As I’ve mentioned n a number of previous posts, my young comics-reading self of a half century or more ago had rather conservative tastes. All these years later, that’s my best explanation for why and how I missed out on virtually all the new DC comic book titles that came out in the years 1967 and 1968, in what comics historians Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs would later call “The DC Experiment”. This sudden onrush of new series, most but not all of which launched with try-outs in DC’s Showcase title, roughly coincided with the ascent of former freelance artist Carmine Infantino to an executive role at the publisher. The push was an effort on Infantino’s part to recover market share DC had lost to the ascendancy of upstart rival Marvel on one hand, and the ebbing of “Batmania”-fueled sales on the other, by coming up with something new — preferably, a lot of somethings.
My younger self wasn’t all that interested, though. Yes, I might be dropping Flash and Green Lantern and even Batman as semi-regular purchases, in favor of sampling more and more titles from Marvel — but that didn’t necessarily mean I wanted to try Angel and the Ape, or Anthro, or Bat Lash. Nor was I interested in Bomba the Jungle Boy, Brother Power the Geek, or Secret Six. Nope — I didn’t even give a shot to the two new books that clearly belonged to my comics genre of choice (superheroes, if you didn’t already know) — Steve Ditko’s The Hawk and the Dove and Beware the Creeper.
Actually, that’s not quite right. Assuming you’ve read the header of this post, and know how the blog works, you’re already aware that I did get around to picking up an issue of Beware the Creeper, eventually. But I almost didn’t; and I was only ever able to buy the one, because issue #6 was the last. Sadly, like all the other new titles listed in the paragraph above, the Creeper’s series didn’t make it out of single digits.
But rather than jump prematurely into a postmortem of Beware the Creeper, I’d like to spend a little time here considering why I did finally get around to gambling twelve cents on this series, something I never did for its peers.
The house ad shown at left, heralding the Creeper’s debut in Showcase #73, may have been the first such DC ad ever to use a creator’s name as a selling point: “Steve Ditko Strikes Again!” And it made a lot of sense for the publisher to take such a step. Steve Ditko had spent four of the last six years, 1962 to 1966, drawing as well as plotting (the latter done at first in collaboration with another writer, but later as a purely solo effort) the adventures of the most successful character at DC’s main competitor, Marvel Comics.
But be that as it may, in January, 1968, my then ten-year-old self had no idea who Steve Ditko was.
I’d literally just started reading The Amazing Spider-Man — but at that time, Ditko’s name was nowhere to be found in the pages of his most famous co-creation’s series, except, perhaps for an occasional mention by a fan on the letters page. When he’d left Marvel in 1966, I was reading nothing but DC comics (and the occasional TV-licensed Gold Key book). Ditko was producing work for other companies — Charlton, Tower, Warren — but none of them were on my radar. So neither his name nor his art (when it started turning up in the house ads, as well) were a draw for me; and I passed on both the Creeper and on the Hawk & Dove without deliberating very hard about either of them.
But by the time the next January rolled around, I was familiar with Steve Ditko. As I related in a post last month, in January I’d picked up the latest issue of Doctor Strange expecting to read a new story by Roy Thomas and Gene Colan, and had instead been treated to a reprint of the classic lead story from1965’s Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2, featuring a team-up between Ditko’s two signature characters at Marvel. That story, showcasing Ditko at the height of his artistic powers, made a huge impression on me. I would certainly remember his name — and instantly recognize his unique art style — going forward.
Still, it’s quite possible that I would let Beware the Creeper slip on by me, nevertheless, if not for Justice League of America #70. By this time, I was on a mostly-Marvel comic book diet, but I continued to follow JLA faithfully — because I still loved DC’s marquee heroes, even if most issues of their individual books failed to grab me — and so, when DC decided it was time for their premiere super-team to meet their newest solo superhero (probably at the instigation of writer Denny O’Neil, who was scripting both books), my eleven-year-old self was on hand to met him, too.
“Versus the Creeper!”, produced by O’Neil with artists Dick Dillin and Sid Greene (and featuring a striking if misleading cover by Neal Adams), was a follow-up of sorts to Brave and the Bold #80 — the one other comic book in which I might have encountered the Creeper earlier (and would have, had I possessed the sense to buy all of the Neal Adams-drawn issues of BatB as they came out, instead of just a few). That issue had teamed the Creeper with Batman; and as Batman tells his JLA buddies in JLA #70, although the Creeper is supposed to be an outlaw, he helped the Caped Crusader out on a case, and Bats figures he’s actually a good guy. He convinces the team to investigate the Creeper, and either bring him in if he really is a crook, or clear his name if he’s not. The JLAers set out to do just that; but things get complicated when a young would-be superhero calling himself Mind-Grabber Kid, who’s jealous of the Justice Leaguers’ fame, convinces some visiting friendly extraterrestrials that the League is a group of evil tyrants — and the well-meaning but gullible aliens respond by attacking the heroes. The Creeper comes to the Leaguers’ aid, prolonging the battle long enough for the Kid to realize that things have gotten out of hand, and confess his ruse to the aliens. Only Superman has actually witnessed the new guy’s heroics, but that’s good enough for his comrades, who resolve to give the Creeper a pass:
I didn’t learn everything there was to know about the Creeper from Justice League of America #70, but I got enough info to be at least mildly intrigued by the character. Besides the fact that he was a wanted outlaw in spite of being a crime-fighter, I also learned that he didn’t have that yellow-skinned, green-haired, red-…furred? appearance all the time, but rather used a device invented by somebody named Professor Yatz to turn into an ordinary-type human named Jack Ryder, and vice versa. I was also made wise to the fact that the maniacal-laughter bit I’d seen in ads and on covers was a shtick that the Creeper engaged in to freak out criminals. Sure, that made sense. Anyway, all of it — combined, perhaps, with some curiosity about what this Ditko guy was up to these days — was enough to convince me to pick up the latest issue of his book.
At least, that’s how I think things went. There’s actually a line in JLA #70 that indicates it takes place after BtC #6 (I won’t tell you what it is just yet, so as to avoid any fifty-year old spoilers) — and, indeed, the Justice League issue was indeed released a whole two days before the final issue of the Creeper’s series, according to Library of Congress records. But I’m inclined to believe that I bought and read JLA #70 first; and that it impressed me enough that I then picked up BtC #6 the next time I was at the store. Still, it’s possible that I got them both at the same time, and it was the mere fact of the Creeper’s presence among the Justice Leaguers that convinced me to finally give his title a shot. It could have gone either way, I reckon.
In any event, Beware the Creeper #6 would turn out to be something less than a great jumping-on point, for a number of reasons. The most obvious one in hindsight, though I had no way of knowing it at the time, was that this was the end of the line for the series — if I ended up loving the book, well, too bad, because there wouldn’t be any more. Beyond that, however, there was the matter of the story being the last chapter of a rather complex four-part serial. But the comic’s most serious deficit — another one I probably wasn’t aware of at the time, due to the book having no creator credits (and also due to my not being the most observant young comics reader in the world) was that only the first half of it was drawn by Steve Ditko.
Back in 1954, soon after beginning his professional career in comics, Ditko had contracted a severe case of tuberculosis that almost killed him. He had recovered then, but the disease returned in 1968. It seems likely that he worked for several months in declining health before he had to stop altogether for a while; in the letters column of issue #5, editor Dick Giordano noted that “…Steve has been ailing lately and his assignments have had to be handled by others,” and then went on to identify Mike Peppe as the inker for that issue’s story. Prior to #5, Ditko had handled the complete art — pencils and inks — for every story.
Issue #6, as well as once again having Peppe’s inks over the pencils of both Ditko and the artist who completed the story after he was compelled to halt work — Jack Sparling — also had, for the first time since the feature’s debut in Showcase, a cover done by an artist other than Ditko. The cover, by Gil Kane, is unquestionably excellent — unfortunately, it’s also a rehash of sorts, as the very same scene — the Creeper is bound to an iron grate as water rises around him, while the villain Proteus gloats — was the basis of Ditko’s own cover for issue #5. Of course, this is the cliffhanger scene that ends #5 and opens #6, so there’s no question that it’s a legitimate cover subject for both issues — but I have to believe that editor Giordano was seriously pressed for time to get #6 out on schedule, or else he would surely have made certain Kane chose a different scene from the issue to illustrate.
Of course, I didn’t know any of this in January, 1969, when I turned to the first page and began reading the story…
If Ditko was feeling unwell at the time he pencilled the book’s opening pages, you’d never know if from the work, as he seems to be having a ball with his imaginative layouts.
This opening sequence essentially overlaps with the final panels of the previous issue, as both depict the villain Proteus, a master of disguise, revealing his true face to the Creeper — who recognizes it as that of someone he knows.
Over the next couple of pages, the hero mentally reviews the events of the previous three issues, detailing the villain’s nefarious deeds — which included blowing up a TV studio at the network where Jack Ryder works in security, while disguised as the Creeper. That particular bit of info helped explain to my eleven-year-old self why the Creeper had been a wanted man back in JLA #70, but much of the rest of this background exposition went over my head. It may well go over yours, as well, if you’ve never read these stories before, but don’t worry — just relax and enjoy Ditko’s innovative page design, as seen again below:
By the end of the fourth page, attentive readers would probably have guessed the identity of Proteus (assuming they hadn’t already, before this) — but in the first panel of the next page, Ditko and O’Neil at last overtly reveal the secret that the Creeper has been privy to since the last page of issue #5 — that the villain is actually Jack Ryder’s roommate and supposed buddy, Remington “Rip” Cord.
It’s difficult to know exactly how much input Ditko had into the creation of the villain Proteus, let alone the solution to the mystery of his identity. The character of the Creeper was unquestionably Ditko’s own creation, and the earliest stories were fully plotted by him, with another writer (Don Segall in Showcase #73, Denny O’Neil thereafter) coming in to script the dialogue and captions once the stories were drawn — an early and possibly unique implementation of the “Marvel method” of comics production at DC Comics, reflective of how Ditko had worked with Stan Lee on their Amazing Spider-Man and “Dr. Strange” runs. But things changed over the course of the series, and by issue #4, O’Neil’s official credit read “Plotted and Scripted By”. (Issue #5, like #6, borne no credits at all.) It’s possible that this reallocation of creative labor may have been driven in part by Ditko’s health problems, but it seems probable, based on interviews that both O’Neil and Giordano gave to the magazine Comic Book Artist in later years, that tension between the artist and the writer had a lot to do with it, as well; said tension apparently deriving from their differing political philosophies, and how they were inclined to express them in their storytelling.
In any case, regardless of who conceived and developed the character of Proteus, it’s pretty obvious when you read the whole storyline through (as I’d do years later) that he’ll turn out to be Rip Cord, since that character serves little other narrative function.
For anyone familiar with Ditko’s oeuvre, the trap that Jack Ryder finds himself in here will almost certainly remind them of Peter Parker’s predicament in Amazing Spider-Man #32 and #33 (1966), where the wall-crawler is pinned under heavy machinery in a flooding underwater chamber. Perhaps inevitably, this later scene suffers in comparison with the earlier, classic sequence — one of the high points of Ditko’s career — for a variety of reasons. The most important is probably that the stakes aren’t quite as high, or at least not as personal; Spidey, after all, is racing against time to save the life of his beloved Aunt May, as well as himself. Another factor is the art; Mike Peppe’s inks just don’t give the falling, splashing water the volume and solidity it seems to have in Ditko’s full art for the AS-M issues (and, for that matter, his own cover for Beware the Creeper #5).
Yet another factor making the Creeper’s escape from a watery deathtrap less memorable than Spider-Man’s is that, frankly, it’s kind of hard to tell exactly what’s happening. On page 5, the Creeper thinks that the heavy grate is “dragging me down” — so why doesn’t he topple all the way over? Then, on page 6, he tells us that he’s “got to move the grate — catch the bar on the corner.” Um, what corner is that? Meanwhile, Ditko’s illustrations just focus on the hero’s efforts to bend the bar:
“Governor Harley Ellison”? I think that O’Neil must have been giving a tip o’ the hat to famed science fiction writer (and avid comics fan) Harlan Ellison with that bit of minor character naming.
I have no doubt that all of you readers have figured out exactly what Jack has — that the Gov. Ellison speaking now on TV is actually Proteus — Rip Cord having pulled the ol’ switcheroo between the fifth and sixth panels of page 7.
Incidentally, the tart-tongued young woman in the leopard-print ensemble is one Vera Sweet — a weatherperson and sometime reporter for the TV network where Jack Ryder works, and a constant pain in his ass…
…while the guy with the Norman Osborn hairstyle is Jack’s boss at network security, Bill Brane.
Jack Ryder’s transformation to the Creeper in the last panel of page 11 marks the transition to a new artist — beginning with the next page, the remainder of the story is pencilled by Jack Sparling. (Ditko wouldn’t draw the Creeper for DC again until 1975.)
Sparling draws in a markedly different style from Ditko’s — you can see examples of his full art (pencils and inks) in last week’s post — but Peppe’s inks help make the transition less jarring than it might otherwise be. Still, it quickly becomes evident that Sparling doesn’t share Ditko’s interest in innovative page layout; with a few exceptions (most of which appear on the next page), his panel borders keep to a standard, rectangular shape.
This brief sequence, in which the Creeper fights with Proteus’ henchmen, is the only instance within the story where we see the hero using his signature criminal-unnerving laughter and highfalutin’ “demonic” patter.
Once he’s polished off these thugs, the Creeper instructs Vera Sweet to call the police, and then takes off up the mountainside after Proteus/Cord, who’s planning to blow up the dam with a barrel of nitroglycerine:
The Creeper manages to keep Proteus talking long enough to get close to him, and then…
The Creeper deflects Proteus’ mad charge, sending both the villain and the drum of nitro sailing over the side of the dam:
It seems like a really lucky break that the drum went so cleanly into the water without striking the dam, doesn’t it? Oh, well.
Yes, Remington “Rip” Cord, aka Proteus, is dead — dead as dead can be. (Which somehow won’t stop him from turning up with no explanation six years later, in Super-Team Family #2 — apparently none the worse for wear, and ready to take on both the Creeper and another superhero, Wildcat — in a story written by Denny O’Neil, of all people. Comics, y’all.) And that’s how our story ends — along with the Beware the Creeper series, and — following his full recovery from tuberculosis — Steve Ditko’s first stint working for DC Comics.
When Creeper got the axe in early 1969, Ditko had already been off his other DC series, The Hawk and the Dove for about half a year, having left right after the second issue. (The title would continue on for another four issues, with Gil Kane as artist — and eventually, writer — before it too met cancellation.) The reason appears to have been creative tensions along the same line as those between Ditko and O’Neil, though in this case they were between Ditko and Hawk and the Dove writer Steve Skeates; these disagreements were probably more serious than those associated with Beware the Creeper, as Hawk and the Dove was inherently a more political series. Following this disappointing experience, Ditko left DC Comics completely — though he’d return in 1975, to once again draw Creeper, and also to introduce new features like Shade, the Changing Man, and my own personal favorite among the artist’s non-Marvel series, Stalker.
During his late-Sixties sojourn at DC, Steve Ditko produced only nine comic books (or, if you want to get technical regarding Beware the Creeper #6, eight and a half) — but the impact of his brief time at the publisher was considerably greater than that number suggests. I’m not speaking here so much of the lasting significance of his character creations, the Creeper and the Hawk & Dove — although those characters have proved very durable, reliably coming back (though sometimes in drastically different versions) following every Crisis or Rebirth. Rather, I mean the indirect influence of one simple act of Steve Ditko’s that didn’t actually involve the drawing or plotting of a comic book — the act of getting in touch with a friend and professional colleague to let him know about an opportunity.
Ditko had forged a good working relationship at Charlton Comics with his editor there, Dick Giordano, and remained friendly with him after he’d left for DC. When Ditko learned that DC was looking for new editors — especially, editors who also had experience as artists — and were interested in talking to Giordano, Ditko took the initiative in contacting him. And when Giordano did in fact jump ship just a short time after, he brought several of his most talented freelancers at Charlton with him, including writers O’Neil and Skeates, artist Jim Aparo, and others. Together, these talents would have an outsize impact on the reshaping of DC’s aesthetic for the next decade and beyond — not just in the short-lived titles of the “DC Experiment”, but throughout the entire line.
And it might not have ever happened, without Steve Ditko.