The Rocketeer is something of a legendary comic book, one that I’ve heard lots about but only had a chance to read small pieces of before now. If you’re unfamiliar with this comic, here’s the basics: The Rocketeer was a throwback to the pulpy, serial adventures of the 1930s written and drawn with incredible love and attention to detail by Dave Stevens. It may have seemed like just another indie comic when it hit the stands in 1981, maybe even like just another knock off of the successful movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, which made hard-luck heroes of that era very popular.
But there’s this character, Betty, the girlfriend of the somewhat hapless hero Cliff Secord. Based on Betty Page, who at the time was largely forgotten except to a few folks like Stevens, the character focused Stevens’ incredible talent and helped make this a comic few who read it would ever forget.
Looking at this new edition, which is the first time all Stevens’ Rocketeer stories were collected in one volume and features some amazing new coloring from Laura Martin, it lives up to its reputation as one of the finest examples of popular comic book artwork. It’s also a blast to read — Stevens is mostly known as an immaculate artist, but this wouldn’t be the classic it is if he also couldn’t work up a good story to hang it on.
Reading this book is like going back in time in more ways than one. Not only is it a great tribute to the adventures of the 1930s and the pinup girl sensation of the 1950s, it’s also an example of state of the art comics in the 1980s — the last decade before digital technology began to make its presence felt. Every panel in this collection conveys both the sense that a perfectionist is at work, but also the warm feeling of artwork that was created by hand. (It’s also interesting to note the help Stevens had on this project, with art assists from some other luminaries including Michael William Kaluta, Jaime Hernandez and Art Adams, among others.)
Stevens died in 2008 at the age of 52 from leukemia. And this book can’t help but be a major part of his legacy. (For the rest, pick up Brush With Passion, an autobiography Stevens unfortunately didn’t live to finish, but which shows the number of amazing projects he worked on from preparing presentation art for Steven Spielberg on Raiders to storyboarding John Landis’ famous video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller. He also was instrumental in later finding the real Betty Page and became a friend to her in her senior years.) It’s unfinished as a story — it just kind of ends with the second major adventure and Stevens never got around to giving the story a resolution.
The Rocketeer, of course, had a life beyond comics in the form of the 1991 feature film from Disney. While it wasn’t a box office smash, it was well-received by critics and fans of the comic. It also was an early big role for Jennifer Connelly, who played “Jenny” — changed from Betty, but still pretty close. And it should be a movie worth revisiting as its director, Joe Johnston, is set to helm another movie adaptation of a classic comic book hero in Marvel’s upcoming The First Avenger: Captain America.
The Deluxe Edition (IDW Publishing, $75) also includes an extensive bonus section, featuring rare artwork, paintings, thumbnails, scripts and sketches from the series. It is, in and of itself, a convincing argument for the validity of comic art as a thing of beauty and value. There’s a “regular” edition of this book out that costs about $30, which is a standard-size hardcover without a lot of the extras. But if you’re at all curious on this one, do yourself a favor and splurge on the Deluxe Edition if you can. It’s definitely worth it.