Historian of Horror : Whatever Happened to Baron von Emmelmann?

Whatever Happened to Baron von Emmelmann?

My devoted followers may recall that last time out, I briefly discussed the career of one Theodore Sturgeon, and his early story, “It”. The tale, which was published in the August 1940 issue of the fantasy and horror pulp magazine, Unknown, concerned the layers of naturally occurring compost that had formed around the lost skeleton of one Roger Kirk. Many years after Kirk’s passing, this was caused by some unknown mechanism the spontaneous generation of a sort of liveliness that resulted in death and destruction until the monster was dissolved in running water. A simple tale well told.

So, who the heck is Baron von Emmelmann?

For the answer to that question, we’ll need to fast forward a few years. The Golden Age of Comics was already in full flower by 1940, but it rapidly exploded into a riotous garden of four-color blooms once the United States joined the Second World War. Even before, as various patriotic-themed superheroes made their appearances even prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. Captain America himself punched Adolf Hitler on the cover of the first issue of his own title in March of that year, and he wasn’t the first denizen of the new medium to take on the Nazi menace.

In the context of the times, comic book publishers proliferated, spewing out myriad characters ready, willing, and able to face the fascist threat and sell War Bonds, a large number of them heroic aviators. One of the smaller publishers, Hillman Publications, quickly assembled the first issue of an anthology title, Air Fighters Comics, that sold poorly. It was retooled a year later with an all-new line-up, including a young flyer with an almost sentient plane named Birdy. Airboy was so popular that the book was renamed after him a couple of years later, and ran until 1953.

In the eleven years between, a fair number of backup characters passed through the title’s pages, including a second-rate, gimmicky rip-off of Quality Publications aviation hero, Blackhawk. Sky Wolf hung around for a few years, and was featured in the Eclipse Comics’ Airboy revival of the 1980s. Honestly, though, his one real contribution to comic book history occurred in his second appearance, Air Fighters Comics volume 2, issue 3, with a cover date of December 1942.

In a brief flash-back to the First World War, German fighter pilot Baron Eric von Emmelmann was shot down over a swamp in Poland. His corpse festered and percolated there in the miasmic bog, accumulating layer upon layer of muck and mire. Eventually, the Heap emerged, like the creature in “It”, and began breaking things and mangling living beings. And, as in the Sturgeon tale, it resembled a huge, shambling mound with no discernable human features other than arms and legs.

Not long afterward von Emmelmann’s rebirth as the Heap, German pilot Colonel von Tundra was shot down over the same swamp. He survived and encountered the newly born muck-monster, who responded favorably to being yelled at in the native language of his former self. The Heap appeared in three more Sky Wolf stories as an ally of the Nazis before graduating to his own feature, beginning with Airboy Comics volume 3, number 9, October, 1946. By then, he was only vaguely aware of his origins, and less a villain and more of an elemental force for good. His adventures all over the world continued through the final issue in 1953. The character was parodied in an early issue of the Mad comic book, and revived briefly by Skywald Publications in the early 1970s, and a couple of times by Image in their Spawn comic book series. And of course, he was a prominent feature of the Eclipse run of Airboy previously mentioned.

Much more human-looking was DC Comics’ Solomon Grundy, who has never been anything but a villain, or at best an anti-hero. Originating as an opponent of the Golden Age Green Lantern in All-American Comics 61, October 1944, he has continued popping up in various titles and television shows, both animated and live-action, ever since. In his case, the swamp muck formed around the corpse of murder victim Cyrus Gold. 

The Golden age of Comics began to wind down at the end of World War II. Super-heroes gradually gave way to other genres, including war, western, crime, romance, funny animals, amusing teenagers, and horror. Captain America’s publisher, Timely Comics, morphed into Atlas, and like so many other houses concentrated on these new genres, with only a brief revival of its old heroes in the mid-fifties. After the institution of the Comics Code Authority in 1955, Atlas’s horror output was rendered as bland and toothless as all the other publishers, but unlike so many of them, the company survived. Barely.

As the decade wound down, the primary creative force at Atlas, Stan Lee, shifted his focus from ghosts, alien invaders and the like to gargantuan monsters, remnants of ancient times like Chinese dragon Fin Fang Foom, or colossal mummies, or giant statues animated by lightning strikes. One of these was “Monstrum! The Dweller in the Black Swamp”, from Tales to Astonish #11, September 1960. As was not unusual in a Stan Lee tale, Monstrum was more clumsy than malicious, being a refugee from a far planet whose spaceship was trapped in the Black Swamp. Rejected by the humans he sought assistance from, he returned to the swamp to await the evolution of a more compassionate population.

Fortunately for all concerned, not long afterward Lee revived the super-hero genre at his company, renamed it Marvel, and revolutionized the industry. Without the use of any more swamp critters, at least for a while.

The next significant muck monster made his appearance in DC’s horror title, House of Secrets, in issue 92, July 1971. Swamp Thing was created by writer Len Wien and legendary artist, the late and very much lamented, Berni Wrightson. Alex Olsen was an early 20th Century scientist developing a plant-growth formula. When his laboratory was sabotaged, Olsen got mixed up with the formula and the essence of the swamp in which he was located. He returned as the sentient but mute Swamp Thing to get his revenge. 

Under a new alter ego, Alex Holland, he was given a contemporary origin not long afterward in his own title that ran a mere dozen issues. A highly acclaimed series from writer Alan Moore followed in the 1980s, along with a pair of so-so theatrical films, two live-action TV shows and an animated TV mini-series.

Swamp Thing was no paragon of masculine pulchritude, but he was more-or-less sort of kind of human-shaped if you turned your head to one side and squinted. Marvel Comic’s Man-Thing was not. His original artist, Gray Morrow, returned to the source material, creating a shambling mound of insensate gunk and goo with a carrot-nose and beady eyes, much closer to the Heap than to his DC predecessors. First appearing in the black-and-white magazine format Savage Tales #1 in May of 1971, Man-Thing languished for a year before popping up again in a variety of Marvel super-hero titles. He attained his own series in January 1974. Man-Thing’s gimmick was that he was an empath. He responded well to the kindness of strangers, but not to their fear. His touch would burn anyone who was afraid of him, which fortunately turned out to usually be bad people. Man-Thing sold well enough that a second title was added, the unfortunately named Giant-Size Man-Thing. Go ahead, giggle. I won’t judge you. G-S M-T featured as a backup strip some of the earliest adventures of Howard the Duck, along with reprints from those old Atlas comics of the 1950s.

I honestly have no idea if Ted Sturgeon ever knew about the comic book characters that were inspired by his original creation. It never occurred to me to ask him, back in those halcyon days of my mis-spent youth. I’m sure he never received a dime in recompense from Hillman or DC or Marvel or any of the other comics publishers that made use of his concept. I’m not sure that would have bothered him. I hope not. My memories of Ted Sturgeon have no room for rancor, because I only remember him as genial and warm, and wickedly funny. Read, if you can find it, his 1972 short story, “Pruzy’s Pot”, about a living and very accommodating toilet. I heard him read that aloud in 1978, when he was the guest of honor at the Nashville science fiction convention for that year, Kubla Khan Ate. A room full of fen laughed uproariously at that one. There is a place for potty humor, indeed. It all winds up in the swamp, anyhow.

And so, until next time, connoisseurs of chills…

Be afraid. 

Be very afraid.

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