Sunday, April 17, 2016

A Little Frankenstein, a Little Mad

I was going to make a different blog post, but I turned it into an article for MONSTER! magazine. If I can convince them that they want a series of muck monster articles, I'll probably have to stop writing them here. But that's neither here nor there right now. During, and just after the Heap’s publication run, two satires of the Heap appeared.

In 1948, Prize comics was producing a humorous anthology series with Frankenstein's monster as the protagonist. It's a gag magazine, written by Dick Briefer, writer of America's first entirely horror comic, Frankenstein. Apparently, he really liked the Frankenstein creature, because he also wrote a funny book utilizing the creature. Referred to as Booo, in this story the creature is a very domestic everyman. Despite his Karloff-esque flat head, he can speak and reason. He takes odd jobs, he has friends, he lives in a city with a vampire, mummy and assorted other monsters live. Even the regular humans who meet him do not mention his odd appearance. Still, he is very tall and inhumanly strong.

In the Swamp Spirit story, from Frankenstein #16, Booo and his friend Roger Rogers have paired up to create a spooky radio show. But the boss doesn't think that the show is frightening any more, so Roger decides to seek out the Swamp Spirit, the only thing that all the other monsters in town are afraid of.

Roger decides to go to Borgo Swamp and have Booo play the part of the monster as ratings stunt. They arrive separately, and of course, the real Swamp Spirit, a mucky muddy thing with a vaguely human shape, arrives before Booo does. Roger mistakes the real thing for Booo, and is rescued when the real Booo shows up.

This is comedy, mostly about Frankenstein and Roger Rogers, so there isn't a lot of development of the swamp creature. It certainly looks like it could be Heap inspired. Comedies are often painted with a much broader brush, so many elements of what the Swamp Spirit actually is are glossed over. We get no origin. It is, however, scary, strong, made of mud, and lives in a swamp. Sounds Heap-derived to me.

Frankenstein/Booo defeats the Swamp Spirit by throwing it back into the swamp. It's a facile end to the fight, moving the swamp monster out of sight, and therefore out of mind. But it comes up very often, even in more serious comics. Why would we assume that something made of swamp would be stopped by being dunked into the swamp? But it provides a friendly and convenient ending to the fight.

Ultimately, Swamp Spirit is a bit of fluff, a throw-away reference in a book with five different Frankenstein stories in it, all of them comedy with horror trappings. But it places a Heap-derived humanoid muck creature creature in the same context as Frankenstein's monster, Dracula, and the mummy. All of these are horror classics, instantly recognizable. Although the Swamp Spirit is seen as something different, scarier than all the rest of the monsters, it still holds a place in the town and by extension the milieu. I cannot guess whether the reader was supposed to recognize the Heap or not. It certainly doesn't matter to the story if it does, but I wonder if the Heap was famous enough, even in 1948, that the audience could be expected to recognize it.

Another notable muck man comic satire was published five years in Jun-July 1953. A fledgling Mad magazine, then produced by EC comics, contains an eight-pager called "Outer Sanctum" which featured a very clear parody of the Heap.

Bill Elder, one of the seminal and most influential artists in Mad magazine, wrote and drew the story which clearly reflects its EC comics heritage. It is bookended by an EC-style host, Ramon, and contains many of Elder's trademark sight gags. The story is jammed with them, down to messages changing between panels.

This is, significantly, the first story in which the muck man does not simply have the unquenchable will to survive, it also has another catalyst. This catalyst, often chemical in nature, shows up in more serious Heap progeny. In the Man-Thing origin, it's a version of the super solder serum, for Alec Holland, it's the biorestorative formula, for the Glob, it's barrels of radioactive material. The catalyst gives us an excuse for why this creature exists. The unquenchable will to live is no longer sufficient explanation, and in the fifties and sixties, science enough of an excuse for the creation of a Heap-like monster. Here, we have a mixture of science and magic, as the professor is trying to create life using a recipe he got from 'the old cajun witch woman.' This is also the first time we have the professor working in the swamp, something again to be repeated in the origins of Swamp Thing and Man-Thing.

When the Heap emerges, it is much like the Hillman Heap. Although it cannot speak, it seems to understand speech, immediately latching onto the professor and doing his bidding. It should be understood that the Heap here was never human. Instead, it was created whole cloth out from the interaction between the swamp and the professor's life formula. This Heap is immune to bullets, which makes the professor's idea of using to rob banks quite practical.

However, this Heap continues to grow and change, emotionally, if not intellectually. It goes through a sort of puberty and starts to care about its appearance, even going so far as to wear a zoot suit. It has conceived a romance with a female heap, which its creator/father disapproves of. It doesn't work out, and the Heap kills his father-figure and is lost out in the swamp. The tale has a small twist at the end, and we are treated to a glimpse of a small family of Heaps lurking in the swamp.

This would be a minor footnote if it weren't for this famous panel: Here we have two names for future offshoots of the Heap; Glob and Swamp Thing. At only eight pages, this story is so seminal and informs a lot of what comes later. The introduction of the catalyst, the oddly prophetic names as the Heap emerged from the swamp, and the more human emotional maturity of the Heap are all notable in subsequent swamp monsters. Undoubtedly, this story is ore widely read than the Frankenstein Swamp Spirit story, and likely has a wider audience than the original Airboy Comics. While Airboy has had a notable resonance with writers, Mad magazine has been reprinted and read pretty consistently since its initial publication.

So while these two appearances are comedies, the implication of the Swamp Spirit story is that the mucky swamp monster is something the comics-reading audience should recognize, an indicator of the Heap’s popularity. And the Mad story is probably of the better read stories regarding the Heap, probably more so than the original Heap stories, and probably had a significant impact on later iterations of comic-book muck men.

Next up, Roy Thomas brings the swamp man to a new generation of readers.

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