Ahead Of His Time: The Genius of ‘Rocketeer’ Creator Dave Stevens
Today marks the birthday of Dave Stevens, who is, without question, one of the greatest artists in the history of comic books. Best known for creating the Rocketeer --- and for the sexy, pinup-inspired art that made him a fan favorite and helped spark the revival of interest in Bettie Page --- Stevens had a career that was marked by amazing projects, including work doing storyboards for Raiders of the Lost Ark and the music video for Michael Jackson's "Thriller," two of the biggest pop culture phenomena of the '80s. It's in comics, though, that he made his biggest mark.
Tragically, Stevens died in 2008, but he left behind an amazing legacy of stories of high adventure, romance, and action, which holds up over thirty years later as innovative, compelling, and absolutely beautiful.
One of the amazing things about The Rocketeer, and there are a lot of them, is how far ahead of its time it seems. The character first hit the stands in 1982 as one of the leading stars of that decade's independent comics boom, and for readers coming to the character from the world of superheroes, the art Dave Stevens was doing didn't look like anything else in comics. Calling it photorealistic isn't quite right, but there was a weight to the characters that made them feel real, and when he combined it with the dynamic page layouts inspired by classic adventure stories, the result was breathtaking --- and remains so today.
Over thirty years after that first story, there's not a whole lot out there that looks better, especially once the stories were recolored by Stevens' chosen collaborator, Laura Martin.
But while The Rocketeer was certainly marked by the Nazi-fightin', thrill-a-minute airborne action and cameos that called back to the pulps that inspired it, it is, at its heart, a love story between Cliff Secord and his beautiful girlfriend, Betty. That's the hook that holds up, the idea of Cliff's insecurity about his station in life and the fear that he's going to lose the person that's most important to him, a fear that no amount of reassurance is ever going to get rid of that ends up manifesting as jealousy.
It's Cliff's least appealing trait by design, to the point where you come away from that book wanting to grab him by the lapels and shake him while shouting, "Don't you see she loves you, you idiot?!" That's a tricky thing to pull off without making the character unlikable, and while Cliff gets pretty close sometimes, that vulnerability --- that humanity --- just makes him a better character.
Which brings us to Betty --- or, to be more accurate, to Bettie.
You can't really talk about Dave Stevens without talking about Bettie Page. To say that the famous pinup model was an inspiration is putting things extremely mildly. There was a strong current of sexuality that ran through all of Stevens' work, and while it was front-and-center in The Rocketeer, he never took an opportunity to shy away from lavish splash pages of arched backs and a sultry smiles in virtually everything he did.
As someone who's most certainly a part of the target market for Stevens' pinup work, it's easy for me to praise the craftsmanship that he brought to the sexier side of his art, but in an industry that's marked by oversexualized female characters, I also think that it's self-evident that Stevens was doing something that set his work apart from and above the usual pouty heroines. Your mileage may vary, of course, but for me, even at their most pinup-friendly, Betty and Bettie were always drawn with a character that never made them feel like objects.
In a tribute piece a few years ago, former CA editor Andy Khouri wrote about Stevens' passion and love for Bettie Page, and that's something that became very real when Stevens and Page actually met each other in the '90s:
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.
Unfortunately for readers, Stevens' craftsmanship and attention to detail meant that he was far from prolific, but the small amount of output that he did in his time in comics stands up as a true masterpiece, and if you've never read it, today's an awfully good day to start.