Friday, May 12, 2017

THE ROCKETEER

"THE ROCKETEER" | "CLIFF'S NEW YORK ADVENTURE"
By Dave Stevens | Lettering by Carrie Spiegle | Coloring by Laura Martin

I've been aware of THE ROCKETEER for -- gosh, decades, I guess, since the movie came out in 1991. I suppose I would've been twelve at the time, and although I recall thinking the film looked interesting, it didn't interest me enough to see it. To this day I still haven't, though I gather it has a pretty strong following. Someday I'll check it out. But, at any rate: at some point between '91 and today, probably when I was in my teens, I learned that the character was originally a comic book, and that said comic was created by Dave Stevens.* I've wanted to read Stevens' original Rocketeer stories for years, and now I've finally taken the plunge.

I was surprised to learn, as I did a little research prior to writing this post, that (per Wikipedia) "The Rocketeer's first adventure appeared in 1982 as a backup feature in issues #2 and #3 of Mike Grell's Starslayer series from Pacific Comics. Two more installments appeared in Pacific's showcase comic Pacific Presents #1 and 2. The fourth chapter ended in a cliffhanger that was later concluded in a special Rocketeer issue released by Eclipse Comics." I had always sort of assumed this was an ongoing comic or a mini-series or something. Little did I realize it was a backup serial that jumped around between multiple comics over the course of years! And that's only the initial storyline, "The Rocketeer". The second tale, "Cliff's New York Adventure", was only three chapters long but took six years and a third publisher to run to completion.

So what was the deal? Was the story not popular enough to find an audience? This seems unlikely since there was a major motion picture adapted from Stevens' work and nowadays, IDW holds the ROCKETEER rights and routinely publishes various limited series starring the character. Was it plagued by bad luck? (i.e., were the series that carried it as a backup feature routinely canceled? I do know that both Pacific and Eclipse eventually folded, but I think that happened in the nineties.) Was Dave Stevens simply a slow or lazy artist, or perhaps uninterested in the character he'd created? I really have no idea -- but the fact is that Stevens created the Rocketeer in 1982 and drew his final Rocketeer story in 1996, and the end result is approximately 120 pages of material (that's roughly eight-and-a-half pages per year, averaged out).


Mind you, none of this is meant as a slight against the end product in terms of either story or art. From my perspective, this is a fun, fast-paced read filled with terrific artwork all the way through. Whatever Stevens' reason for taking so long to complete his tale, it didn't lead to any lack of quality. I should note, by the by, that the version I read is the most recent printing from IDW, who had the series recolored in modern style by the talented Laura Martin. As such, I have no idea what the original colors looked like. I admit it's a bit jarring to read this story, drawn in an older style and hand-lettered, with fancy computer colors, but that's no knock against the colors themselves: Martin is almost always a great choice for any project, and THE ROCKETEER is no exception.

So, with all that already said, on to the story itself: THE ROCKETEER is a period piece set in 1938 Los Angeles and chronicling the adventures of a young man named Cliff Secord, an airshow stunt pilot who gets involved in a Nazi plot to steal a mysterious jetpack. Cliff, with some assistance from his confidante/mechanic, Peevy, decides to use the pack in his show, which draws the attention of the Germans. Soon he's mixed up with the FBI and the Nazis alike and winds up on the lam from both. Along the way, Cliff more-or-less masters the jetpack, performs some feats of derring-do, and rescues his kidnapped model girlfriend, Betty, from the Germans. Eventually our hero teams up with a disguised and unnamed (and therefore immune to litigation) version of pulp hero Doc Savage to stop the Hitler's boys from stealing an experimental aircraft. In the end, after Betty departs for Europe (by way of New York) with a new suitor, Cliff fakes his death and the Rocketeer goes after her.


That's a quick encapsulation of the five-chapter "The Rocketeer" serial. "Cliff's New York Adventure", a three-part sequel, sees our hero arrive in the Big Apple to find Betty with the help of his old friend, "Goose" -- but when it appears she's uninterested in returning to California with Cliff, the Rocketeer winds up in a team-up with the Shadow (again unnamed and disguised) in Atlantic City, where they save one of Cliff's old circus friends from murder at the hand of a vengeful strongman. The story ends with Betty returning to California after all, ahead of Cliff.

And, uhh... that's it. I mean we do get two complete stories here, but the Rocketeer's universe is barely formed by their end. All we've really got here is an origin and a single follow-up. I can't help imagining a world where Dave Stevens had the time, resources, or whatever else he needed to produce several more Rocketeer tales before his untimely death in 2008. (Of course I also like to imagine a world where Stevens didn't actually die in 2008, but that should go without saying!)


Nonetheless, I like what we've got, at least. "The Rocketeer" is a fun, breezy story evoking the movie serials of the period in which it's set, with fast-paced adventure and cliffhangers to end every chapter. Heck, I'd probably go so far as to call it a love letter to that era of American history. It's clear Stevens had great interest the aesthetics and atmosphere of 1930s Hollywood/Los Angeles, and there's a great art deco style prevalent in his own original designs, from the Rocketeer's helmet to even the letters by Carrie Spiegle -- and his affection for the pin-ups of Bettie Page is evident as well in every drawing of Betty, her cheesecakey comic book clone.

"Cliff's New York Adventure" is perhaps a bit weaker than the initial serial, though in my mind that's more due to transplanting the character away from his home stomping grounds. We barely get to know the guy's life and supporting cast before Stevens sends him off to the East Coast, away from all those things, for what would turn out to be the Rocketeer's final story via his creator. Mind you, I like the use of thirties-era Atlantic City here, but the setting doesn't feel like a part of the cast, as it did in the prior adventure. Somehow, Stevens made me feel as if I was actually in Cliff's Los Angeles, which is a feeling that doesn't carry over to the New York/New Jersey setting of the second tale.


But at the same time, I need to remember that Stevens was doing this stuff over the course of a decade-and-a-half. Maybe he got bored with the L.A. setting after drawing it for so long (even if the end result didn't amount to that many pages overall). From his perspective, and possibly from the perspective of readers who had been there from the beginning, the Rocketeer had been in Southern California for a very long time! Considering it this way, perhaps everyone wanted a change in scenery and cast at the time.

Overall I'm pleased I finally got to read THE ROCKETEER, though. While I didn't enjoy the second story as much as the first, both are great testaments to the talent of Dave Stevens, and reminders of what the comic book world lost when he passed away nine years back.

Maybe now I'll see if I can stream the movie someplace...!

Available on Amazon: Hardcover | Paperback | Kindle/Comixology


* Some years later, I managed to make the connection between Stevens and a cover image from a comic called AIRBOY which appeared in the one-page ENTERTAINMENT THIS MONTH ads that popped up in various Marvel titles during my teens, and which featured a depiction of a Golden Age character named Valkyrie that I drooled over as an adolescent. I seriously had no idea at the time what the comic was or what it was about, but I distinctly remember thinking Valkyrie had some great (if ever so slightly impractical) fashion sense.

5 comments:

  1. Pacific Comics folded in 1984, while Eclipse lasted until 1994 but was pretty much dead in the water by 1992 or so. There was also a Rocketeer title posted by Comico in the late 80s, but Comico, like a lot of indy publishers, didn't make it out of the 80s.

    Stevens had a reputation for just plain being a slow comics artist, with a habit of extensively researching the time period of Rocketeer for accuracy. He did a lot of illustration work as well, so Rocketeer was pretty much a sideline. A gorgeous one, but a sideline nonetheless.

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  2. Neal Adamns' Ms. Mystic had the same sort of sporadic publishing history.
    The first two issues came out from Pacific, and there was a delay between issue #1 and #2.
    Then, it was years later before Adams started his own publishing house, and brought back Ms. Mystic for a third issue. This new series, again, faced long delays.
    The series didn't last very long.
    So, it happened sometimes with indy comics.

    Although, Rocketeer found far more popularity than Ms. Mystic, of course.

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  3. Thank you for the history lessons, Jack and Anonymous! I admittedly know very little about the smaller publishers of the eighties and nineties. My only exposure to some of them was through licensed ROBOTECH comics, which were done through Comico, Eternity, and Academy -- and I didn't even find out about those guys until I picked up the back issues many years later!

    It's kind of amazing in retrospect how many small/indy publishers there were back then, which I was totally unaware of. All I knew of through my childhood and teens were Marvel, DC, and Gladstone (the Disney licensee), and later on, Image and Dark Horse.

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    Replies
    1. In my case, I had the benefit of being in a region that had a direct market comics shop that had been open for a while (I want to say it went into business around 1978!) and thus I found myself buying First, Pacific, Eclipse, and Comico books starting around 1985 or so.

      There were a lot of good comics companies out there-if I still owned the runs I once had, I would SO do a blog of First Comics reviews. And most of them died before the early 90s boom, to boot.

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    2. I grew up going to a local comic shop as well; it opened when I was something like eight years old and my parents took me there once a month -- but I was so focused on (back then) Disney stuff and (later on) Marvel, that I barely registered all the smaller publishers. Only fairly recently (like maybe the past decade or so) have I become aware of all the many publishers there were back then, and the fact that some of them put out some pretty well-regarded stuff!

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