Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Creeper by Steve Ditko (2010 Hardcover) review:

 Collecting: Showcase #73, Beware the Creeper #1-6, First Issue Special #1, World’s Finest Comics #249-255, Cancelled Comics Cavalcade #2.
 *Major Spoilers in this review*
  Oh, where do I even begin with this one?
 Let’s start with a funny story.
 Once upon a time, there was this magazine called The Comics Journal. The Comics Journal’s editors (and fans) would pretend that they cared about creator’s rights and self-expression, and would rattle on about how they would welcome with open arms a personal project from an acclaimed artist. You know, like a political tract, from someone like say, Steve Ditko. Well, you could tell that these editors were full of shit, because whenever they would discuss Steve Ditko’s solo/personal work (Much of which was political in tone) they would hate it!
"If it's not the Hernandez Brothers, Kirby, Ditko, or Beck, we don't give a shit"

Oh, they’d pretend to be on Ditko’s side as much as possible, but only if it afforded them an opportunity to bash Stan Lee. If Stan Lee forgot whose henchmen Spider-Man was fighting in an issue with two villains, they would yuck it up for issues and issues to come about how that philistine Lee could never comprehend Ditko’s genius. If Lee altered a dialogue balloon where Peter Parker told off some hippies? They would bring it up endlessly in their essays (With mock outrage) as an example of how Lee had been curbing Ditko’s artistic expression. However, when they got ahold of Ditko’s Ayn Rand-influenced material like Mr. A and The Avenging World they would summarily dismiss it as “ramblings” or “right-wing wish fulfillment”. Never mind that such work really WAS uncurbed self-expression on Ditko’s part, they wanted nothing to do with it. I guess it’s hard to look like liberal champions of creator’s rights when one of the chief guys you’re pushing is a Rand-worshipping right-wing extremist.
 But then (This is where the funny part begins, boy and girls), your average comics fans started getting hold of Ditko’s solo work, and decided, just the same way the TCJ had done, (And in terms far less vitriolic than the ones TCJ had used) that they didn’t care for it much either. Suddenly, the folks at TCJ began pretending that they loved (Or at least, grudgingly respected, which they didn’t either) Ditko’s Randian work, and how dare any of you mainstream superhero comics reading little bastards not respect his personal beliefs and desire to move on from banal superheroes bla bla bla.
 The great irony about all of this was that Steve Ditko never really gave up on mainstream comics or superheroes. Sure he quit Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, and sure most of his work after that never really took off, but the dude never forgot that he had to eat, and Ditko continued to get steady work, mostly on horror comics, well into the 80s. His post-Marvel work also showed that he was far from done with superheroes. He “revamped” his old Charlton hero Captain Atom, and at the same company revamped the Blue Beetle and created The Question (Who was sort of a prototype Mr. A). It was also clear that he was far from done with Spider-Man (Or Doctor Strange for that matter). In his Question and Captain Atom work, he introduced two villains named The Banshee and The Ghost whose basic costume designs may remind you of a certain web slinger, particularly when he had “web-wings” under his arms:
Not bitter.

 But regardless of costumes, he would also return to his Spider-Man formula for a different hero series. This was DC’s series Beware The Creeper, whose protagonist, Jack Ryder, was also a misunderstood, widely-disliked wisecracker with no friends, was lusted after by women he disliked, worked an ill-defined job at the news, was wanted by the police, crawled on walls, whose penultimate story climaxed with him lifting a heavy weight off of himself while trapped in a flooding environment, and whose big goal was to unmask a recurring villain who hid his identity.
 While most readers today may think of The Creeper as simply being a heroic answer to the Joker, it’s pretty obvious Ditko was trying to recapture the magic of Spider-Man with this series. The key difference was that it was being done the way Ditko felt it should have been done. Remember how hostile everyone in Spider-Man’s supporting cast was during the Ditko years? So too was The Creeper’s supporting cast, except they didn’t become nicer, whereas Spidey’s eventually did. This fits with Ditko’s Randian outlook of “one man against the world”. The Creeper wasn’t motivated to fight crime because of guilt (Something Ayn Rand would have disapproved of), but just because it made his job as Jack Ryder easier. The conservative Ditko kept the Creeper a hunted outcast like Spider-Man, but depicted the people who pronounced him a public menace as liberals instead of conservatives like J. Jonah Jameson.
 So was it any good? Well, although I wouldn’t call it “great”, I’m not afraid of saying that I find it to be Ditko’s best post-Marvel work, as well as distinctly modern in some regards.
 It began in Showcase #73. Jack Ryder was a TV reporter who got fired for upsetting an ultra-pacifist named Dr. Wetley (Wetley is such a pacifist he believes the police shouldn’t be allowed to arm themselves) who was a friend of the show’s sponsor. Ryder was instantaneously given a new job by the head of studio security, Bill Brane, as a “network security agent”, a job which I’m just going to quote Gina Misiroglu’s book The Superhero Book as being “a sort of cross between an FBI operative and a TV reporter that probably only existed in the mind of Steve Ditko”.
 For his first assignment, Ryder was supposed to save a defecting scientist named Dr. Yatz from mobsters who had allied themselves with the soviets. To do this, Jack crashed a costume party held by one of the mob’s inside men (Wetley also attended) to see if he could find any clues. To do this he wore a ridiculous outfit made up of inventory from a costume supply store:
 Well, I’ll say this; it certainly looks like it was thrown together from odds and ends.
 Anyway, our hero was able to find Dr. Yatz, but got stabbed in the process. Yatz had created a machine which could switch a person’s clothing by making it invisible and intangible, and he hid the activator inside Jack’s open wound (Altogether now: *EWWW*), then injected Jack with a convenient super-soldier serum (Why Yatz had never used it on himself is beyond me) which healed the wound and gave him superhuman strength and agility. Jack soon found he could switch from his civilian garb to his costume. He failed to save Yatz, but the Creeper (‘Why do they call him that?” “Why else? He creeps”) became established overnight, wanted by the mob for thwarting their schemes, and also wanted by the police after Wetley complained to them about how such an oddly dressed man shouldn’t be allowed to roam the streets.
It's because he's yellow, isn't it Wetley?

 As origins go, it wasn’t bad, just lacking in the kind of high imagination one would expect from Ditko, and ripe with such dialogical gems as “Maybe a broken nose will stop you from being so nosey”. The biggest innovation mainly was finding a way for the hero to switch back and forth from his costume without having to change clothes in an alleyway. However, what really made an impression on readers was the Creeper’s bizarre appearance and how he would taunt criminals by pretending to be some sort of monster.
 Ryder’s attitude was also quite different from the typical heroes of the time, he wasn’t stoic, nor was he neurotic; he was a sarcastic, somewhat rude guy who got his powers accidentally and saw them as a way to make his job easier. In a way, he was something of a precursor to the various self-aware anti-heroes of the 80’s and 90’s like Wally West or Jack Knight (I’ve also always wondered if he was an inspiration for Carl Kolchak from the TV series The Night Stalker). There was no question that he would do right instead of wrong and fully believed in what he was doing; he just didn’t feel he had to take himself too seriously while doing it. I’ve gotta confess I like that approach; it gave him a personality without necessarily making him an anti-hero or a comedic hero.
 Although it probably would have been wiser to test the waters by giving The Creeper some more Showcase try-outs, DC was convinced they had the “Smash hit of ’68!” on their hands, so The Creeper was instantly given his own comic. After a moody but unremarkable first issue (Featuring a villain who also faintly resembled Spider-Man), the series really hit its stride with the second issue, which introduced an identity changing villain named Proteus who wore a featureless white mask. The big goal of the Creeper’s from then on was to discover who Proteus really was. Suddenly, the series, which seemed as if it was going to be getting by on Ditko’s art and the hero’s odd appearance, had a direction. The whole mystery of who Proteus was may have been copied from the mystery over the Green Goblin’s identity from Spider-Man, but at least here it had some interesting thematic qualities (Which I’ll be getting to).
 Plot aside, much of the fun came from watching the devil-may-care, slacker hero run around pretending to be some sort of sinister avenging demon (In contrast to how the sullen Peter Parker becomes the wisecracking Spider-Man):

 A lot of the humor also came from Jack Ryder’s interactions with Vera Sweet, a character who would have been a love interest in any other series. Vera was a glamorous and wealthy weather girl (Hey, I didn’t write this), who was in love with Jack while he wanted nothing to do with her. To some extent this may have been inspired by the relationship Vic Sage had with his boss’s daughter Celia over in The Question, or Peter Parker’s relationship with Gwen Stacy (Before she became Peter’s main love interest, Gwen was originally characterized as a spiteful harpy who lusted over an unwilling Peter), but here it was played for comedy, and Ditko refreshingly tried to avoid clichés like having Jack fall in love with Vera. Vera was an annoyance, and an annoyance she remained.
 You gotta like it when comics don’t try and turn animosity into affection, and you gotta like it even more when it results in scenes like this:
 Maybe it’s a little misogynistic, but to heck with it, I laughed.
 Besides, the character who The Creeper had the most sexual tension with was Proteus. Fittingly enough, Creeper and Proteus’s first big battle ended with Proteus in drag as Vera:
 Such scenes of identity confusion and Top Gun-style subtext continued for the rest of the series. The final battle between the two had them wrestling over a big, phallic barrel filled with nitroglycerin.
 After several blatantly obvious red herrings (As well as scenes which casted suspicion on characters that couldn’t possibly have been connected), Proteus was finally revealed to be Remington P. Cord, Jack’s roommate. Cord had previously been treated as something of a sidekick to Jack Ryder, with several moments suggesting that, if he had been given more panel-time, eould probably have been comedy relief. A comic relief character turning out to be a villain? That could have been interesting if it had been developed more.
 Granted it wasn’t too hard to figure out since there were really no other compelling suspects, but at least Cord had been introduced in a non-Proteus related story.
 Still what sticks in the mind was Cord’s motivation, or to be more precise, his lack of motivation:
 Just what kind of love and understanding was he looking for? And how was Jack supposed to fill that void? It doesn’t make any….

 The possibility of reading a homoerotic subtext into Cord’s motivations may very well be why Ditko’s original Creeper run isn’t discussed as much his other work, especially since it’s not that implausible when you consider Ayn Rand’s own infamous opinions on homosexuals, which Ditko almost certainly was aware of.
 Of course, I could be reading too much into this; sometimes vaguely defined villain motives are just vaguely defined villain motives. Also, while Ditko certainly played a big part in writing these stories (The wonky panel layouts certainly give off the impression of having been created on the fly, and not from following a script), the plots and dialogue are credited to Denny O’ Neil, so it’s hard to figure out how much input he had on Proteus’s motivations. It’s also worth pointing out that Ditko only did layouts on the last issue (Where Proteus’s origins were revealed), and most of the actual penciling was done by Jack Sparling (Whose work here looks a lot like a young Mike Allard’s). O’ Neil would later establish himself as something of a progressive with his Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories, so I doubt he’d create a gay villain, even if we are supposed to feel some degree of pity for said villain:
 Despite the outré appearance of the hero (Which could be both frightening and utterly ridiculous depending on how he was drawn) and his vaguely defined career and powers, and the potentially offensive motivations that the villain was given, Beware the Creeper was an intriguing, moody series with a feel all its own. For only six issues, it generated lots of potentially interesting ideas, boasted quirky art and humor, and featured some very dark undertones. Pretty much every issue had someone get killed off, and Ditko piled on the atmosphere with Eisner-esque storm scenes, it certainly felt more "mature" than most other DC offerings. Despite the obvious Spider-Man similarities, I’d say that DC had something unique on their hands, and it should have been developed more. I also consider it Ditko’s best post-Marvel mainstream work along with the sword & sorcery comic Stalker.
 Ultimately however, perhaps it’s a good thing that Beware was cancelled so quickly, as no one has quite figured out what to do with The Creeper since then. Too many writers forget that Jack Ryder was a funny, wacky guy, and that when he was the Creeper, he acted like a scary monster toying with his victims. Plus, his Creeper persona was all an act. Nowadays, most writers make Ryder a straight-laced type, while The Creeper is either depicted as a zany nut-job or a murderous ghoul only a few steps away from The Joker. Plus, he’s often portrayed as a separate personality from Ryder. I don’t even want to get into the retellings of his origin.
 Even Ditko himself couldn’t figure out what to do with The Creeper, as the rest of this volume bears out. A story from the anthology series First Issue Special that featured Creeper battling fourth-rate Batman villain Firefly is amusing (And is notable for making Ryder a reporter again), but after that, the various Creeper back-up stories that appeared in World’s Finest Comics were hit and miss at best. These brief stories were an unwieldy combination of superheroics and office sitcom humor. Ditko’s art was usually the best thing about these stories, and even it wasn’t too good this time around. Also, good god, this has to be some of the tiniest lettering I’ve ever seen. It’s readable, but it still gave me a headache.
 That said, there was some entertainment value to be gleaned from the villains, who collectively made up one of the single silliest rogues galleries I’ve ever seen:
- Angel Devlin:
 He appeared in the very first Creeper story from Showcase #73. and returned for the World's Finest stories. Yeah it’s nice to see Creeper taking on an old foe, but really, he’s just a thug in a Halloween mask.
- The Disruptor:
 He disrupts things. Let’s move on.
- The Monster:
 A guy trying to seek revenge on his horror-hostess ex-girlfriend. Seriously, this is the best design that Ditko, master of bizarre villains, could come up with?
- Mr. Wrinkles:
 An old man who turns into a little kid and drains people of their youth. All while smiling unnervingly and dressing in short-shorts and a bow tie. Not bad, but a bit too creepy.
- Dagger Lady:
 She looks like a bigger danger to herself than anyone else. Give her a better costume, something reminiscent of say, Taryn’s dream self from Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, or make her a female version of Batman villain Zsasz, and she could have potential.
- Dr. Storme:
Behold: The threat of....accurate forecasts! MUHAHAHA

 An embittered weatherman who was given false instructions by a rival (Weather forecasting is serious business in the Creeper’s world). He then created a rod which allowed him to control the weather. Not bad, even if he brings Flash’s Weather Wizard to mind. Problem is? His name is Al Wetley (Possible relative of Dr. Wetley from the first Creeper story?). Get it? “All wet”. HAHAHA. No soup for you.
 Unfortunate implications aside, and despite being a Chameleon/Green Goblin rip-off, Proteus still whoops these guys.
 As for the collection itself, it features some pretty nice coloring and art reproduction, although the colorist sometimes goofs and confuses Creeper’s hair with his red boa/cape thing. The Dr. Storme story also gives you the rare opportunity to see Ditko’s art in black and white. There’s a pretty funny goof too in the credits section; writer Sergius O’ Shaugnessy is credited as a real person, when in fact, “O’ Shaugnessy” was an alias used by Denny O’ Neil!
 While it certainly isn’t for all comics readers (And definitely isn’t for non-comics readers), these Creeper stories are still eccentric enough that they should satisfy your curiosity if you’ve never read them, or just have a fondness for bizarre heroes. It’s also a must for any Ditko fan, the 60’s stories especially. I give it 3.5 stars out of 5. Recommended to those who love weird comics.

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