Thousand Faced: The Rocketeer

The Rocketeer
Writer and Artist: Dave Stevens
Published by: IDW Publishing

Nothing zings my heart and makes my blood race like the art deco futurism of the 1930s. A stubby winged, long cowled plane with bulbous wheel covers and a gorgeous dame who really knows how to almost not wear silky perfumed underthings and oh yes, a flying man in a finned helmet whooshing through the sky are the things of great romance to me. By now a good many of you must be thinking, “He’s going on about The Rocketeer“. Yes. Yes I am.

In 1984 when I moved to midtown Kansas City I began making weekly pilgrimages to Clint’s Comics (longest in business comic book store in America). One of my first acquisitions was The Rocketeer. Dave Stevens’ artwork was just so damned beautiful I couldn’t stop looking at it. The story and visualization just popped with screwball energy and imagery. I read a lot of reprints of 30’s pulp action books while growing up. The Shadow. Doc Savage. I even picked my way through some of G-8 and His Battle Aces. Here it was in my hands. Somebody actually could illustrate the way I always saw this kind of story in my head. Yes there was Mike Kaluta on DC’s The Shadow series too but that will be another column. I bought The Rocketeer and showed it to my girlfriend who had an eye for quality and she too was suitably impressed. I read it and the few others I could get my hands on as they came out. I never acquired the whole series because the store sold out of them before I got to them by Thursday afternoon. There never were a lot of those books to begin with. Dave Stevens didn’t crank them out like Pez candies. You don’t get truckloads of diamonds or battalions of Jimi Hendrix either. What Stevens captured was the essence of what makes that era special and visually arresting. He nailed it all: the dated futurism of fast race planes that just barely top three hundred miles per hour, the classic lines of touring cars careening in pursuit of one another and the undisputed hotness of Betty, the girl who was modeled after the sexiest woman ever photographed, Betty Paige. This work has cut deep channels into my consciousness.

I found this deluxe edition in the public library in hard back, complete with a red ribbon for marking your page. This is why digital will never replace books. I lovingly reread the parts I once had and finally filled in the gaps where I was unable to when they first came out. It was even cooler than I supposed. Monk and Ham, my favorite two assistants to Doc Savage show up and are as lovingly rendered in form and character as I would ever hope to see them. There is a New York adventure as Cliff Secord tries to rescue Betty from the clutches of a perverse “fashion” photographer. The photographer’s thugs threaten Cliff and a guy who looks a lot like Lamont Cranston helps him and barely displays great power and insight in doing so. He calls himself by another name because identities come and go with this character anyway. C’mon now! The man has an autogyro. Okay? There is a series of murders of circus sideshow people ala Todd Browning’s Freaks. A villain drawn to look like Rondo Hatton appears as well. It is all drawn to perfection by Stevens.

Since the 1980s I always hoped to see more brilliance from the mind and hands of this creative, gifted man. After Disney adapted his work into a pretty good adventure film in the 90’s I figured Stevens could do what he damn well pleased and maybe just maybe we would get more great stuff from him. This book was published last year and I wondered after all these years why it would appear now. I didn’t quibble over having the chance to experience what makes reading comic books a delight for me I just dove into it, finished the book and got to the bio piece at the end to see what was happening in the life of Dave Stevens. It said, “He lost his long battle with leukemia in 2008”. I teared. There won’t be anything else jaw-dropping gorgeous and fun from him. It’s like being told The Rolling Stones have stopped touring or that Santa Clause has lost the address to your house.

by Bill Hilburn

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