The Past Takes Flight: Revisiting Dave Stevens’ ‘The Rocketeer’
On this day in 1981, the Rocketeer, a high-flying two-fisted hero created by the legendary Dave Stevens, made his first full appearance in comics. But the Rocketeer isn't a hero of 1981, he's a hero of 1938. In a very real way he's the product of both time periods, and united them in a manner that would influence many comics to come.
The Rocketeer, of course, is a period piece. The story starts in 1938, and incorporates WWII-era aviation and Nazi saboteurs. It's set in Los Angeles, and it's very much the world of Old Hollywood glamour, even though Cliff Secord, the pilot who becomes the Rocketeer, exists outside that world.
The Rocketeer himself is a direct homage to Rocketman, a cliffhanger serial character, who also had a helmet and a jetpack. But King of the Rocketmen was released in 1949, so why is The Rocketeer set eleven years earlier? It's because Stevens is taking the Rocketman concept and mixing it with the tropes of the pulp stories that preceded comic book superheroes. In fact, the first Rocketeer story includes characters from Doc Savage, although they're left unnamed.
And of course 1938 is a very specific year to choose for a setting. Although Superman isn't a direct influence on the Rocketeer as a character, putting the latter's origin in the year the former debuted establishes him as a hero that exists on the cusp between two kinds of hero. The Rocketeer is, by any reasonable standard, a superhero, but his strongest influences (Rocketman aside) precede that tradition. They're the heroes who wear leather jackets and jodhpurs and carry pistols. Heroes who can only fly with the aid of unlikely but decidedly Earthbound gadgetry.
But if 1938 is important to who the Rocketeer is, 1981 is just as important to what The Rocketeer is. The comic debuted, after all, as a backup in Mike Grell's Starslayer, from Pacific Comics. After three more Pacific appearances, the saga was completed and then collected at Eclipse Comics. Pacific and Eclipse were two of the independent comics companies that sprang up in the late '70s and early '80s, in response to the growing direct market of comics shops.
Creators like Grell and Stevens had a newfound freedom to tell the stories they wanted to tell, about characters they created, and of whom they would retain ownership. For Mike Grell, that meant an ancient Celtic warrior captaining a starship in the future. For Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird a few years down the road, it would mean mutant turtles named after Renaissance painters. But for Dave Stevens it meant an homage to pulp adventure stories and cliffhanger serials, high-flying tales of derring-do of the kind that were no longer common in comics or elsewhere in 1981.
It's come to feel sometimes like nostalgia is one of the engines on which comics runs. The heroes of decades past, and homages to those heroes, are a huge part of comics output. But that was a lot less true in the early 1980s. Even heroes who'd been around for decades were trying to be as modern as possible. But Dave Stevens was delighting in the past before that was a cool thing to do. And with his gorgeous, stylish art, he was making it cool.
Stevens' art embodies the beauty of pure comics like few other artists can. His writing is fast-paced and generally appealing, but it's his art that really makes The Rocketeer something special. Whether he's drawing planes and people in flight, or just the faces of his characters in conversation, or Cliff's girlfriend Betty in a moment of unapologetically sexualized glamour, his art is unmatched.
One of the most memorable things about those original Rocketeer comics is the design on the title pages, which incorporate dynamic logo designs with elements of character and setting to create a unique and memorable effect.
If there's one major flaw in the comic, it's its treatment of Betty. She's a pin-up girl --- a direct homage to Bettie Page, in fact --- but Cliff's jealousy of other men's interest in her, and his constant judgment of her profession, have not aged well. Nor has her attitude toward's Cliff's career and financial situation.
But with a comic as special as The Rocketeer, it's worth looking past these flaws. In bringing to life a character who embodies the 1930s, Dave Stevens brought something new and exciting to comics in the 1980s. And that uniqueness, combined with Stevens' superlative art, means that The Rocketeer will never be forgotten.