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“The Rocketeer”: Seven Issues That Influenced a Generation

by  in Comic News, Movie News Comment
“The Rocketeer”: Seven Issues That Influenced a Generation

Disney plans to return “The Rocketeer” to the big screen with an apparent sequel to the 1991 cult classic, this time with an African-American female pilot in the title role. The original, of course, was based on the 1930s rocket pack-wearing comic book character created in 1982 by Dave Stevens, who passed away in 2008 age of 52 from hairy cell leukemia.

In the Rocketeer, he left behind a striking legacy: a character who made it into a film years before Spider-Man and the X-Men, and yet had only appeared in seven comic book stories by Stevens in the nine years between his debut in 1982’s “Starslayer” #2 and the release of the adaptation. What made the Rocketeer so special?

The main answer is undoubtedly Stevens himself. While still a teenager in the early 1970s, he made a name for himself on the fanzine scene with his impressive artistic abilities, drawing covers for such titles as “Mysticogryfil” and “Destiny Science Fiction.” He was active in comic book fan groups and even visited Jack Kirby with one of them (Kirby’s home in California was often be visited by adoring fans in the early ’70s). Mark Evanier wrote about the first time he met Stevens in an excellent tribute to the artist upon his passing: “Our first encounter was at Jack Kirby’s house around 1971 when he came to visit and show Jack some of his work. As I said, Kirby was very encouraging and he urged Dave not to try and draw like anyone else but to follow his own passions. This was advice Dave took to heart.”

Stevens’ work was passed around in the early days of San Diego Comic Con and in 1975, he impressed yet another legendary artist, Russ Manning, enough to get a gig working for Manning on the “Tarzan” comic strip when Stevens was just 19 years old. Now working as a professional comic artist, though, Stevens realized that his dream was not what he expected it to be. In an awesome career-spanning interview with Jon B. Cooke in “Comic Book Artist” #10, Stevens explained:

Cooke: Did you ever think, when you were 15, that you wanted to be a comic book artist?
Stevens: Only ever.
Cooke: Then by the time you’re 19, you’re like, absolutely not.
Stevens: But, that was after doing it for a year and realizing it was not fun. The repetition of it was what was killing me. Being strapped to a drawing board for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for me, was just absolute death, and still is.

In 1977, Stevens began working as a storyboard artist for Hanna-Barbera on “Super Friends” and “Godzilla,” where he befriended Doug Wildey, the famed creator of “Jonny Quest,” who would prove to be his most significant mentor (Stevens even used Wildey as the visual inspiration for Peevy, the best friend of Cliff Secord, aka the Rocketeer). Stevens bounced around jobs for the remainder of the decade and the start of the next, working as an advertising artist, producing a short-lived comic book series in Japan and serving as a storyboard artist for “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video.

Stevens gained more and more experience as he reached his late 20s, and it all came together when he was given a chance to pitch a secondary story for Pacific Comics’ “Starslayer” #2 (Mike Grell did the main story). He was a fan of 1940s adventure serials, particularly “Rocket Man,” which was remade in the early ’50s as “Commando Cody.” Stevens went back to his childhood heroes to inspire his new creation, a young man who discovers an experimental rocket pack and used it to fight crime as … The Rocketeer (clearly a nod to Rocket Man/Commando Cody). Stevens’ storyboarding skills led to a phenomenal sense of storytelling, while his own talent with facial features made for some stunningly expressive work. The result was a dynamic but somehow grounded piece of comic book art. (Note: The “Rocketeer” art featured in this article comes from IDW Publishing’s 2009 reprints of the original stories, recolored by Laura Martin, who was selected by Stevens himself for the task.)

The response to the back-up story was electric: Harlan Ellison famously came up to Stevens after the first two “Rocketeer” stories and said, ” YOU – you’re the guy who draws THE ROCKETEER!! You’re alright with me, kid!” Stevens broke out at the same time other 1980s creators like Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, Dean Motter and Matt Wagner made their debuts in independent comics, forming a “new wave” of artists. Pacific naturally wanted to cash in on the response to “Rocketeer,” but Stevens was such a perfectionist that he was never going to devote himself to a monthly series. When Pacific Comics folded — after publishing four “Rocketeer” adventures, with the final one ending in a cliffhanger — Stevens finished the first “Rocketeer” story for Eclipse Comics, which also released a trade paperback collection of the initial five stories (as another homage to the past, Stevens worked in characters from “Doc Savage” into the first story).

One of the other areas that made the “Rocketeer” stand out was in Cliff Secord’s girlfriend, Betty. A longtime admirer of the pin-up girls of the 1940s and 1950s, Stevens based Betty’s appearance on none other than Bettie Page. After all, Kirby told the young artist to follow his passions, and drawing women who looked like Bettie Page was very much Stevens’.

The romance between Cliff and Betty was refreshing for comics of the era and made “The Rocketeer” relatable. The story was so relatable that it was little surprise that Hollywood took interest. The comic was initially optioned in 1983, but nothing came of it. Stevens recalled to Cooke:

[I]n 1985, I got together with the two writers, Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo, and believed in them enough to give them a free option for it for as long as it took to sell it because I really felt that they had the right sensibility for it; they came from the same roots as me. They understood what I was reaching for. Within that same year, we met Bill Dear, who was directing “Harry and the Hendersons.” In fact, Bill sought us out. So, again, another kindred spirit fell in as director and co-writer. Then we just started working on the story. We soon pitched it, literally, to every studio in town and they all passed on it. This was 1986, long before “Batman” or “Dick Tracy” or anything similar. In those days, no studio was interested at all in an expensive comic book movie. We got there about three years too early for our own good!

During that period, Stevens started a new “Rocketeer” adventure at Comico Comics. The seventh “Rocketeer” comic book story (“Cliff’s New York Adventure,” which, following the nod to “Doc Savage,” borrowed characters from “The Shadow”) stalled out in 1989 and wasn’t finished until seven years later (at Dark Horse Comics) — five years after the release of “The Rocketeer” film.

Disney ultimately decided to adapt “The Rocketeer,” which was initially to be released through Touchstone Pictures, the distribution label for films aimed at an adult audience. Those plans changed, however, with the studio deciding that “The Rocketeer” would appear under the Disney name. That meant director Joe Johnston’s movie to be toned down dramatically, particularly when it came to Cliff’s girlfriend, who was renamed “Jenny” and now looked nothing like Bettie Page. The film was a financial disappointment, but went on to become a cult classic (its art deco movie poster is one of the most famous of the era).

After completing the Comico series in 1996 for Dark Horse, Stevens never created another “Rocketeer” story, opting instead to spent most of his time as an illustrator, especially of “good girl” pin-up artwork. During that period, Stevens became friends with Bettie Page herself, and the two remained close until his death in 2008 (Page passed away nine months later at age 85).

Stevens’ “Rocketeer” work was clearly a major inspiration for comic book companies during the 1980s, as there was a boom in 1930s/1940s-style series following its success. Pacific launched “Crash Ryan,” and Eclipse later experienced a lot of success with a revival of the Golden Age hero Airboy. (Stevens produced some “Airboy” covers himself as part of a deal with Eclipse that let him out of his contract for future “Rocketeer” comics.) Similarly, Bettie Page’s “appearance” in “The Rocketeer” launched a revival of “good girl” comic book art, and a renewed interest in Page herself. Stevens was basically a force of nature: Everywhere he went, people followed.

Following Stevens’ death, IDW published a number of rather good “Rocketeer” comic book series. There now have been more “Rocketeer” comics produced by other creators than by Stevens himself. However, those original seven stories remain as some of the most influential comics of the 1980s.

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