The Heap

By | Monday, October 17, 2022 Leave a Comment
With the appearance of Man-Thing on Marvel's Werewolf by Night "special presentation," I thought it was high time that I look into his predecessor, The Heap. I'd actually picked up the first volume of PS Artbooks reprints of the story not too long ago (they had a big sale several months back) but I had yet to crack it open. It reprints the first 30 or so stories featuring the Heap mostly from Hillamn's Airboy Comics of the late 1940s.

While not the first thing I learned in the book -- because I didn't read Roy Thomas' forward until after I had gotten through the first couple of Heap stories -- I found out that the Heap itself didn't really originate in comics, that it was borrowed from Theodore Sturgeon's short story: "It!" In fact, in comparing It's origin with the Heap's, I have to believe that Sturgeon didn't sue Hillman for stealing his idea because he simply didn't know they had published it. It's different enough that it's probably not a lawsuit he would've won, but the similarities are striking.

The actual origin, interestingly, focuses on a German pilot from World War I (not dissimilar to the Red Baron) who crashed in a swamp in Poland. (I did not even realize there were swamps in Poland until I just now looked it up. I tend to think of swamps as being more tropical.) At first, I was a little surprised at giving the character a very clear German ancestry as this story first came out in late 1942, less than a year after the US entered World War II. But part of the initial hook was that the Heap in fact attacked German soldiers and afforded SkyWolf -- the American protagonist -- a victory. The pseudo-irony of Nazis being defeated at the hands of a former German soldier was, no doubt, appealing at the time.

It did seem an odd choice to add into a SkyWolf story, however. SkyWolf was very much a Blackhawk type character -- an American flying ace with a small cadre of equally talented pilots. They would conduct various missions against the Axis, mostly on the European front, and generally be the bane of Nazi pilots' existence. The standout "features" of SkyWold relative to other flying ace characters of the day was that he wore a wolf's head like an aviator hat and his plane was kind of like two planes smashed together side-by-side but could then separate and (inexplicably) fly with only one wing each. I'm not opposed to genre-mixing but I'm not sure this clearly-horror-based Heap monster -- and he was very much just a monster in his earliest appearances -- was the best choice for a high-flying adventure story. It certainly wasn't handled especially smoothly.

But what the hell do I know? They brought the Heap back about six months later, the timing of which would suggest that Hillman saw the sales numbers of that issue were up and then went back to writer Harry Stein demanding another Heap story. (Sales numbers at the time took about three months to come in, and story production also took about three months to get from concept to newstand.) However the second Heap story wasn't even mentioned on the cover of the issue and apparently sales numbers weren't very impressive as it took another two years for the Heap's third appearance.

What quickly surprised me about the stories, reading them all in much quicker succession than they were originally published, was how they were relatively good with continuity. The Heap's origin stayed remarkably consistent with a few details added from time to time. I'm sure it helped that since they almost never dedicated more than a single page to telling the Heap's origin, there was little to contradict. Probably the most striking change is the coloring -- going from white in the Heap's first two appearances to a more vegetative brown/green. The second story expressly notes the character as being colored white in the dialogue, while a few issues later it's mentioned that he completely blends in with the trees and bushes. But the actual character and plot elements are all pretty solid right from jump.

Previously, I had mostly dismissed the Heap as a very basic, perhaps even crude, predecessor to Man-Thing and Swamp Thing. That it wasn't all that appreciably different from some of the similar one-note swamp monsters from the 1950s Atlas comics. But even in the limited run of stories I've read so far, there's a lot more there than I realized. Sure, it still has some of the stilted scripting and plot contrivances that were typical of comics at the time, and the art is clearly rushed in places but it holds up (racist stereotypes aside) reasonably well. Definitely much better than a lot of other stories from that era I've tried mucking my way through!

If Man-Thing's appearance in Werewolf by Night piqued your interest, it might be worth tracking down some old Heap stories for some additional background/context. I'm sure there are reprint options besides the PS Artbooks version I picked up, but I got a lot out of his foreword that helped as well.
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