Beware… The Creeper? Jason Hall & Cliff Chiang update a classic

Fri, February 7th, 2003 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

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It seems like 2003 is becoming the year when DC brings back old favorites, from the "classic" lineup of the Teen Titans, albeit with the "Geoff Johns" flavor, the popular "Justice League" team from the late 80's and surprisingly, the Creeper, one of DC's cult classic characters.

But this isn't the Creeper you know. Not even close, as CBR News learned.

Writer Jason Hall and artist Cliff Chiang will be bringing readers an all-new Creeper in the pages of the five-issue "Beware The Creeper" mini-series this April. For those expecting traditional super-heroics or a superficial affair, Hall's description of the series proves that you'd be wrong on both counts. "Paris, 1925," begins Hall, describing the series. "A violent rapist prowls the city streets, while the corrupt authorities, controlled by a wealthy right-wing family, turn a blind eye. From the burgeoning art scene emerges an enigmatic hero -- the bizarre, brash, and colorful creature of the night, THE CREEPER. And she's got one word for the self-serving upper-class... BEWARE. In the aftermath of World War I, the bohemian art scene explodes onto Paris -- much to the chagrin of the rich and powerful Arbogast family. Ravishing Surrealist painter Judith Benoir wants desperately to make a splash that will have everyone talking, at whatever cost -- even if it means ignoring the warnings of her jilted lover, Inspector Allain, and her prudish sister, Madeline. Amidst the cultural clash between aristocracy, religion, and the avant-garde, The Creeper's simple cat burglaries quickly escalate into spectacular art crimes, establishing her as a cultural icon. But what are the true motivations behind The Creeper's actions? And how long before her antics spiral out of control and the law closes in? Readers will find out beginning on April 16th!"

But readers need not wait that long to learn more about the characters and Hall says that there's a complex dynamic between all the characters in this series, which is complicated by the fact that these are all complex people themselves. "Judith Benoir sort of symbolizes all the liberal attitudes of the time -- she's sexy and outgoing, she does what she wants, she craves attention, and when you see her, you can't help but to fall in love. When she walks into a room, all eyes are drawn to her. She's electric. But it's still not enough -- she wants more. And she'll have it no matter what it takes. Her sister Maddy is almost her exact opposite -- while she's just as beautiful and talented, she's very reserved and quiet. She's worried about Judith and what Judith may be capable of. She also has some hidden feelings for Judith's paramour, Inspector Allain -- but to Judith, he's just another boy-toy. However, Allain is truly in love with Judith, from something shared in their past, and like Maddy, he is worried about Judith becoming out of control. He longs for the past and simpler times. Mathieu Arbogast is a frustrated artist who is the son of a prominent aristocratic family -- and he's obsessed with Judith. His mother, Madame Arbogast, has no tolerance for his silly hobbies nor the lowlife artistic riff-raff he so desperately wants to be a part of -- and she has no qualms about using her pull with the police to shut down parties or art exhibits. Then there's the mysterious Creeper...but to learn more about her you must pick up the book!"

Unlike contemporary superhero comics and Creeper comics of past, "Beware The Creeper" is set in Paris, 1925 and while this choice may mystify some fans, Hall says that there's just something about that time period that enthralls him. "The 20's and the 30's have always been very appealing to me -- it's my favorite period of history and I've always felt that I have some kind of weird intrinsic affinity with that period that sort of comes from my soul -- the clothes, the music, the architecture, the movies, the books -- all that stuff just feels "right" to me. But you don't want to arbitrarily set a story in the past -- the setting should play some kind of vital role in the storytelling. And not only was the 'style' of that era in full-force in Paris, but the history of what was going on there during that time just fit so perfectly with many of the themes of the story. At the same time, deciding to set the story in 1925 Paris ended up having an effect on the story as well -- helping to shape certain events and even adding additional themes and layers to the narrative. History certainly has a rich tapestry to utilize as a backdrop to any story. It was a pretty wild and crazy time for folks in Paris during that era -- WWI had recently come to an end and people were tired of death and were ready to live it up. And this liberal attitude was reflected in the avant-garde artist movement, which included the Surrealists, as well as in the fact that women were becoming way more independent. It was a time of enlightenment and Paris was a mecca for an eclectic variety of writers, artists, and free-thinkers -- and not just Parisians, but Americans and various other nationalities. It was also a time of cultural change and technological advancement. An entirely new way of thinking about life and art was coming into focus -- and The Creeper of our story, in a way, is the embodiment of that attitude and spirit.

"Specifically, I decided that 1925 was the most interesting year during that decade for the setting of the book. The Exposition Des Arts Dcoratifs took place during that year, and plays a role later in the story. There are actually a number of references to historical figures and specific incidents throughout the story (and not necessarily major historic occurrences, but also just little interesting historical anecdotes), that I think truly helps to make the story seem 'real.' It's all there for those who may be interested in that sort of thing -- but the reader doesn't need any previous knowledge of history to understand or enjoy the book, and the story doesn't hinge on any of the 'history' -- this definitely isn't a 'historical drama' or anything. All that is just a backdrop to the actual narrative."

Of course, there are probably many fans thinking that this sounds like an interesting comic, but wondering why the Creeper namesake was used if the original Creeper was not going to be used in any way, shape or form. "While I'm a fan of the original Ditko Creeper, it was pretty obvious to me that I had nothing to add to it," says artist Cliff Chiang. "Others might have a very clear idea of what needs to be done to make Jack Ryder a viable character, but we were intrigued more by the IDEA of the Creeper than anything else. Instead of forcing a new story or viewpoint, we chose to borrow the zany spirit and feel of the old Creeper for the new one. In some ways, it's an homage, but it's very much a story that we wanted to tell, in our own way."

The same spirit is shared by Hall and he adds, "We totally created this version of The Creeper. I was always a fan of the original Creeper character, so that teamed with the notion that I could come up with anything I wanted to was certainly appealing to me. The only mandate from Vertigo was to use the title, 'Beware The Creeper.' Other than that, it was an entirely blank slate -- just as long as it was something different and truly unique with the character/concept. But I didn't want to tell a story that had absolutely nothing to do with the character at all. And at the same time, I didn't want to 'reinvent' the character in a way that ignored everything that came before. I think that's disrespectful. So the challenge was to come up with a completely different and unique story that didn't set out to rewrite what had already been done. We wanted to give the reader something new -- something surprising, but we also wanted there to be a reason it's called 'Beware The Creeper.' The title itself even plays a vital role in the story.

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"And while it is true that it's very removed from the modern day Jack Ryder version of the character, it's not 100% removed. I think it's similar in the sense of what The Creeper is all about psychologically -- at least to me. It's very much a 'real world' story -- there are no 'super-powers.' But it also doesn't go against anything that's already been established. There isn't any reason why the story can't be 'in continuity' -- and there are some cool subtle nods to that throughout for the careful observer to pick up on (I love that kind of stuff myself). But just like the history backdrop, you don't need to know anything about any incarnation of the character to understand this story. It's 100% reader-friendly. Plus, the look of the character/costume in our story reflects that of the version readers may be familiar with -- and it makes sense that it does. And even more importantly, we capture the off-kilter and manic persona that's inherent to the character of The Creeper in both the story and the artwork."

In creating this new and female Creeper, both members of the creative feel they can more effectively reach out to their audience and make an impact, even drawing in more readers as they go along. "What's great about this miniseries is that it's going to appeal to a wide range of audiences," contends Hall. "First, it's going to appeal to the regular Vertigo fan-base -- but it's also going to surprise them. I don't think Vertigo has done a story like this before and I think it stands out as being a unique part of their line. It's going to pique the curiosity of fans of The Creeper in general and bring in regular DCU readers who may not normally read Vertigo titles -- they want to know how it's going to tie in (if at all) with The Creeper they know and love -- and they'll not only enjoy those 'continuity nods' I mentioned earlier, but more importantly they'll see that they're getting a damn good story. On the flip side of that, the book will appeal to those who may not even read comics regularly (or even not at all) because it's a compelling story with characters that come to life and experience real emotions. This is the book to pick up for that friend who may be close-minded when it comes to comics. And the book is also going to be very appealing to women readers because it has a number of very strong and prominent female characters (which I enjoy writing) -- and that's something comics needs more of. A lot of comics seem to be "male-centric", but my intentions with anything I write is that it'll hopefully appeal to both male and female readers."

As implied by the character descriptions, "Beware The Creeper" deals with the divide between the rich and the poor, but both of the primary creators on this series maintain that there's no agenda to make some kind of statement. "People can read anything into it that they'd like -- that's what's so great about stories," smiles Hall. "Every reader brings something different to the table. One thing I don't like to do is tell readers what they should get out of one of my stories -- that's like telling them how they should think. In anything I write, my feelings and opinions come through in the story -- though perhaps not always directly. Certain characters will have certain traits that reflect my outlook, while others (or perhaps even the same ones) will have certain traits that reflect the opposite of how I personally think or feel about specific topics or even life in general. But the story isn't about me, it's about the characters -- and what they think and feel. And I hope readers will feel an emotional connection with them when they read the book."

"I don't think we're shooting for social commentary here, just an engaging story," adds Chiang. "But a character like The Creeper is actually ideal for examining those themes, specifically because there's that classic tradition of the fool who speaks the truth. The Creeper's antics really put those issues into focus here. She exposes the hypocrisy of those around her. But as events escalate, what happens when that spotlight is thrown on her?"

There's also some very strong psychological themes permeating "Beware the Creeper," most notably the idea of emotional "masks" and the examination the characters who wear them, both physically and underneath their skin. "The idea of 'masks' ties into the psychological aspect of The Creeper that I find so fascinating -- for both our incarnation and I think the Jack Ryder version as well," says Hall. "Masks are something you can hide behind -- both figuratively and literally -- and I think people hide behind them most of the time, or use them as a means to an end. This is something that is explored in the story, but readers are going to just have to pick up the book to find out exactly how. I don't like to tell too much about a story beforehand -- I think stories are best experienced 'fresh.' There's no sense of discovery if you already know what's going to happen and why. I suppose stories themselves are masks in a way. But now that's starting to veer into sounding pretty pretentious, which I hate with the white hot intensity of a thousand suns...people will discover their own themes and ideas in the story, so I'd rather not spell it out for them. I do hope that readers feel an emotional connection with the story and that it makes them think."

[Creeper at the Louvre]Hall's also making a very conscious attempt to explore passion itself in "Creeper" and explains that's why the characters are all such dynamic personalities. "Love, lust, regret, insanity, jealousy, innocence -- I suppose it's the examination of all those things. Or at the very least, they all come into play. The relationships between the various characters, especially between Judith and her sister Madeline, as well as Inspector Allain, are an important part of the story. Loving people for the wrong reasons -- either those reasons you know about or even those you don't -- is something that plays a vital role. So does the notion of taking things too far and having to face consequences you never foresaw. It also deals with the idea of what circumstances can create an art movement or fad -- and just how much validity those types of things have. Fame is fickle. But again, I don't want to specifically spell anything out. I suppose that makes for a short interview -- but in the long run, it helps make for a more interesting, surprising, and enjoyable comic. And I will say that The Creeper pulls some crazy and shocking stunts, so if all that fancy psychological talk doesn't bring you in, there's always that!"

But the creative team isn't just exploring these themes just because it sounds "good"- as Chiang explains, "You need depth to the story in order for people to relate and to care. A lot of the strength of the story comes from the fact that we're doing our best to create believable human emotions and motivations. That's what makes a story interesting, and it's what readers can relate to. Most people have absolutely nothing in common with a guy who puts on a costume and fights crime, but they do understand anger or a desire for justice. These characters aren't there to move the plot along, but to tell a story about why people act and say the things they do, and what sort of circumstances can drive a person to incredible deeds."

The decision to produce this series through Vertigo was simple- it was proposed as a Vertigo project; however, Chiang explains that unlike "Starman" or other mature DC Comics series, they didn't want to deal directly with continuity. "The project was initiated as a Vertigo book, but I think it's the appropriate choice. We're doing something different here, and it's important to break with the old Creeper's history. Doing the story under the Vertigo banner is the clearest way to signal that.

"Much of the story is also about the time during which it takes place. Paris in the 1920's was a very modern, exciting place. After World War I, people were experimenting with new ideas of art, sexuality, religion, etc. We're trying to recreate that adventurous spirit and feeling of freedom, so it was important to not have constraints on the story we're telling."

To create this project, the comic book professionals needed to first meet and soon after, the two realized that they had a lot in common. "Will Dennis approached me about working with Jason," explains Chiang. "As it turned out, my name was on Jason's list of preferred artists for another project. To be honest, I was surprised anyone had heard of me, let alone liked my work. I'd read the 'Pistolwhip' books just the week before, and was really impressed, so we began batting ideas around.

[Sketch of the Creeper]"Stylistically, there's a filmic quality to our individual storytelling sensibilities, and that's due in large part to our backgrounds in film studies. (Jason was a film major at UNLV, and I did some documentary film and studied with Spike Lee at Harvard.) There's a shared language there that makes it really easy to work together."

"I think we truly make an excellent team," adds Hall. "And the fact that we've become friends I think helps in the creative process. I think the tremendous amount of excitement and dedication we share for the project comes through on each and every page."

While the friendship they've formed during their work on "Creeper" is invaluable, they say the best part of working on the series is simply seeing the results. "I think the best part is that it's a struggle," grins Chiang. "It's a lot of hard, honest work. We're pushing each other to do our best, and even if that doesn't make it onto paper, I feel like the whole process has been so creatively rewarding."

The synergy between the two is something unique, explains Hall and he adds, "Every time we have a phone conversation about the story and the artwork, something great always comes out of it that's for the benefit of the comic -- so it's always a lot of fun talking about the book. And I love getting the pages from Cliff and seeing the story come to life on the page."

Speaking of the art in "Beware The Creeper," both creators are very proud of how the series looks and are happy to talk about the series' aesthetics. "Cliff's art not only successfully brings the characters to life, but the city of Paris as well," says Hall of his cohort's creative skills. "This story lives and breathes -- this IS the Paris of 1925 and you can't help but feel you're living right there, hanging out at the cafs and art galleries with the gang of expatriates and bohemian artisans, reading about The Creeper's antics. From the subtle expressions on characters faces to the grandeur of the elaborate chase sequences -- Cliff has really outdone himself! And the art style has an unexplainable 'foreign film' quality to it that also adds to the experience of feeling as though you're a part of that world. Between the art and the story, I think we've really brought this world of 1925 Paris to life for the reader."

Chiang makes no secret of the fact that he loved illustrating this mini-series and says that fans will find his style slightly different, but still recognizable. "I enjoy adapting my style to fit a particular project. For the Creeper, it's a much slicker, polished look. It's intended to evoke the look of some of the European comics I love. It's a bit like a cross between Jordi Bernet and Vittorio Giardino. One of the perks of working on period pieces is that you get to buy fantastic reference books. My studio floor is littered with books and copies. Given more time, I'm sure we could make everything 100% authentic, but the most important thing is making sure that it FEELS authentic. I'm sure people will let us know one way or the other!

"I love drawing the characters, and I'll be sorry to see them go when the last page is done. Jason really puts a great deal of thought into the writing, and it makes my job of making the characters "act" that much easier. They have a lot of personality, and it's a welcome challenge to find the right expressions or subtle body language to go with it.

[The Creeper]"That said, there are some really cool visuals as well, and those have been the most difficult. In such a story-driven piece, it's easy to forget that you need to give people something special; something flashy that will make them stop for a moment. Don't know if I've done that, but I tried!"

Those readers who picked up DC's free "Horizon" pamphlet in comic stores recently saw that "Beware The Creeper" is a series featuring some adult situations, specifically the violent sexual abuse of one character, which leads one to ask Chiang how far he'll go in depicting these scenes visually and how far he feels comfortable going. "Neither of us is trying to push the boundaries of what can be shown. I'm not interested in being gratuitous, just telling the story honestly for a mature audience. In some cases, we've consciously toned things down in order to be responsible and tasteful, especially in light of the fact that the Creeper name may draw a different crowd. But if we were to step over the line, DC would let us know."

"I'm definitely not one for gratuitous sex and violence," says Hall adamantly. "Everything needs to serve the story, not just be there for the heck of it. And 'implying' can be such a more powerful tool than simply 'showing.'"

Something else that has fans talking is the new Creeper design, courtesy of Cliff Chiang and he explains that it is, in many ways, a nod to the original Creeper. "Like the original Creeper, the design needed to be pretty bizarre, but I also wanted something strange, dark, and sexy. She looks like a crazy, Goth circus performer to me! This Creeper is really inspired by some of the great French pulp heroes like Diabolik, Fantomas and Irma Vep, and I wanted to reflect that as well.

"The pitch came together very quickly, and I wanted to supply some images with the proposal so everyone could see the visual direction we had planned as well. However, I was on my way to a bachelor party in Las Vegas, so I had to come up with designs while on the road. I think that's where the headdress comes from. It's a nice, kinda theatrical touch. You find inspiration in the strangest places."

One thing that's very comforting for Hall and Chiang is the amount of marketing muscle that DC Comics is putting behind "Beware the Creeper," something that is beyond their wildest dream. "DC's put an unprecedented amount of promotion behind this miniseries," exclaims Chiang. "First, there's the Share the Risk program, which will help retailers order more issues and put more copies in the hands of customers. I think store owners will be surprised at how wide the audience actually is for this book, and if they can just sell that first issue, I really believe the readers will come back for more.

"Then there's the 'Horizon' giveaway, which previews 5 color pages from the first issue. As a customer, if you like what you see, you can make sure your retailer orders you a copy. As the store owner, now that you know what the book looks like, it's not so much of a shot in the dark. It's a wonderful tool to help people make an informed decision about the book.

[Design Sketches for The Creeper]"There's also a very cool, eye-catching promo poster as well. I think DC has a lot of faith in the quality of the book, and know that it just needs to get out there. Sometimes it can be rough trying to live up to those expectations, but it provides greater impetus to do your best work. Though we've both done other recognized work in comics, this somehow feels like a 'debut' for Jason and me. Like the characters in the story, we'd also like to make a splash with it, and it's great to know that DC is behind us.

"More importantly though, I think the audience is really curious to see what this book is all about, and hopefully, we'll do right by them."

There's also feedback that Hall has received from ground level, which means a lot to him. "We're certainly very appreciative of all the support DC is giving the project. Plus, we've heard from a number of retailers who have told us that both themselves and their customers are very excited for the book. That's definitely a great thing to hear."

With all the genuine heart being put into this project by the creators and promotional power from DC, can a "Beware The Creeper" ongoing series be far away? "There was some talk of this early on, at the pitch stage, but who knows? Maybe if everyone buys 3 copies," laughs Chiang. Not missing a beat, Hall adds, "Yeah! Reserve your 3 copies today!"

That foolproof "three copy a person" plan may be undermined by the "wait for collection" mentality that has overtaken many fans and while both creators understand the appeal of tradepaperbacks, they also think that fans need to be realistic about the chances of a collection about the necessary sales. "Well, it's never guaranteed that there WILL be a trade, especially with a new miniseries," admits Chiang. "So it's important that people buy the issues as they come out. Plus, the story has been serialized in a very specific way, and that's the way we want people to read it. There's a very pulp/noir sensibility to it, and that fits in with the monthly schedule. There's a new hook or twist each month, and that's how the story will grab you. If you buy the first issue, I think you'll have to pick up the rest!

"At the very least, it's different from the standard superhero fare. It's a sexy, period action thriller! From the start, Jason and I have had a very clear vision of what we want this book to be, and with that kind of passion behind it, it's worth checking out."

 
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