At WonderCon 2012 during the IDW Publishing panel, writer Mark Waid swooped in dressed in a leather jacket and Rocketeer helmet to announce his work on the upcoming miniseries “The Rocketeer: Cargo of Doom,” starring the 1930s superhero created by the late Dave Stevens. Recently, he had the same level of enthusiasm when talking about the four-issue miniseries.
Waid has been a Rocketeer fan from the earliest days of Stevens’ creation. “I was picking up ‘Pacific Presents,’ and I saw my first Rocketeer story, the first Rocketeer story,” he said. “I was taken immediately. The craft of it was amazing. Even though it was printed on crappy paper, with muddy colors, as it was in the day, compared to what we have now, it really sang to me. That guy could flat-out draw. My God. And I bought everything with the Rocketeer name on it.”
As for what it is about the Rocketeer that appeals so strongly to Waid, he’s quick to cite the character’s lack of super powers. “He’s a regular Joe who can fly. He didn’t come with super powers,” Waid said. “He’s sort of a garage-kit superhero. I think that there’s also something interesting about how he is sort of uniquely on the cusp of two things — the last of the pulp adventure heroes, and the first of the comic-book superheroes. He falls in that odd twilight, which has a foot in both the worlds of pulps and comics.”
It was partially because of his love for the character that Waid was wary when editor Scott Dunbier first approached him about participating in the “Rocketeer Adventures” anthology. “I don’t think I could have been the first guy,” Waid said. “I think that if no one else had touched Rocketeer, and then IDW came to me and said, ‘Okay, we want you to do some Rocketeer stuff,’ I don’t think I could have done it.” But participating in an anthology along with other creators eased Waid’s mind, and piqued his curiosity about working more with the character. “The funny thing is, when you get in there and write some Rocketeer, as I did, you find you like it more than you thought you did,” he said. “It’s kind of fun to play around in that world, and those characters have unique voices. It’s sort of an action-adventure period drama that you don’t get to do in other comics right now.”
So when Dunbier asked Waid to develop a Rocketeer miniseries, he was more than open to the possibility, but still needed some extra incentive. “And then [Dunbier] threw out Chris Samnee,” Waid said of the series’ artist. “I can’t not do it with Chris Samnee. I love Samnee’s work on Thor with Roger Langridge. He’s a good storyteller, great for the period.” Even then, Waid was hesitant. “And then the insidious thing happened, which is that [Dunbier] said, ‘All right, well, think about villains.’ I went to bed that night and I started thinking about the villains, and the set pieces, and other pastiche elements that Dave had maybe used or not used, and I came up with something that was a springboard for the story that I was so excited about. I called him back the next morning, and then he knew he had me.”
What is that hook that had Waid so eager to jump onboard with the series? “I can’t say the exact eureka moment without spoiling too much,” Waid said, “but I can certainly tell you that what occurred to me is the idea of this mysterious cargo ship that sails into the Los Angeles harbor, and what it has beneath its decks, what it’s holding there.” Cliff Secord, the hero known as the Rocketeer, ends up entangled in the threat of the cargo ship and what it’s carrying. “The intent is to unleash the cargo on New York City, and in doing so strike back at Cliff’s mentors, this mysterious bronze man who built the rocket pack, and Mr. Jonas, the hawk-nosed detective who Cliff has worked for in the past,” Waid said. “This cargo was meant to destroy them and then destroy New York, and it stops in Los Angeles, as it would, along the way, and through a horrible set of setbacks, Cliff ends up in the middle of that. And now it’s up to Cliff to save Los Angeles from what’s in the cargo hold.”
But saving Los Angeles isn’t the only thing on Cliff’s mind in “Cargo of Doom.” He also has a new potential love interest, a character Waid is introducing for the first time. She’s the niece of Cliff’s engineer Peevy and rival to Cliff’s longtime girlfriend Betty. “I thought, ‘I feel bad for Cliff. Betty treats him like crap. Betty just walks all over that boy,'” Waid said. “Maybe it would be nice to introduce Peevy’s niece, a young girl who is a grease monkey, a tomboy, who has a huge crush on Cliff, and looks at Cliff the same way that Cliff looks at Betty. And that love triangle, not only does it bring us a lot of comedy in the miniseries, but it also brings us a lot of heart. This new girl is a good girl, and she’s Peevy’s niece, and Peevy’s not going to want any messing around with his precious niece.”
Waid doesn’t take introducing new characters into Stevens’ beloved world lightly. “First off, you make sure they bring something unique to the table, otherwise, don’t clutter the area with repetitive characters,” he said. “But more than that, you make sure they have a voice. You really work hard to make them real, to make them feel like real characters and not cartoons.” To that end, Waid spent time researching movies and radio shows and literature of the 1930s and ’40s, and found his greatest inspiration in an unexpected place: “Of all things, oddly enough, the Archie comics of the early 1940s. I was reading the first few of them in an archive format, and they were so full of slang and idiom that was completely alien to me. I’d never heard these slang terms before, and I’m a student of the era.”
Artist Samnee is also a student of the era, bringing an authentic 1930s flavor to his art. “He’s capturing the period with such aplomb that you would think he must have either the world’s greatest reference library to the 1930s, or he’s got a time machine in his basement,” Waid said. “He can tell a story like nobody’s business. He can design a page as well as anybody I’ve ever seen in this industry. His drawing is flawless, in that he knows not to over-clutter and over-doodle. It’s very slick. Stylistically, it’s a little different than Dave’s because it’s not as slick, but it’s as economical. Every line has a purpose; every line tells a story.”
After “Cargo of Doom” ends, Waid would be open to the possibility of returning to the world of the Rocketeer. “Now that I’ve gone this far, I can see other places to play here,” he said. “I can see other areas around the margins where there’s some creative elbow room.” He will not, however, be engaging in any more Rocketeer cosplay. “I’m not going to be dressed up as Betty anytime soon,” he laughed. “That’s a little creepy.”
“The Rocketeer: Cargo of Doom” #1 is available from IDW in August.