Title: The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures by Dave Stevens
Publisher: IDW Publishing
Writer: Dave Stevens
Artist: Dave Stevens
Colorist: Laura Martin
Letterer: Carrie Spiegle
Spoiler Warning! This review talks about the plot of the graphic novel being reviewed. I try to avoid mentioning anything I see as a major twist or reveal, but I don’t guarantee it. Read at your own risk!
I’ve never seen The Rocketeer. I haven’t read the comics before now. All I really knew was that it was a retro pulp-style hero story set around World War II. I never knew it would be this delightful.
This collection offers both Rocketeer stories by the character’s creator, Dave Stevens: the first Rocketeer story and its sequel, Cliff’s New York Adventure. As I understand it, IDW released a hardcover with this material in 2009, and has now released a paperback edition, so if you already own the hardcover, you can probably skip this volume. However, if you’ve never read these comics, I urge you to pick up this edition, especially if you love old-fashioned pulpy goodness. It contains the comics, their original covers, covers to previous collected editions, and some promotional material.
Both Rocketeer stories in this collection take place in 1938. In the first story, the first installment of which was published in 1982, Los Angeles stunt flier Cliff Secord stumbles upon a “rocket-pack” stolen from the United States government by Nazi spies. Thinking he can use it to make some extra money to impress Betty, his mostly-girlfriend, he comes up with the idea to implement it in a flying routine. There are some snags, though: the Army considers him a thief, and the Nazis want the rocket pack as well as some experimental planes the Air Force is developing. Cliff becomes a target, but he foils the Nazi plot with help from the rocket pack. The first issue of Cliff’s New York Adventure was released in 1988, and it picks up pretty much right where the first tale left off. Cliff goes to New York to stop Betty from leaving for Europe with a skeevy photographer. When he arrives, a childhood friend tells Cliff he knows a man with a job for him. This job turns out to be catching a serial killer targeting carnies Cliff knew as a teenager.
Both stories are fun, but I found Cliff’s New York Adventure to be stronger by a wide margin. There are a number of factors in this. The first story, as I said, is fun, but I don’t think it goes much beyond that plot-wise. The spying and intrigue play a peripheral role at best. It’s more of a playground to introduce the character and his world, which isn’t a bad thing, because the character dynamics are interesting and entertaining beyond the simple fun of a guy with a jetpack. In New York Adventure, we already know Cliff and Betty enough to be invested in them, and the murder plot gives it higher personal stakes for Cliff. He plays well off his friend Goose and their employer, the mysterious Jonas. And there’s a different feel to New York Adventure. The introductory yarn is more like a transplant of the pulps it homages, while New York Adventure feels like a well-executed fusion of the pulps and its late-80s contemporaries.
Before I move on to the art, I’d be remiss to not include a little note about the dialogue. Sometimes in comics dialogue, we get dialects written phonetically in word balloons; Jack Kirby and Chris Claremont did this frequently. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Stevens wrote dialogue in dialect, and it works. It feels like 1938, and the exchanges have a snappy flow, especially between Cliff talks to Goose or his older associate in L.A., Peevy. And there are some simply delightful expressions. These two show up on the same page in New York Adventure: “He lays it on so thick, you can eat it with mustard,” and “It’d curl the hair on an eggplant!”
The art in these stories is phenomenal. Like the dialogue, it feels like 1938, with that pulpy feel, but with an energy the old four-colors on their newsprint couldn’t always achieve. And this isn’t just the colors doing that work. This is absolutely Stevens’ linework. Destruction is explosive, the violence has weight. When Cliff’s in flight, his legs blur into his stream like Marvel’s resident human rockets, Cannonball and Nova. There’s a sense of speed and freedom to his flight, and both his rocket pack and helmet are gorgeously rendered. In every panel, everyone is given effusive expression and body language that suggests action.
Stevens feels ahead of the curve with some of the art, too. He has some really great shadow work, which is neither common nor appreciated enough in comics art. He draws every leaf on a sparse branch casting some light shade on Cliff, and we see a subdued but very distinctive use of his helmet’s shadow in the background of a panel primarily featuring a Nazi pilot. The panel layouts have a subtle complexity you just didn’t see much at the time. You see circular panels, overlapping panels, “cascading” panels, word balloons that bleed into other panels. Stevens was a master draftsman who really understood comics, and looking at his work here, I think it’s unfortunate he passed away in 2008.
The colors have been redone by Laura Martin, who was apparently selected by Stevens himself before his death. Comparing the new colors to what scans I can find online of the original pages of The Rocketeer, the recolor looks like a high-definition remaster. They look sharp, but characters can sometimes look to have an airbrushed quality to them, particularly Betty, who is a dead ringer for and clear homage to Bettie Page (speaking of whom, the art can get a teensy bit exploitative of Betty on occasion, but she is modeled on the Queen of Pin-ups). The airbrush-like effect isn’t a deal breaker, but it’s noticeable. The new coloring fits in much better with how Stevens’ style evolved by the time of New York Adventure.
Still, even though I have a soft spot for homage to old serials and pulp strips, occasionally dabbling in the source material, I’d have to recommend this trade to anybody. The art alone would be well worth the price of admission, and the stories are fun enough that I think just about anyone could enjoy this. And for someone who loves the pulps, I’d call this a must-have.