REVIEWS

The Rocketeer: Cargo of Doom and The Rocketeer: Hollywood Horror

Dave Stevens’ The Rocketeer was many things: iconic, lushly drawn, technically astonishing, pulpy, movie-mad. It reinvigorated the culture of pinup drawing, revitalized Bettie Page’s career, kickstarted the retro revolution, and made superheroes safe for the nascent creator-owned 1980s.

But now that there’s been three times more Rocketeer comics created after Stevens’s death than actually drawn by Stevens, it’s time to face facts: The newbies do it better. Stevens’s Rocketeer recovered much of 1930s and 1940s popular culture—its slang, its movie posters and Hollywood PR campaigns, its fashions, its underground burlesque, its plucky “can-do” spirit. Recovery without reinvention, though, only goes so far, and The Rocketeer largely coasted on its premise and charisma. It was many things but what it mostly wasn’t was a good comic.

Looking back at The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures, it’s easy to see why. Stevens’s sources were still illustrations—pinups, “good girl” art and photography, technical specs of airplanes and automobiles, archival photos of period architecture and machinery. He loved illustration and in some ways he’s the greatest Ellery Queen cover artist that never was. But illustration ain’t comics, and Stevens’ Rocketeer often seems uninterested in its own form.

Indeed, Stevens reminds me less of other cartoonists than of filmmaker Michael Bay. Take page 38 of IDW’s Complete Adventures:

fig. 01 (compressed)

Panel by panel, Stevens creates gorgeous images, just as Bay’s individual compositions are often breathtaking. Taken together, though, those panels and frames add up to confusing messes. Perspectives don’t match from panel to panel. The layouts are unnecessarily messy. The cram of information, as well as radical shifts from panel to panel, makes for a difficult reading experience. Each panel electrifies but each page is a muddle.

Stevens loved the patois of old cinema—circular panels that resemble iris shots; split panels broken by zigzags instead of straight lines; dramatic angles above and below characters, and from between their legs. But he used them indiscriminately, like a self-conscious teenager eager to show off his technical facility.

That facility was amazing, and that’s part of the problem. No one in mainstream comics could draw a curvy woman as lusciously as Stevens could. Few captured the minor details of a plane or a car as rigorously as he could. That illustrative knack, though, made for a near-photorealism that creeps up to the uncanny valley. (The IDW version’s computer-shaded coloring doesn’t help matters.) Stevens’s art distances us for identifying with his characters.

Not that there’s much characterization to begin with. After 140 pages of The Rocketeer, we don’t know much more about Cliff Secord and his world than we do on page one. That world looks pretty, and Stevens’s research ensures that it’s populated with the right slang, tailored cuts, and auto models and makes. Its people, however, are mere icons, not characters.

Betty, Cliff’s on/off girlfriend, symbolizes the problem. Again, we see echoes of Michael Bay, who also uses women as pinups rather than as lived-in people, who also is more interested in how a girl is lit than in how she thinks. It’s telling that the two most iconic (and Googled) images of The Rocketeer are of Betty, not its titular hero:

fig. 02 (compressed)fig. 03 (compressed)

Both are especially static images, perfect for a magazine cover. Stevens’s covers are often more arresting than the comics inside them. They reveal plenty of Betty’s voluptuousness but little of her mind. Of course, it’s unfair to extrapolate Stevens’s intent from two pages but these slices of cheesecake are all of a piece. Page 97 seems especially representative, and thus gratuitous. Her body stands in a pinup pose, completely with partially parted lips, overlaps panels of Cliff and Goose discussing her. We know from their conversation that Betty is on Cliff’s mind, so we don’t need the splash of her gams to get that. Her expression reveals nothing of what she’s thinking of Cliff. So why is the page’s left side so occupied with her? Because it’s cool-looking, and it’s sexy. The boldness of the layout hides its lack of necessity.

What we need to know—about Cliff, Betty, Peevy, and even the rocketpack itself—is usually what Stevens doesn’t offer. The cartoonist gave Cliff’s lengthy backstory as text—reproduced as jacket flap for the IDW edition—in a 1985 limited edition. But we don’t get it in the comics themselves. What makes Cliff tick? How do he and his mechanic (Peevy) know each other? Why are they friends? Why do Cliff and Betty love each other? Where, exactly, does that rocketpack come from? Who made it? All are unanswered in the comics. The result is a superhero comic with a dull cipher at the core. Even his mask is inexpressive and gestureless.

The cipher’s not even all that heroic. Cliff’s exploits serve entirely selfish purposes—he rarely serves anyone that’s not directly related to his life. The rocketpack is his ticket to fame, not a device to help others. Cliff doesn’t even have a code of honor extending beyond himself—his first impulse is to punch first, and run like a coward later. The comic’s entire run consists of adventures that serve no larger goal, and have no larger ramification, than Cliff’s satisfaction. Compare this to Superman saving the world, Batman and Spider-Man fighting crime in the streets, and the Green Lantern exploring the cosmos, and you see how small-scale and self-serving the Rocketeer is. In that sense, Cliff reflects his creator’s style: He’s a demo reel of his own gifts, eager to show off his talents for commercial gain. Like Michael Bay, who started out doing TV commercials, Stevens is a huckster at heart.

For all of The Rocketeer’s failures as a comic, it’s perhaps the most successful icon of the 1980s creator-owned boom. There’s so much promise and pizzazz in that chrome mask and jaunty pose that cartoonists return to Steven time and time again. Stevens built his comic on a flair for nostalgia—for a past that never was—which is a heartache that artists and readers have and long to feed. The nostalgia, I think, helps us glide over the comic’s narrative gaps and characterization issues. Those caesuras allow room for others to fill in the iconography with their own visions. The Rocketeer’s incompleteness and flaws become, then, a boon to a talented writer/artist team.

That leads us, finally, to the newbies: Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s The Rocketeer: Cargo of Doom and Roger Langridge and J. Bone’s The Rocketeer: Hollywood Horror. These Rocketeer graphic novels extend the brand—and what is an icon but a really successful brand, after all?—by improving on the source. These teams have fashioned two remarkably rewarding adventure comics, and honor Stevens’s creation by bettering it.

Cargo of Doom starts with a humdinger airborne rescue, and doesn’t let up for its 100 pages. Its bold lettering, clean layouts, and suspenseful pacing come through on the first page:

fig. 04 (compressed)

Note the attention to process—cause and effect—in these panels. Neither Samnee’s art here nor Bone’s in Hollywood Horror concerns itself overmuch with physical detail, at least not to the extent of Stevens’s obsessiveness. Samnee, though, uses his comics to convey motion and transition, something that Stevens’s static calendar poses rarely conveyed convincingly. (It’s weird that, for all the explosions and uppercuts, Stevens’s art looks so stiff.) That fifth panel, in particular, is a marvel of concision, capturing an enormous sound and dangerous movement all at once, as the panel is itself a literal gigantic whoosh.

Two pages later, Waid and Samnee give us two panels in succession that reveal plenty, just though a shadow passing over a metallic surface:

fig. 05 (compressed)

That sort of pause happens rarely in Stevens’s comics. They’re frenetic. Waid/Samnee and Langridge/Bone go full throttle, too, but there’s a sense of pacing, chances to catch your breath, pauses to reflect.

Cargo of Doom and Hollywood Horror pay homage to the original Rocketeer’s through the golly-gee tone, screwball dialogue, and odd-shaped panels. Despite their aesthetic differences, both books are grounded by Jordie Bellaire’s muted but glorious color schemes, which glows with subtle browns, yellows, reds, and burnt oranges. Even the blue skies look as if seen through a sepia filter, evoking faded movie posters. (In terms of branding the character, Bellaire may be IDW’s best asset.) Cargo is gorier than anything Stevens drew, and Hollywood contains more good slapstick on one page than Stevens pulled off in his entire run. Langridge—creator of the slaphappy Fred the Clown and cartoonist behind the Muppet Show revamp—lets his sly wit fly. Parodies of Laurel and Hardy, The Thin Man, Tintin’s Thompson and Thomson, Clark Gable, Albert Einstein, and more flit through the pages, in a MAD Magazine-like frenzy. Bone keeps pace with Langridge’s ideas, often channeling Jack Kirby:

fig. 06 (compressed)

As artists, Samnee and Bone, though different stylistically, both emphasize the pure fun of a dude being able to fly with a jetpack. That’s something oddly absent in Stevens’s original. We rarely, relatively speaking, see the Rocketeer in action in his pages. Stevens’s Rocketeer is stuffed with incident, but most of it’s cheesecake, dialogue, exposition, flashback sequences, and planes flying. Cargo and Hollywood wisely suffuse their tales with the derring-do and rescues that we paid to see. They’re less wordy than Stevens’s comics, and the words they choose are punchier and stronger. Waid/Samnee and Langridge/Bone introduce a plethora of villains and sidekicks cleanly to Stevens’s universe. The characters’ relationships to Cliff, and their quirks and tics, get revealed through gesture and action.

Again, there’s plenty of action. The “Cargo of Doom” in question is a crate of dinosaurs. Of course, they get set loose on Los Angeles, drawing allusions to everything from King Kong to Mark Schultz’s Xenozoic Tales—incidentally a contemporary of and competitor with The Rocketeer. The explosions and calamities are conveyed with appropriately sized splash pages, sure, but also with minimal fuss and beautiful silences.

fig. 08 (compressed)

In Hollywood Horror, Langridge and Bone skew closer to the zippy line and broad slapstick of Looney Tunes cartoons than Stevens’s photorealism. The faces and physiques could come straight from Dick Tracy. The architecture and scenery, even more so than Cargo of Doom, are minimalist backdrops. Gesture is king, as befits a comic about a dude who flies with a jetpack and a dame with Bettie Page’s curves.

Langridge and Bone allow Betty to be more than a fappable fantasy—something Stevens never achieved (or, let’s be honest, was even interested in achieving). In fact, the desire to participate in her boyfriend’s exploits is one of the graphic novel’s key plot devices.

fig. 09 (compressed)

Drawn here, Betty’s certainly sexy but she’s not static. Even the dynamism of the panel sizes and closeups here, on one page, emphasize that we’re going to see her from more angles—physically and emotionally—than Stevens considered. Shapeliness doesn’t shape her, at least not fully.

Cliff’s a looker, too, though both these cartooning teams make sure he gets punched up a fair bit. Bone in particular makes his jaw so square that it’s a mockery of Superman’s mug, just begging to get clocked. Like Superman, these new incarnations of the Rocketeer want to save the day, not just themselves. In Hollywood Horror, Cliff stops a mad scientist from blowing up the Los Angeles dam and hypnotizing the city. In Cargo of Doom, he keeps dinosaurs from demolishing the town. Sure, he wants his pilot’s disguise and shot at the movies but that rocketpack’s got bigger, and more selfless, plans for him.

IDW, it appears, has bigger plans for The Rocketeer than its creator envisioned. With these two long-form adventures, at least, the character is finally living up to his iconic status, as a hero and—most importantly—as a comic.

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39 Responses to The Rocketeer: Cargo of Doom and The Rocketeer: Hollywood Horror

  1. thanks for the discussion of Stevens — I was afraid I was the only one who found his work underwhelming qua comics.

    You could argue that Stevens prefigured the Image artists and their “legacy” among “mainstream” American comic book artists — specifically, the way they constantly strive for iconicity through kewl poses, at the expense of any storytelling virtue…plus the proliferation of pointless splash pages (although in both cases, the market for original pages also contributes)

  2. Zack says:

    Great article, I agree completely. Stevens was a terrific draftsman, but not a great comic artist. I always thought that The Rocketeer movie, in fact, was far superior to the original comic, for more or less the exact same reasons you cited as the newer comic being superior. The film treatment, while usually detrimental to most comics, took a relatively hollow shell of an idea and made it accessable to a wider audience; more than that, what normally can kill a comic adaptation, it fleshed out characters and events to have, if not a healthy backstory, genuine relationships between those characters and events. Plus Nazis are the best bad guys ever.

  3. Thanks, guys. I too find the Rocketeer movie an improvement on the source material, and had in fact written a couple of paragraphs using the film as a segue between my talk about Stevens and my discussion of the newer graphic novels. I cut it at the last minute, because this thing’s long enough as is. Can you think of other comics that are done better by their film adaptations? I don’t think Terry Zwigoff’s version of Ghost World is necessary better than Dan Clowes’ comic but it’s at least close to its equal. Any others?

  4. steven samuels says:

    Men in Black?

    The first Iron Man movie probably has more going for it than probably the entire comic book series put together.

  5. Dominick Grace says:

    Road to Perdition is a pretty solid film version of what seemed to me a rather pedestrian comic. Same with A History of Violence.

  6. steven samuels says:

    Yeah, Road to Perdition is Sam Mendes’ best work. Years ago I thumbed through the comic book version and came across a sequence where one of the characters took off a mask he was wearing. Not a Halloween mask, but a mask realistic enough to disguise himself. When you come across hoary pulp contrivances like that, you know its time to throw out the book. Nice art, tho.

  7. Battle Royale, easily. The 60s Batman TV series was way better than the source material to that date. Maybe American Splendor — well, I preferred the movie anyway.

    And +1 on Iron Man — it’s the reverse-Thor.

  8. EnterréASeattle says:

    Battle Royale was initally a novel; the manga itself was an adaptation. The movie is far better than both, though.
    Incidentally, Kinji Fukusaku also directed an “adaptation” of the manga Doberman Deka in the late 70s that basically had nothing to do with its source material and was consequently much better.
    If animated films count, I nominate Barefoot Gen. The manga had a lot of repetitive “damn this war!” talk and some pretty ridiculous fictional situations later on involving Gen’s baby sister. As horrible as what it depicts is, it didn’t move me. The movie, in contrast, is the saddest movie I’ve ever seen. It’s just brutal.

  9. Zack says:

    I don’t think Battle Royale counts, as it was a novel first, then a movie, then a comic. Comic adaptations of movies are almost universally horrible.

    I can’t handle Superman as a comic or character, but I ended up really enjoying Man Of Steel, even despite my disinterest in Zack Snyder as a director.

    Also, I would say that I really really enjoy the Korean film adaptation of Oldboy, though I don’t know if it’s better, I just enjoy it more, and it works so well as a movie, and there are things you can do in a film that you can’t in a comic. Also, Park Chan Wook is a really excellent filmmaker, so that is always a plus.

  10. Jeet Heer says:

    A really fine review. I was happy to see the sharp distinction made here between illustration and cartooning, which many aren’t aware of.
    About movie adaptations: I’m going to go out on a limb and say that more often than not movie adaptations of superhero comics are superior to the source material. Mind you, I haven’t seen all of them and just by rumor I know there are stinkers out there (Thor, Punisher, etc.). But the percentage of bad superhero comics is much greater than bad superhero movies. And with something like Superman, I’d say that the 2nd Christopher Reeves movie is better than any Superman comic I’ve ever read. So, a heretical thought: film is a better medium for superheroics than comics.

  11. Jacob York says:

    I’ve never read the manga, just a few pages online, but I remember liking Ichi The Killer years ago. I dunno if I’d feel the same now.

    Sin City I could probably go either way with. I’ve not read a ton of the comics but they seemed to work well in that anthology format.

    I don’t thinks it’s better but the Heavy Metal adaptation seemed to really capture the spirit of those comics well. Probably my favorite comic movie. Heavy Metal 2 and the comic it’s based on, I can’t comment on, but I can’t imagine the source material was much better outside of some Bisley art.

  12. Jeet, film is not a better medium but on average it has better writers. And professional actors are better at communicating human thoughts and emotions than the bulk of superhero artists.

    I don’t believe in reducing everything to economic terms, but the fact that people who work in film are, on the whole, better compensated than people who work in comics means that there is an economic incentive for people with sufficient talent to bypass comics and work in film. Until recently (and it’s probably still the case), film was more prestigious than comics, which is a social incentive for talent to gravitate to film.

  13. Paul Tumey says:

    This is a great review, I agree! I also am pleased to see the distinction made between cartooning and illustration. I always felt Stevens was bringing an illustrator’s sensibility to graphic storytelling. It’s interesting to see his inheritors are taking more of a storyteller’s approach.

    Jeet, I was a little surprised at your comment about superhero movies being superior to comics. Although comix and movies grew up together, I’m not sure they are good friends. With rare exceptions, most superhero movies I’ve seen take the element of the story first presented in comics form, and then develop it into a wholly unique creation that bears little resemblance to the original comic. It seems to me that comparing movies to the original forms from which they lifted a story, be it a novel, short story, or comic book — could be a limiting approach. Just before he died, Philip K. Dick screened BLADERUNNER, the film made from his novel DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? — and commented that the novel and the film were parts of a larger whole — both valid. That’s how I see superhero movies derived from comic books — not competing and separate entities, but a living myth that is assuming different forms.

  14. steven samuels says:

    If cheap thrills are the purpose of superheroes then video games do a better job of that than any other medium. At least judging from the excerpts that I’ve seen.

  15. Jeppe says:

    Excellent article!

    Agreed completely on Battle Royale and History of Violence, and I’d add Kick-Ass to the list. Not that the movie is in any way special, mind you, but it sure beats the source material.

  16. Jeet Heer says:

    Hi Paul — I basically agree with that and should add the proviso that there are superhero comics that make so powerful a use of the language of comics that it’s hard to imagine them existing in any other form (so that when they are adapted, they only work as reinventions). I’m thinking here of Cole’s Plastic Man (which in movie form would be something radically different because Cole’s art is so intrinsic to the material) or Kirby’s work. But for less visually exciting comics, the movie version of the “myth” is often as good as (indeed often more entertaining than) the comics version.

  17. oh yeah, Oldboy, definitely better as a movie. Part of that is Park Chan-Wook’s virtuosity — nothing in the manga comes close to the hammer scene — and part is that the film veers wildly from the source material towards the end. The villain’s motivation is ridiculous in the manga, but elevated to grand guignol in the film. It’s bizarre how much more provocative the film is — surely you’d expect a film adaptation to be more toned down than its source material, rather than way, way toned up…

  18. Jaz says:

    Not GHOST WORLD–most disappointing movie I’ve ever seen [and my favorite comic book, hence the letdown].

    DANGER: DIABOLIK, for sure. BARBARELLA? BATMAN TV show, definitely.

  19. Jaz says:

    I was surprised at them even attempting a ROCKETEER movie, just based on the feeling that the ONLY reason anybody read that comic book was for the artwork [which the film would by definition lose], not for the plot, characterization, depth etc…

    Many years of threadbare film adaptations of tawdry comic books later, I may have been a bit meanspirited in this thinking–THE ROCKETEER as film and comic may have had more going on than, say, SPAWN or KICK-ASS…

  20. Fortran D. says:

    “For all of The Rocketeer’s failures as a comic, it’s perhaps the most successful icon of the 1980s creator-owned boom. ”

    Well, I’m sure it won’t cheer many, but ROCKETEER doesn’t come close to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles here – multiple TV shows, movies, and many, many, many more comics.

  21. Robert Boyd says:

    I remember reading that in at least one Rocketeer sequence that required a bit of complicated panel-to-panel storytelling, Stevens got Jaime Hernandez to do the breakdowns for it. This suggests that he recognized his own weakness as a comics storyteller. (But he sure could draw!)

  22. patrick ford says:

    I see Stevens strength as primarily in his inking.

  23. R. Fiore says:

    I think it’s possible for a comic to succeed as sheer eye candy. In this idiom all the story content has to do is avoid being so utterly terrible that it pushes you out of the comic. Stevens not only had his own abilities but the visual appeal of the material he appropriated, and most particularly the then not fully exploited image of Bettie Page. Such a comic can only fail when subjected to rigorous criticism, but rigorous criticism will not address the level on which it succeeds. You can’t even call it meretricious because it doesn’t pretend to any merit.

    The germane comparison is to what Drew and Josh Alan Friedman were doing at the same time. They were equally fascinated by and enamoured of imagery of a similar vintage, but they had something to say about it and a way of capturing its meaning in the national id. Stevens had nothing to say about his material but “I love this stuff.”

  24. Greg Fontaine says:

    Completely disagree that these non-Stevens comics and the Rocketeer movie are superior to the original. The original was not deep, but it was the voice of someone who was completely absorbed in the material, expressing his own vision with passion. He was doing what he was born to do. The Rocketeer film and (from what I see here) the non-Stevens comics are the works of people who were all hired by companies to produce work based on Stevens’s passion for a paycheck. They iron out the imperfections in Stevens storytelling to produce something more conventional and mediocre, and in the process remove the zest and sincerity that was the only worthwhile thing in the comic.

  25. Fortran D.: Thanks for the catch. TMNT was clearly more popular than Stevens ever dreamed of, and I should have addressed that. Greg Fontaine: Sorry but I’m not buying it. Stevens may have absorbed in his own vision and voice but who cares, if the vision and voice were crap? (Insert late-period Steve Ditko joke here.) I think the newer stuff has considerable zest, energy, and a sincere love for comics–the chosen medium in question–that shines through in their allusions, use of comics grammar, and storytelling skills. The Rocketeer ain’t deep, and I never expect to be so. But I do want it to be good comics, and I think Langridge/Bone & Waid/Samnee get closer to that than Stevens ever did.

  26. Greg Fontaine says:

    “who cares, if the vision and voice were crap?”

    To me, the characters and situation of “The Rocketeer,” like the creations of Jack Kirby, are uninteresting in themselves, or, as you put it, “crap.” It was Stevens’s eye as an artist, informed by his lifelong enthusiasm for the subject matter that breathed any life into that stale “crap.” Without him, “The Rocketeer’s” little more than a gaggle of freelancers playing in someone else’s pile of shit to pay their rent. I don’t want to see that; it’s embarrassing.

  27. I can see where your coming from, but I think Stevens work holds up fine and offered a fine counterpoint to other comics being produced at the time. After all, you point out that even his small output remains influential.

    Also, when you talk about Cliff acting out of selfishness or cowardice, I think those are still valid character points—why does he have to be heroic or have a code of honor? It shows he has flaws and is just human, and you have to credit Stevens with doing that. Perhaps a better argument would have been to ask whether his character has an arc or goes through any fundamental change by the end.

  28. Gianni says:

    Dredd 3-D is an improvement on most Dredd´s comics. So are the first two Blade films. Persepolis works best as animation. Spiderman 2 is better than any post 70s comic.

  29. ryan sutton says:

    Stevens produced relatively little original material during his career and yet it has been reprinted on posters and tee shirts for decades. He is hugely influential, many comic book artists cite Stevens as an inspiration. I disagree with characterizations like “not a great comic artist”, “underwhelming”, and “crap”. Whats more, the Rocketeer movie was most certainly not an improvement on the source material. The movie was fine for what it was. The original story was about an under-dog, written by a fellow who was struggling to make ends meet and published by a company that went out of business not soon after. All this alienation and struggle bled right into the story. The fact that they are even trying to do something with the Rocketeer now is nothing if not a testament to Dave Stevens’ talent and vision.

  30. Terrific review, Walter: succinct, punchy, thought-provoking, and with the right balance of love for the old pulpy stuff and high standards for comics. I believe you’re right about Stevens as a comics artist, though I want to add that those original Rocketeer comics were often backups or shorts, and hence terribly constrained in terms of story length, extension, and problem-solving (e.g., the first of the Stevens pages you show above looks to me like a clear case of someone with not enough pages to spare, who hadn’t really figured out his narrative problem-solving to match the length he was allotted). I’m less tolerant when similar gaffes occur in later, full-length comics, where Stevens presumably had greater latitude, more control of page count, etc.

    I recall reading a Rocketeer chapter in Pacific Presents more than half my lifetime ago. It might even have been the chapter represented by that first page, above. I stared and stared at that comic, even during my first reading; in fact I forced myself to ogle each page as if trying to appreciate an Old Master. Seriously—the art was so gorgeously rendered that I made a conscious decision to read with exquisite slowness. I must have spent an hour reading through and gazing at that 12-page comic. And that forced labor of the eye added nothing to my appreciation of The Rocketeer as a story, as a comic. That was the one and only time that I fell for the idea that deliciously rendered comic art should demand slowness, should be read at a molasses-in-January pace. It was a very frustrating experience, of course; my desire to linger on the lush images was at odds with my desire simply to read the damn thing and “get” the story. I’ll always remember that failed experiment as a learning experience.

    You can see the issue in question @ the GCD, here: http://www.comics.org/issue/36775/cover/4/ [.]

    Nowadays, I take a different tack: read first, ogle later. :)

  31. PS. I agree that, story-wise, the Rocketeer film was actually an improvement on its source—not least because the characters are imbued with more life, particularly Betty as played by Jennifer Connelly. Talk about having to breathe life into a one-dimensional pinup.

  32. R. Fiore says:

    The appeal of the Stevens Rocketeer, which I just reread, is primarily to those who share his fascination with the junk culture of the 1930s as it was filtered to the youth of the 1960s and 70s through late night television, revived old time radio, paperback reissues of pulp magazine fiction and so forth. As I do. The value of it to those of us it has value to is how vividly he captures the look that was in our imaginations. I don’t see what value the premise has apart from what Stevens brought to it, being a kind of Frankenstein fold-in of bits and pieces of other properties; you’d do just as well to revive one of them. Even if it was “better” as a story I don’t see why you’d want to bother with a schlock tentpole movie that wouldn’t stand up, and I don’t see any reason for a cartoonist to take up a character he didn’t create other than money. It’s like what E.B. White said about Thurber’s drawing — if it were any better it would be mediocre.

    The problem with most attempts to recreate old style pulp adventure fiction, whether it’s Indiana Jones or Sky Captain or whatever, is that they don’t go back to the true source, which is traditional “boys’ adventure” literature — Stevenson, Kipling, Rider Haggard, Talbot Mundy and the like. You would like the old time pulp writers start with that and strip out all the bothersome literature. Most recreations start with pulp fiction as the source, which is a shallow if not an empty vessel.

  33. Thanks, everyone. I wanna push back (a little) on an idea that’s running through the comments, exemplified by R. Fiore: “Even if it was ‘better’ as a story I don’t see why you’d want to bother with a schlock tentpole movie that wouldn’t stand up, and I don’t see any reason for a cartoonist to take up a character he didn’t create other than money.”

    Comics is run through with cartoonists and comics writers working on characters they didn’t create (i.e., the entire world of superhero comics). Throughout this industry, we see auteurs emerge who imbue others’ creations with their personal visions, styles, obsessions, and lunacies, all while maintaining the integrity of the initial character and his/her creator. Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Paul Pope, and plenty of others have crafted deeply individualized works within the structure of characters and worlds originally created by others. In fact, this is far more common in American comic books (not strips) than the alternative. Neither Floyd Gottfriedson nor Carl Barks technically created their classic characters (well, Barks made Scrooge, but Scrooge was part of a larger Disney universe) but I don’t think of them as money-grabbing hacks because their most significant works were dreamed up by Walt Disney. And I don’t think Don Rosa is any lesser a cartoonist because he’s drawing from Barks’s well.

    The point is that the American comics industry is shot through with cartoonists reinventing the creations of others. In the case of The Rocketeer, I think this is a good thing. Stevens had a vision, and I think it’s a good one, siphoned from a number of 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s pulp sources. But a vision isn’t necessarily a good comic; I think the new stuff makes for good comics and, as such, they are a fitting tribute to Stevens simply by bettering–and extending–his vision.

  34. Stevens was a gifted artist who made extraordinary, almost hypnotic, images. But Walter’s point, that these images didn’t necessarily make for good comics, is key.

  35. patrick ford says:

    “Comics is run through with cartoonists and comics writers working on characters they didn’t create…”

    Not the comics I read.

  36. R. Fiore says:

    I would not at all be surprised if the subsequent versions of The Rocketeer were more true to the Apollonian ideal of what a comic book should be; I don’t think such a thing would be particularly difficult. Everything you say may well be true, and I’m willing to take your word for it. It may very well be that someone who doesn’t share Stevens’ (and my) admittedly sentimental attachment to 30s tropes and old Los Angeles might be more entertained by the subsequent version of The Rocketeer than the original. What I would say is that the underlying concept of the comic is so negligible that I can’t imagine why it would be worth pursuing. You might just as well adapt Commando Cody or The Shadow, which were the main sources. If someone were to whip up a silk purse out of this sow’s ear, mazel tov. What I am saying is that Stevens’ evocation of these tropes is of far more interest to me, and will I think be of far more interest to readers in general going forward.

    Its undeniable that later practitioners have brought new life to existing properties, but I would say that as a general that anyone who has the talent to do this would be capable of creating his own characters, and his talent would be better served doing so. It’s the kind of rule that’s made to be broken, but I bet it generally holds true.

  37. Mike Hunter says:

    I’m no particular fan of Stevens “The Rocketeer,” but to criticize him for not being particularly adept at comics narrative, or complaining that his “people, however, are mere icons, not characters,” utterly misses on what made his stories such popular successes.

    I’m reminded of a cover blurb for a Ngaio Marsh book — I enjoy classic-style murder mysteries — which said, “She writes better than Christie!” Indeed, Marsh was a splendid talent, and her prose and characterizations have a finesse, richness, and nuance pretty lacking in Dame Agatha’s narratives. However, did she create sleuths as vividly iconic as Hercule Poirot or Jane Marple (to be an icon need not be a “mere” thing), or mysteries with such jolting twists?

    For all their greater adeptness at visual storytelling, the Rocketeer comics by the “newbies” are utterly lacking in visual lushness, the “labor of love” quality exceedingly evident in Stevens’ art.

    Biggins writes: “…these slices of cheesecake are all of a piece. Page 97 seems especially representative, and thus gratuitous. Her body stands in a pinup pose, completely with partially parted lips, overlaps panels of Cliff and Goose discussing her. We know from their conversation that Betty is on Cliff’s mind, so we don’t need the splash of her gams to get that. Her expression reveals nothing of what she’s thinking of Cliff. So why is the page’s left side so occupied with her? Because it’s cool-looking, and it’s sexy. The boldness of the layout hides its lack of necessity.”

    “Lack of necessity”? Hardly. Though indeed pin-up-y, the large size of her figure emphasizes her emotional importance to the characters’ conversation in the cab, her appeal to Cliff. Her facial expression is not a pinup’s come-on, but unhappy — Cliff has apparently just rejected her, thinking it’s what’s best for her — and that oversized image is but part of a sequence in that page, followed by the last two panels. Would the effect have been as powerful, dramatic had she been featured in a head-and-shoulders shot in a regular-size panel?

  38. Allen Smith says:

    And, maybe the sexiness of the drawing is a valid purpose in and of itself, outside of whether it advances the story or not? That’s a good reason. No reason not to spice up the story a bit, was there?

    Allen Smith

  39. Tumas says:

    The ‘Batman: Under the Red Hood’ animated film is better than the story-line it adapts. The strange thing is, it’s still done by the same writer, Judd Winick. The film story is told well and, without having to resort to the wider DC continuity, generally cuts out unnecessary fluff. Thankfully this means leaving out something as idiotic as resurrection-by-Superboy-punch when the Lazaurs Pits are such an established part of the Batman mythology, which the film used to also explore the relationship between Batman and Ra’as al Ghul.

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