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Remembering Dave Stevens

This column first appeared March 19, 2008.

This is a tough one.

Not only is Dave Stevens’ creation THE ROCKETEER such a longtime favorite of mine, but I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Dave many times over the last 20 years or so, and he was just a hell of a nice guy. One of the good ones.

So news of his passing last week after a protracted battle with leukemia that almost no one outside his circle of friends knew about, well, it hit pretty hard.

Dave Stevens’ work was one of the first things to make me realize that there were comics worth reading that weren’t necessarily Marvel or DC. When the first comic shop opened up in my small hometown when I was in high school, one of the posters on the wall was Dave Stevens’ painting of Valkyrie for Eclipse’s AIRBOY series, and I was hooked.

That poster stayed on my wall all though high school, college, and even made its way to my apartment here in Los Angeles.

And it’s not merely the pin-up aspect that made it so appealing. Stevens captured a sense of romance and nostalgia with the image; everything I love about the AIRBOY comics is summed up in that painting.

As I started attending first WonderCon in Oakland and later Comic-Con in San Diego, I saw Stevens frequently, noticing two things: he looked exactly like the Rocketeer, and he was always surrounded by beautiful women. As I would frequently note to myself, good work if you can get it.

I don’t really have anything else to say that others elsewhere who knew the man better aren’t saying more eloquently. I just looked at my copy of THE ROCKETEER graphic novel, and it’s signed from Dave: “Happy Landings!”

Happy Landings, Dave.


Originally published May 11, 2005

It was the spring of 1991, and Undergrad Scott (a slightly older version of L’il Scott) was hyped. One of his favorite comics of all time was coming to theatres that summer, and finally, everyone would undoubtedly get on board a character he’d been singing the praises of for years: the Rocketeer. Back in those pre-Internet days, advanced information on movies was scarce, but I had read in some movie magazine (imagine that: getting your movie dirt from magazines) that Rocketeer creator Dave Stevens was heavily involved in the project, on everything from script to design. I still vividly remember walking into the Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara (there to see some long-forgotten movie that spring) during the coming attractions, and stopping dead in my tracks, popcorn in hand, at the sight of the Rocketeer posed against the American flag, pistol drawn, ready to kick some Nazi ass. This is gonna be huge, I thought to myself. A monster hit.

Well, it didn’t quite work out that way, sad to say. As it turned out, the one-two punch of ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES and TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY pretty much destroyed THE ROCKETEER at the box office, and what might have been a household name in the Rocketeer was instead relegated to a dusty shelf in the video store. But you know what? That’s okay, because if you blow the dust off that video, you still find a hell of a good movie, which hopefully will lead people back to the beautiful graphic novel that inspired it. Let’s take a look now at both the comics and the sadly overlooked film version.

The character first appeared in the indie comic PACIFIC PRESENTS, put out, logically enough, by the small-press publisher Pacific Comics in 1982. The series was the brainchild of artist Dave Stevens, who had before this worked as an assistant to Russ Manning on the TARZAN newspaper strip before transitioning into storyboard work for Hollywood (including, as a matter of fact, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK). Stevens has a real affinity for the late ’30s/early ’40s era, so much so that many readers thought the character was an actual Golden Age pulp character, or at least that Stevens was a much older man who had lived through the period, rather than a man in his late twenties when the work was created.

After several appearances in PACIFIC PRESENTS, the story was completed in a stand-alone graphic novel, THE ROCKETEER, published in 1985 by Eclipse Comics (a now-defunct Northern California-based comics publisher where Undergrad Scott once interviewed for a summer internship, but that’s a story for another time…). While the story is pretty basic stuff, the characterizations are solid and appealing, and the artwork is just gorgeous, marrying a modern storytelling style with a 1930s rendering sensibility, especially in the use of pin-up-style art for the book’s leading lady, about whom we’ll get back to shortly.

The story opens on stunt pilot Cliff Secord, a flyer for the Bigelow Air Circus, who’s unfortunately having girl troubles, feeling that his girlfriend Betty is going to leave him for a flashy Hollywood photographer, since Cliff doesn’t have the money to show her the good life. Fate drops a solution into Cliff’s lap, or so he thinks when he discovers a mysterious parcel left in the cockpit of his plane by a couple of thugs before they’re hauled off by the cops.

The package, Cliff discovers, is an experimental rocket pack that, according to the plans, promises to let a man soar like an eagle — without a plane. Dollar signs in his eyes, Cliff takes the pack to his friend and mechanic Peevy, who rigs together a flight helmet for Cliff to wear, not only for protection, but also for disguise and showmanship.

Before Cliff can debut the act properly, he has to use it for a much more dangerous purpose, saving the life of his drunken friend Malcolm, recently deprived of his pilot’s license, who decided to do Cliff “a favor” and take his place when Cliff was late for the air show.

Cliff manages (barely) to figure out how to work the rocket pack, and saves Malcolm just before his plane smashes into a nearby watertower. Cliff’s flight is caught on camera, and soon the local papers are in a buzz about the identity of this amazing, mysterious “Rocketeer.”

Cliff, meanwhile, winds up on the run from more of the thugs who stole the rocket pack to begin with, who turn out to be Nazi agents. Soon the agents figure out who he is and kidnap Betty, forcing Cliff into action without the rocket pack to save his girl.

A word about Betty: those of you with a fondness for 1950s pinups may recognize Cliff’s girl Betty as a dead ringer for ’50s pinup queen Bettie Page, who graced the covers of hundreds of pulp, beauty and pinup magazines from 1950 to 1957, modeling everything from bathing suits to lingeries, as well as some now well-known racier stuff like bondage and “jungle-girl” layouts.

There’s an instantly appealing “girl-next-door” quality about Page, one that made even the most tawdry of photo shoots seem almost innocent merely by her presence. (And the fact that Bettie was a knockout in the figure department certainly didn’t hurt, either.)

Bettie found great success in her meteoric modeling career, but gave it all up after only seven years, and vanished, leaving quite an impression on an entire generation.

While Dave Stevens was too young to have noticed Bettie in her heyday, somewhere along the way, she must made that same impression on him at some point, as Bettie’s image is lovingly recreated here in THE ROCKETEER in Cliff’s girl Betty, right down to her day job as a model:

Stevens’ tribute to Bettie Page brought about a resurgence in popularity for the model, along with an ever-growing mystery as to her current whereabouts. Finally, it was revealed that Bettie was living a quiet life of retirement, and while she appreciated the newfound interest in her career, she wished to stay out of the limelight and the camera’s eye, a request her newfound fans have so far honored. It’s reported that Stevens, upon finally being in contact with her, handed over a nice piece of the profits he’d made over the years from his comics and prints using her likeness, a gesture that certainly makes him a stand-up guy in my book.

Anyway, to get back to the story, soon Cliff is on the run both from the Nazis who originally stole the rocket pack, and the G-men who are trying to get it back. When the Nazis strike again, hijacking “the Hornet,” a new experimental plane the government is working on, Cliff decides to try to clear his name by getting it back, over the objections of the rocket pack’s inventor, who arrives on the scene wanting to reclaim his device. Of course, Cliff might not get far, as the inventor points out to Peevy:

The inventor heads up in a P-26 to try to save Cliff, and manages to get under the plummeting Rocketeer.

And as if things weren’t bad enough for poor Cliff, Betty decides to take off with her photographer for Europe:

Cliff, meanwhile, leaps from his rescuers’ plane to the Hornet and dukes it out with the Nazis on board, but has a little trouble landing the Hornet, putting it down in the middle of Beverly Hills.

Later, a recuperating Cliff, mostly in the clear with the Feds, finds out that Betty has left for Europe, and gives in to his impulses again, stealing the now-refueled rocket pack and taking off to find Betty, with the Feds thinking him dead following an explosion in the refueling lab. As for Peevy, he lets the departing federal agents know that he’s hip to who their real boss was:

It’s funny, there’s not a whole lot of plot here, and pretty scant characterization, yet I have as much affection for the book and its characters as I do for comics I’ve been reading for decades. A big part of it is Stevens’ gorgeous artwork, of course, but more than that, THE ROCKETEER is a remarkable achievement in mood, in setting a nostalgic tone for the past that still crackles off the page with life and vitality. For people our age, the 1930s is as much a lost era as the Old West or the Revolutionary war, yet Stevens brings it to life with a master’s touch. It’s not easy to generate real nostalgia in readers who never experienced the era to begin with, but Dave Stevens pulls it off brilliantly.

It didn’t take long for THE ROCKETEER to gain the attention of Hollywood, and eventually Disney came away with the movie rights, turning the project over to Joe Johnston to direct, with Stevens attached as a producer.

Johnston, a career visual effects guy, had only directed one film before this, the effects-heavy HONEY I SHRUNK THE KIDS, but he delivered big-time here, deftly handling the proper mix of action, comedy and drama that the project needed. The script by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo (probably best known for the less-than-successful 1990 FLASH CBS TV series) was also spot-on, retaining all of the charm of Stevens’ original work while grafting on a more cohesive plot and a much-needed villain, in the form of movie star and Nazi sympathizer Neville Sinclair (portrayed with aplomb by Timothy Dalton, doing his best Errol Flynn impression).

Speaking of the casting, here’s where the movie really shined. Aside from the excellent Dalton, you have Alan Arkin providing comic relief as Peevy, with just the right amount of exasperation and affection for Cliff, and even a strong yet small supporting role for current LOST star Terry O’Quinn as Howard Hughes.

However, this movie would have lived or died by its leads, and both actors fit their parts to a T.

Jennifer Connolly plays Cliff’s girl, here renamed “Jenny” to distance the character from Bettie Page for legal purposes, and slightly retooled as a aspiring Hollywood actress, so as to eliminate the slightly tawdry pinup aspect as necessary for a Disney release.

Still, Connolly manages to capture at least the spirit of Bettie Page if not the exact look, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else coming closer to a real-life version of a “Dave Stevens girl.” As for Cliff, well, Bill Campbell is Cliff Secord, looking for all the world like he just stepped off the page.

I really expected the film to do big things for Campbell as a leading man, and while he’s worked steady ever since in both television and film, he’s never quite caught fire; a real shame, as the man’s quite talented.

The movie looks great, perfectly capturing the period. The air show sequence, in which Cliff uses the rocket pack for the first time to rescue Malcolm, is a near-perfect translation of the comic-book sequence, and the visual effects for the Rocketeer in flight are very good, especially for the pre-digital era of special effects in 1991.

The Rocketeer costume is also a thing of beauty, replicating exactly Dave Stevens’ design. Putting the final touch on things is James Horner’s stirring score, a piece of music so satisfying that to this day it’s still used as a temp score for all kinds of movie trailers. I realize I’m positively ranting about how great the movie is, but I’m telling you: this is a fantastic, fun film, and it kills me that practically no one saw it. Trust me: check out the DVD, and you won’t be disappointed.

Even more disappointing for my geek sensibilities, Disney didn’t put their marketing muscle behind the movie, so there was practically no movie merchandise. In fact, ROCKETEER merchandise is so scarce, I had to look to the land of the rising sun to score the ultimate Rocketeer collectible, this 12-inch-scale Rocketeer action figure from Medicom, sold only in Japan.

All I need now is a Rocketeer helmet for the mantle, and I’m set.

In the meantime, whenever I need to take a moment to moon over the Rocketeer’s lost potential, all I have to do is head up to the road to the Happiest Place on Earth: Disneyland, where, at a little-noticed popcorn stand back by where America Sings used to be, a sun-beaten figure endlessly cranks away at the popcorn cylinder, dreaming of the promise of 1991.

“Thanks for the corn, Popcornteer!”

Scott Tipton is very disappointed that here he is in the 21st century and he still doesn’t have a jetpack. Weren’t we supposed to have jetpacks by now? Disappointing. If you have questions about the Rocketeer or comics in general, send them here. Thanks to www.figurethisradio.com for the Medicom images. And by the way, if anyone who works at Disneyland is reading this, if you guys ever think of taking down the Popcornteer and throwing him away, you CALL ME FIRST.

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