Friday, January 1, 2010

Rocketeer 1981-1985 "Chapters 1-5"

"The Rocketeer" was first published in 1981, debuting as a back-up strip in the First Comics' "Starslayer". Meticulously researched and pulpy in all the entertaining ways, the talented Dave Stevens' comic should have by all rights been a commercial success. Yet, published as it was at the onset of the wave of creator-owned genre material, it remained a cult phenomenon, which was enough to attract the "Walt Disney Pictures" to the property. Despite the fact that Stevens worked as a storyboard artist on hugely successful "Raiders of the lost arc", the 1991 movie adaptation of his own comic, failed to attract the same audiences. By 1995, even the notoriously slow production schedule of "the Rocketeer" in it's native sequential form was finally brought to a halt. Dave Stevens has passed away on March 10, 2008, and it is only now that IDW publishing has brought out what amounts to be a definite edition of his "Rocketeer" material.


"The Rocketeer" starts of as a period piece, set in 1938 Los Angeles, but the artist is quick to establish the tone of the piece. The everyday of pilot Cliff Secord is namely, filtered through Stevens' major inspirations, the pulps and film serials of the day. It is in this interesting mix that the comic finds it's identity, which is nowhere as clear as in the initial five-parter.

The tone struck by the "Rocketeer" is that of a light-hearted story, seemingly centered on bridging the action sequences. It is as if the arrival of the bullet-shaped engine in Secord's world sends waves everywhere, alerting spies, gangsters, police and the army to it's existence. Likewise, every possible misunderstanding is seemingly exploited to make way for another car chase or the book's signature aerial dogfight. Yet, the forced anonymity of the pulps is nowhere to be found in the comic's pages, as Dave Stevens' knowing influence is felt in every facet of it.

The jet pack powered protagonist thrust in the seemingly ordinary world of late 1930s obviously brings to mind the superhero genre, but even here "the Rocketeer" takes a very unique slant. This is nowhere as indicative as with the secret identity dilemma that follows an origin story, as the book deals with the subject in a way both charming and realistic. In short, the unlikely hero manages to remain unknown to the public at large, while persons who would obviously be privy to his identity manage to find it out in a way that benefits the story.

From the artistic point, it's amazing to see Dave Stevens' range. Like the best of the newspaper strip cartoonists, he seemingly finds a way to be inspired by everything he draws, from people and their clothing, to the all manner of cars and aerial vehicles. Yet, for all the detail rendered in a charmingly cohesive way, the artist never stops making his panels have a clarity of layout and perspective. Employing a fluid grid, that still usually sports no less than seven or eight panels, Stevens' pages are filled with all manner of captions, thought balloons, and lively dialogue, which acts as if it was purposefully inserted to slow down the pacing and have the reader contemplate such a visual story in full.

When it comes to the characters, Dave Stevens opts for a very individualistic approach, chiefly by rendering the principal players after himself, and his circle of friends and idols. The artist is careful not not limit himself by constant photo referencing, making his designs act out all of their bewildering emotion, while relying on his knowledge of figure work to provide for their stylish movements. It is a mark of a true perfectionist to see how much attention he pays to his characters' clothes (with the old fashioned puffy pants being a particular highlight), which are rendered in folds and wrinkles that is rarely depicted as skillfully in the medium. Stevens utilizes every opportunity as a chance to improve his approach to comic book art, thus deciding to go with a more caricatural look for the minor members of the cast.

A special attention must be called to the look of Cliff Secord's girlfriend Betty. By basing her look on the pin-up model Betty Page, Stevens eventually met his long-forgotten real-life inspiration and became good friends with her, leading to her finally cementing her place in the world of pop culture. When it comes to "the Rocketeer", it's impossible to overlook the sheer vitality that Steven endows in his female lead. The panels featuring Betty are literally bursting with sex appeal, that brings a whole other dimension to the story. Through Secord's girlfriend, the reader is treated to see most of the book's realism, as the pin-up model is all too familiar with the jaded world of early Hollywood and hardships of a single girl in such a male domineering environment. Moreover, her relationship with Secord serves to ground the latter, by bringing forward his immaturity and the realities of a happy go lucky lifestyle. In turn, Cliff becomes that much more of a real person, existing beyond the aerial thrills and the practical jokes he's so fond of.

It goes without saying that when it comes to depicting technology, that the action sequences so strongly rely on, Stevens once again excels, in his traditional well researched way. Whether depicting guns of airplanes, the standard that the artist brings to his work is always refreshing to behold. Just like when it came to differentiating his characters, every automobile that Dave Stevens pencils is of a different model, employed with a spare tire and sporting a registration that could be read from every possible angle. The vehicles' physical models posses realistic weight and naturally retain all the dents and damages they're dealt. Once again, by mastering the period details, Stevens makes his additions to the era fit seamlessly with their surroundings, while retaining just enough of the fantastic flair to provide for the spectacle.

Most importantly, the Rocketeer suit works as very iconic representation of the character. Just like Indiana Jones, it's rooted in pulpy inspirations, but nevertheless wholly original to the current reader. The futuristic helmet and the aviator garb rendered in red and golden tones once again fit the mood of the story without tweaking it beyond the realm of somewhat plausible sounding physics.

It is important to note that for all the Secord's fights and near-fatal encounters, the body count is surprisingly low in his initial adventure, thus working off the idealism at the story's heart, and providing for a nice diversion that is at the heart of the most of the period's engaging genre fiction. The realism persists in the cuts and bruises that Cliff accumulates as he wrestles with the idea of using the technology, but the grounding only works in the series' best interest. By establishing his ties with a local mechanic, and a local cafe that the pilot frequents, Stevens makes certain that the larger than life qualities of Secord's occupation and his gorgeous girlfriend really come through. In fact, much of the story revolves around the effect such an extraordinary turn of events plays in his life.

It is to the creators' credit that he manages to work in an extended Doc Savage homage in "the Rocketeer"'s original five chapters. The appearance of the pulp icon and his assistants is cleverly integrated into the proceedings and never presupposes the readers' familiarity with the character. In fact, Secord's inventor friend Peev's incorrect guess at Howard Hughes' involvement is perfectly in keeping with the property.

Somehow Stevens finds a way to bring together all of the mystery strands of his story to provide a Hollywood finish. The action scenes even extend to the epilogue, providing a bitter-sweet finish that gleefully sets up the character's future adventures.

No comments: