Ditko Shrugged (Part Four): After Ditko, the Drought

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This is part four of a four-part Silver Soapbox series entitled “Ditko Shrugged” that explores the influence of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism on Steve Ditko’s life and work—particularly on the Creeper, a character he created for DC in 1968.

After Steve Ditko left DC in late 1968 for a reason that Dick Giordano confirmed “was [mostly] due to his adherence to the Ayn Rand philosophy,” the company continued to try to make the Creeper a commercially viable character—initially, of course, DC’s efforts were in support of the original series.

At around the same time that Ditko left DC to return to Charlton, Neal Adams penciled (and Giordano inked) The Brave and the Bold #80 (cover dated November 1968)— which had the Creeper as Batman’s guest star. Thus, Adams was penciling this story around the time that I believe he re-drew one page and a few panels of Beware the Creeper #5 (see Part Three).

Then, a month before his series ended with issue #6, the Creeper guest starred in Justice League of America #70 (cover dated March 1969) in a story written by Denny O’Neil—who, of course, was the writer on Beware the Creeper. With the character’s appearances in Brave and the Bold and Justice League of America, there was an obvious push by DC to arouse interest in the Creeper and his series—and those guest appearances would have been planned before Ditko suddenly quit.

Then, two years later, O’Neil brought the Creeper back in Detective Comics #418 (cover dated December 1971) in a story that once again teamed him with Batman. Irv Novick illustrated the story, but the cover was penciled by Adams and inked by Giordano.

Finally, in late 1974 and early 1975, Len Wein wrote a five-issue arc in Detective #444-48 that was known as “Bat-Murderer!” The Creeper appeared in the arc as a supporting character (sometimes only as Jack Ryder), and he was highlighted in issue #447.

As I mentioned earlier (in part one), I first discovered Ditko’s creation when he guest starred in The Joker #3 in the summer of 1975 (in yet another story written by O’Neil)—which came out just a few months after he had appeared in Wein’s Detective Comics arc. Then, two weeks later, the Creeper appeared in First Issue Special #7 (cover dated October 1975) in a story penciled by Ditko himself (and inked by Jack Kirby’s usual inker at that time, Mike Royer).

Three separate appearances in 1975 clearly indicates that DC was testing the market to see if the Creeper could garner enough interest from readers to re-launch his original series. Ditko was available for a re-launch of Beware the Creeper because he had returned to DC in 1975 to illustrate a sword and sorcery comic, Stalker, that was written and created by Paul Levitz.

A Brief History of the Post-1968 Solo Stories

First Issue Special #7 marked the Creeper’s first solo appearance following the 1968 series. The story was written by Michael Fleisher (who would later script Ditko’s Shade, the Changing Man in 1977 over Ditko’s plots). Unfortunately, Ditko and Fleisher’s collaboration in First Issue Special #7 resulted in an unimaginative story.

It lacked the philosophical undertones that Ditko had originally intended. There was no attempt to incorporate Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy into the story. Instead, Ditko and Fleisher turned in a formulaic tale in which the Creeper battled a third-rate Batman villain known as Firefly.

The story is noteworthy, though, for two minor changes to the Creeper’s mythos. Jack Ryder is once again a TV reporter rather than a “network security investigator” (though he has kept switching back and forth between the two jobs), and the Creeper crawls up the sides of walls in a way similar to Spider-Man (though wall-crawling has not been a consistent part of his abilities).

As for the absence of Objectivism, either Joe Orlando, the editor, didn’t approve a Randian story or Ditko no longer cared to try to explore Objectivism with the Creeper (perhaps due to the problems he had experienced on the 1968 series).

However, Ditko did publish two Mr. A stories in 1975, which had a strong Objectivist slant, of course. The first had a subplot in which the publisher of the newspaper that employs Rex Graine (Mr. A) was upset over Graine’s Objectivist views. Instead, the publisher promotes the Romantic concept of subjective truths, which Graine then counters with the notion of objective facts that uphold only objective truths.

The second Mr. A story Ditko published in 1975 focused on two concepts that Objectivism views as evil—the United Nations (for seeking compromises to problems between nations), and hippies who propose that society be structured around the concept of communes. Despite his work at DC in 1975 on Stalker and First Issue Special #7, it’s clear that Ditko had not abandoned the idea of including Objectivism in his stories. He seems to have only taken the DC work in order to earn a paycheck.

As the name implies, First Issue Special was a series that DC intended as a launching point for new titles they might then publish. However, the only on-going series to come out of First Issue Special was Mike Grell’s Warlord (from issue #8) and “The Return of the New Gods” (issue #13).

Grell’s Warlord began three months after the character’s “tryout appearance.” However, Gerry Conway’s version of The New Gods didn’t resume the numbering of Jack Kirby’s original series until 13 months after the First Issue Special tryout. Back then, sales figures were not available on a book until several months after an issue was released.

Thus, even if the sales of the Creeper’s appearance in #7 were high enough to warrant a revival of Beware the Creeper, it wouldn’t have mattered since Ditko was no longer at DC by the end of 1975. He went back to Marvel to earn a paycheck after Stalker was canceled with its fourth issue (cover dated January 1976).

I suspect the sales on First Issue Special #7 actually were high enough to warrant a series, though, because the Creeper’s next solo appearance occurred only eight months later—in a three-part story in Adventure Comics #445-47 (June 1976). This follow-up “tryout” was written by Marty Pasko, penciled by Ric Estrada, and inked by Joe Staton.

As with Ditko and Fleisher’s story, Pasko’s was an uninspired tale. It involved murders at a physical rehabilitation clinic where the Creeper saved a doctor, Joanne Russell, from being killed by a telekinetically controlled robot. Again, there was no hint of Objectivism (or any other underlying philosophy).

Pasko’s story is noteworthy only in that Dr. Russell learned the Creeper’s identity and became Ryder’s love interest—as though there were more stories planned by Pasko. However, if that was the case, those stories never appeared.

The Creeper then went unused for two years until Ditko again returned to DC when he began development of his Shade, the Changing Man series in 1978. This time, he ended up writing and illustrating seven back-up stories of the Creeper for World’s Finest #249-55. As with First Issue Special #7, these eight-page stories are formulaic and uninspired. They’re further hampered by Ditko’s awkward dialog that is often filled with exposition. It is not, however, didactic dialog that preaches Objectivism.

The excessive exposition is no doubt due to the constraints of Ditko telling a complete story in only eight pages (there were no continued stories from one issue to the next). Of course, there are writers who can tell an engaging story in only eight pages—such as Will Eisner in The Spirit—but Ditko’s writing abilities weren’t up to that level.

It’s odd, though, that Ditko wrote the stories himself and didn’t include a single hint of Objectivism. However, he did include Randian views in Shade, the Changing Man—a series where Ditko once again plotted the stories and had the final say on the dialog that Fleisher provided.

Instead, Ditko wrote the Creeper stories in World’s Finest as if they were romantic comedies—with Jack Ryder and Fran Daye as the bickering male and female leads who always stumble into a crime at the beginning of the tale and a punch line in the final panel. The name “Fran Daye” is a possible pun on “Friday”—as in His Girl Friday, the 1940 romantic comedy starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.

The notion of Cary Grant as the Creeper is certainly odd. However, the mix of crime and comedy in the stories most closely resembled The Thin Man series of films from the 1930s and 1940s starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles. Ditko, though, didn’t model Fran Daye after either Rosalind Russell or Myrna Loy.

Instead, he drew her as if she could be the twin sister of Vera Sweet, the “weather girl” in Beware the Creeper. In fact, all of the supporting characters in Ditko’s 1978 version of the Creeper in World’s Finest were analogues of the supporting cast from Beware the Creeper—only the names (and sometimes the physical traits) were different.

The only real thing of note in these stories was that Ditko killed off Dr. Joanne Russell in World’s Finest #252. She was the woman who learned the Creeper’s identity in the back-up stories in Adventure Comics, and whom Pasko had set up as Ryder’s love interest.

To further test the idea of a possible re-launch in his own series, the Creeper once again teamed up with Batman—in Brave and the Bold #143—at the same time that Ditko was working on these back-up stories. However, the last of Ditko’s back-up Creeper stories appeared in the March 1979 issue of World’s Finest—just six months before “the DC Implosion” that canceled several series, including Shade, the Changing Man.

The Creeper then went unused for five years until he appeared in a back-up series in Flash #318-23—written by Carl Gafford and illustrated by Dave Gibbons (for the first two installments) and Chuck Patton (for the final four). Gafford relocated the Creeper to Boston where he investigated an extortion ring that then led him to a drug cartel that pushed tainted cocaine that physically transformed people into monsters.

It was a convoluted but unremarkable story. Once again, it had none of Ditko’s Randian concepts in it. However, the last page of the final installment was illustrated by Keith Giffen, and it promised that the Creeper would return “soon” in a new series to be plotted and illustrated by Giffen. To increase awareness for Giffen’s series, the Creeper again appeared with Batman in Brave and the Bold (issue #178).

For some reason, though, Giffen’s series never appeared—though he illustrates the 1985 story in DC Comics Presents #88 (written by Steve Englehart) in which the Creeper teamed up with Superman. Then, four years later, in Secret Origins #18 (1987), Giffen illustrated a revision of the Creeper’s origin that was scripted by Andy Helfer.

Perhaps because it was a faithful re-telling of Ditko’s origin story, Giffen and Helfer’s Secret Origins tale did contain Randian elements. The return of Angel Devlin and his half angel/half devil costume displays the Manichean dichotomy that is inherent in Objectivism—as is also evident in Mr. A’s half white/half black calling card.

The Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy was evident as well. Ryder is once again the Apollonian individual who is in control of the seemingly Dionysian nature of the Creeper. In turn, he confronts a villain who displays half of an angelic façade. With only that one issue to go on, it appears that Giffen may have understood Ditko’s Objectivist symbolism, and it’s unfortunate that Giffen’s promised series never appeared.

Ten years passed before the Creeper again appeared in a solo story—in his own on-going series written by Len Kaminski and illustrated by Shawn Martinbrough and Sal Buscema. It was cancelled after eleven issues (plus a special “one-millionth” issue as part of DC’s mega-event that year).

While Kaminski referred to the Creeper’s established history, he didn’t use any of Ditko’s Objectivist concepts. Instead, he presented Ryder as a man who had experienced a psychotic breakdown—an approach that is antithetical to Ditko’s concept of a hero. Ryder is depicted as an irrational psychotic who gives free reign to his psychosis as the Creeper. Kaminski completely subverted Objectivism’s Apollonian rationalism with Dionysian chaos.

Finally, I should mention that the Creeper appeared in the Batman: Gotham Knights animated series in an episode (#23) entitled “Beware the Creeper.” It’s worth mentioning this animated appearance because it is undoubtedly the one that most younger readers were familiar with prior to the most recent series by Steve Niles. The episode was written by Steve Gerber from a story by Rich Fogel, and it completely revises the history and origin of the character.

In the episode, Jack Ryder fell into the same vat of chemicals that the man who became the Joker had fallen into years earlier. Thus, the show connected the origins of the Creeper and the Joker even though there was no such connection in any of the comics up to that point (not even in the character’s guest appearance in Joker #3).

Both characters have green hair (though in Ditko’s version the Creeper wore a wig that couldn’t be removed) and they both laugh maniacally (though the Creeper affected his laugh in Ditko’s version as part of his Dionysian act).

DC has obviously given the Creeper several chances to succeed. However, they haven’t tried to publish a faithful version of Ditko’s original concept—not even when Ditko has worked on the character himself. Given the success of Rorschach as a Randian Objectivist in Alan Moore’s The Watchmen in 1986, I’m surprised DC hasn’t revived any of Ditko’s characters with a strict Randian slant (Captain Atom, the Question, Blue Beetle, Hawk and Dove, or the Creeper).

It’s undoubtedly difficult to find creators who embrace Ditko’s politics and Rand’s philosophy—which is undoubtedly why Niles presented Ryder as a liberal talk show host with a leftwing agenda in the most recent series. However, it’s not actually necessary to agree with Ditko’s Objectivist views to write Ditko’s Randian characters faithfully.

Moore proved with Rorschach that it’s possible to use Objectivism in a way that remains fairly true to Ditko’s intentions while still making Rorschach an interesting character that readers embrace. Arguably, Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach were the two most interesting characters in Moore’s graphic novel—and both were based on characters created by Ditko—Captain Atom and Mr. A/the Question, respectively. (Of course, Ditko remarked that Rorschach was “like the Question only insane.”)

Anyway, the history of the Creeper from 1968 through all his appearances over the years has colored my admittedly subjective view of the recent Creeper series by Steve Niles, which is why I couldn’t write that review of the fifth issue several months ago when it was assigned to me.

Ryder and the Creeper Under Niles—Yet Another Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

When I read in an interview that Niles planned to keep Ditko’s concept but upgrade the technology that allowed Ryder to transform into the Creeper, I was initially hopeful that he actually understood Ditko’s concept. However, I didn’t see any reason for “updating” the technology since Ditko’s original concept of the transmutation of clothing has neither come to pass nor become dated after 39 years.

Niles, though, claimed that since he can’t find the remote control for his own TV, he didn’t want Ryder to have to rely on using a remote control device to transform into the Creeper. Niles’s rationale doesn’t make sense because Ditko had both devices (the transforming device and the controlling device) embedded in Ryder’s chest and wrist (respectively). Thus, there was no danger of Ryder “losing his remote control.”

To be sure, there are parts of Ditko’s original stories that need to be updated. For instance, the creator of the devices, Professor Yatz, was a scientist who had defected from a Soviet-led communist bloc country (perhaps from the Soviet Union itself). Since those countries no longer exist as communist governments, an update could have retained the idea of a “man of science” escaping from an “evil” political system (which was Rand’s view of communism). The obvious choice now would be to have Professor Yatz defect from either Cuba, China, Viet Nam, or North Korea.

However, instead of adhering to Rand’s distaste for communism and the triumph of science and reason, Niles “updated” Yatz as yet another “mad scientist” villain, which has been a staple in pulp fiction and comic books for at least 100 years. In fact, the mad scientist model arose as a Romantic concept as early as 1818 with the title character in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—the scientist who uses his knowledge to create life artificially and who is then destroyed by the monstrosity that his science has wrought.

Rather than retain Ditko’s Objectivist view of science and rationalism in the face of “the communist oppression of the individual” (the Dionysian oppression of the Apollonian), Niles chose to bring in the Romantic concept of the mad scientist that has become a trite convention of superhero comic books.

Niles also brought back the idea of Ryder as a television talk show host with a political agenda—which he had been in the first two pages of Ditko’s initial story in 1968. However, rather than an Objectivist pundit who spouts Randian dialog, Niles made Ryder a leftwing, smart-mouthed liberal.

However, it would have been more interesting to have Ryder spout Randian rants on his TV show. Niles could have had Ryder get into debates with sociologists, psychologists, and Postmodernists about the motivations of villains—with Ryder always resorting to this type of argument:
All men must be the guardians of their own minds and they are responsible for their own actions! Any man who claims his evil acts are not his fault must also claim his good acts are not his fault! He will have to admit that he is a mindless hunk of flesh that can neither know nor care what he is or does! Even the most evil would be terrified to claim that that is how they regard themselves!
Additionally, while I think he’s an excellent illustrator, I don’t care for Justiniano’s depiction of either Ryder or the Creeper. His Ryder has nothing distinctive about him. He looks like a non-descript “civilian” that I wouldn’t have been able to tell you was Jack Ryder if you had shown me a sketch of the character.

On the other hand, Justiniano’s Creeper is over-the-top. His teeth are revealed in a death mask grin, and spittle often drips from his lips when he speaks. The Creeper isn’t supposed to be an actual demon from hell, he’s just supposed to pretend to be one in contrast to his otherwise rational nature. Besides, DC already has a character that’s an actual demon from hell—which takes me to my third problem with Niles’s approach.

Even though he retained the part of the origin that involves Professor Yatz giving Ryder his abilities—albeit as a villain who was trying to kill Ryder rather than save him—Niles’s version of the relationship between Ryder and the Creeper is almost identical to that between Jason Blood and Etrigan (from Jack Kirby’s The Demon). In fact, I would have preferred it if Niles’s story was about Jason Blood and Etrigan.

I have not doubt that Niles’s version of The Demon would have been much better than what Byrne was doing with the series at the same time that Niles’s Creeper came out. It makes me wonder whether Niles had originally intended his Creeper story as an Etrigan concept that he couldn’t sell to DC because Byrne’s Demon had already been approved—so Niles revised it with the Creeper as a secondary Etrigan.

However, instead of the Demon being transformed into Jason Blood through Merlin’s wizardry, Ryder is transformed into the Creeper through Yatz’s mad science of injecting “nanocells” that redesign Ryder into the Creeper (and vice versa). Along with the physical transformation, there is also a transformation of Ryder’s personality into the Creeper persona.

Essentially, Niles simply accomplished yet another version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—which, like his use of the mad scientist convention, has become an all-too-common approach in comics (such as can be seen in Marvel’s Hulk and DC’s own Man-Bat).

I guess “nanocells” are nanites. However, it’s not explained why these nanites:
  • Change Ryder’s skin to yellow and his hair to green,

  • Grow red fur on his shoulders,

  • Pull back his lips in a death mask grin, and

  • Clad him in green and black striped shorts along with red gloves and boots.
In fact, the costume that the “nanocells” design is so bizarre that it seems more like something Ryder would have found in the discarded odds and ends in a box in a costume shop.

My problems with this most recent version of the Creeper has little to do with Niles’s ability to script dialog or Justiniano’s ability to illustrate a story. In fact, Justinano is so good at moving the story from one panel to the next that I was disappointed when he was replaced by Steve Scott in the fourth and fifth issues.

Niles and Justiniano are talented creators who have mastered their respective crafts. However, as a long-time Creeper fan, I would have liked to have seen them adhere to Ditko’s original 1968 concept. Regardless of Niles’s personal ideology, he should be confident enough in his own abilities to truly update Ditko’s ideas rather than drastically alter them.

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