Mark Waid and Chris Samnee turned heads in 2012 with “The Rocketeer: Cargo of Doom,” the first long-form story featuring the character since creator Dave Stevens’ death in 2008. Released by IDW Publishing, “Cargo of Doom” proved that the Rocketeer remains a viable character and property as the series was both a critical and sales success.
This Spring, IDW hopes lightning can strike twice cartoonist and “Thor: The Mighty Avenger” writer Roger Langridge and “X-Statix” and “Super Friends” artist J. Bone team for “The Rocketeer: Hollywood Horror.” The mini tells a tale of of Cliff Secord, a stunt pilot who discovers a prototype rocket-pack in 1938 and uses it to fight crime, and his adventures while investigating a potentially supernatural cult in the hills of Hollywood.
Langridge and Bone spoke with CBR about introducing horror to the adventure-filled world of the Rocketeer, which movies Bone watched in order to bone up on 1930s styles, their thoughts on the 1991 “Rocketeer” film, staying true to Stevens’ legacy and more.
â€¨CBR News: What’s the basic premise behind “The Rocketeer: Hollywood Horror?”
Roger Langridge: The gist is this: there’s a new guy who’s popped up in Hollywood called Otto Rune who is the head of something called the Church of Cosmicism, and he’s trying to whip folks up into a lather about the End Times, as these guys tend to do. After a friend of Betty’s goes missing while investigating Rune, Betty picks up where she left off — and of course, where Betty goes, the Rocketeer is never far behind!
Basically, Otto Rune is kind of an opposite number to the Rocketeer — where the Rocketeer exemplifies science, beauty and hope, Rune exemplifies superstition, ugliness and fear. That was my starting point. Then I started thinking about a certain horror writer (the name of Rune’s church should be a clue as to which one!), and things kind of fell into place.
J. Bone: What Roger said.
Will we see any outright horror aspects in this new series?
Langridge: Yes, although quite late in the day — we’re saving that for the climax, mainly. You’ll see the odd tentacle out of the corner of your eye as we build up to that point, though. I’m not a big horror fan, but the kind I like is when things are hinted at rather than spelled out. That said, this is always going to be more of an adventure series than a horror one — albeit one with some pretty grotesque looking characters. That’s the template established by Dave Stevens, and we won’t be straying far from that.
Bone: I’m with Roger in that I prefer horror to be off panel as much as possible. It’s scarier when the reader imagines what awful, tentacley thing is scaring the living daylights out of our hero(es.)
So, does Ciff remain the same version of the character that Dave Stevens used?
Langridge: As far as it’s possible for us to do, yes. Our story takes place after the Stevens material, though not long after — the original stories were set in 1938; ours takes place in 1939, so Cliff is a little more confident, a little more established as the Rocketeer, but the status quo is basically the same. We’ve found a way to strip away some of that confidence, so he’ll resemble Stevens’ very early version of the character for much of the story, the guy who had a rocket pack he didn’t know how to control and had no idea what he was doing. For me, that kind of cluelessness and struggle to keep things together is an essential part of the character’s appeal.
Bone: I obviously don’t draw like Dave, but I have a lot of the same love of that era and am doing as much research as I can to ensure I represent the time period. My approach to the character’s behavior is a little of the wide-eyed excited Secord Dave drew — with the cockiness of a guy who’s been a pilot for most of his life.
How familiar were each of you with “The Rocketeer” before taking on this new assignment?
Langridge: I’ve been reading since almost the very beginning. My first encounter with “The Rocketeer” was when it was one of the features in “Pacific Presents,” alongside Steve Ditko’s “Missing Man.” I picked the book up for the Ditko, but I stuck around for “The Rocketeer” — and I’ve followed the character ever since. I had to go back and re-read everything when I got the gig — I hadn’t looked at the Stevens stuff for a few years — but there wasn’t so much of it that that seemed like a chore. Quite the reverse, in fact!
Bone: I’ve been a “Rocketeer” fan since the movie came out in ’91. I was in high school and a regular reader of “Starlog” and “Comics Scene.” I think both of those mags had a lot of coverage of the movie and of Dave Stevens. I hunted down the comic books at my local shop (I come from a small town so there was only the one store.) Since then, I’ve watched “The Rocketeer” at least once a year and listen to the soundtrack often, especially if I’m drawing actiony comics.
Plus, as a young nerdy kid I was super excited that Doc Savage appeared in Dave Stevens’ first “Rocketeer” story. My dad has a near complete set of “Doc Savage” Bantam editions, which I was reading at the time. I also met Bill Campbell at my first San Diego Comic Con and got an autographed 8″x10″. Plus, a buddy of mine worked at Disney and got me into the props warehouse where I tried on the movie version rocket pack and helmet. Do I have photos of that event? No. I do not. That makes me sad.
Beat that, Roger. 😉
Langridge: I concede! Your Rocketeer-Fu is truly mighty.
Roger, what’s your take on the Joe Johnston-directed film?
Langridge: Oh, I thought it was great. It managed to be pretty faithful to the comics while still being enough of a self-contained thing to appeal to an audience who’d never read them — which, was, let’s face it, most of ’em. I never did understand why the film wasn’t a much bigger success than it was, though it got some pretty nice reviews at the time, I think. Just not enough bums in seats. By a weird coincidence, I watched the movie with my kids the weekend before Scott Allie approached me asking if I’d be interested in writing this series. Talk about timing — that was the first time I’d seen it since it came out. Still holds up, I reckon!
How much pressure is there to live up to Dave Stevens’ legacy?
Langridge: I don’t know if there’s quite as much pressure for us as there would have been for Mark Waid and Chris Samnee when they did “Cargo of Doom.” That was the one everybody really had their eyes on to make sure they didn’t screw it up. I thanked Mark recently for taking that bullet for us! I avoided reading most of their series while I was working on mine in case I was unconsciously influenced by their take on the character, but I did read the first issue, and I think they pulled it off really well. But of course, nobody who works on the character would want to undermine the Stevens material in any way. I don’t think anybody who’s worked on the character thinks there’s anything broken in those stories that needs fixing, really — the foundations are so solid.
Bone: I wish Dave was still around to see how much love there is for the Rocketeer. But I also think I’d be even more nervous (terrified, even) if Dave saw how I’m drawing his characters. I drew Cliff and Betty in a short story for one of the last Rocketeer adventure books, so I think that experience sort of prepared me for a full-length adventure. In fact, I was pretty much chomping at the bit to draw the Rocketeer again.
Roger, as a writer, who is the character of the Rocketeer to you? How do you envision him?
Langridge: Well, like I said, I find him most appealing when he’s not quite in control of events. I guess I think of him as the everyman superhero — a bit like Spider-Man, I guess, only more so. He’s the hero that any one of us could be. He stumbled upon the rocket pack by accident, he lives in a world where the fantastic and supernatural don’t really happen and fate always seems to be dealing him a bum hand. That’s so easy to identify with. He’s an ordinary guy who’s trying to make the best of a lot of really unlikely and difficult situations, trying to figure out the right thing to do without anybody to guide him a lot of the time. That’s almost a metaphor for early adulthood. Also, he’s brave! Braver than he realizes, possibly. If you told him he was brave he’d probably laugh.
Shifting from the character to his environment, why do you think people remain so attracted to the 1930s era of American history?
Langridge: I don’t know about people generally — maybe it’s the sense of potential, the sense that the future still lay ahead and the only way forward was up — but for a lot of cartoonists, I think it’s the aesthetics of the period that are a big part of the attraction. Art Deco is a big part of the look of “The Rocketeer,” and that’s hugely appealing. Mechanized manufacturing hadn’t completely taken over at that point, so there are still a lot of things that had an obvious human touch that were a part of everyday life. The setting of “The Rocketeer,” with its Hollywood background, is another element at play here, too: some of the greatest stars ever to appear in film were in their prime during this period, so that’s got to be a part of the attraction as well, I think.
Bone: I’m no history major. In fact, I’m not American. But the period is right in the middle of two major events — the depression and World War II. It’s an interesting transitional time. There’s the beauty of design in Art Deco to appreciate, as well as some really good Jazz and Swing music. And, as Roger mentions, all those great Hollywood stars. Artistically, that era of American History has a whole lot to offer. Part of my research is watching a bunch of my favorite movies that take place in or around the ’30s.
Which movies have you watched, specifically?
Bone: So far, I’ve watched “A Day at the Races,” “The Big Sleep,” “Maltese Falcon,” “The Thin Man,” “A Shriek in the Night,” “House of Dracula” and “Holiday” (a terrific little Cary Grant / Katharine Hepburn movie). I’ve also had “Ed Wood” playing quite a few times because it’s got some great Hollywood locations. Now, those aren’t all from the ’30s, but the feeling of the era is what I’m going for. I try to watch for body language and mannerisms I can use in my storytelling. I look at backgrounds for nice furniture and wall treatments. That’s the sort of stuff I think helps create a real world.
The influence of each movie is sort of spread out over different elements of the pages so far. I did use something from “House of Dracula” for the big reveal on the last page of issue one.
Langridge: So glad you mentioned “Holiday!” It’s a favorite of mine. Very underrated.
Jay, as an artist and designer, what do you think is the visual appeal of the Rocketeer’s uniform? His costume has always stuck out as unique when compared to other superheroes.
Bone: Funny, but until you asked this question I never realized — I’ve never thought of the Rocketeer as a superhero. He’s a regular guy who finds a fantastic object that gives him the power of flight, and he uses that “power” to do good things. I mentioned Doc Savage before, and I’ve also read a couple of the Shadow books, The Avenger (another Lester Dent creation), The Spider, and as a kid I had some audio tapes of old Shadow radio broadcasts. In my mind, the Rocketeer fits in with those pulp characters as if he was actually created at the same time. To me, Cliff is a pulp hero. His helmet, jacket and jodhpurs are just the clothes he wears. Okay, the helmet is special, but the rest is just like the Shadow in his hat, cloak and scarf, and Doc Savage in his torn shirt.
When I’m drawing the Rocketeer in full gear I have to be careful that I don’t draw him too wide. I want to broaden his shoulders so you get a real “V” shape out of the coat, and then the helmet sits on top of that like a shiny, finned hood ornament. But Cliff is a slender-ish guy and I reign in my tendency to exaggerate. A little.
Can I also mention how much I love drawing Betty? In fact, all the women’s fashion from that era — my goodness, did women dress well back then. I don’t want to give any character surprises away, but there are two in particular that I would love to draw in their own comic book! I shan’t name them here, but you’ll know ’em when you see ’em. Roger writes them so particularly well that I suspect he actually has drinks with them on a regular basis.
Langridge: If they’re the ones I think you mean, I always insist they leave their dog at home.
“The Rocketeer: Hollywood Horror,” written by Roger Langridge with art by J. Bone, goes on sale February 27 from IDW Publishing.