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Trouble with Comics

Daily Breakdowns 072 - The Rocketeer

The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures

Writer/Artist - Dave Stevens

Publisher - IDW Publishing

Do you remember the La’s? “There She Goes.” I thought about them as I read this collection. You can substitute your own favorites, maybe Jim Morrison or Nick Drake or Jim Morrison but the idea is an artist or band creating this small but great body of work and then basically shutting it down or being shut down, leaving a wake of pre-Internet fans scrabbling for any tidbit, any small bit of output or unseen/unheard art.

Like the songwriter for the La’s, Dave Stevens was clearly a perfectionist, but that’s probably where the comparison ends. Stevens’ limited output after the five-part first adventure and three issue follow-up was due in large part to the leukemia that eventually beat him. The important thing is just to enjoy the work that is there, not bemoan the fact that there isn’t more.

The Rocketeer is modest in its ambitions as story. We’ve got a callow, impetuous youth in Cliff Secord (a name not that unlike Dave Stevens) who lives for thrills but finds something more important in a girl, Betty. And then a gift falls into his lap, a gift that could make him a hero. The problem is that he’s too rash and immature. That works okay in one way—the rocket pack he finds requires its wearer to be either incredibly brave or foolhardy—but it doesn’t help him hang onto his girl or understand what she really wants from him. The great shame here is that the work completed presents a perfectly reasonable amount of time for Cliff to be a jerk, but Stevens was never able to complete the stories that would show his maturation and develop his relationship with Betty. Still, it’s tightly plotted and there’s a thrill on every page.

Stevens brings an obvious love for the textures, machinery, fashion and vernacular of the ’30s. It’s a pulp sensibility, with crack pilots and pin-up girls, enemy agents and diners, bomber jackets and jodhpurs, and American ingenuity capped with a sock on the jaw. It’s hard not to get fully absorbed in this world, even as one can feel the pages flying by signaling that time is running out. There are only so many shots of the Rocketeer, only so many of Betty’s poses. Like a great little pop album, it gives up its pleasures easily and without great study, but continues to entertain every time you give it another spin. Stevens is a great draftsman, and the coloring by Laura Martin is amazingly warm and sensitive. Right down to the Art Deco page dividers, the IDW edition is done exceedingly well, the only drawback being not much on Stevens himself, or his creative process. 

Back when I first read some of this material, in The Rocketeer graphic novel collecting the first serial, I didn’t know who Alex Raymond or Hal Foster were. But I knew that somehow Stevens’ work was connecting back to something, not just a certain style of art but certain storytelling values. It was pure and even though my eyes ate it up and pushed me from panel to panel, at the same time I was always aware just how much effort went into it, how much care. And joy. And I knew that this was work I would hold dear and that would stand the test of time. And while there have been some wonderful artists since then, it really does hold up quite well. It’s a shame Stevens’ career was cut so short, but enjoy what’s here.

—Christopher Allen