"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 definitive of his "Rocketeer" material.
CLIFF'S NEW YORK ADVENTURE
In 1988 Dave Stevens first launched a continuing series starring his most famous creation, "the Rocketeer adventure magazine". Picking up immediately from the first story starring the character, the new storyline was nonetheless a concentrated effort to reconfigure the character for the broader comics audience. Still, despite the lack of commercial success in his designated industry, while working on the follow-up, Stevens had managed to sell the movie rights to Walt Disney pictures, which had a lot of bearing upon the series' eventual fate.
By switching the Chaplin airport with a Long Island airstrip, Dave Stevens had a very particular vision of how to position Cliff Secord. Basically, the New York adventure was designed to completely overhaul the creative concept, to such an extent that Secord's Rocketeer persona features mainly in the tale's finale. The book is much more concerned with his civilian identity, going so far as to reveal his childhood and tie it into the overall mystery.
As such, Betty remains the only previous character to feature in the new arc, albeit her role is relegated to the subplot framing the new events. In many ways, this belies the story's ambiguous nature as both a new status quo and an episode in Cliff's life. Looking at both of the published "Rocketeer" stories, it's apparent that their relationship was to be revisited at another time. Despite this, she is still such a strong presence that her scenes completely overpower the book, and give it a much needed emotional resonance.
Meanwhile, Stevens has decided to elaborate on the book's mythology by adding the character of "Goose" Gander, an autogyro pilot and Cliff's old friend. "Goose" quickly assumes the role of Secord's good natured sidekick, who nonetheless directs him to his new employer. Unfortunately, this development is at the core of the "Cliff's New York adventure"'s problems, for a simple fact that it is none other than a direct homage to the pulp icon the Shadow who becomes to start steering the Rocketeer's career.
Contrary to Doc Savage's depiction in the previous "Rocketeer" adventure, the Shadow's appearance not only lacks subtlety but also serves to upstage the book's formula, as it serves to rob the title character of his authenticity, relegating him to no more than another of the masked man's agents. Basically, the plot centers around a serial killer that is in some way connected to Cliff's circus past. Once again, the tone clashes with the previous bright-eyed depiction of the Rocketeer, which Stevens presumably decided on in order to better separate the two stories.
The New York atmosphere that the artist depicts is that of constant, oppressive
darkness, hiding all manner of gangsters and wrong doings. It is fictionalized urban dystopia as depicted in "the Shadow" magazine, pretty much divorced from the realistic 1938 setting, except for the most superficial qualities. Gone are the looming threat of the Nazis and the chase sequences, replaced by the threat of a Golden Age villain, that would be completely at home in the pages of "Dick Tracy".
Interestingly, the scenery changes for the finale, featuring the Atlantic City. The carnival atmosphere therein, really speaks to the book's themes, and seemingly inspires Stevens much more than the dourness of New York. This time around, the reader is treated to his depiction of a magician's performance, as well as a theme park, where the final showdown takes place.
It is unfortunate then, that the contributions of Stevens' fellow creators become so apparent in the books' closing pages. "The Rocketeer"'s creator lists Mike Kaluta with providing some of the second issue's page breakdowns, as well as the movie adaptation's screenwriters Paul DeMeo and Danny Bilson as the co-scripters. The third issue, published no less than five years later adds Art Adams and Sandy Plunkett's assistance with pencilling some of the pages, which is readily apparent in the closing pages of "Cliff's New York adventure".
Judging from the page count, it might be that the second "Rocketeer" story simply needed more space to provide the distinctive mix of action sequences and the more intimate moments. Stevens' pages certainly give off a much more fluid approach, that took up so much time to produce that in the end the artist called in his colleagues to help with finishing the story. It's certainly unfortunate that the audiences at large never grasped "the Rocketeer"'s charm, as the creator's enthusiasm for the era never seemed to dim.
Ultimately though, the closing pages of the last issue of "the Rocketeer adventure magazine" offer a quick look back at the book's Los Angeles supporting characters. It's almost as if their creator bids them goodbye, before reconfiguring his career, which is nowhere as clear as in the very last page, showing a pin-up of Betty. Taken as an end point to a cult series, it offers little resolution, but it is very indicative of Stevens' later work that was centered on illustrations and commissions.
The issue ends with a gallery of images, featuring the depictions of the Rocketeer by Sandy Plunkett, Jackson "Butch" Guice and Mike Mignolla. This again seems indicative of the original plan with Stevens' then publisher, Dark Horse, to have "the Rocketeer" continue by different creative teams. Considering that no such projects ever materialized beyond the movie adaptation, the reader is forced to accept the creator's version of the character as the definitive, as is appropriate, given the care and the effort that has gone into it. In the end, the Rocketeer's lack of success in the direct market can probably be understood by the audiences' lack of familiarity with the newspaper strips that inspired it.