Monday, 31 October 2016

Some DC Comics of the 1960s I did like

BY THE BEGINNING OF 1968, I was a confirmed Marvelite. I devoured every word Stan Lee wrote and had only contempt for the offerings of DC Comics, especially given the bad taste the Batman TV show had left. But as I approached my fourteenth birthday, some NEW comics appeared in the newsagents that caught my attention. And incredibly, they were DCs.

As noted in an earlier blog entry, I had been a big fan of Steve Ditko's version of Spider-Man and had been hugely disappointed when he left the title and Marvel. At the time, I wasn't aware of his work at Charlton Comics on Captain Atom, though I do remember seeing reprints of some of those stories in Alan Class' British black and white reprint comics. So when I came across a copy of Showcase 73 (Apr 1968) in a local newsagent, with the instantly recognisable Ditko cover, I plonked down my shilling without a moment's hesitation.

The first appearance of The Creeper in Showcase 73 (Apr 1968) marked the return of Steve Ditko to big company comics. But as good as the comic was, it just wasn't Spider-Man.
Once I got the comic home and started to look through it, I could see that though this was definitely Steve Ditko artwork and that the character had the same kind of kinetic dynamism that Spider-Man had had on Ditko's watch ... there wasn't anything bad about the comic but it wasn't quite as good as Spider-Man had been. At the time, I had no idea why that was. As a thirteen year old, I didn't analyse any further than whether I liked something or not, and although I kinda liked The Creeper, it wasn't exactly firing on all cylinders. But any Ditko's better than no Ditko, right?

What I hadn't known at the time was that Amazing Spider-Man had been drawn twice-up ... the original artwork was literally twice the size of the printed page, so the original art boards measured about 12" x 18". That changed in 1967 ... DC's Murphy Anderson began working at a smaller sizer - 10" x 15" because he preferred it, and the company's production department realised that they could get four comics pages to a single sheet of film, instead of the two they had been mounting. And because that saved everyone money, 10 x 15 became the new standard. Many of the old school artists - Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby and Ross Andru - struggled to come to terms with the new size, and much of their art of the period shows a discernible downturn in quality.

Many artists of the era, who had been used to the large-size 18 x 12 art boards, struggled to adapt to the new smaller size, and this shows in the greater abundance of large panels in the work of artists who had packed their earlier work with more, and more detailed, panels.
So Ditko wasn't just knocking out his Creeper artwork, it was only that he didn't have enough room to create the kind of detail and sweep he'd been getting into his Spider-Man stories.

Though the story carried no credits - DC weren't quite ready to go there yet - there was a text page headed, "Meet the Men Behind the Creeper" towards the tail-end of the book. In it, just four short paragraphs - about quarter of the page - were devoted to Steve Ditko. And his only quote was, "I never talk about myself. My Work is me. I do my best, and if I like it, I hope somebody else likes it, too."

Ditko's collaborator here was identified as Don Segall, "who wrote the dialogue for The Creeper." So, as with Spider-Man and his Charlton work, Ditko essentially plotted the stories he was drawing, and probably created the character solo. The late Don Segall, who also had some modest success as a script-writer of tv shows during the 1970s, was not the creative force that Stan Lee was and so while the dialogue for The Creeper was serviceable, it didn't jump off the page the way it did in the Marvel Comics of the same period.

It's established here that Prof Yatz' device renders Ryder's Creeper costume invisible, but later in the story, when he switches to Ryder, he appears in his street clothes.
The plot does bear some Ditko fingerprints. When tv host Jack Ryder attacks a liberal anti-violence crusader on air, he's fired, but almost immediately hired by the station's head of security Bill Brane. Assigned to track down some commies who are planning to kidnap government scientist Prof Yatz, Ryder follows a lead and tries to crash a costume party. He buys a box of odd and ends from a nearby fancy dress shop and puts together a car-crash of a costume, with a red furry cape and a green wig. The silhouette isn't a million miles away from Spider-Man villain, Kraven the Hunter. But while snooping around at the party, Ryder is spotted by the bad guys and is stabbed in the ensuing scuffle. This is actually pretty radical for a 1960s comic, though it didn't occur to me at the time. It's surprising that this got past the Comics Code, even though the stabbing in only mentioned in the dialogue rather than being explicitly portrayed in the illustrations.

Ryder discovers Yatz' hiding place and tries to get the Professor away. But with his strength failing because of his wounds, Ryder's in no position to help anyone. Yatz is able to inject Ryder with his "Instant Healing Serum", and conceal his miniature camouflage device into Ryder's open wound. It's this device that will allow Ryder to switch instantaneously from his Creeper identity to his civilian one.However, as Yatz tries to burn his notes, the bad guys start shooting again and the Professor takes a bullet. Ryder just has time to fight his way through a gaggle of bad guys and escape into the night. But rather than heading for safety, Ryder snoops around some more until he stumbles across the bad guys, who've holed up in a nearby garage. The finale is an epic eight-page fight scene in which Ryder beats the tar out of the gang and eludes the police in his civilian identity.

There are similarities between Spider-Man and The Creeper - both are wanted by the police, both swing around the city rooftops, both win fist-fights against impossible odds and both wisecrack while they fight. No doubt, DC thought they were getting their own version of Marvel's wall-crawler, but Ditko has never been one to simply re-hash old ideas and the character took a bit of a left turn when he was awarded his own title just two months later.

Steve Ditko included some more details about The Creeper's abilities in the first issue of his own magazine - the Professor's serum gave him, "the agility of a cat, the stamina of an elephant and bullet-quick reflexes". And a weird side-effect of the camouflage device was that it made the Creeper costume appear to be part of Ryder.
There was no way DC's accountants could have know what the sales were on Showcase 73 before the decision was taken to put The Creeper his own book. Beware The Creeper 1 (May-Jun 1968) was still plotted by Ditko, but this time, the dialogue was provided by Dennis O'Neil, a young writer who had also come over from Charlton Comics. Credited to "Sergius O'Shaugnessy", O'Neil's dialogue has more than a passing resemblance to the tone of the Marvel Comics of the same era, and the villain of the piece strongly resembles the Spider-Man villain, The Looter, but however hard he tried, O'Neill's dialogue just doesn't have the heart that Stan's does. The Creeper's civilian identity comes across more as a hard-boiled private eye, and in the scenes of Jack Ryder's daily life, the dialogue is simple and declarative, moving the plot forward, never dwelling on the characters' feelings the way similar scenes are portrayed in the Spider-Man comics of the Ditko period. It seems as though after the Marvel experience, Ditko was more interested in the action, devoting 11 of the issue's 23 pages to knock-down, drag-out fighting, all of which seem more kinetic, more chaotic, than the fight scenes in Spider-Man.

This an interesting idea that was never fully realised ... because, unlike Ditko's regimented nine-panel grids in his Spider-Man tales, the Creeper pages are more varied, occasionally with diagonal panel borders, so I wondered if this wasn't intended to be a reflection of The Creeper's state of mind. The maniacal laugh - lifted, some might say from Batman's Joker - hints of ominous side-effects of Prof Yatz's untested serum. I wonder where Ditko would have taken the character if it had lasted more than just the seven stories ...

Still, as the series unfolded, Ditko would continue fleshing out the supporting cast, adding pain-in-the-butt TV station weather girl Vera Sweet - who'd always require rescuing - and further new characters with each issue of the ongoing series.

In his first appearance, the villain Proteus silences a former ally who seems set to betray him, right in front of The Creeper. This would set up a battle that would continue for the rest of the comic's run.
But it was with Beware The Creeper 2 (Jul-Aug 1968) that the concept really began to take shape. For this issue introduced the dough-faced Proteus ... a villain with no face of his own, who could look like anyone. Over this and the next four issues, The Creeper would pursue Proteus in all his guises without ever really understanding what the fight was about.

The cover's a real classic, with its kaleidoscope of eyes swirling around The Creeper, though the interior art is a little more subdued, with fewer fight pages. That kind of works, because Proteus is more a villain of the mind than of the fist. During the course of the story, Proteus impersonates The Creeper, Bill Brane and in one memorable scene, Vera, armed with a flame-thrower! That fights ends with Jack's apartment block burning to ground and apparently killing Proteus in the process ... but we readers knew better.

I'm really not sure what the thinking was behind this page ... DC Comics promotional piece? An homage to the roundly detested (by me)  Batman tv show? A calamitous attempt by Ditko at humour? We'll probably never know. And since when was DC Comics a purveyor of "Pop Action"? Even more wrong-headed than Stan's ill-fated 1965 renaming of Marvel comics as "Pop Art Productions".
This issue also contained one of the oddest pages I've ever seen Ditko draw. Whether is was Ditko's idea, or whether it was an editorial edict is lost in the mists of time, but it looked more like a DC House ad than a story page, and may well have been intended for exactly that purpose.

This issue of Beware The Creeper must surely offer Steve Ditko's most dynamic and action-packed artwork ever. The battles with the strange costumed criminals are dizzying in their breathlessness.
There was a bit less Proteus in Beware The Creeper 3 (Oct-Nov 1968), which results in much more fist action - 12 pages of it in this issue. As The Creeper, Jack Ryder shakes down some thugs known to work for Proteus, trying to get information on Proteus' true identity. He trails Vera Sweet - who's mysteriously become a serious investigative reporter - to a remote island where a gang of wildly costumed goons are terrorising the locals. It turns out that the island is a haven for criminals, hiding out from the law, including the very thugs The Creeper was interrogating at the beginning of the comic. Needless to say, The Creeper is drawn into several running battles with the thugs, but severely trounces them all.

Beware The Creeper 4 was marginally more sedate than the previous issue. This time out The Creeper is back battling his bete noir, Proteus, which results in a more cerebral, less punchy story.
With issue 4 of The Creeper (Dec 1968 - Jan 1969), we were back in the fight with Proteus. As might be expected from a villain who seldom takes a direct approach, there is significantly less fisticuffs this time round. Proteus is mainly operating via a network of stooges, a bit like Spider-Man's Crime Master character, so The Creeper is frustrated in not being able to engage directly with his foe. In three separate sequences, The Creeper faces off against a fake swami and his henchmen, a motorcycle punk and his gang and finally against the mute bodyguard of shady diplomat Bulldog Bird, Sumo, who is critically injured in the encounter - but not before the man-mountain reveals that both he and Proteus know that Jack Ryder is The Creeper.

The artwork on the last few pages of the issue look rushed, as though Ditko was struggling with the deadlines - but by this point he was also pencilling and inking The Creeper's sister series The Hawk and the Dove (about which more later).

Beware The Creeper 5 ended with Proteus revealing his true face to The Creeper - though not to us readers. We'd have to wait until the next issue to find out what Jack Ryder already knew.
Beware the Creeper 5 (Feb-Mar 1969) had Jack Ryder finally come face-to-face with Proteus. But bucking the established trend, Ditko this time piled on the action, devoting 10 pages to The Creeper's battles first with the mysterious Bulldog Bird, then with Proteus himself, ending with the cliffhanging defeat of The Creeper by the issue's end, as depicted on the issue's cover.

But for the first time, the cracks are becoming apparent. Editor Dick Giordano mentions on this issue's letter's page that Steve Ditko is "ailing of late" and that former Dell inker Mike Peppe had been drafted in to finish up over Ditko's pencils. A month or two previously, Ditko had given up working on The Hawk and the Dove, handing over to Gil Kane to draw the series from the third issue on.

The Creeper 6 was the last issue of the Silver Age series. Ditko provided pencils for just the first half of the book, leaving Jack Sparling to complete the story. The cover was by DC stalwart Gil Kane.
Issue 6 (Apr-May 1969) was the final outing for The Creeper, and for Ditko on the strip. In fact, he only pencilled the first 11 pages, leaving the final half of the book to Jack Sparling to draw. Mike Peppe's inks try to bring it all together, but though Sparling was a great artist, he wasn't Steve Ditko.

The issue features the conclusion of the story begun in Beware the Creeper 5, and ends - apparently - with the death of Proteus. The Creeper manages to free himself from the deathtrap Proteus left him in last time. Meanwhile, Proteus has impersonated the State Governor to order the city evacuated in the face of rising flood waters so his henchmen can rob and loot at will. But Jack figures out the plan and arrives in time to thwart Proteus' plan.

The second half of the story - all drawn by Sparling - is an epic-length battle as The Creeper tries to prevent Proteus destroying a nearby dam with nitro-glycerine and ending with the villain plummeting from the top of the dam in a screaming death plunge.

There was no letters page in Creeper 6, so readers were left twisting in the wind a bit, unaware that the series had been cancelled.

Left to right: Remington "Rip" Cord, with his good friend Jack Ryder, aka The Creeper; TV weather girl Vera Sweet, The Creeper's Lois Lane; Jack's boss Bill Brane restraining Ryder; the faceless enemy, Proteus.
In case you've not read Beware the Creeper, I'm not going to reveal who Proteus is. In fact, in later incarnations of the Creeper, some doubt was thrown on Proteus' true identity, suggesting that the revelation in Creeper 6 was a red herring.

There must have been some plan to revive The Creeper at DC Comics during the mid-1970s - they sure seemed to put a lot of effort into bringing the character back.

The Creeper would turn up the following decade in a few DC comics, guest starring with Batman in Detective 445-448 (Feb/Mar - Jul1975), co-star with his inspiration The Joker in the third issue of the villain's own title (Sep 1975), then in a solo adventure with art once again by Steve Ditko in First Issue Special 7 (Oct 1975). Finally, there would be a short series by Marty Pasko and Ric Estrada in the back of Adventure Comics 445-447 (May - Sep 1976), after which DC largely gave up on The Creeper for a while.

The Creeper starred in a short series of three six-pagers in the back of Adventure Comics when that title was arguably teetering on the edge of cancellation with third string DC character Aquaman in the lead slot.
The Creeper was an interesting experiment by DC. I don't know that they were trying to capture the Marvel lightning in a bottle as such, but by bringing Dick Giordano over from Charlton Comics, where he had worked with Ditko on Charlton's line of Superhero comics, including Captain Atom, Blue Beetle and The Question, perhaps they were certainly at least trying to do something new beyond the familiar machinations of old-school DC-ers like Mort Weisinger and Jack Schiff.

The Hawk and the Dove - a Creeper Coda

Around the same time that Ditko was conceiving and drawing The Creeper, the management at DC were trying to find him something else to do to occupy his free time. According the GCD, there are a couple of different versions about how the project came about. DC Publisher at the time Carmine Infantino has said he came up with the idea and gave it to Steve Ditko to develop. But Editor Dick Giordano "came in as editor right in the middle of The Hawk and the Dove story in Showcase. Steve Ditko already had the rough plot worked out. Steve Skeates worked from that plot and came up with a script."

While the artwork was very good, the overall concept of The Hawk and the Dove was repetitive and dull, and altogether too shouty.
According to Steve Skeates, "It was created by committee." As he went on to explain in an interview in The Comics 9 (Sep 1997), "Carmine came up with the title. Outside of that I can't remember who created what ... I wrote a plot which Dick approved. Then I wrote a full script, which was given to Steve. In pencilling it up Steve took out scenes he didn't like and extended scenes he did like. Then, I added dialog and captions to these new extensions."

To be honest, I really only bought the book at the time for the great Steve Ditko artwork, which was every bit as good as what he'd been doing in The Creeper. But the stories were not so good, and the constant arguing over the same issues between the two brothers got very wearing very quickly. Once Steve Ditko left and Gil Kane took over the art chores with issue 3, I had lost all interest and moved on to other things.

I hadn't realised, back in the 1960s, that these Ditko titles, and another comic I really enjoyed at the time The Secret Six, were all edited by Dick Giordano, who had been an editor at Charlton Comics since the 1950s and joined DC around late 1967. According to Giordano himself, his move to DC was brokered by Steve Ditko, who had remained friendly with Giordano since they had worked together at Charlton, beginning in the 1950s.

I'll cover Giordano and The Secret Six in a future blog entry.