“A Boost for the Rocket Man”
Perfection doesn’t come around often in comics. Ever since the medium started to be taken seriously over two decades ago, there have been only a handful of works that can be seen as truly perfect. Most of them are pretty obvious and very popular, but others are not-as-well-known, tucked away in the corners of comic book-dom.
One of these underrated corner dwellers is Dave Stevens’ The Rocketeer. Granted, it probably isn’t as overlooked as some, yet it’s not one that immediately pops into mind when thinking of the cream of the comics crop. For one thing, the characters have had a very limited appearance since they were introduced in the early 1980s. They made their debut in backup features in books published by Pacific Comics, with the conclusion of those stories presented by Eclipse in a standalone issue. A couple years later, Stevens crafted new Rocketeer adventures in an extremely short-lived Comico series. The second issue of that series ended on a cliffhanger, and it wouldn’t be until 1995 when Dark Horse took over the publication reins and finally released the third and final issue.
Sadly, Dave Stevens passed away in 2008 without ever producing any further Rocketeer tales. Shortly after his death, yet another publisher—IDW this time—produced a handsome deluxe hardcover collecting all of Stevens’ previous Rocketeer work. It is an impressive volume that pays homage and respect to a very talented and creative man gone long before his time.
But IDW didn’t just stop there. Last year, the company published a four-issue Rocketeer series. Calling on a bevy of writers and artists, the series was an anthology of short stories instead of a continuing saga. For the most part, this approach worked. Just like with any anthology, some stories were good and some were not-so-good. The important thing, though, was that these were new Rocketeer stories. Considering the limited presence of the character, they were happily welcomed by longtime fans. Fortunately, IDW plans to keep The Rocketeer going with another series debuting in late spring.
Stevens’ original Rocketeer work falls into the category of perfection because it is an obvious labor of love. The artist had a deep affinity for old adventure film serials from the early days of Hollywood, and he wanted to bring back that same sort of awe-inspiring sensibility. Although created in the ’80s, The Rocketeer is set in the 1940s, complete with Nazis and propeller planes and buxom bombshell pinup girls. In fact, one of the most notoriously famous pinup girls of the era, Bettie Page, is a central character in The Rocketeer. She is the on-again, off-again girlfriend of Cliff Secord, the young man who, as the star of the story, straps on a jetpack, slips on a helmet, and soars the skies. One way to describe it is that it’s sort of a cross between Indiana Jones and Iron Man.
The Rocketeer is—without a doubt—a fun story. Stevens presents Cliff as a very likeable fellow: sincere, humble, handsome, yet flawed. Cliff knows he’s not a superhero; he’s just a regular guy doing what he can to make a difference. And that’s what makes him so attractive to Bettie…and to his legions of fans.
The popularity of the character saw a bit of a surge in 1991 when Disney released their film version of The Rocketeer. Although a lot more “kid-friendly” than the comic book it was based on, it did turn out to be a rather faithful adaptation. The most drastic difference was that Cliff’s love interest was changed from nude model Bettie Page to struggling actress Jenny Blake. But in the grand scope of it all, it was a change that could easily be overlooked.
Disney did right by casting Billy Campbell as Cliff Secord. Not only was he a dead ringer for the character, he managed to nail down the innocence and humility that made him so appealing. And let’s not forget Campbell’s boyish handsomeness!
To my good fortune, I was working at a movie theater when The Rocketeer came out, and, after it finished its run, I managed to snag part of the cardboard standee we received for the film. I still have it hanging on my wall to this day. It’s about five feet long, and it shows The Rocketeer zipping off into the clouds.
If there’s only one regret I have about The Rocketeer, it’s that it’s taken so long for new stories to surface. One has to wonder just how far it would’ve gone if Dave Stevens had been able to continue the work himself.