I feel a Ditko fixation coming on, so it’s time to start looking up some of those old Charlton Watchmen templates and oddball series’ he made for DC in the late 60’s and 70’s. Of course, I’ve read most of his work at the House of Ideas from the 60’s and from his return to Marvel in the early 80’s, but that decade he spent bouncing around the other publishers is as much a mystery to me as, well, Steve Ditko is to anybody. This is the sort of thing that makes swearing off new books to go live in Back Issue Land so damn rewarding.
Like Kirby, Ditko is a genius who can crank out an endless series of bizarre and captivating concepts coupled with arresting visuals– then demonstrate just how crucial Stan Lee was to the creative mix at Marvel by producing a series that is brilliant but remarkably short lived. As Spider-Man is more about Peter Parker than superheroics, both these artists needed Stan to put a human heart at the center of their cosmic vision. Seperately they each turned out numerous great concepts of which all but a couple of Jack’s died within a handful of issues. For us Ditko fans that means we’d better enjoy the hell out of those eight issues of Shade the Changing Man, as well as the six issues of the series which brings me here today…
I’ll have to revise my list of favorite comic book covers, because I’ll be damned if this one doesn’t crack the top ten. The visual presence of the title character is a treat, as well; the artist who gave us the best superhero costume design ever with Spider-Man pulls off another visual gem with only yellow skin and a pair of red Hanes briefs. Lord knows I’d hate to see that coming after me in a dark alley. If there’s a flaw to be found on the cover, it’s with the question posed by the copy: “Where Lurks The Menace?” I’ve read the book and I still don’t know, because the bad guy inside is called The Terror. Steve may have got the greater creative freedom he craved at DC, buy maybe he still should have called his editor once in a while.
The story is a very densely written murder mystery plotted by Ditko and scripted by a “Sergius O’Shaughnessy”, which the internet tells me was a pen name for Denny O’Neil. There are plenty of characters zipping in and out of the panels as possible suspects and as many names to keep track of as in a Miss Marple mystery, but who cares? It’s the Creeper bounding through a gaggle of thugs we want to see, and we get plenty of that, too.
Ace TV reporter Jack Ryder is as involved with the case as his cackling alter ego, which may be the only problem I have with the book. The guy is a square jawed bareknuckle brawler himself, leaving me to wonder why he didn’t have his own series even before the Creeper came along (the character’s origin is only briefly alluded to here, having been covered in a single issue of Showcase before moving on to his own first issue). The secret identity is supposed to be the reader’s gateway into the fantastic world inhabited by the costumed persona, but Jack Ryder seems just as idealized and distant as his alter ego.