Wednesday, December 29, 2010
As part of my ongoing effort to figure out Steve Ditko's Creeper character, who remains elusive to me despite years of exposure, I decided to compile a slightly different top cover list. I want to keep this one strictly top 10, which due to the many divergent takes on the character, makes this probably my least inclusive countdown to date.
The Creeper was one of the many quirky characters created by Ditko who were vaguely reminiscent of Spider-Man, but without capturing even a fraction of the Amazing Arachnid's audience. I suspect this was for the same reason Jack Kirby never seemed to bottle lightning on his own... the need for a balancing collaborator. Stan Lee was the perfect writer for both men as evidenced by the birth of the Marvel Universe between the three. Joe Gill was nowhere near Lee's equal, but he worked well with Ditko on their early Charlton collaborations. At DC, Ditko was saddled with ideologically opposite scripters like Steve Skeates and, on Beware the Creeper, Denny O'Neil. This likely prompted Ditko to begin scripting his own work, which often seemed nothing but objectivist sermons. I suspect the Creeper got caught in the middle of two very different mindsets, but it was O'Neil who carried on with the character at various points for about a decade.
Shortly after his series' cancellation, the Creeper was played in a pseudo-adversarial fashion against the Batman and other heroes, which sums up most of his '70s appearances. I feel this proposition had a lot of potential, in the same way pairing off Daredevil and the Punisher did in the 1980s. Both may be vigilantes fighting a lonely war against crime, but there is a conflict in methods that would naturally cause the characters to butt heads. Also, making the Creeper a quasi-villain retains his essential queer menace, where playing up his clownishness, well...
The Creeper was linked to the Joker through a guest spot in the Clown Prince of Crime's solo series. While probably seen as a natural then, I think it hamstrung the Creeper as being the "good Joker," an untenable contradiction. If the Creeper is truly mad, he's a danger to everyone around him, which is what makes the Joker so sexy. If the Creeper isn't as dangerous as the Joker, and he cannot be as even an anti-hero, then he's just another disturbed super-hero plagued with duality, a dime a dozen in this industry.
If anyone could faithfully retain the essentially weirdness of Steve Ditko's Creeper, it was Keith Giffen, who teased the proposition throughout the '80s and '90s. Unfortunately, Giffen was on of the chief proponents of the "Creeper really is crazy" revision of the character, which could have worked if anyone had bothered to give him at least a mini-series to work with. Instead, the Creeper's primary role during these years was as one of a team of scrubs tasked with battling Eclipso in his two series from that period.
Beginning around the same time as the '90s Creeper series, the character once again played aggravating foil to the Batman in a series of animated style appearances playing the character as a goofy anti-heroic off-brand Freakazoid/Joker. Given my druthers, I'd take Ambush Bug in that sort of role, and I think it does the Creeper a disservice to turn him into an awkward comedic foil, not to mention a dayglo eyesore.
10) Beware the Creeper #2 (July, 2003)
A short lived female Creeper turned up at Vertigo in the early '00s. It wasn't a bad series, and each issue had an eye-catching cover by Cliff Chang. However, the artist was still developing his talent, and the writing bypassed Creepy for bohemian, which didn't quite work. I do like that this Creeper is almost asexual, almost completely covered in a thick, misshapen material.
9) The Creeper #3 (December, 2006)
Justiano was a rather good choice to handle the Creeper, as he brought I vibrancy long missing from the character. From the gummy death's head grin to that untamed mane, not to mention the ridiculous level of furious detail, that's a Creeper alright.
8) Beware the Creeper #5 (February, 1969)
Something I've never seen anyone address is the sexuality of the Creeper's appearance. I think the yellow is supposed to be part of a costume, but as depicted, the Creeper is a nearly nude jaundiced dude. Does that do anything for the ladies (or a supposed 10% of the gents?) Perhaps one thing the Creeper should have taken from the Joker playbook was his ambiguous sensuality, at least based on this curiously homoerotic cover. Peep the identity challenged Proteus preparing to reveal himself to his frienemy, tied up and dripping wet in an underground dungeon.
7) The Creeper #4 (March, 1998)
Part of what's cool about this cover is that it's actually somewhat creepy, which one would think a Creeper should be. Another is that there's a sense of melancholy to the madness, which does a better job of evoking mental illness than a cackling buffoon. Mostly though, I like that it features Jack Ryder as a grim protagonist inextricably linked to "The Macabre Manhunter" without it necessarily relating to the nuttiness Ditko would have probably loathed from later interpretations of his character.
6) Justice League of America #70 (March, 1969)
I find this one of the most interesting covers from a writer's perspective. Ditko clearly intended the Creeper to be a sane man unsettling his foes with a madman persona, in the vein of the Shadow or the Spider. However, creators since at least the '80s have made the Creeper a legitimate basket case, involving psychosis-inducing drugs and multiple personality disorder to explain "The Leaping Looney." Most recent, creators have even gone the supernatural route, having the Creeper persona turn up as an actual demon from hell possessing Jack Ryder. Going back to the early days and seeing the Creeper as a literal puppetmaster with the mental facilities to manipulate the JLA seems a far more intriguing concept than the tired old Jekyll and Hyde routine.
5) The Creeper #1 (October, 2006)
I usually find this type of watercolor in comics pretentious (hello David Mack,) but it works here by externalizing the Creeper's madness in this incarnation (as it could be argued the original conception was nothing but external, performance "madness.")
4) Beware the Creeper #2 (August, 1968)
This paranoid piece does a great job of showing that the threat of Proteus, the Creeper's shape-shifting archnemesis, could come from anywhere.
3) Beware the Creeper #6 (April, 1969)
If you want to try to one-up Steve Ditko on his own series, Gil Kane would be on the short list of names to call. Caught in an inescapable death trap and preparing to die, the Creeper's grin is gone, which more than anything establishes the dire fate he faces.
2) Beware the Creeper #3 (October, 1968)
An exciting work as only Ditko could deliver, showcasing "The Giggling Ghoul" leaping at some sort of ritualistic cult.
1) Showcase #73 (April, 1968)
An easy choice, as this is the Creeper's debut appearance, and the single most famous image of the character. It also firmly establishes him as a weirdly maniacal nighttime avenger caught between the law and the underworld. Nobody is going to light a signal to call on this guy.