It's all about the coloring!
Yes, The Rocketeer received a makeover recently, courtesy of the phenomenal colorist, Laura Martin, who was handpicked by Dave Stevens before his death last year. IDW has brought out an extremely handsome new hardcover for $30 (and you can also get the super-huge version for $75 - it has all sorts of sketches and whatnot and has bigger dimensions that this version, so Stevens' art is even more amazing, presumably), and it's totally worth it.
That doesn't mean there aren't flaws with the work, though.
But let's start with the artwork, because Martin has done a spectacular job recoloring it. Chris Sims pointed out the differences in the original and the new version and got a bunch of comments from people expressing their preference for the old job, but those people are, to coin a phrase, wrong. Yes, some comics are fine the way they are with non-digital, flatter colors. Kirby's work comes to mind, because Kirby wasn't really about realism, was he? (In the same way, Tom Scioli's artwork benefits from coloring that keeps it flat.) But Stevens' art deserves the depth that Martin give it. It is wonderful art, and the coloring that was available in the 1980s simply doesn't do it justice. Perhaps the incorrect people who liked the original coloring more appreciated it because it made the book look more like a "comic book" while Martin's recoloring makes it look more three-dimensional and cinematic, but I say pooh. Martin adds depth to the scenes, a very nice 1930s pulp sheen to the book (which, from what I've seen of the original, is lacking) and really gives the book a sense of place - New York is very different from Los Angeles, for instance. From what I've seen of the original (this is the first time I've ever read the comic), it had much more of a bright, cartoony feel to it, and although that works for comics, Stevens obviously had a more pulp vibe going on, and Martin helps create this. The characters look real, too - in the original, they looked more like comic book characters and Cliff's outfit looked a bit more like spandex, while Martin makes the people - even Betty - more real, and Cliff is obviously wearing actual clothing. Let's compare and contrast, using one of the more famous images and the very next page:
Even without the coloring, Stevens' pencil art is marvelous, of course. He has a great knack in creating people who react beautifully and realistically to situations, from Cliff's crazy jealousy to Peevy's consternation to Betty's concern. Stevens was very keen on making this a 1930s epic, and so we get excellent period clothing and cars and equipment. The characters look like they're living in the Thirties, and when you consider that The Rocketeer was setting this trend, it's impressive how well Stevens does with the time period.
It's easy to look at this book after thirty years of comics mining the 1930s for pulp stories and think that Stevens isn't doing anything we haven't seen dozens of times. But back in the 1980s, this wasn't terribly common, and The Rocketeer is a very nice example of not only a gorgeous comic but an amazingly influential one as well. Obviously, Stevens' depiction of Betty is the thing that always gets mentioned in terms of influence, but the pulpiness of the story, the blending of the real world with superheroics (Cliff isn't technically a superhero, but he's close enough), and the impressive, "realistic" art style have influenced a generation of comics creators. If for nothing else (and it offers a lot), this is a book to own simply for the seminal influence it had and still has on comics.
On the other hand ... it's not really that good a story, is it? I mean, even if we ignore the fact that Stevens is treading new ground and therefore we can excuse some of the clichés, it's a bit silly. Stevens doesn't do much with the bad guys hunting for Cliff, to the point where we don't really know if anyone cares that Cliff takes off for New York with the rocket pack. The idea Peevy has about the identity of a few of the people vexing Cliff is interesting but opens up a whole new bunch of questions about what's going on. The climax to the first arc is strangely enervating, as Cliff runs out of fuel in the jet pack and has to rely on someone else to defeat the Nazis. It should have been more exciting, but it wasn't. The second story in New York, which involves circus performers from Cliff's past, ends much better, even though Cliff is somewhat ineffectual in that, too. The point that Stevens is making seems to be that Cliff really is not very good at being a hero, and I have no problem with that, but it's kind of odd that Cliff doesn't get any better. Obviously, this is a short series and Stevens probably had more planned, so I can deal with it a little, but it's still odd. (Does anyone know why Stevens never did any more issues? The final three issues came out in 1995, and then ... nothing.
I know he got sick later in life, but I wonder if that was the sole reason.) Cliff is kind of a jerk, too, and while I don't mind the protagonists being somewhat unlikable, the fact that Betty keeps falling for his crap feels off, as if Cliff is the hero, so of course he's going to get the girl no matter how he acts. Cliff treats everyone in his life like dirt, and yet they keep trying to help him out. He doesn't seem to have changed since his time in the circus, when his jerkiness led to tragedy. It's very weird reading this, because as a pulp adventure, you expect the hero to be a bit sarcastic and jealous, but I was actively rooting against Cliff throughout the entire comic. I doubt if Stevens wanted that, but if he did, well done!
And yet, I recommend this. Stevens may have needed to hire a writer, which would have allowed him to concentrate on the art, but let's face it - you don't buy this for the sterling writing. Stevens is able to tell two entertaining stories (with the exception of that first climax) and the book looks truly amazing. Betty, despite her va-va-voomness, actually does look like a real woman and, despite her foolishness in going back to Cliff all the time, is actually a pretty well developed character. The comic looks absolutely gorgeous, and as a historical document, it's fairly important, as comics go. Stevens may have died far too young, but this comic is a tremendous legacy.
[Edited to add: Laura Martin discusses the coloring process over at her blog. It's extremely fascinating, especially when she shows how Stevens himself would have colored the book.