In 1981, Steve Schanes—publisher of Pacific Comics—approached Dave Stevens about filling the back six pages of an upcoming book. He asked Stevens for two installments, giving him free reign to do whatever he wanted. Stevens sent a promo drawing of a retro, 1930s pulp hero called The Rocketeer. Schanes loved it and wrote back telling Stevens he couldn’t wait to see the story.
Unfortunately, Stevens didn’t actually have one.
When he was finally able to break the story—and The Rocketeer was published—it was an immediate hit. Cliff Secord, a stunt pilot in Los Angeles in 1938, discovered a mysterious jet pack that enabled him to fly. In an effort to impress his girlfriend and make a little bit of money, Cliff becomes something of a reluctant hero. Cliff’s laid-back personality, the difficulty of being a hero and Stewart’s character-driven story set The Rocketeer apart from most of the other popular comics of the time.
The problem though, was that the published stories kept jumping around from place to place, making them somewhat hard to follow. The first two installments appeared in a book called Starslayer; two more were published in Pacific Presents; and the conclusion, Rocket’s Red Glare, was released by Eclipse comics in 1984. A collected edition followed, but that was it for The Rocketeer until 1988, when Comico Comics released two issues of a story called Cliff’s New York Adventure in Rocketeer Adventure Magazine. Unfortunately, Comico ran into financial trouble, and the third and final installment wasn’t seen until Dark Horse released it in 1995.
The title was popular enough that it was made into a movie in 1991, but even though it was discussed, Stevens never returned for another series. He kept working as an illustrator and painter, but never made it back to serialized storytelling, and died in early 2008 after several years battling leukemia. Fortunately, with the assistance of some of the industry’s top talent, Stevens had been working on a massive project that would see each installment of The Rocketeer collected in one place for the first time.
IDW released two versions of The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures in December 2009. The first was a standard hardcover with both stories re-colored by Eagle, Harvey and Eisner award-winning colorist Laura Martin. The second version was an oversize hardcover that contained both stories as well as nearly 200 pages of bonus material.
The bonus material in the deluxe edition is worth the admission price alone. It contains sketches, layouts, script excerpts, story outlines and just about anything else that Dave Stevens may have had lying around his house. He had managed to hold on to nearly every page of original art and the majority of it went in. There’s even a running DVD-style commentary from Stevens and a few other artists who assisted him throughout the years. The best bits are when Stevens writes that the layouts and breakdowns are his favorite part of creating a comic, but “what is pure, deadly drudgery is the detail and precision of penciling and inking.” It’s no wonder he had no interest in going back to the series.
Stevens even admits that he “wrote and drew it a page at a time. I’d just sit down and start page one with no idea where I was going!” It’s those kinds of comments, littered throughout the book, that give you an insight into how Stevens approached the whole thing. He made comics because they were fun, plain and simple. And that embodies the attitude and the spirit of The Rocketeer.
While he may not have lived long enough to see the finished product, The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures is everything Stevens could have hoped it would be. And now the rest of us can sit back and enjoy the adventure.