Heap Horrors

My Worst Pro Comic Book Cover

After Theodore Sturgeon‘s “It,” but before Swamp Thing or Man-Thing, there was The Heap

I just finished two Heap paintings I’m pretty happy with (and, more importantly, the publisher is happy with). One of them will appear as a cover later this year; more on that once the publisher makes the formal announcements.

It all brought to mind, though, my most shameful cover gig ever.

Let’s start with the fact that what we do, as cartoonists, is make the risible reasonably believable, if only for the duration of an eye to drink in an image. We all work with silly-ass premises, concepts, and characters—men in tights, women in impossible costumes, monsters and boogeymen, stupefying abodes and weaponary, physics-defying feats, etc.—and (when we’re working and everything is firing all cylinders) make them seem not-so-silly-ass.

Now, I have sung before, and will again sing, the praises of the Heap. Originally created by writer Harry Stein and artist Mort Leav, a fixture of Hillman Periodical‘s Air Fighter’s Comics (launched in the third issue, December 1942 cover date) which became Airboy Comics (in 1946), the Heap habituated those four-color pages until the May 1953 issue. The Heap was the resurrected vegetative form of WW1 German pilot and flying ace Baron Eric von Emmelman (aka Emmelmann), who “survived” being shot down in 1918 after plunging into a marsh in Poland and—well, the inexplicable Theodore Sturgeon “It” thing happened to the Baron, and up came the Heap just in time to fight in WW2 on the side of the Allied Forces.

This made the Heap the companion Golden Age comicbook monster to Dick Briefer‘s Frankenstein, and like Briefer‘s feature the Heap lasted into the Pre-Code horror comics boom before fading into oblivion. For a while. Along the way, artists like Jack Abel, Paul Reinman, Mike Roy, future Kubert School instructor John Belfi, and Ernie Schroeder (among others) delineated the Heap‘s misadventures.

But I tell you, in every incarnation of the original Heap, he’s pretty silly-ass (top, below). From massive mucous-man to walking haystack, the Heap was always a pretty ungainly grotesque.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the Heap. I’ve got a stack of those wonderful Hillman Airboy Comics, and some of the Heap stories are terrific. Still—the Heap. What a maroon!

In his most stable incarnation, he looked like an ambulatory thatched-hut with a carrot jammed into what can only be called his face-like mass of mucky straw.

I’m up for a challenge like this at all times. John Totleben and I were able to (I think) make Jason Woodrue, the Floronic Man, a creepy vegedude, and we had fun making Jack Kirby‘s marvelous Etrigan, the Demon, a pretty formidable presence, despite his Stop-sign-red and Yield-sign-yellow costuming and those damned little pointy cloth boots—but the Heap is a tall order to make “scary,” or “not-silly-ass,” on the best of days. Trust me on this.
The Skywald incarnation of the Heap that popped up on newsstands when I was sixteen was even sillier, truth to tell. I was snapping up Skywald‘s black-and-white horror comic magazine Psycho from its second issue on, and there the new Heap malingerd (#2-13, March 1971-July 1973), rebooted (before that term existed) by writer Charles McNaughton and my favorite “War That Time Forgot” art team, Ross Andru and Mike Esposito. Andru dropped the pencil and started writing for the next Heap artist Pablo Marcos, until editor Al Hewetson seized the typewriter; Marcos stayed on to the penultimate installment I read, replaced for the final chapter by “Villanova” (aka Xavier G. Vilanova). And I still have the four-color Skywald one-shot The Heap #1 (Sept. 1971), scripted by DC Comics vet Robert Kanigher and penciled by my late-night telephone pal Tom Sutton (man, nobody could talk from the drawing board like Tom could). I love Tom‘s work (below, right), but I tell ya, the Hillman Heap is a lot more fun to draw!

So, years later, I got my own shot at the Heap: the Hillman Heap, in fact, when Eclipse Comics bought up the Hillman properties, and he was ceremoniously air-dropped into The New Wave.

That’s when I committed the comicbook crime that still makes me cringe.

It was a cover for a comic I had no interest in, and it showed; and a gig that pretty well sold me on the fact that I simply cannot be motivated by pleading or money alone by any editor, publisher, or fellow creator. The ink always shows the truth.

Without further ado—gulp—here goes…

I used to do multiple cover roughs, with markers, for editors when a cover was in the works. I’d work out a few variations on whatever I was given to work with. This one, though, was pretty stupid in concept: the Heap, trying to rescue his New Wave bosom buddies from, uh, trees “like the ones in The Wizard of Oz, only just a little bit scarier. You know, add teeth!” Those were my instructions.

Here are two of my roughs for the Eclipse Comics New Wave cover gig, either of which is superior to the final version I turned in (the original was dated 6/85):

This was one of those jobs I shouldn’t have said “yes” to. But, well, I did say “yes.”

I then found myself doing not a Heap swamp monster cover (the phone call overture), but a damned lame-ass superhero cover, where the editor kept asking for more spectacle in a smaller and smaller space. I gimped through, and the editor (cat yronwode, if memory serves) was happy, but I wasn’t. Brrrrrrrrr.

The logo for New Wave was gigantic, and in trying to squeeze all the requested characters and action into a tiny square, all the life just fled from the final version:

The New Wave #8, September 30, 1986, “Return of The Heap” (Eclipse Comics)—and you can still buy covers for 50 cents or less!

Ugh! It still pains me to look at this comicbook.

Well, there you go. In due time, my happier Heap imagery will see light of day this year. Maybe then the Heap will find it in his green li’l heart to forgive.

But never forget…


All images ©original creators/proprietors, their original year of publication; all artwork and images are posted for archival and educational purposes only. The Heap is now in the public domain, though Todd McFarlane and/or Image Comics reportedly owns whatever it was Eclipse owned, now.

Discussion ¬

  1. John Platt

    The interiors of that comic weren’t all that great, either.

Comment ¬

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