Pulp Corner: The Rocketeer – The Complete Adventures
The Rocketeer is a character who has done a good job worming its way into the American consciousness over the last 30 or so years, without really doing much. I had loved the 1991 Disney movie when I was a kid, but when I watched it as an adult I felt strangely let down. IDW eventually acquired the rights to the character and put out all of the different parts that make up Dave Stevens main story and released them as a collection. It was time for me to finally investigate the hype.
I’ve been interested in the Rocketeer for a long time. The design atheistic is out of control. You may recall his costume was included as part of my Top 5 favorites. It’s retro, pulp, art deco and superhero all at the same time. Author and artist Dave Stevens is no joke, I’ve been admiring his artistic chops for years. He’s just got it where it counts. So it was nice to be able flip through the book that solidified the character.
The first thing that struck me was how insane it was to finally get this collection off the ground. Let’s get this straight, the Dave Stevens penned Rocketeer work consists of two stories clocking in at roughly 130 pages. Starting in 1982, the first 4 installments (10 or so pages at a time) were included in various Pacific Comics publications. The first two as a back up feature in Starslayer and the next two in Pacific Presents. The ending chapter of the first story was released by Eclipse Comics. It’s already a mess, but it only gets worse. The second storyline called, “Cliff’s New York Adventure” was published in three parts. The first two were released by Comico in 1988 and ’89 respectively and then picked up and concluded by Dark Horse in 1995! Both story lines were collected individually after they had been completed but quickly went out of print. So the fact that everything is collected in one place in one package is a godsend and must have been a legal nightmare. Stevens sadly died of cancer in 2008, but it does beg the question had he intended to write any more?
Even before reading a single page just after flipping through I was let down when I noticed the re-coloring. Prior to his death, Stevens had selected Laura Martin to re-color the entire storyline to give it (I assume) a wholly unified look as well as modernize it a bit. This isn’t a knock against her because she’s just doing her job, but man do I detest it. It didn’t affect my reading of the book or my ability to enjoy it or anything like that. I jus don’t care for this trend. Let’s compare of the more famous scenes from the book.
Too me the color palette on the original is far more appealing. It screams comic book, which is what I’m looking for since that’s what I’m reading. The re-colored version makes the panel look far more photo realistic. I’ve always wanted to read Walt Simonson’s famous Thor run but the original trades have gone out of print and a re-colored version is all that’s being offered now.
Maybe that makes me some kind of weird-o comic book color purist, but to me the newer versions always have this fake looking sheen associated with it that I find a smidge distracting. Maybe it’s just some unchecked nostalgia for comics printed on newsprint paper.
Ok regardless, what about the story? The first one was good but similar to the movie. It’s the classic what you think of when you visualize the Rocketeer. Down on his luck aviator Cliff Secord finds a stolen rocket pack and by using it gets himself into a heap of trouble but also lets him know that he had what it took to be a hero all along. In a nice touch, Stevens alludes to the rocket pack being created by the famous pulp character, Doc Samson. Cliff of course has his girlfriend Betty (designed to look like pin up queen, Bettie Page) who he constantly is trying to keep up with but she is never satisfied with Cliff’s lot in life.
The second story, “Cliff’s New York Adventure” is much more interesting. It continues minutes after the first one ends with Cliff finding out Betty is on her way to NYC to leave on a cruise. When he finds out, Cliff immediately gets in his plane in California and sets off to New York to stop her. Having these stories be back to back really helps cement the serial nature of the writing. In this story we get a pretty big role by The Shadow! They can never legally mention his name, but they do far more than allude to it. We also learn about Cliff’s circus past, how Betty met Cliff and it’s all wrapped up in a murder mystery that involves an old school stage magician. It’s good, weird stuff.
Would Stevens have benefitted from a writer or scripter? Probably. That way he could have been left alone with just the art. I had found out he was asked to more or less fill in space with his initial story. He basically only had the character design created and was making it up as he went along. You can tell that very easily from reading these, it’s not exactly a tight script. Yet, I’d wager most people picking this up aren’t expecting Shakespeare. It’s a fun jaunt through the world of pulp with a killer artist behind the wheel, giving you his version of America. There’s a quote from Stevens about how he thinks the world of all the pulp characters and 1930s cinema are one in the same and from these stories it’s abundantly evident.
It’s really amazing how much has been generated from two complete stories and a mediocre movie. The Rocketeer really feels like a beloved character who has been around all of our lives. People are aware of the character without having access to either the comics or the movie. It’s really a testament to Dave Steven’s creativity and his ability to tap into the heart of old America. The Rocketeer when the comics are finished isn’t even a superhero or vigilante like some of the other pulp heroes, at least in the traditional sense. Cliff does some heroic things, but he never actually becomes a hero.
IDW has over the last few years put out 3 different miniseries and an anthology about the character with different creative teams to varying degrees of success. For my taste I’d prefer an ongoing Rocketeer series with some top tier talent (Wilfredo Torres I’m looking in your direction), but at least something is being done with it. They did right by me by just releasing “The Complete Adventures”. Anyone wondering about the Rocketeer, this is the place to start.
If you’re still looking for more about the Rocketeer the Comic Geek Speak spin off show, With Or Without Pulp did a great podcast covering all the angles which you can check out here.
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