out of the mire from whence he came, and taking sides in local disputes. Bad men are shooting holes in the petroleum industry and ferociously hassling female G-men for school supplies, and now a big shaggy heap of vines, roots, mud and miscellaneous has decided to involve itself in the situation, through the medium of tearing the roof off cars, tossing white guys around and generally playing in traffic.
At this point, the audience is shifting in its seat, and asking, what the hell is this thing, and more importantly, why isn’t it flying an airplane?
Because according to my notes here, the main character of this movie is Baron Eric von Emmelmann, a World War I flying ace shot down in a swamp, whose will to live was so strong that he underwent an unearthly transformation, turning him into a rampaging immortal muck-monster who ate dogs and beat up Nazis, among other people.
Actually, that was the Heap, the necessary ancestor of Swamp Thing, who crept through the comics from 1942 to 1953, spreading fetid violence on all sides, and opening the eyes of young readers to the beauty and wonder of unnatural nature. You’ve never heard of the Heap, obviously, because he was created by Hillman Periodicals, a firm that as of the late ’50s ceased to be a force in American publishing, but in his day, the Heap was a consistent presence in the primordial stew of the Golden Age of Comics.
Now, I told you before about the original man-monster from the swamp — Theodore Sturgeon’s “It”, which appeared in a 1940 issue of Unknown Fantasy Fiction. “It” was a curious but unfeeling creature who didn’t understand the world around itself, and pulled apart rabbits and dogs and the unwary in general, to see how they worked. Over the course of the story, the monster terrorized a farm family, the young golden-haired daughter in particular, and then It basically dissolved, curious and confused to the last.
And then two years later: there, impossibly, was the Heap.
The book was called Air Fighters Comics, an anthology comic about fictional aviation heroes, and Hillman Periodicals happened to hit on the right idea at the correct time in history. The first issue of Air Fighters, published in fall 1941, didn’t do that well, but a couple months later the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and all of a sudden every kid in America wanted to read comic books about brave pilots beating up on the Axis powers.
Air Fighters #2 introduced the hero Sky Wolf, a fighter pilot who wore a stuffed white wolf’s head as a helmet. I don’t really want to linger on Sky Wolf. But his story in issue #3 — “WANTED BY THE NAZIS” — introduced a huge shaggy bloodthirsty swamp zombie for basically no reason that I can figure, and stuck it in the middle of a Sky Wolf adventure that would have worked perfectly fine without it.
It is an extremely peculiar thing. I’ve read this comic several times, and I honestly can not explain to you what they were thinking when they wrote this story.
It begins in World War I for some reason, with Baron Emmelmann — one of Von Richthofen’s flying aces — getting shot down over a barren Polish swamp. Emmelmann crashes and burns, but refuses to die, which would be simpler and probably better for everyone. Instead, he reconstructs himself as a walking pile of mud and garbage, and immediately sucks all the blood out of a sheep.
Seriously, that’s the first thing he does. It turns out that the Heap needs oxygen to live, go figure, and the best way to get it is to draw it out of the blood vessels of animals and/or people. So he gets up and wanders around aimlessly, feeding on wolves and whatnot, and before you know it, it’s World War II.
So then there’s some aviation hero stuff, with Sky Wolf shooting down his mortal enemy, the half-man-half-metal Colonel von Tundra, who falls on something soft and guess what, it’s the Heap. The creature has been lollygagging around Poland for the last couple decades, but now he’s found a fellow German, so he picks up the Colonel and brings him back to his squad.
Nobody knows what to make of the Heap. He hardly knows what to make of himself. He’s excited when he hears German spoken — check out the little hearts above his head when he runs into a soldier boy — but everyone’s scared of him, and then a pig runs by and the Heap jumps on the pig and sucks all its blood out.
One of the Nazis decides that the Heap is so bizarre and horrible that they could use him to torture Polish people, so they chain him up to a tree and plan on feeding him prisoners. Then there’s more Sky Wolf material, and they don’t really get around to doing anything with the Heap. At the end of the story, the creature manages to break loose from its chains, and Sky Wolf drops a bomb on it, and Colonel von Tundra sputters and curses, and that’s the end of the story.
It’s difficult for me to explain how deeply strange this is. There’s just no reason why this monster should appear in a Sky Wolf story; it’s a completely different genre. It feels like they jumped into publishing a wartime aviation comic and quickly realized that they didn’t have much to say on the subject, so they pulled an idea out of a pulp science-fiction magazine and spent some time on that.
But the Heap was an intriguing new idea for comics, and they decided to bring him back six months later. In this 1943 story, the Heap actually flies around in a plane, using his flying ace skills to shoot other planes down and then feed on the pilots. He targets both Nazis and Allied planes, because he’s just a bloodthirsty swamp zombie and doesn’t know the difference.
The Nazis get mad and try to shoot him down, and Sky Wolf tries to capture the beast as well. There’s a confusing two-page three-way sky battle between Sky Wolf, the Germans and the Heap, and the creature ends up losing. His plane goes down in flames — so much for being a World War I flying ace — and then there’s another three pages about Sky Wolf annoying the Nazis.
Once again, all of the characters in the story assume that the Heap has been destroyed several pages before the story ends, but the Heap returns again in 1945, screwing around with Japanese people this time.
At the end of his third story, the Heap is destroyed once again, but at least this story ends with a “But is the Heap really dead?” panel, which is just good manners at this point.
By 1946, the Heap was apparently “popular”, which is one of those words that it turns out doesn’t always mean what you think it does. I mean, obviously he wasn’t popular like Superman or Batman — characters who were actually popular, and survived the comics crash of the mid-1950s. But he was popular enough to be a World War II character that could still sell comics after World War II was over, which is something.
In October 1946, Sky Wolf was dropped from Air Fighters (actually renamed Airboy Comics by this point), and instead of the white-wolf aviator, there was a monthly story about the Heap. The Heap still didn’t talk, he didn’t have human intelligence, and he didn’t know what the hell was going on most of the time, but the comics-reading public demanded more drippy mud-zombie stories starring a dead German World War I flying ace.
To make the series a little more relatable, the Heap was unceremoniously dumped in middle America somewhere. There’s no explanation for this — just a panel that says “A madman had the Heap shipped to America”, with no further information about who that was, or how or why, or anything. The creature is just lurking in the woods outside the small town of Lawndale, where he adopts a young boy as his entirely unwilling friend.
The kid’s name is Rickie Wood. I’ve seen him referred to as a “kid sidekick”, but that implies a traditional hero-with-young-companion structure, which is absolutely not the case with Rickie and the Heap. They meet when Rickie is flying a model of a German airplane, and the Heap is struck with an old memory of the German pilot that he used to be. He imprints on Rickie like a baby duck, and he always wants to hang out, to Rickie’s dismay.
In fact, Rickie actively hates and fears the Heap. He has no idea why the creature keeps following him around, and he feels responsible to stop the Heap from murdering stray dogs and random people that it comes across. In several stories, Rickie tries to get away from the adhesive monster by taking a train or a boat, but the Heap keeps coming back.
This often results in the Heap saving Rickie from someone who means him harm — a criminal gang who buries him alive with a string of stolen pearls, an angry sailor who tries to kill the people who’ve rented his boat with a giant octopus — but Rickie doesn’t appreciate it. He just wants the Heap to go away.
In fact, he tries to kill the Heap several times, and it doesn’t work. After a while, the book settles down into a groove: Rickie gets into a dangerous situation, and then the Heap comes along and kills people until the story’s over. This goes on for way longer than you might expect.
The comic pivoted after a couple years, dropping the Rickie motif and moving the Heap in a more mythological direction. He starts interacting with gods and dwarves, and at the end of 1948, Mother Nature appears to the Heap and tells him that she’s been his boss the whole time.
“You, Heap, have been my answer to war,” says Mother Nature, which is a weird thing to say to somebody who eats dogs. “You are the only living thing with the body of a plant and the instincts of a man! But now I have made you an instrument for peace!” Then she tells him to go kill some Nazis.
By 1950, the Heap basically becomes an Earth elemental. The above panel lets us know that at his touch, the Earth sends forth her riches, which is about as far away as you can get from the original wartime soaking-wet nightmare. Apparently if you write about swamp monsters for long enough, they turn into Earth elementals; that’s just how it works.
The Heap kept on shambling around the pages of Airboy Comics until 1953, when Hillman decided that they didn’t want to publish comic books anymore. In his last story, the Heap is in Ireland of all places, helping a pretty blonde woman who wants to win a horse race against a mean countess so that the woman can get the prize money and marry her boyfriend. I know that sounds like an unlikely story for a swamp monster to show up in, but that was the approach most of the time: the writer would make up a story about whatever they were interested in, and then the Heap would lurk around the edges, and kill anybody who got in the way of bringing it to a conclusion. He was basically a garbage disposal for unwanted story points.
So the Heap sank back into the welcoming arms of soggy oblivion, fondly remembered by a generation of post-war comics fans, and entirely forgotten by everyone else. But if we’ve learned anything so far about crazy swamp zombies, it’s that you can’t kill an idea like this by setting it on fire and dumping it into a lagoon. Crashing, burning and rising again is their whole thing. They like it.
If you want to know more about the Heap and his bizarre stories, the comics are in the public domain and available to read on Comic Book Plus. They’re worth checking out, just as a historical oddity. Note that the stories include the typical 1940s stereotypical portrayals of German and Japanese people.
Also: The Heap was brought into the Swamp Thing continuity in a 1986 story called “The Parliament of Trees”. One of Alan Moore’s contributions to the mythos is that there have always been plant/human monsters throughout history, who act as avatars of the universal heartbeat of Nature that connects all plant life. When one plant monster dies, another is grown to take on the job. In issue #47, Swamp Thing encounters the legendary Parliament of Trees, a group made up of all the old avatars who came before him, rooted in the Earth and looking after things. Delightfully, the Heap is one of them — Moore doesn’t use the character’s name, but he looks just like the Heap, and he’s holding a model of a German World War I plane on a string. The character returns in future Parliament scenes another eight times, up until 1993.
— Danny Horn