The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures, written and illustrated by Dave Stevens and others (Collected 2009): With the late and much-lamented writer/artist Dave Stevens, there’s only one real career-related ‘What if?’ — what if he could have been faster without sacrificing the vision he held for his art and writing? His entire public comic-book output over 30 years basically consists of several hundred covers, pin-ups and spot illustrations. And this 200-page volume of his two Rocketeer arcs, both completed prior to the so-so Disney live-action Rocketeer movie of 1991. Stevens also did storyboards for Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Set in the late 1930’s, the painstakingly detailed and researched comic book gave us the adventures of Cliff Secord, a callow stunt pilot on the air show circuit who stumbles onto an experimental rocket pack which, with help from a mechanic friend, he learns to use. He’s soon battling Nazis trying to steal U.S. flight technology while also avoiding both the FBI and what he assumes are aviation pioneer Howard Hughes and his men. And he’s trying to patch things up with his model/actress girlfriend Bettie, who’s the spitting image of 1940’s and 1950’s fetish model Bettie Page. Indeed, the comic book revived interest in Page and led to a lifelong friendship between the reclusive model and Stevens.
The movie renamed Bettie ‘Jenny’ and had her played by a young Jennifer Connelly, the former choice, I assume, intended to avoid paying the real Bettie Page any royalties for using her likeness in a movie. It also added Terry “Lost” O’Quinn as Howard Hughes. One of the in-jokes of the comic book was that the people Secord thought were Hughes and company were in actuality the never-herein-named pulp hero Doc Savage and his merry band of adventurers. I’m guessing Disney didn’t want to pay for that, either.
The movie throws in a couple of bits from the second arc (most notably an autogyro and a henchmen who looks like tragic horror-movie star Rondo Hatton) but mostly adapts the first with liberal additions that include Paul Sorvino as a patriotic mobster and Timoth Dalton as an Errol-Flynn-esque Hollywood star.
As befits its serialized nature, the comic-book Rocketeer was episodic rather than epic, a lovingly rendered period piece that I suppose could have gone on forever (and indeed has been revived in the past year by writers and artists who loved Stevens’s work). Stevens was equally proficient at period detail and good-girl art, and while Cliff starts off as somewhat mercenary, he quickly grows into a suitable partner for Doc Savage and, in the second arc, a thinly disguised Shadow.
This is a beautifully job of restoration by IDW, a suitable memorial to a writer-artist who went before his time and left us too few pages of work. Even if you don’t love 30’s pulp adventure, The Rocketeer offers a lot of marvelous evocations of 1930’s style and design. Well, and Bettie. Highly recommended.