The Passion of Dave Stevens, Master of Good Girl Art and Pop Culture Pioneer [Sex]
The work of the late, great Dave Stevens is known to comic book aficionados in the form of his enduring creation, The Rocketeer, and to art collectors and illustration enthusiasts for his reverently retro yet brilliantly modern renditions of vintage pulp characters, science fiction adventurers and iconic superheroes. But as dedicated Stevens fans know, the artist's true passion and inspiration manifests in his seemingly countless and unfailingly exquisite renderings of the female form, most typically in the classic pinup and "good girl art" style at which he became one of the very best. But while Stevens' technique was perfection itself, it wasn't just the refinement of his lines or the proportions of his women that made Stevens' work so sexy and so beautiful. It was love that did that, and it was love that made Stevens' work influential in a way that few other comic book artists can claim.
Dave Stevens was a consumate artist in the classic sense of the term, and in keeping with that romantic notion he quite naturally had a muse. The face that launched a thousand careers in fashion, music and art, her name was Bettie Page. And she was the love of Stevens' life.
"Bettie Page embodied the stereotypical wholesomeness of the '50s and the hidden sexuality straining beneath the surface," wrote Karen Essex and James L. Swanson in their biography, Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-Up Legend. Always smiling, winking or affecting a sense of alarm, Page's coquettish photographs were anything but lurid (although your mileage may vary on the those that were firmly in the fetish realm). She was a star in the 1950s and is remembered today as the great American pinup queen and quintessential fetish model, but Page was practically forgotten for many years after she disappeared in 1959. However, like all great obscure pop artifacts, the photographs of Page were rediscovered by the youth of the next generation and became fuel for their imaginations and underground movements. Dave Stevens was among them, and as his friend and Graphitti Designs founder Bob Chapman wrote in his introduction to the artist's Complete Sketches & Studies from IDW, Stevens "relished" the pinup's images in his youth.
To say that Stevens was "shameless" in his appropriation of Bettie Page is probably an understatement, but it's also not the proper word to describe what Stevens was doing with The Rocketeer. Stevens wasn't "stealing" or "borrowing" or "paying homage" to Bettie Page, Stevens was loving Bettie Page.
To explain that, it's important to understand that because Dave Stevens was a genius character designer, to simply gaze upon any random drawing of the Rocketeer is to invoke in your imagination all kinds of fantastic pulp imagery. Stevens had worked in animation at Hanna-Barbera, studied under Jonny Quest co-creator Doug Wildey, listed Steranko as his primary comics influence and created storyboards for Raiders of the Lost Ark, so of course The Rocketeer was full of dynamic action and the character is usually thought of as a dashing adventure hero. But the truth is that occasions where The Rocketeer depicts a traditional adventure story are very rare, as most of the time he's doing something incredibly foolish and getting rightly punched in the face for his trouble. No, in reality The Rocketeer is probably the best illustrated romance comic book of all time.
As the story goes, Cliff Secord was a young, handsome and broke pilot desperately in love with his girlfriend -- and he nearly got himself killed again and again trying to find some money with which to prove it. Stevens created a socially inept, deeply insecure outsider -- the classic geek, really -- who by the grace of every god combined found himself the object of this impossibly beautiful woman's devotion. As inspired by the brilliant Bettie Page pinups, Secord's girlfriend "Betty" is sophisticated, good humored and vivacious. She's not just beautiful, she's a glamourous actress! And a model!! A nude model!!! It's the prime scenario of so many dubious romances in men's entertainment -- from superheroes to schlubby sitcom dads -- that begs the question, Why is she with this guy?!?
But as I said, Stevens was a genius, and he circumvented this cliche of T&A by making his hero painfully aware of his own circumstances. In his original character sheet, Stevens described Cliff thusly:
He loves Betty but is intimidated by her in her element. Not as an actress in her surroundings, but socially, in social situations requiring refined behavior and dress. Cliff is ill at ease and out of his league, or so he feels. Betty fits in, she looks like a million bucks, mixes well, handling herself perfectly in any social situation and enjoys the glamour of her profession. Whereas Cliff feels threatened by it, being an outsider.
He sees her with the cultured night club crowd, etc. and although she constantly tells him she's not interested in anyone else, he doesn't hear it. He's always afraid he's going to lose her to a well-mannered, well-to-do so-and-so. We know how much Betty loves him, but his insecurity about himself prevents him from believing it to be anything but a precarious affair, under constant threat of dissolving.
Tragic qualities, to be sure, and they're simultaneously tempered and intensified by Cliff's indomitable will to redeem himself, to prove -- even though Betty doesn't need him to -- that he's "man enough" to be worthy of the woman he loves so passionately, and who loves him in return. These all-too-real contradictions make the Rocketeer an uncommonly complex, frustrating and even funny comic book hero. Some of this nature is best expressed in the following monologue from The Rocketeer: Cliff's New York Adventure, in which Cliff recounts the cute origin story of his and Betty's relationship.
I met 'er workin' on a picture. [Cliff was a stunt pilot in Hollywoodland for a brief time, but he quit because Hollywood people stink]. An' it's instant mush! I mean, I'm a goner! We start datin', an' it's like we were made for each other! Total bliss -- for about two months. Then she gets a part in this Busby Berkeley picture... and they want her in some publicity shots, too! So, naturally they gotta have pictures taken -- bathing suits an' such, right? So the girls get sent to Marco of Hollywood - now this guy's got a rep as a real make-out artist! I mean, he lays it on so thick you can it with mustard... and the dames do! He tells 'em he'll manage 'em... get 'em in all the trade magazines -- the right parties... introduce 'em to directors... 'cause he's Marco of Hollywood! Well, Betty bought it -- even after I told 'er the guy was a weasel! Now, suddenly I'm a second-class citizen! She's always out or too busy... heck, I'm no dope! I know what goes on in those 'photographers studios' -- why, it'd curl th' hair on an eggplant!!
Cliff delivered that deliciously old-timey monologue to a friend while in hot pursuit of Betty, who'd travelled to New York en route to Europe with her photographer. Betty and Cliff had a fight back in LA, and she couldn't take it anymore. When Cliff realized what happened, he set off to win her back, once again stealing the experimental rocket pack that had prompted trouble before.
This characterization drives all the drama, action and sexual content of The Rocketeer. The inescapably charming and old-fashioned style of the story, the authentic nature of the romantic relationship, the thrilling action, and Stevens' lavish art style all work together to create a nostalgic fantasy world in which these variously bombastic and titillating images can exist naturally, in all their glory.
Despite being hailed as one of the greats of the independent comics movement of the 1980s and a well regarded feature film from Disney, The Rocketeer was not a tenable career for the perfectionist Stevens. Even with the occasional help from auspicious pinch-hitters Arthur Adams, Jaime Hernandez and Michael Kaluta, "Glacial" is a word that has been used to accurately describe the release schedule of The Rocketeer. Only around 120 story pages were ever produced, and Stevens created no further comics after the drop-dead gorgeous final page of Cliff's New York Adventure, which itself came out several years after the previous issue. (The entire Stevens canon is available in collected editions from IDW Publishing, who have also commissioned a number of new and extremely lovely Rocketeer comics from some of comics' best creators in the form of The Rocketeer Adventures.)
While I think he created an undervalued character dynamic with Cliff and Betty, Stevens didn't need a formal narrative structure to produce works of art that were similarly charged with passion for women, including of course his beloved Bettie Page. He found those opportunities in his work as an illustrator, working on various publication covers, posters, pinups, commissions and other non-sequential work, where he created immersive, impeccably designed worlds with just single images. Much of Stevens' professional illustration work is collected in Underwood's Brush With Passion: The Art and Life of Dave Stevens, which is, sadly, out-of-print and quite hard to find at an affordable price.
What's quite a lot easier to find (though technically out-of-print) is IDW Publishing's aforementioned Dave Stevens: Complete Sketches & Studies, which is as essential a tome for the good girl art fan as anything else I can think of. The book reprints three rare sketchbook collections Stevens used to sell at conventions. Like his contemporary Steve Rude, what Stevens identified as a "sketch" would make many comic book artists lose their breath. Looking at this material, much of which Stevens created simply as practice, helps explain the eons that passed between installments of The Rocketeer.
Upon Stevens' death, comics writer and Stevens' close friend Mark Evanier reported that as a younger man Stevens was advised by Jack Kirby to indulge his muses, and he took the King's message to the extreme. "They were rarely just jobs to Dave," wrote Evanier. "Most of the time, what emerged from his drawing board or easel was a deeply personal effort. He was truly in love with every beautiful woman he drew, at least insofar as the paper versions were concerned."
There are many comic book artists who infuse their storytelling methods with their talent for titillation -- Steve Rude, Amanda Conner, Adam Hughes, Milo Manara, Wally Wood, Dave McKean, Frank Cho, Dan De Carlo, Guido Crepax, Adam Warren, Ross Campbell, Brandon Graham, Gilbert Hernandez and Jaime Hernandez (who actually assisted Stevens on some of the raciest pages of The Rocketeer) are just some who spring immediately to mind -- but Dave Stevens is one of the few whose sexy artwork not only transcends the confines of the comic book medium and its readership, but actually helped set the course of American pop culture for years to come.
The Rocketeer first appeared in 1982 as a backup feature in Starslayer #2, published by Mike Grell's Pacific Comics. It was and is a genuine marvel of comic book art, and a separate article could be dedicated solely to the rich aesthetic contents of that nine-page story. But for our purposes, the real bombshell (pun intended) dropped when the Rocketeer's pinup model girlfriend Betty first appeared in the back of Starslayer #3. Stevens wasn't the first to imbue his comics with the styles of glamour, good girl or fetish art, but he was the first to cast the theretofore forgotten pinup idol Bettie Page as the female lead in what would become one of the biggest hits of the '80s comics vanguard. In his introduction to Grafton Books' original collected edition of The Rocketeer's first five chapters, Harlan Ellison put it most beautifully, writing, "The shadow of Bettie Page lives in those lines."
The event set off a cultural chain reaction that continues to this day throughout fashion, comics, music, art and erotica. But that spark wasn't isolated just to Stevens' comic books. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Stevens was one of several Los Angeles artists whose work was inspired by the lost aesthetics of the past, and with specific reference to Bettie Page. It's possible that Stevens' work was exhibited alongside that of Robert Williams, the influential hot rod culture artist and founder of Juxtapoz magazine, and Robert Blue, who showed paintings based on the famous Irving Klaw bondage photos of Page. Those pictures as well as artwork by Stevens would soon be widely proliferated in The Betty Pages, a 1980s fanzine by artist and golden age comics restorationist Greg Theakston that almost certainly made its way into the hands of a young Heather Sweet, better known today as the sex symbol and fashion icon Dita Von Teese.
More photos and artwork inspired by Page disseminated throughout the consciousness of the 1980s underground, when artists like the great Chris "Coop" Cooper (known for his sexy "devil girl" art), cartoonist Dan Clowes and Los Bros. Hernandez were snail-mailing each other 'zines, mixtapes and comics all around the country. Fetish Girls, a famous photography book by the influential shooter Eric Kroll, helped cement Page's place in fashion while the legendary Frank Kozik made sure she was seen on illustrated concert posters throughout the land.
The spirit of Bettie Page and the stylistic innovations of those artists and their peers can be identified easily today in fashion, comics, music and art, and not just in the counter-culture. The mainstream has been injected -- inked, if you like -- with the glamour-and-tattoo styles most popularly exemplified by Suicide Girls, itself a direct descendant of Bettie Page and a major beneficiary of a pop cultural revival that blasted off (pun intended) because of one man's love for a beautiful woman. The way that only a true master can, Dave Stevens put that love on paper and made everyone else feel it too.
I keep returning to the word "passion" in the sense of the classical, consumate artist because that is what I feel when I look at Dave Stevens' work. I believe it is precisely because you can see that Stevens cared so much about what he was drawing; that these worlds and these people -- especially the women, whose depictions never even came close to sleazy -- meant everything to him in those moments of their creation. It's an unconventional kind of passion, no doubt, given that Stevens' muse was never really more than a model in a photograph; practically an actor playing a character. I suppose in that way, and beyond the comic's actual narrative content, the creation of The Rocketeer is itself ia peculiar kind love story. It's been suggested to me that it may even be an unhealthy love story, but I think the processing of these kinds of feelings, fascinations (fetishes?) and compulsions is where great art can come from. Indeed, the act of reading The Rocketeer is a uniquely positive experience, and the act of creating it had a positive impact on the lives of its readers, its creator and, eventually, the woman who inspired it.
Stevens thought he could never meet Bettie Page except in his artwork. Nobody knew what had happened to her after she went off the grid in the late 1950s, but as it turned out she was very much alive and living in Los Angeles in the 1990s, not very far from Stevens' own home. An older woman by then, Page said she was completely unaware of all that had transpired with her image since she removed herself from the public eye more than 30 years before. Stevens and Page became friends and he helped ensure that she was finally compensated for the use of her likeness in merchandising and in the media, and she would credit Stevens in interviews for all he'd done in service of her legacy. In 2001 Stevens very happily told Mark Evanier, "It's amazing. After years of fantasizing about this woman, I'm now driving her to cash her Social Security checks." Most touchingly, as reported by his friend, the cartoonist Lea Hernandez, Stevens was always sure to be with Page on her birthday.
A victim of leukemia, Dave Stevens died in 2008. He was only 52 years old. Bettie Page passed away just a few months later at age 85.
Special thanks to Chris "Coop" Cooper for his assistance with this article, and to IDW Publishing's John Schork for providing ComicsAlliance with high resolution images from Dave Stevens: Complete Sketches & Studies and from The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures. Comic Book Artist's Jon B. Cooke conducted a great interview with Dave Stevens that I used as reference for this article.