An Interview with Dave Stevens from The Comics Journal #117 (September 1987)
The Original Intro: Dave Stevens is arguably the first (and biggest) star created by the direct sales phenomenon. His Rocketeer series and the covers he did for Eclipse have spawned a veritable cottage industry of T-shirts, posters, and prints, the profits from which have unfortunately been swallowed up by a withering legal battle with Marvel. He has, however, stockpiled enough advertising and film work so that he can do another three-issue Rocketeer series for Comico. In this interview Stevens discusses his early influences, the origins of the Rocketeer, Marvel's lawsuit, the ethics of cheesecake, his favorite stripper, and just how hard it is to get something away from Dean Mullaney. The interview was conducted by Gary Groth on stage at the 1986 Dallas Fantasy Fair and a follow-up discussion took place in April 1987. It was transcribed by Kim Fryer and Thom Powers, and edited by Stevens and Groth.
Postscript, 2011: This was a relaxed and casual interview, moreso than most of mine, where I’d spend months researching the artist, and haul a pile of notes along with a tape recorder to the interview. Dave never did much comics work and didn’t have that much under his belt when I did this, and he’d probably not given any other interviews I could reference at the time. So, I was, to a large extent, winging it based on reading what little work he’d done and a handful of conversations I’d had with him previously. Dave’s obviously not a deep thinker when it comes to comics —something he was aware of and self-conscious about— but, as this interview demonstrates, he was an intelligent and clear-eyed, visually perceptive artist. Based on this and subsequent conversations, I had the impression that Dave was aware of his own limitations and lamented them — up to a point; I don’t think that he necessarily suffered over them. I think he would’ve liked to have done work that delved into the human condition —the Hernandez brothers, for example, were not only friends of his but artists he revered— but he loved drawing what he loved drawing and that didn’t quite lend itself to profundity. He knew that and, I think, accepted it.
Dave and I had an easy-going relationship, we’d bump into each other every so often when I lived in LA, hang out at conventions (and possibly a strip club or two). Conversation with Dave was always lively because we had two subjects that never let us down: our love for comics and girls. And the one side of himself that he put into his comics was his infatuation with the opposite sex; Dave was a romantic in both work and life.
The last time I saw him was at a San Diego Con three or four years ago. In the course of catching up, he told me he was taking a painting class at a local college or art institute. I expressed surprise — I couldn’t imagine an artist at his level of craft taking an art class. But, no, he said he didn’t know how to paint and wanted to learn and he had no qualms about enrolling in a painting class. That stays with me. He could’ve coasted doing illustrations, Hollywood storyboards, pin-ups, commercial work, but he wanted to learn how to paint to fulfill his own private and uncommercial needs. I always respected Dave’s craft, but I think I ultimately respected Dave more than I did his craft. He was a first rate fellow.
GARY GROTH: Let's cover a little background first. How did you get involved in comic books? What spurred your interest in comics and how long ago did you actually realize you had an ambition to draw them?
DAVE STEVENS: In '75 I went in as [Russ] Manning's assistant on the Sunday Tarzan strip, and it lasted about a year and a half. I tried for quite a while before that and after that to get into either Marvel or DC. At the time they really weren't hiring anybody without any experience from the West Coast. If I wanted work badly enough, I had to go [east] and relocate and I just didn't want it that badly. I really wasn't that interested in doing comics for a living, so I just kind of hung my hat up and decided that was going to be my decision and went into commercial work. I did one story called Aurora in '77 for a West Coast company that was putting together some material for a Japanese book — strictly for a Japanese audience — that actually never happened.
After that I didn't do another lick until [Pacific publisher Steve] Schanes approached me at a convention in '81. It was right after they had put out Captain Victory #1. They had another book called Starslayer, and they needed six pages in the back of it. They said, "Can you fill two installments of six pages?" I said, "Yeah," and they sent me on my way. They said, "You can do anything you want," and so I did. I did one promo drawing — the first back cover — of the Rocketeer. I sent that off to them. I had no idea what I was going to draw. I just drew all that stuff in there. They said, "Yeah, this looks great. Do it. We can't wait to see the story." And I didn't have one at the time.
GROTH: Were you interested in comics as a child?
STEVENS: Yeah. At first it was animation. I was really taken with the Fleischer stuff when I was a small kid. They [brothers Max and Dave Fleischer] were doing animation that was just, as far as I was concerned, head and shoulders over anything that Disney was doing at the time, and this was in the early '30s. Disney stuff, to me, was just a little too saccharine. But comics I never really wanted to do until I hit my Marvel period in the mid-'60s like everybody else.
GROTH: How did you hook up with Russ Manning? And what did you do for him?
STEVENS: That was due to the San Diego Con people. It was after the '73 convention. Shel Dorf and several other guys would make these jaunts to [Jack] Kirby's house, and I got to go along on one visit where they went to see Jack and Russ the same day. So I took along my humongous portfolio. I mean, all young kids have to have a portfolio this big. It doesn't matter what you got in it. I took a huge stack of stuff — none of it worth looking at, really. It was all commercial work, painted stuff. None of it was really comics. There were a couple of pages of Kirby's that I had inked over my light box, and Russ looked at that. He was real kind about it, and he just said, "This is great, but it's Jack Kirby. It's too slick for me."
About a month or two later he called Shel Dorf, wanting names of some young guys that Shel thought would be good for assistants because he had gotten behind and he needed some help. And so immediately [Shel] suggested me, and Russ goes, "Oh, no. He's too... he's superhero stuff." Russ was real against the whole Marvel look. So Shel called me and said, "Look, I put in a shot for you, but [Russ] wasn't going for it." So I said, "I'll write him. I'll do a sketch of Tarzan and see." So I did, and Russ saved the letter. He showed it to me one time. He kept it in his file for years. I had typed out the letter and had drawn at the bottom, I think, a gorilla. Then I sent him a separate 3" by 5" drawing of Tarzan, just line for line Manning. So he called up and — I was out of town at the time, and he called my mother — I was living at home. She said, "He's still in LA." I was joyriding for the weekend. So he hunted me down up there. He called every place that I could possibly be at that she gave him numbers for. I think the day I was leaving I happened across a note somebody had written down, saying Rick Manning or somebody had called, and I knew immediately who it was. Luckily, I was able to stop at his place on the way home to San Diego from LA. And he gave me my first Sunday page right there and said, "Go."
GROTH: What were you doing, exactly? Inking?
STEVENS: Inking and partial penciling. Anything that he didn't have time to do. Everything but Tarzan. I didn't really do Tarzan until he trusted me, because I was not real solid penciling.
GROTH: About how old were you?
STEVENS: Eighteen or 19 at the time. But that was a good job. That lasted about... a good solid year with just him and me working on the Sundays. Then we went into doing European Tarzans with a whole bunch of other guys, and eventually, I think, one of the albums. I think [Manning] did two or three albums.
GROTH: Do you consider that apprenticeship valuable experience?
STEVENS: Oh, yeah. It didn't really help me so much artistically as it did practically. Because I was doing a lot of tiny line stuff that would never reproduce. And Russ would just take the old electric eraser and bzzzzz. He first time he did that I just thought he was going to fire me, because he literally buzzed off everything I'd done. I labored for about four hours and he just bzzzzz. He took the piece of work and looked at it and said, "Oh, this is great." Then I heard the bzzzzz. Whenever I heard the buzz, I knew I had made some terrible mistake. But then he would take me over to his board and show me exactly what was going to work. He'd take a brush and just splat the ink all across this wonderful feathering that I had spent hours on. [Laughs.] But it was for a reason. And then he'd take out a stat of some of the work I had done where he'd left the feathering in, just to show me that it would not reproduce and that it was a waste of time to do all that fancy noodling because newspaper reproduction was so bad it just fell apart. I mean, even some of his lines, heavy as they were, did not reproduce.
GROTH: Who or what pointed you in the direction of using all that noodling and feathering and adapting those illustration techniques to comics?
STEVENS: Probably a combination of three people — [Jim] Steranko, [Will] Eisner and Hal Foster, because when you think about it, they all had real lush line work. Foster was probably the boldest of the three, and Eisner was probably the most meticulous of the three, but there's a medium in between those that I just locked into really early on. I had a real affinity for detail. It's like detailing a car — some people love to put pinstriping on there, and some people can't stand it.
GROTH: Were you also a fan of the illustrative comic artists like [Al] Williamson...?
STEVENS: Every kid goes through a period where he apes so-and-so for one week and so-and-so another week. As a matter of fact, I submitted something to Fantastic Fanzine [published by interviewer Groth] when I was about 14, and heh! You sent me the rudest rejection letter. [Laughter.] At the time it made me mad because I didn't understand what you were writing me about, but I think...
GROTH: What was it?
STEVENS: It was about swiping. It was perfectly justified because what I had done was take several swipes, I think from Steranko or somebody. It was pose swipes, and then I would just turn it into another character. You recognized the pose from some other comic book. It was real blatant. It took me several years to realize what you were talking about. You just said, basically, "I don't print swipes. You should use swipes to learn to draw from but not to publish." At the time, I just thought, "How could he do this to me?" You know, all fan artists do that. They get real excited when you jump on them for swiping. Unfortunately, the only way you can learn styles is to swipe. And that was what I was doing at the time. I would take, say Frazetta or Wood or somebody for a week or two and try to learn what made him what he was, what gave him his particular quirks, and kind of incorporate pieces of it into my own identity, which I didn't even form until the late '70s. I was pretty faceless. I could literally adapt to just about any style. With the advent of Heavy Metal, I soon discovered that I really didn't have to emulate Marvel artists to attract an editor's attention. I could draw as weird as I wanted to. It also gave me the impression that you could draw any subject, no matter how far from the accepted norm of superhero stuff, and somebody would publish it. That's the impression I got, just looking at that magazine. It was such a hodge-podge. I mean, there were all kinds of styles in that thing. It was heavily Moebius at the time, but there were still a lot of different things in there. [Whistles.] I had never seen European stuff before. What was the question that we started out here with? [Laughs.]
GROTH: What influenced your approach to line work?
STEVENS: Like I said, those three guys, plus about that time Steranko's History of Comics came out. This was like '71 or '70. It had several full pages by Reed Crandall. I saw those and I thought, "Man, this guy must be my surrogate father." So I went back and tried to find a lot of Crandall work, and it was impossible, because I was in Idaho and Oregon, and who has Crandall comics up there, let alone the latest Marvels? I mean, this was the mid- to late '60s, and it was just about impossible to find two consecutive issues of the same comic book up there.
GROTH: You said that your three main influences were Steranko, Eisner and Foster, but I see a lot of Frazetta...
STEVENS: Well, that came later. The initial stuff was Foster. I used to clip the Sunday pages when I was a kid. That was the first real comics that I got a good dose of, and it was all classical style illustration. I think right after that the first real feeding from superhero type comics was the mid-'60s Marvel stuff, and of course Steranko was the grabber out of that bunch. He and [John] Buscema were the two hotshots as far as doing really nice illustration. And Steranko's was pretty way-out anatomically, but it had real exciting layouts. It was visually very dazzling, whereas Buscema was very solid construction, basic meat-and-potatoes drawing. You couldn't fault it at all. And between those two that was it. I think when I was about 14 or 15 somebody showed me a copy of Jules Feiffer's The Great Comic Book Heroes, and it had an Eisner Spirit story in it. It was the first time I had ever seen Eisner's work or heard of him and I thought.... This must be Steranko's dad, because it was that close to what he had been doing in the latter issues of S.H.I.E.L.D. From that moment I went about trying to find anything I could on The Spirit, which at that time was almost impossible for someone with no money — I didn't have two coins to rub together — so I couldn't afford the old comics and I had to go look at them at somebody's house. It was a real limbo period when nobody seemed very aware of Eisner.
GROTH: That was something of a revelation to you?
STEVENS: Yeah, because I had never seen anybody tell stories like that without wasting a lot of time. It was real concise and he had just a very few pages, six or seven pages apiece. He told the most wonderful human fables. It still amazes me to go through those. I still buy every issue that comes out and go through them and shake my head and pound it against the wall wondering why I can't seem to digest that stuff.
GROTH: Do you think you're unable to absorb that?
STEVENS: I don't think it's a lack of sensitivity because I readily click into it when I'm seeing it after he's done it, but when I have to sit down and do something similar for Rocketeer where I want to interject some pathos or something, I always have my doubts as to how it's going to play and I don't think it reads well. I've got twice the number of pages he's got and I still can't tell half the story he told.
GROTH: Why do you think that is?
STEVENS: Simple lack of ability, I guess. I don't know. I wonder how old he was when he was doing those, too, because I have a feeling that he was younger than I am now... makes me feel even worse. This guy has this wonderful gift to tell stories that, well, that I just don't seem to have. Little by little I'm learning, but as far as sitting down and being able to write that way...
GROTH: Now, is that something you're striving to do — to impose human inflection into your work as opposed to a straight pulp narrative?
STEVENS: I would hope. It's getting there. The second and third issues of [Rocketeer] are going to be more human stories. There's not a lot of bombast.
GROTH: I know you admire Love & Rockets...
STEVENS: I picked up the first one in '82. I had no idea what it was but I was flipping through it and thought, "Aah, these guys have got it. They know what they're doing." I was trying to get everybody I knew to pick it up, and nobody would! I guess it looked to most people like a fanzine, but it was clearly better than a lot of the full-color stuff on the stands. So many friends of mine who were so "up" on experimental storytelling or just good storytelling, wouldn't even give the thing a chance. It pissed me off to no end. Even now there are still people who can't figure out what the attraction is, who don't understand what [Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez] are doing. In issue #20 — Jaime's story where Maggie was drunk and kind of slipping in and out of consciousness — those little sequences were so...
GROTH: Right on the money.
STEVENS: Yeah. I had to call [Jaime] that night and congratulate him. It's real aggravating, real frustrating trying to do that kind of thing, and then you see some young squirt like Jaime come along and seemingly effortlessly do it in one or two panels, while I'm trying to force it out over a period of pages.
GROTH: So those are the kinds of values you'd like to put in your own work?
STEVENS: Yeah. I like the '30s milieu and that whole structure, which I've already put together. I love that as a package, but that's not the whole ball of wax. One of the upcoming stories [in Rocketeer] is about a freak show — it's Cliff's background as a kid. I like stories about characters rather than just an adventure. Adventure tends to get tedious after a while, no matter how many dips and dives you have, or how fast a roller coaster ride, it will still just be an exercise unless it's got some really memorable characters in it. You've got to want those characters; you've got to want more about them. If that's not there I can't hang with it for more than a few pages. And that's the whole strength of Love & Rockets: it's all characters.
STEVENS: Yeah, and it's a constant fight that I'm having now because I set myself up from the beginning for nothing but action and at this point it's not what I want to do.
GROTH: Right. You gave yourself very narrow boundaries.
STEVENS: Unfortunately now I'm in a spot where I have to deliver a certain amount of that each issue in order not to be accused of false advertising. Everybody's going to be expecting some hijinks and wild action in the first issue [from Comico]. And the only thing that happens in that story is a quick fistfight, about one page, four panels of fist fighting, that's the only action in the story.
GROTH: Are you saying that perhaps after Rocketeer, you're going to go into a slightly different direction?
STEVENS: Yeah, because I've got several short stories that I've been sitting on for probably three years that are no particular genre at all.
GROTH: In the context of comics, the short story is how many pages to you?
STEVENS: Seven or eight. It doesn't have to conform, just how many it takes to tell the story of that character.