With three archival editions of Dave Stevens’ beloved and influential “The Rocketeer” now in print — a hardcover collection, a deluxe version with additional supplemental material and an Artist Edition reproducing Stevens’ line art at original Bristol board size — in May, IDW Publishing turns its attention to original material set in the wonder-filled 1930s world Stevens created. “Rocketeer Adventures” is a four-issue anthology miniseries debuting in May, with an all-star cast of creators lined up for each issue. Issue one features stories written and drawn by Mike Allred and John Cassaday and another written by Kurt Busiek and illustrated by Michael Kaluta, with pin ups by Mike Mignola and Jim Silke. The second issue features the talents of Darwyn Cooke, Mark Waid, Chris Weston, Lowell Francis, Gene Ha and Geof Darrow, while the third has a story by Joe Lansdale and Bruce Tim along with contributions from Ryan Sook, Jonathan Ross and Tommy Lee Edwards and a pinup by Joe Chiodo. The contents of “Rocketeer Adventures” #4 have yet to be announced, but each issue will feature covers by Alex Ross.
Stevens’ “Rocketeer” debuted as a backup feature in Mike Grell’s’ Pacific Comics published “Starslayer” then continued into “Pacific Presents” before concluding its first run in “The Rocketeer Special,” published by Eclipse Comics. The character’s second and final adventure was published as “The Rocketeer Magazine,” with the first two issues released by Comico in 1988-89 and the finale arriving in 1995 from Dark Horse. Despite its tortured publication history, “The Rocketeer” is revered by fans and creators alike for its heartfelt nostalgia and Stevens’ energetic and unique artistic style. The story follows the adventures of pilot Cliff Secord, who discovers a prototype jet pack and decides to use it to perform fantastic stunts to earn enough money to give his girlfriend Betty the life she deserves. Things quickly go awry, and soon everyone from crooks and Nazis to federal agents are on Cliff’s tail, trying to recover the top-secret and highly-coveted equipment. “The Rocketeer” proved so popular, it was adapted into a film in 1991 by Walt Disney Pictures.
CBR News spoke with Mike Allred, Kurt Busiek, Michael Kaluta and editor Scott Dunbier about their contributions to “Rocketeer Adventures” on a conference call and later caught up with John Cassaday via email for his thoughts on the series.
The conference call took place while this reporter was en route to Chicago for C2E2 aboard an Amtrak train (“There’s something very period-appropriate about talking about ‘Rocketeer’ with railroad announcements going on in the background,” said Busiek) and the creators began by discussing their first memories of encountering “The Rocketeer” as well as a few anecdotes about Dave Stevens himself.
“The Rocketeer” acted as something of a gateway comic for Mike Allred, as the artist described his early experiences with the comic to CBR. “Comics were around when I was a kid, but I fell away from it for quite a while. When I was reintroduced, it was shortly after I got married. My wife was from Orange, and so part of my reintroduction involved ‘Love and Rockets’ and ‘The Rocketeer’ — a couple of ‘rocket’ titles — and a lot of it had to do with my wife’s local comic shop, Freedonia Funnyworks run by John Koukoutsakis, who happens to be one of Dave Stevens’ best friends,” Allred said. “So I was introduced to all this great comic book work, including ‘The Rocketeer,’ and then was able to magically, luckily, meet the man himself.” Allred told CBR he was introduced to Stevens through their mutual editor Bob Schreck while at the 1990 Comic-Con in San Diego. “I was always struck by what an incredible impact he had made with so few pages and such a unique book — the nostalgia involved, the craft involved,” Allred said of Stevens. “‘The Rocketeer’ was always such a major standout to me, it always meant so much to me on a level of craft and on an emotional level. He was one of the biggest inspirations I ever had.”
“From an early age, I was a bit out of my own time. I was drawn to movie serials, radio shows and the fashions of the ’30s and ’40s,” John Cassaday told CBR. “I saw the Graphitti collection of ‘The Rocketeer’ when I was about 14 or 15 and it immediately clicked on a visceral level. It pulled me in tight. I remember loving the cover to that collection.”
Cassaday’s own sensibilities were a match for Stevens’, which pulled Cassaday further into the book. “Being a sentimental type myself, I think I understand where Dave was coming from. The passion is evident and the attention to detail tells you this clearly began as a labor of love. You can see the love in the line work and the simplicity of the story only adds to the Golden Age atmosphere. And although it’s set in a very specific era, there’s a timeless warmth all over it.”
Busiek said he first encountered ‘The Rocketeer’ by way of the Jack Kirby series “Captain Victory and His Galactic Rangers,” which featured ads for “The Rocketeer” backup features then running in Mike Grell’s “Starslayer.” “The combination of absolutely stunning artwork on ‘The Rocketeer’ with the period setting and pulp subject matter, it just — it was obviously stuff that Dave loved, that I got a big kick out of too. Just as a guy buying comics off the stands, I was hooked and I followed ‘Rocketeer’ wherever it appeared,” he said.
Unlike Allred and Kaluta, Busiek did not have the opportunity to get to know Stevens personally, though they were briefly in touch. “I knew people who knew him, so it was sort of one step away. The only real contact I had with Dave was when Mark Waid and me and some other guys were starting up Gorilla Comics and an online gossip column announced that we were starting a company called Bulldog Comics. Since Bulldog Studios was Dave’s imprint name, this upset him and we sort of went through back channels, communicating with each other to say, no, no, no — it’s just some guy who doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Busiek told CBR.
Kaluta, however, came to know Stevens very well, and in fact contributed art to the second “Rocketeer” arc, “Cliff’s New York Adventure.” Like the others, the legendary artist’s association with Stevens and his creation began from the viewpoint of a fan.”I was surprised by ‘The Rocketeer.’ Not that I was a ‘Starslayer’ reader, but somewhere along the lines I bumped into one of the ‘Rocketeer’ strips as a backup. I was struck between the eyes, [realizing] this is something I wanted a lot more of,” Kaluta said. “Apparently, according to Dave, I wrote a fan letter that begged him to do more work and give the guy his own book — ‘I want a stack of these up to my knee!’ It was everything I’d ever wanted to do, done more.” Kaluta said his own early sketchbooks were filled with faux advertisements in the style of the period, but he had not done any narrative comics in the 1920s-’30s era. “Finding somebody that was so damn dedicated that they built this whole world and they were so honest to their world and such genuine people, nothing about it didn’t ring true. It was like nostalgia reaching out a tentacle and dragging you in — but of course, the pond was very shallow at this time, and I wanted more!”
Like Allred, Kaluta first met Stevens at a San Diego Comic-Con, though his story is a bit more convoluted. “I had got there, I’d come from Europe, people expected me not to show up, so there wasn’t a [hotel] room. I got a room, and I was wandering around. I wound up in a hotel room with a bunch of folks talking about ‘Star Wars,’ and the cast was [John Koukoutsakis, Bob Camp] and Dave, all sitting there talking about the inner workings of ‘Star Wars.’ They’d all seen different bits and bobs, pieces of equipment, so I felt like I’d just come from England — cold, cold England — into this big, warm room full of great stuff!” Kaluta said. “From that point on, Dave and I just kind of kept up conversations and it turned out that he admired the stuff I did.”
This eventually led to Stevens requesting an art assist from Kaluta on “The Rocketeer,” but Kaluta recalled the nature of that aid was left somewhat open to interpretation. “He had called up and softened me up with a lot of praise and then mentioned that he was having a tough time. We were commiserating and then he said, ‘Can you pencil it for me?’ I said, ‘I can’t pencil for you — you draw better than I do!’ ‘Ah, bullshit!’ and blah blah blah,” Kaluta said. “I said I’d give it a shot, so I tried and, oh, it was miserable. If we’d realized that all he needed were breakdowns, I could have done that very easily. That’s what I ended up doing. What he needed was to not have a white piece of paper in front of him, because he did that thing we all do at one time or another: he’d made this big thing up in his mind, then he had to put it on paper and the paper was just way too blank. What I ended up doing for my layouts was very roughly scribbling stuff onto pages — not on purpose, it was just as much as I could do. In frustration, I ended up sending the stuff back. He said, ‘This is great! This is exactly what I need! Just do more of that!'”
Other artists, including Jaime Hernandez, Geof Darrow, Art Adams and Sandy Plunkett, provided Stevens with similar assistance and Kaluta said that the basis for who was involved was based on “whoever said yes, or whoever came up to him and said, ‘I want to work on something.'” “He and Geof were very close pals, so I knew he would have loved to have had him do anything, but it seems to me that whoever worked and however much work they did — some people did a lot more finished work, like Arthur Adams — that eventually those pages came to Dave and he knocked them back a bit and put his hone on them. Then, when he inked them, it looked like his work. My panel-by-panel storytelling, he held in higher regard than his own. Me, I loved to look at the way he did his storytelling, because it was so Jack Cole. Again, it had this honesty of some kid drawing comics! I follow some rules and he wouldn’t follow any rules. ‘We need a picture here, so let’s just put a picture here and draw a circle around it!’ It was just so charming. I felt that the stuff I did for him, it became a story. What was inside the panels was fun, but you could tell when my layouts stopped in the book. You go panel, panel, panel, panel, and then all of a sudden you get a page with twelve or fourteen panels on it, different kinds of angles and things like that — ”
“And that’s Art Adams,” Dunbier chimed in.
“It might be Art Adams, too, but it’s the way Dave liked to do it,” Kaluta said.
While Stevens tended to retain Kaluta’s layouts for pages that he drew, the actual illustrations within those layouts might change drastically. Kaluta described a panel of hands counting money, for which the artist said, “I drew some hands counting out money.” When Stevens received that page, however, “apparently he went next door, photographed some guy’s hands and then did all the work. I looked at it and thought, ‘I wish I drew that!’ But I didn’t; I had some hands in there, but that wasn’t what I had drawn,” Kaluta said. At other times, though, Kaluta was able to advise Stevens on artistic tricks. “There are many things he thought he could not do — which is bullshit, it just meant that he had to put a little more grease on his elbows to get it done — particularly in New York, down shots of buildings and stuff like that. I was lucky enough to be there when he was working on those scenes. And he was whining, basically — those of us who know him know that whining was how he approached his work, as if it was a high-wire act and he wasn’t really ready to go out there. But of course, once he’s out there, he does it. I just got to lean over his shoulder and say, just make the top of the buildings black, don’t worry about the windows, just make the buildings black and the streets are white and go!”
“One thing that really impressed me about Dave was, he really respected other writers and artists tremendously,” Dunbier said. “You look at the different variety of artists that worked with him on ‘Rocketeer.’ Michael, obviously, but also people like Sandy Plunkett, Darrow, all these different creators, Stan [Manoukian] and Vince [Roucher] and Art Adams. One guy he wanted to use was an old pal of mine, Shawn McManus, but Shawn actually didn’t have time. It’s so funny, because I look Sean’s style and I love Sean’s stuff, but stylistically, you don’t think of Dave Stevens. But you don’t think of Dave Stevens when you look at Art Adams, either. Dave was very open to different styles — he was a great collaborator. I think he really believed in the camaraderie of working with other creators.”
“The minute you say ‘Shawn McManus,’ I go, oh, if Shawn McManus penciled something and Dave inked it, that would be very much the Dave Stevens feel and a gorgeous combination,” Busiek said. “Something about Shawn’s expressions — I think Shawn’s expression work and Dave’s expression work are harmonious together.”
When invited to participate in the “Rocketeer Adventures” anthology, Allred said his choice of story was “a no-brainer.” “I just wanted so desperately to see Cliff and Betty get back together again. Even when I first heard of it and was invited to be part of it, I knew that’s what I wanted to do, just to make sure that they’re finally in each other’s arms again,” Allred said.
“In case it’s not obvious from Mike’s work, he is a hopeless romantic,” Dunbier added, a point Allred did not dispute.
“How many artists can you think of who did so relatively few pages and have such legendary status? It goes to show how amazing his work was, how powerful,” Allred said. “It could be so innocent and so incredibly sexy at the same time.”
Allred recalled a few other fond memories both of Stevens and of his creation. “When he was finishing the last chapter [of ‘The Rocketeer’], we shared an editor, Bob Schreck. I just pestered Bob endlessly to send me anything, any time Dave sent him anything. I still have these Xeroxes of half-finished pages, which would be partially pencilled and you see the inks coming on. I just treasure those.”
Allred also recalled “just a wonderful day at his house — it was the rented house, not the one that was destroyed by the earthquake. I was there with John Koukoutsakis, and Dave let me look through every single original page of ‘Rocketeer.’ He kept them in a box. I can’t believe he let me touch them. And so, with the Artist Edition, it’s like I own them.”
Busiek’s story in “Rocketeer Adventures” #1, which Kaluta will illustrate, is “mostly about Betty,” the writer told CBR. “Allred and I seem to be coming from much the same place, but I’m sure with very different results. Scott and I tossed around different ideas about different kinds of pulp story homage that we could do, and I ultimately realized that, in an 8-page story, doing a straight adventure, I just can’t compete with Dave Stevens. Because it all came so much out of his heart that you just can’t equal that. So I said, I’ve got to step back and tell a story that does my sort of thing, that shows the adventure from a human standpoint, from the point of view of the person watching from the sidewalk. We worked up a story that’s, Cliff’s part of it is, he’s off in the Pacific with the Army Air Corps — ”
Dunbier added, “It’s kind of working backwards from the ending, because we’d worked up an idea that we wanted it to end on.”
Busiek continued, “It’s all working back from the last panel, and when people see it, they’ll know why. Betty’s in New York working at a stage show and she’s getting letters from Cliff. Every page has beautiful postcard-type shots of what Cliff is doing in the Pacific. Michael has just absolutely killed on a beautiful period New York setting, whether it’s a restaurant or a hotel lobby or a theatre marquee, you just feel like you could walk into that world.”
Kaluta mentioned that he deviated slightly from Busiek’s script in order to give an image of a hotel lobby “a little more space for more local color.” Busiek added, “Scott and I were talking yesterday about that first page and what magazines those sailors are reading on that splash — ” when Kaluta interjected, “Did you notice the guy on the left was reading his newspaper upside down?” “Kurt pointed that out,” Dunbier said. “I didn’t notice that. It was great.”
“I couldn’t help myself,” said Kaluta.
Then, Busiek: “And the other guys are reading, like, ‘Modern Bride.'” This was appropriate to the setting, Kaluta said, because the hotel is “really more of an actresses’ residence, during the war years there a lot more women in town than men.”
“Anyway, it’s a story that cuts back and forth between Cliff’s letters and what Betty’s experiencing in New York during wartime. The two threads come together at the end in a moment that is perhaps inevitable,” Busiek continued. “I did pester Scott to make sure it would be the last story in the issue. I’m pestering him now that, when the trade paperback is done, I want it to be the last story in the collection. Screw doing it issue by issue, I want that story to be the ending. I haven’t won yet, but I’m still working.”
Kaluta said, whenever Stevens discussed doing new material after “Cliff’s New York Adventure,” Stevens said he wanted to get Cliff and Betty together before doing anything else. “Whether they got together or not, they had to be together in a story before he went on to any other adventure. It was just hanging out there in space. Something had to be resolved to a point more than, ‘She’s back in LA and he’s off fighting in Turkistan or something like that,'” Kaluta recalled. “There was an opportunity for a moment for Adam Hughes and his gang to do Rocketeer books, but Adam admitted he couldn’t do it because of the time involved, he would not get it in the way that they would need. But during that time, I was able to work with Joel Goss on a couple stories for when there was going to be a Rocketeer book. I’d send them over to Dave, he’d chew them up a bit and send them back. I said, ‘Well, when can we get to work on these?’ And he’d say, ‘After I write the story about Cliff and Betty getting together. If he did [write it], I’ve not seen those pages.”
Dunbier added, “Nobody really wants to see these characters separated. They have an interesting and sometimes volatile relationship, but I think people generally want to see the characters together.”
John Cassaday is both writing and drawing his story, something he has done for only a few comics to date, perhaps most notably in “Hellboy: Weird Tales.” He chose to put on his writing hat for “Rocketeer Adventures,” though, because “it’s a special series to me.” “I love the character and the era and, of course, Dave’s gorgeous artwork,” Cassaday added. “It’s the first sequential art I’ve done in a while and it felt like the right thing to do. I wanted to really step forward and give it a go. I hope the care and respect shows in the work.”
Though Cassaday was less specific about details for the story he’ll be telling, what he did reveal sounds like a classic Rocketeer escapade. “Without getting into particulars, I went forward with a story I thought reflected the spirit of the series. I wanted to keep it brief and a bit loony. I’m picking it up in the middle of a story — as if the Rocketeer had been on adventures in between the last volume Dave produced and now.”
In closing, Dunbier reminded fans that a portion of proceeds from “Rocketeer Adventures” will go to a worthy cause. “Dave passed away a few years ago of a disease called hairy cell leukemia. It’s very important to Dave’s mom Carolyn Stevens that a portion of the profits of this book be donated to hairy cell leukemia research,” Dunbier said. “That will be happening. When you buy a copy of the comic or the trade, money will be going directly to hairy cell leukemia research. That was also important to the people who worked on the book.”
“Rocketeer Adventures” #1 is on sale in May.