The DC comics of Steve Ditko
Intro Part 2 Part 3
The seven issues of Beware The Creeper span Ditko's first period of residence at DC, begun a little before and ended a little after Hawk and the Dove. By far the most homogeneous of his three creations for the company, the Creeper looks in retrospect like an attempt to create a relatively safe, commercially viable hero series that mixed in just the right inoculation dosage of Ditko weirdness. The formula had worked with Spider-Man, and DC had every reason to believe it would work again. Their confidence in Ditko is evident right from the start; despite the received wisdom about DC being the more conservative, creatively strict of the two big superhero publishers, by mid-1968 they were falling behind Marvel in sales for good, and entering a period of experimentation under Carmine Infantino's editorial directorship that would yield a spate of fondly-remembered Silver Age gems -- but no financial hits. Regardless, right off the bat Ditko was given the freedom to go a little wilder than he had at Marvel, creating grimier stories in the vein of his contemporaneous, often downright vicious Charlton work.
The first Creeper comic, published as Showcase #73, sees Ditko taking a few enthusiastic swings at his new freedom. Though he had been the sole plotter for the last several issues of Spider-Man, the book was still very much a product of Stan Lee's wider vision for the Marvel universe. Cut loose from that imposition, Ditko sets about creating a world of his own. The drawing is noticeably different from his Marvel work, inkier and more focused on the simple, often clumsy movements of characters than on slam-bang action. Where heretofore the verisimilitude of Marvel's New York had trumped DC's suburban fantasylands for grit, Ditko wasted no time in establishing the setting for his Creeper stories as a beastly, dark megalopolis full of cast shadows and vertical lines. Marvel may have been the more realistic company, making a point of including some of the workaday world's tougher realities in their comics, but Ditko's Creeper eschews realism and dives right into pulpy darkness. This was the grimmest, scariest-looking superhero comic being published at the time, and the most exciting thing about the inaugural Creeper issue isn't the stock story or the rather uninteresting protagonist, but the billowing gloom, the utter ambience that hangs over it, right down to the outre character designs.
The subsequent issues -- the first two of the Creeper's own series -- are the best of Ditko's run on the character. Settled in at DC and apparently confident in the world he was creating, the artist began to stretch out, experimenting with high-contrast angst, nerve-wateringly suspenseful passages, the mechanics of his drawing, and even the era's limited production effects.
The panel above carries a feverish mood more in the vein of Will Eisner's Spirit work than anything from kids' superhero comics, with a composition closer to Hitchcock horror than Kirby zip. Ditko steps out of of his comfort zone with the exact instant he chooses to portray here, as well; perhaps better than anyone else at drawing "point of impact" shots capturing both actions and reactions, here he restricts himself to an instant of highest tension rather than violent release. The villain's foot touches the window-glass for a millisecond before breaking through, at jarring odds with the last moment of his victim's unawareness. It's typical of the kind of storytelling Ditko was doing. Drama over pathos, in the art if not in the scripts, which despite their bluster are rather charming in their heavy-handed seriousness and attempts at adult characterization.
These were frequently hilarious -- Ditko, working with (pseudonymous and still largely unknown) scripter Denny O'Neil clearly understood that a large part of Stan Lee's success was due to his injection of real life's inconveniences into heroic narratives. But where Peter Parker would struggle to find the right pills for Aunt May's illnesses or impress Liz Allan, the Creeper's alter ego Jack Ryder was always contending with a perplexing string of "problems", common man's troubles like you know, being forced to walk an annoying girl's dog.
What's admirable about the first few Creeper issues is watching Ditko's anarchic side at play. He stuffs the pages with panels and characters and spotted blacks, filling them to bursting just because he can. Compared to the congestion of his last few Spider-Man issues, the sense of freedom is palpable, and in a different way than his often rushed, tonally dour work for Charlton. It reads like Ditko was enjoying creating the Creeper each month, taking pride in and having fun with a high-profile book that was all his own. The Creeper's laughter is a common script device as well as a strong graphic motif, and Ditko obviously liked it -- by Creeper #2 it's made its way into the title text, and for all intents and purposes this issue the book is called "HA HA HA HA HA HA BEWARE THE CREEPER".
The art continues to be refined past the point of mere mastery. There's a willingness to go beyond storytelling with his tinkering, and with the first issue of Creeper's title Ditko begins playing with iconography. Rather than the typical starbursts, his impacts are signified by stylized dot slams that look like solid balls of pain, or drops of vinegar in oil.
His curiosity transcends even drawing: Creeper #1 is the earliest mainstream comic I've seen that features colored gutters between panels, and color is also intelligently used to code Jack Ryder's transformations into his giggling alter ego. Ditko was obviously interested in the production aspects of the work he was doing -- this kind of consistency of color is rare in Silver Age comics, and stuff like those gutters just didn't happen back then unless somebody specifically requested it.
Watching Ditko peak on Beware the Creeper is a thing of beauty. He seems to understand that the attraction of this book isn't in anything related to the writing (by this time Ditko had Hawk and the Dove if he wanted to really write) -- it's in the lure of the shimmering, black world he's created, in the way he he spins the stories with his art, in the intricacies of the drawing. By issue #2 he's casually throwing out bits of genius like they were confetti from a window.
Smoke rings used to indicate depth fields, drawing a subtle line between the characters in the panel for the reader's eye to follow.
He also seems to take a particularly righteous pleasure in creating "pop art productions" outside of their ostensible home at Marvel.
Issue #3 sees the drawing as sharp as ever and the darker pulp aspects of the comic emphasized -- both welcome, but there are problems. The story dislocates the cast from the modern urban setting so essential to the book's feel, plopping them down instead on an island filled with Hammer Horror movie-type inhabitants. As a result, the simplistic aspects of the scripting cloy instead of charming and the plot feels sluggish instead of simmering along as the previous two did.
More distressing still is Ditko's use of fewer and larger panels to tell the story. The art is still pretty much invincible -- few could even dream of getting more movement, more horizontality, out of a three-panel grid -- but unlike contemporaries Kirby or Steranko, Ditko used larger panels as a way to fill up unused space, a corner-cutting mechanism, and big frames like these are an indicator that he was no longer as engaged in what he was doing. Look for comparison at Mr. A, the Question, or even the earlier Creeper stories; when his heart was in it, when he was doing his best work, Ditko used the nine-grid, and he filled it up with overlapping characters and word balloons, so many ideas that they threatened to bounce each other off the page. In Creeper #3, the art is sharp, the storytelling fluid -- but the simple fact that there is space left wanting demonstrates that something was wrong.
Creeper #4 worsens the problem. The drawing, while still very fine, isn't up to the standard even of the inaugural Showcase issue, and the layouts, full of large, often alarmingly bare panels, are downright murky at times. The issue has a slapdash feel -- obviously the work of a great talent, but just as obviously that of a man driven to distraction. The previous month had seen Ditko's last issue of Hawk and the Dove, always a better-written book, and one that featured creations much closer to Ditko's heart as well as more in line with his personal concerns. Apocryphally, Ditko absented his own book due to ideological squabbles with its more liberal scripter, Steve Skeates; whatever the reason, by December 1968, he was left with one book where recently he had had two, and it was the inferior one. Given this context, the results as seen in Creeper's final issues make sense: Ditko was back in a similar position to what he had gone through at Marvel, hacking out superhero stories he didn't much care about, producing art that, while still clearly a cut above the average fare, lacks any of the energetic crackle that was so powerful in earlier issues. The image below is a full-page panel, certainly bereft of detail, but unfortunately, not exceptionally so.
Issue #5 is quite clearly the end. Ditko, heavily and poorly inked by Mike Peppe, stumbles through the first half of a two-part story which brings back a villain who had already appeared in two previous issues. The drawing is barely perfunctory -- so much of Ditko's style, so much of his genius was in the inks that under inferior hands, the art barely looks like his. The characters rush through a very large-paneled story plotted as well as scripted by Denny O'Neil, now in the ascendant and no longer bothering to use a pen-name. Ditko, whose searing visions and brilliant response to more creative freedom were the only reasons the Creeper was ever worth reading about, had become a non-presence in his own book.
The best page of the issue bats lazily at an interesting layout -- a mildly notable response to Jim Steranko's work in the same vein, perhaps. But even here, the drawing is poor, the line is nothing like Ditko's, and the characters merely float, unmoored from their creator's guiding hand and even from the motions that they're being put through.
In the letter column of issue #5, editor Dick Giordano mentions that Ditko has been "ailing" of late, his assignments passed on to others. The next, final issue of Beware the Creeper finished Ditko's abandoned two-parter with uninspired, clearly rushed Gil Kane art. Steve Ditko would not work at DC again for the better part of a decade.
to be continued
Intro Part 2 Part 3