Dave Stevens was not known for being particularly good with deadlines. Just as he occasionally pitched in for other comic artist friends, he required assists as well, and for good reason. Few artists in the medium have surpassed the guy’s attention to detail, the almost effortless quality of his linework, and certainly few suffered as much over the same. Stevens wasn’t a superhero artist and couldn’t short-cut his way through a story with bulging muscles that may or may not be confirmed by an anatomy atlas. With this in mind, it’s easy to see how he might wind up doing more redrawing and reworking than completing. It was both a blessing and a detriment to his fans. You always got his best, but not very frequently.
It is fitting that the collection of Stevens’ most famous character, The Rocketeer, was delayed almost two months from its initial release date, and sure enough, the wait was worth it. Presented in an oversized hardcover format much like DC Comics’ Absolute Series of books, IDW Publishing has brought Stevens’ work as close to the size of his original art boards as possible. You can really look into all the fine details laid into every panel, including some clever art-deco shortcuts, never once out of place in the storyline.
The Rocketeer is a pastiche of old serial storytelling featuring the title character, Cliff Secord, a high-flying aerial acrobat and plane racer. He has come into possession of a strange rocket motor, not meant for a vehicle but for being strapped to one’s back. With the help of his old friend and plane gearhead Peavy, a helmet is fashioned with a steering chevron on the top. It was never Cliff’s design to become a hero but circumstances will force him into that role nonetheless. The series also highlighted Secord’s restless girlfriend Betty, not very loosely based on famed pin-up model Bettie Page, and it is Stevens’ portrayal of her that received the most attention on the series initial run back in the 1980s. Stevens was renowned as a classic modern-day pin-up artist, his cheesecake samples becoming highly sought after among the collectors, and his work here clearly spells that out. His females are at the same time stylized and realistic, lascivious yet innocent all at once, the true definition of the “good girl” art aesthetic.
It was that side of Stevens that received the most acclaim, which is unfortunate because of his overall talent, and while there’s really nothing groundbreaking about his actual story here, it is light and fun. The art has been spruced up with coloring from Laura Martin, Stevens’ personal choice for the work. “Coloring” sounds so pejorative — her work here has taken something already perfect and made it better, if you can imagine that. The technique seems to be digital but never once appears false or fussy. It’s a match made in comic art heaven. The introduction is written by longtime Rocketeer devotee (and actor) Thomas Jane, who tells of the friendship he struck with Stevens and his insistent persuasion to get the collection, or as he coined it “The Rocketeer Omnibus,” back into the hands of the public. Succumbing to leukemia in early 2008, Dave Stevens never got to see the full ascension of comic art to this most prestigious coffee-table format, but of the comic series from the latter half of the 20th century, few are as worthy of the full-blown treatment as Dave Stevens’ the Rocketeer.
The Rocketeer: The Complete Deluxe Edition is available from Amazon.com