Rocketeer, The: Artisan Edition
Released by: IDW Publishing
Released on: March 1st, 2017.
Written and illustrated by: Dave Stevens
Purchase From Amazon
Dave Stevens may be gone (he passed away far too young in 2011 after a longstanding battle with leukemia), but his legacy definitely lives on, particularly in the form of The Rocketeer – the body of work for which the man remains best remembered. And rightly so, as Stevens’ work on The Rocketeer remains not only a fantastic blend of pulp adventure, art deco style and good girl art but just a fantastically entertaining comic series in general. IDW has, with this ‘Artisan Edition,’ collected Stevens’ entire run and present them now scanned from the original pages and in black and white, before they were colored.
The story begins in April of 1938 in Los Angeles where two thugs bust through the gate of a small airport followed by the cops. They hop into a racing plane and try to steal it but the cops catch them before they can make it out of there. The guy who rents the hanger and owns the plane is a man named Cliff Secord and after the cops and crooks take-off he checks on his baby. Tucked inside the cockpit? ‘A compact bullet shaped engine and a packet of papers bearing the stamp: Top Secret.’ Cliff’s a stunt pilot and he figures this is just what he needs to spice up his act, so he calls his pal Peevy and has him design him a helmet. Peev tries to talk Cliff into turning in the goods but no dice, Cliff needs the money he knows he can make with this because his sweetheart Betty thinks he’s wasting him time with this air show gig of his. This’ll prove to her that he can make a good living doing what he loves – flying. Since a Hollywood photographer named Marco has been creeping around, Cliff’s worried he’s going to lose his sweetheart. With the helmet finished, Cliff heads off for his show, but he gets there late and drunk old Malcolm is flying in his place. Cliff knows this’ll end poorly so he puts on his rocket suit and tries it out for the first time. He makes it to Malcolm, who is out cold in the cockpit, and he gets him out of there just as the plane hits the water tower. The crowd goes nuts and Cliff takes off, crash landing in the hangar with Bettey and Peevy en-route to get him before he kills himself.
As the story progresses, a gangster shows up to reclaim the loot those thugs ditched in the opening chapter. Traitorous German spies posing as G-Men come looking for the rocket pack too. Betty winds up kidnapped and some bad, bad men figure out the identity of the flying man who saved Malcolm. Peevy makes some modifications to the pack and Cliff, in his suit, perfects his flying skills. Things head south with Betty and Cliff gets fired from the airshow. Eventually, however, through a mix of fate, circumstance and dumb bravery Cliff redeems himself and proves to be a hero by saving an experimental plane from German thieves. So much for the Father-Land! Meanwhile Betty, sweet Betty, heads off to Europe with Marco. Cliff, injured from his heroics, winds up in the hospital but tries to get to Betty before she splits. It doesn’t work and as a comedy of errors plays out, an explosion leads Peevy to believe Cliff is dead – so does everyone else, for that matter and Cliff’s okay with that. In reality, he’s gone off to Europe to retrieve the woman he loves from the clutches of predatory Marco! Really though, Betty’s concerned about Cliff and his obsession with the rocket-pack. Cliff tracks her to New York City and after landing in Long Island explains his backstory with Betty to his pal Goose while Goose drives him into Manhattan. When Cliff finally finds her, the reunion goes about as poorly as you’d expect but a man named Jonas Secord (who looks uncannily like a certain Lamont Cranston) helps Cliff out and winds up offering him a job. It takes a while for Cliff to come around but eventually he accepts – he poses as one of his operatives to infiltrate a criminal organization working out of lower Manhattan – but there’s more to this. Secord tells him that every member of Cliff’s old carnival troupe has been murdered except for he and The Great Orsino. Cliff and Goose track Orsino to Atlantic City in their Autogiro and arrive just in time to save him from the hulking Lothar!
Stevens ties together all sorts of great pop culture bits and pieces from the past – Browning’s Freaks, The Shadow, Betty Page bondage and pin-up photos and shorts – and presents it all as the sequential art version of a vintage serial. The attention to period detail in the art is nothing short of outstanding, with loads of art deco style, some great vintage aircraft and a fantastic finale that takes place inside an old timey amusement park. The story might be a little on the light side but it totally works thanks to some snappy dialogue, plenty of high flying adventure sequences and loads of action – just like the serials that Stevens obviously took some inspiration from.
Of course the fact that Cliff is an ‘everyman’ type makes him easier to relate to than, say, millionaire Bruce Wayne or alien Clark Kent – Cliff doesn’t have superpowers or the financial resources to load up with gadgets or build a secret hideout. Instead he’s barely got enough scratch to bring his girl out on a date. And what a girl she is! Clearly inspired by the late, great Betty Page (something that was openly acknowledged by Page herself as she and Stevens would eventually become good friends), Cliff’s top dame is a real looker. She also seems to find herself frequently bound and gagged and often times in fairly familiar looking poses (familiar, at least, to those who know and appreciate the work of one Irving Klaw). All of this and more is rendered in Stevens’ fantastic style, a style that uses exemplary brush work and line work to really suck you in and make you pay attention to every panel. It’s not just the good girl art or the action sequences that draw your eye, but literally everything – the airport, the cityscapes, the wardrobe choices and even the flatulent bulldog!
This collection represents all of Stevens’ published Rocketeer material. IDW has also included a nice cover gallery here, reprinting all of the cover and advertising images containing The Rocketeer from Starslayer #1 (where the character first appeared in an ad), Starslayer #3 (back cover), Pacific Presents #1 and #2, an unpublished cover piece drawn up for Pacific Presents, and The Rocketeer Special Edition #1 (originally intended to be Pacific Presents #5). Missing from this edition (but included in the Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures collection) are cover pieces from The Rocketeer Vol. 1 Graphic Novel, The Rocketeer Adventure Magazine #1, #2 and #3, the cover from The Rocketeer: Cliff’s New York Adventure graphic novel, Amazing Heroes #145 and last but not least a postcard piece that Stevens used to respond to fans that would write him about The Rocketeer.
All in all, this is a fantastic collection entirely worth re-reading. It’s a series that puts entertainment value first but that’s loaded with pop culture references and rendered with such fantastic style that you can’t help but love it. Stevens’ life was snuffed out far too early, but going back and digging through/reprinting the work he left us serves not only as a tribute to the man and his talents but also as a means to potentially bring in those unfamiliar with his work. IDW’s choice to get this material back in print was the right one and whether you grew up reading this stuff or are experiencing it all for the first time (an envious position to be in!) anyone and everyone with an interest in comic book art or pulp fiction in general should have a copy of this masterpiece in his or her library. Being able to see the original artwork scanned and presented as nicely as it is in this volume really makes you appreciate just how talented the guy was. The pencil and ink work shows off an insane amount of detail and the line work that Stevens delivered in this run, clearly a passion project for him, is second to none.