‘The Rocketeer: Hollywood Horror’, An All-New Adventure Serial by Roger Langridge & J. Bone [Exclusive Interview + Art]
Next week IDW Publishing will ship the concluding chapter of The Rocketeer: Cargo of Doom. Written by Mark Waid and drawn by Chris Samnee, it's the first serialized Rocketeer adventure since the death of Dave Stevens, the visionary cartoonist who back in the 1980s introduced the handsome, impertinent and ferociously jealous stunt pilot-turned-accidental-hero Cliff Seacord and his long-suffering, impossibly beautiful model/actress girlfriend Betty (designed after the iconic pin-up queen Bettie Page). The very well-received book has continued IDW's reverent stewardship of our beloved Rocketeer and his world, and has emboldened the publisher to move forward with the second-ever serial not created by Stevens himself: Hollywood Horror. Courtesy of Eisner-winning writer Roger Langridge (Thor: The Mighty Avenger, The Muppet Show) and artist J. Bone, the longtime Darwyn Cooke collaborator and ComicsAlliance favorite whose contribution to the IDW's Rocketeer Adventures anthology stood out even among that uncommonly impressive collection of creators.
Beginning in February, Hollywood Horror is set squarely in the Rocketeer's vintage Los Angeles, where Cliff and Betty, as is their wont, become caught up in an exciting and possibly even supernatural mystery that takes its inspiration from Hollywood's golden age. Naturally, the endlessly quarreling lovers get pretty angry with each other along the way. Langridge and Bone spoke exclusively with ComicsAlliance about the new four-issue serial, which will come with original covers by comics legend Walt Simonson.
ComicsAlliance: I'd like to know where both of you come from with Dave Stevens and The Rocketeer. When did you first encounter the work and what was your reaction to it?
Roger Langridge: I first encountered The Rocketeer waaay back when it was still appearing in Pacific Presents (yes, I'm that old!). I was still living in New Zealand at the time, and one of New Zealand's first comic specialty stores, Mark One Comics in Auckland, had just opened. To me, at that age -- I guess I was 15 or 16 years old -- it was like Aladdin's Cave. This was at a point when the direct market was just starting up, and things like Love and Rockets, Cerebus and The Rocketeer were unbelievably exciting things to discover compared to what Marvel and DC and whoever else -- Charlton and Gold Key, I guess -- were offering at the time. I followed the character religiously from that point on.
J. Bone: I can't remember precisely but I think I first heard of the Rocketeer when the movie was being made. As a teen I had a subscription to Starlog and Comics Scene. One of those magazines (probably Comics Scene) published an interview with Dave accompanied by the drawing of Betty being discovered at the photographer's studio. I loved that drawing and I think because of it I hunted down a few issues of the comic. I know I also bought The Rocketeer trade around that time. As a teen I discovered my Dad's Doc Savage collection and started reading through those. I loved that Dave Stevens used Doc Savage characters in the story. So even though I came into The Rocketeer through the movie my love for the character remained because of Dave's gorgeous art.
Incidentally, I met [Rocketeer film star] Bill Campbell a few years later at San Diego Comic-Con and got him to sign me an 8x10 of him as the Rocketeer! The photo is somewhere in my files of art (or I'd scan and send it in for the interview). Bill as at Dave's table, Dave having taken a break at the time. I never did meet Dave.
CA: Stevens suggested a fondness for horror, with his "casting" of vintage horror film star Rondo Hatton as Lothar in the original Rocketeer comics. Does your Hollywood Horror story come from the same well of inspiration?
JB: This is perhaps more of a question for Roger on how he came up with the story. But, and I don't want to spoil anything, I'm drawing some of my favorite Hollywood stars of the era. I'm also trying to think of great character actors of the time on whom I can base certain characters.
RL: From an oblique angle, maybe. I'm casting Hollywood figures of the day in certain roles, and there's a horror element, but they're running on parallel tracks in this series, not really meeting up. The horror element is coming more from the pulp tradition, which is another very Rocketeerish well of inspiration.
CA: Is Hollywood Horror at all supernatural? Rocketeer stories are typically terrestrial but J. Bone's fantastic short story with David Mandel in issue #4 of Rocketeer Adventures 2 sent Cliff on an Adam Strange/John Carter-style adventure to another world, so I feel like we shouldn't make any assumptions.
RL: Without wanting to spoil anything, I think I've found a way to have our cake and eat it. There's some apparently eldritch goings-on, but I think we've managed to incorporate them without breaking the rules of the Rocketeer's world. My feeling is that you can probably bend the rules a bit more in a one-off short story than you can in a proper series, so we're walking a fine line, but hopefully we've pulled it off.... and that's all you're getting out of me!
JB: My feeling about the Rocketeer is that he can fit into any stories of his particular time period, pre-WWII. The story I drew with David Mandel was definitely inspired by a John Carter-type pulp hero and sci-fi novels. I think Rocketeer stories should feel like they came from, meaning drawn at that time, from the era they depict. So even though my art style isn't what you would get from a '40s comic book, all of the elements/clichés we know from those stories are fair game for a Rocketeer story. Which means gangsters, alien worlds, giant gorillas and possibly monsters of a supernatural origin.
CA: Can you tell us anything about where we find Cliff and Betty in issue 1, and what sets this story in motion? Betty's a model and actress so with a title like Hollywood Horror you have to guess she's got an especially significant part to play.
JB: I'm definitely hoping Betty is very active in the story. She and Cliff have a spat in the first issue, as is customary. I just hope those kids can learn to get along. They seem to have such a rocky foundation.
RL: Oh, yeah, Betty's up to her eyebrows in this story. Things between Cliff and Betty are tense and complicated, as you'd expect (business as usual, in other words!). It's an argument between Cliff and Betty early on that propels her into the story, so that tension is a big part of the narrative engine. It wouldn't be The Rocketeer without her.
CA: J, it's obvious from that short in Rocketeer Adventures 2 that you have a blast drawing Cliff and Betty together. Do you see The Rocketeer primarily as a love story, as opposed to simply an adventure character?
JB: I have to confess, my one frustration with Cliff and Betty is that they fight an awful lot. If I were a relationship counselor I would not recommend they get married. There's far too much jealousy and punching going on between them.
That said, I think fun adventure stories of the '30s need that clichéd Damsel in Distress. What's great about Rocketeer stories and Betty, being characters of yesteryear written and drawn by creators of this-a-year, is that the Damsel often overcomes her own distress and helps, or rescues, the Hero. Betty has always been a strong character, shown to not only take care of herself but Cliff as well.
CA: What about you, Roger?
RL: Well, it's both, isn't it? The romantic angle is as much a part of the alchemy as the pulp adventure tropes. My feeling is that you need the emotional heft of Cliff and Betty's relationship for the adventures to add up to anything meaningful, and you need the jeopardy of the adventure sequences to give the emotional content the required urgency. They feed off one another. Conceptually, the strip is a beautifully calibrated piece of machinery.
CA: Among other things, The Rocketeer is remembered for Stevens' devotion to detail, and not just in the sense of draftsmanship but also in terms of the period. You're working specifically with the "old Hollywood" setting. What's the challenge there for each of you? What's the fun part? Or are they one in the same?
JB: First I have to say I'm not nearly the draftsman Dave was. My first few days of drawing found me frustrated with my inabilities rather than focusing on what I can do... and what would make this story my own rather than attempting to draw a Dave Stevens Rocketeer. What helped me shift my focus was that I truly love old movies. My folks watched Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart movies and I continued to watch them and discover Bogart and Bacall, Myrna Loy and William Powell, among many others, into my adulthood. Part of my research is to sit down with old black and white movies playing beside me while I work. I drew from that to overcome my own nervousness about drawing Dave Stevens' Rocketeer.
Research is fun, for me. I love looking at old light switches, appliances and how rooms looked in the '30s. Google Image helps a whole lot! And watching old movies gives me hairstyles, fashion and body language. I caught myself drawing a background character with long flowing hair when I realized that woman wore their hair pinned up in the '30s. A lot of bobby pins were used back then. I'm hoping that all my research pays off and that no little incongruities sneak into the art and create a time paradox.
RL: Well, for my part, I'm a huge fan of movies and newspaper strips of the period, so a lot of the necessary research was already rattling around in my head. I'm having to look a few things up to get some of the details right, but it hasn't proven to be too much of a burden, and it's been fun finding things from the period that fit the story -- sometimes in surprising ways. More than once, while looking something up, I've stumbled across something quite by chance that fits the historical period but which actually adds motivation or resonance to something that I'd intended to write anyway. It's J. I'm feeling sorry for -- it's easy to write "Cliff walks into a bar," but J. has to make it look like a bar in 1939! But the few glimpses I've seen so far of what he's doing assure me that he's more than up to the challenge. Really, I couldn't be happier that he's on this book.