The Heap, St. James and the Gospel of Comics


I'd smuggled it in, but there was no way to read "The Heap" comic book, sitting between my grandmother and my aunt, and sometimes, my father, in St. James Catholic Church off of 39th and Troost in Kansas City.The service was long, interminable, for a boy who, nowadays, would be classified as suffering from ADHD, and the church was stuffy in summer, the heavy air aswim with mingled perfumes, aftershave, musty clothing, and the cloying incense from the service itself.

I soon discovered that I could avoid church altogether by disappearing at a strategic time: the time between readiness and firing up the old family Dodge. They'd holler my name a few times, then go without me, shaking their heads at my insouciance. The summer was now total enjoyment, church being the only dreary thing about it.

The old neighborhood was a playland. Feral cats who followed me around. Neighbors with foreign accents and strange behaviors. Overgrown lots and garages with power mowers and half-built cars. A Zesto sold soft ice cream with a hard chocolate shell, and a seedy old used bookstore and candy emporium supplied me with comics, trading me one for my two. Sometimes I'd pull a whole wagonload of Air Boys, Actions, Supermans, Captain Marvels, and Green Hornets and trade them in.

On the way home, I'd hang around outside the pool hall on Troost, invisible due to my age, and pick up some colorful language from the ducktailed toughs smoking and talking, cupping their cigarettes in their hands, one foot against the building. I would do the same, at a distance, with chocolate cigarettes wrapped in white paper, but I wouldn't flip them out into the street like they would. I'd eat mine. Then head back to the old stucco house on Manheim Road, with my Western Flyer full of adventure, lighter by half. I supplemented my diminishing stacks by buying new ones from the drugstore rack.

The origins of The Heap are fuzzy in my mind, but I recall he was a downed German ace who somehow made it into the swamps of the south. He was a mass of vegetation, leaves, bayou creatures, and he was dedicated to ridding the world of evildoers. He would envelop the bad guy in his compost pile and move on, looking for more. He usually saved scantily-clad beautiful women, who would shakily repeat the tale to unbelievers, while he watched from the shadows, never to be rewarded for his deeds. I met this heroic trashpile through Airboy Comics. It seems that during WWII The Heap flew against the Luftwaffe, through some stretch of comic book writing, easily accepted by my malleable mind. Sometimes Airboy was pitted against him in these sorties, and that frustrated me.

If they'd made these comics small enough to fit inside a hymnal I might have had a better church attendance record, but what goes around comes around. I was later forced to endure the whole confirmation process in the Episcopal Church by my stepfather and mother. My stepfather's old man was an Episcopal minister from London, England. There was no escape, when I was sent to live with them for various periods of my life, in Louisiana. But I was also free to roam the fringes of bayous and swamps to search for The Heap. I never saw him, but was probably watched over. By a higher power, or the leaf pile who moves through the cypress roots in search of miscreants. Or both.