Steve Ditko’s Beware the Creeper was nowhere near as good a series as his Shade, the Changing Man, but it’s been far more successful. It only lasted six issues, but the Creeper kept appearing semi-regularly through the mid-1980s and has been rebooted a couple of times since, though not usually well.
In the opening of Showcase #73 — and may I say that is one eye-popping Ditko cover — we meet controversial talk-show host Jack Ryder. That’s right, contrary to most later portrayals, he’s neither an investigative journalist nor a tabloid sensationalist reporter — but after one page, he’s not a talk-show host either. When he interviews the sponsor’s friend without using kid gloves (and man, laughing at the idea police might be dangerous has not aged well), the sponsor has a hissy fit and Ryder’s show gets the axe. The station head likes Ryder’s guts, though, and assigns him to be the new head of station security.
In the DC universe TV-station security is apparently a pretty cool job. You get to work with the FBI, track down wanted criminals and bust Commie spies, regardless of whether this involves anything that actually threatens the TV station. While some of Ryder’s assignments make sense — guarding TV personality Vera Sweet in the first issue of his own book — they’re the exception. And even there, having guts and a hard-hitting interview style hardly qualifies you for bodyguard duty.
In the origin story, Ryder’s duties lead to him hunting down a missing scientist, Professor Yatz. It turns out Yatz been captured by crooks with an eye to selling him to the Reds. As the mob boss is hosting a costume party that night, Ryder cobbles together a bizarre costume at short notice, crashes the party, but winds up getting caught and shot. The professor injects Jack with a super-soldier serum that heals his wound and make him strong, fast and impossibly agile.
Yatz also gives Jack a device that allows him to shift back and forth between his costumed self and his regular face and clothes. Wouldn’t you know it, Yatz then dies, leaving Jack Ryder the sole inheritor of these amazing discoveries (one of the things I loved about Kurt Busiek’s Power Company was that it actually considered the possibility legacy inventions like these would eventually break down)
As the Creeper, Jack uses his enhanced physical prowess to bust the mob and the spies. The PO’d city mobs put a price on his head while community leaders demand the police stop this dangerous vigilante. Jack, however, won’t stop doing what’s right (and he’s getting some kicks out of it too). This set-up has a strong Spider-Man feel, as does the Creeper’s acrobatic fighting style. So do the Creeper’s only costumed foes: The Terror is a Crime-Master knockoff and the master of disguise Proteus is the Chameleon. Other aspects of the Creeper borrow from Ditko’s Question.
The Creeper, however, ain’t in Spider-Man’s league. Rereading these stories some years back (this is another post rewritten from my own blog), I was struck by how dated they felt. In an age when super-villains were the norm, most of the Creeper’s foes were common mobsters. The whole concept of stumbling into crimefighting because you captured some crooks while you were dressed for a costume party is a shtick that goes back to the Golden Age (though it would still see use in the 1970s).
On the plus side, Ditko’s art is good, the dialog is snappy and I love Jack’s decision to milk his freaky appearance for everything it’s worth. People take one look at him and assume he’s some kind of demon so Jack plays it that way, laughing maniacally and threatening to drag crooks’ souls to hell if they don’t spill their guts. It’s quite obvious Ryder has a blast doing this — but that’s the one aspect of the character nobody ever reuses. Instead, the clever new take is always to make the Creeper genuinely crazy, which is more common and less interesting (got an insane split personality? Join the metahuman club, dude).
Jack Ryder hasn’t been handled well either. Mostly he’s plugged into the Bad Reporter role, a sensationalist tabloid journalist or an on-air pundit about one step above Alex Jones. Both of which could work, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen them done effectively.
The most fun anyone’s had with the Creeper in recent years was the Jason Hall/Cliff Chiang Beware the Creeper limited series from Vertigo. Unrelated to the Ditko character, it’s set in 1920s Paris, where an ambitious Surrealist (I think she’s more Dadaist, but that’s just me being picky) adopts the identity of the Creeper as a form of performance art, and to gain revenge on a wealthy family that wronged her. Unlike the Peter Milligan Shade, the Changing Man, it did not replace Jack Ryder as the definitive version.
As the original Creeper, for all his flaws, is the work of one of comics’ top creators, I’m sure we’ll see more takes on Jack Ryder and his laughing alter ego sooner or later.