Friday, April 12, 2013

Recommended Reading for 4/12: The Rocketeer

I have a deep affection for the pulps. Comics would not exist as they do without their antecedents in the pulps; and let's be frank, of all superheroes, Batman could be easily picked up and dropped into the same pages as The Shadow, The Spider, and Doc Savage and fit in perfectly. But of all comics that have ever aspired to work in the style of the classic pulps (and possibly even more in the style of classic movie serials of the same era), none have been more successful than Dave Stevens's The Rocketeer. Two fisted tales with girls, guns, and Nazis, The Rocketeer is a modern classic of comics. And if your only experience with The Rocketeer is from the 1991 movie, trust me you've only scratched the surface.

The Rocketeer is a hero in the classic pulp vein: he has no real powers, but he's a guy with a sense of right and wrong who gets in over his head and fights his way out of it. Cliff Secord is a stunt pilot who stumbles across a stolen prototype rocket pack, and decides to wear it because, hey, if you could fly, why wouldn't you, especially of you're already a pilot who loves the air? But of course there are people who want it back, including the fifth columnists who stole it and the associates of the man who built it. So Cliff, dubbed the Rocketeer, is quickly up to his neck in trouble.

Stevens crafted Cliff as a very human hero. This isn't a square-jawed and noble Superman, or a dark and haunted Batman. Cliff is a guy who loves his adventures and simply gets involved with helping people because it's the right thing to do. But Cliff has character flaws that balance his better nature. He is impetuous, leaping before looking, which is pretty clear from the beginning when he decides to, oh I don't know, strap an experimental rocket he found to his back and try to fly with it. He is also almost pathologically jealous of every man who crosses paths with his girlfriend, Betty. And I mean, jealous to the point of starting fights with pretty much any guy who looks at her. Sometimes he's right, but often he's not, and this gets Cliff into plenty of trouble too.

Betty is the most important supporting character in The Rocketeer, and is the only to be featured in all of the Stevens stories. While Peevey, Cliff's mechanic and pseudo-father figure, helps him establish the Rocketeer gear, and Goose, his old friend, becomes Cliff's guide when he visits New York, it is Betty who drives so much of the action. Betty is also a character clearly loved by Stevens. Stevens was a talented artist, and one who drew amazing women. Not 90s-era illogically proportioned ones, but women who resembled the pin-ups of the 20s and 30s, the era he so loved. And Betty is a  direct homage to the most legendary and notorious of all those pin-up girls, Betty Page. Aside from being strikingly beautiful, Betty's tough and sassy, and doesn't take crap from Cliff, whose jealousy gets on her bad side, and proves she can take care of herself when push comes to shove. But it seems like they always wind up back together, because this is heroic fiction after all, and boy always gets girl in the end.

And on the subject of Betty and Stevens love of the 30s, his art is what elevates The Rocketeer from just another pulp homage into something superior. Stevens art is luscious, soft, and a feast for the eyes. His detail work was impressive, made even moreso by the thorough research he must have done to get the planes to look as spot on as they do and to make the world  breathe the 30s. Whether its California airfields or the streets of New York, there's a feeling of authenticity that you could fall into. Unfortunately, you can also see that Stevens often had to use other artists to work over his layouts at times, since he worked at a pace that made modern creators like Bryan Hitch look like Jack Kirby in his prime. There were years in between issues of the series due to Stevens pace, and I think that might actually help add to the mystique of The Rocketeer.

There are actually only two Rocketeer stories that Dave Stevens completed before his premature passing from cancer. The first is the story that the film is based on, an origin story with Nazis and G-Men. It's got the feel of the classic movie serials, with chases and a daring aerial rescue from the title hero. The second story, called "Cliff's New York Adventure" is more akin to the darker pulps or Dick Tracy, where we learn more about Cliff's past and encounter a serial killer murdering circus performers. They are two very distinct stories, tonally, but both fit into this pulp world that Stevens crafted. It is a testament to Stevens ability that so little material has inspired so much love from both fans and other creators.

Stevens also demonstrated his love of the pulps by working classic pulp figures into his Rocketeer stories, although their names are never said; these are inside jokes for fans, and it also helps to avoid rights issues. The creator of the rocketpack is hinted at throughout the series, and stands revealed at the end of the first arc as Doc Savage. The Shadow figures heavily into the New York story, and I think adds to the air of darkness and mystery that pervades that story. The post-Stevens Rocketeer, which I'll talk about in a bit but isn't the focus of this piece, also feature these kinds of cameos, with appearances of Skull Island of King Kong fame, John Sunlight (Doc Savage's archfoe), and Nick and Nora Charles with their dog Asta.

I think that those of you who haven't ever read The Rocketeer still might be familiar with the character through the film adaptation done by Disney in 1991. While the film does not hit every note of Stevens  (one major difference is replacing Doc Savage with Howard Hughes for rights reasons), I think it beautifully captures the feeling of the comics. Billy Campbell plays Cliff perfectly, and a young Jennifer Connelly is wonderful as Jenny (renamed, I think, to again avoid any issues with Betty Page licensing). Alan Arkin play Peevey, and pretty much steals every scene he's in, and Timothy Dalton is a delight as unctuous Nazi agent and actor Neville Sinclair. The production design practically lifts right out of the comic, and the flight effects still stand up pretty well today. A 20th anniversary blu-ray was released a couple years ago, so if you might be a person who has read the comic and not scene the movie, or has scene neither, it's well worth checking out.

And now a random bit of Rocketeer trivia. The Rocketeer began as a back-up story in Mike Grell's Starslayer, which seemed to be a launching point for iconic late 80s-early 90s series, as it's back-up features also featured John Ostrander's legendary and criminally uncollected Grimjack.

The Rocketeer is not a dead property, despite the passing of its creators. IDW Publishing has picked up the license and has done a series of mini-series that take the characters Stevens created in new directions. After two Rocketeer Adventures anthologies featuring many of today's best creators, Mark Waid and Chris Samnee, the current creative team on Marvel's excellent Daredevil, did Cargo of Doom, where the Rocketeer got to fight dinosaurs over the skies of LA, and currently Roger Langridge and J. Bone and are creating Hollywood Horror, where Cliff encounters a cult leader who worships Lovecraftian Great Old Ones. And coming this summer is a project I'm very excited about, a crossover between the Rocketeer and another great comic/pulp hybrid, Will Eisner's The Spirit, again from Mark Waid and with art by Paul Smith, a great who we don't see much work from these days. None of these stories will be Dave Stevens, but they are clearly attempting to keep the spirit of the series true, with the great big plots and big pulp ideas that made The Rocketeer great.

IDW released The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures a couple years, fully colored for the first time by Laura Martin, who Stevens selected to do the work before his passing. If you want your Rocketeer in black and white, IDW also released an artists edition, published on art board sized paper and shot from Stevens original pencils. This book sold out immediately on its first printing, and the second, which was released two weeks ago, is on its way to as well, so grab them while they're hot.

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