From the TCJ Archives

Dave Stevens, “Unmasking the Rocketeer”

GROTH: Well, it sounds like your priorities have changed from the time you started Rocketeer and now.

STEVENS: I guess they've changed. I think maybe subconsciously I've been heading in that direction all along and just kind of got sidetracked with the trappings. When I first did the character, all I wanted to do was a short, two-chapter filler story and that's all it was intended to be. And after that when I found that I had to do more of them, I was at a loss. I didn't know what I was going to do; I had no real direction. Now I've kind of clicked into one. Maybe it's not the direction readers will like, but I think that it's going to have enough color in it besides the characters that it will still be exciting to the average reader.

GROTH: You seem to place great importance on what the reader anticipates.

STEVENS: Well, yeah. You don't want to alienate readers. You want to sell. But you don't want to sell yourself short, you don't want to be doing something you don't enjoy or tell a story you don't believe in or care about. That's why I was having so much trouble with this first issue because I felt locked into explaining what happened between the last time you saw him and now. It was really a bridge story just to reintroduce the series and the characters.

GROTH: Do you think you would alienate readers if you went into a direction that was more satisfying to you?

STEVENS: Yeah, because it wouldn't have the visuals. It wouldn't have as much unnecessary detailing. It'd be a lot darker, simpler. I have a tendency to think more in black and white than I do in color. I have to be consciously thinking in color to work with it, otherwise I go right back to black and white. As a matter of fact these short stories that I want to do after this series probably should be done in black and white, and or at least very limited color.

GROTH: How many issues are you contracted for?

STEVENS: Six, and it will be in two sets of three. There is going to be a marked difference between the album these will be collected in and the previous album.

GROTH: And the difference in the second is that the emphasis will be on character.

STEVENS: Right, and better stories.

GROTH: Now, are you writing this?

STEVENS: Yes, but with the second and third issues I brought in two fellows whom I have been working with on a film project, Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo. What I would do is outline the bare bones of what I wanted in the story, the characters, and the basics of the plot, etc. The we'd go through the whole plot and beef it up, structure it, and put it right on the money, then I went back and scripted it. It seemed to work well because I'm real weak in structure — I flounder and I fishtail all over the place. They're real solid in story structure and logic — they know why something happens because of something else rather than just circumstance or coincidence. I end up with too many coincidences, I don't solve a lot of things, and I just make a lot of problems.


GROTH: I think an English writer who wrote a book about writing fiction said that the reader can accept one coincidence in a story.

STEVENS: That's all, and I usually have three or four.


GROTH: So they're basically helping to impose a kind of narrative skeleton and you provide the flesh and blood.

STEVENS: Yeah. They're going to get co-writing credit for those two issues, and, if I can talk them into it, more after that because it worked out so well.


GROTH: Let me slip back and talk about the writers you've read. You've told me that you like Kipling, London, Leroux and Chandler. I was wondering if you pick up contemporary novels.

STEVENS: Periodically. As a matter of fact, I couldn't get all the way through Stick and it was supposed to be a great book. I have a real hard time getting all the way through a long book and anything is long to me if I can't sit down and read it in one or two sittings.


GROTH: Is that because of your lifestyle, the way you program your day?

STEVENS: Because I spend so much time at the board, I don't have a lot of reading time. So what I read mostly are either short stories or articles or non-fiction because that's very easy to put down and pick up. Novels are tough to get through — only between jobs can I do that. It's a luxury. I kind of took it for granted when I wasn't doing comics work because I had plenty of spare time, and I could read whatever I wanted.


GROTH: How do you pick and choose what you read?

STEVENS: Well, right now I only have time to read things that pertain to what I'm doing, either historical stuff, biographical stuff, or news.


GROTH: From the '30s?

STEVENS: Yeah, things like the World at War series, Time-Life Books, and a lot of magazines. I read scads of aviation magazines. But that's dry stuff.


GROTH: It's not pleasure reading so much as research.

STEVENS: It's homework. It's just to give me a handle on what I'm trying to do. I'm always buying fiction books with the intention of reading them. I've got quite a pile. When I get time to take a vacation, I'm just going to read myself into a stupor. I don't like having to interrupt a book five or six times before I get through it. Things like [John] Steinbeck I want to read from start to finish without leaving the book. Sometimes I will start early in the morning and read it until the next day, until I finish it. When I read a book, I don't want to stop. I want to submerge in that world until the story is told. I cannot understand how somebody could pick up a book for half an hour or an hour every night for a week or two.

To get back to The Rocketeer, on the second and third stories, I had Mike Kaluta give me thumbnail breakdowns to give me a different point of view.


GROTH: Did you ask him to do thumbnails?

STEVENS: I originally wanted him to do pencils on one issue just to see what it would add to it. He had too much trouble with it. He said, "They're your characters. I can't draw them." He did give me thumbnails, though, so I'm penciling from his basic composition.


GROTH: How much of his layouts did you use?

STEVENS: Well, I just started, and I'm using about two-thirds of them. It's just circles and squares stuff, but it's at least given me a fresh point of view that I really need.


GROTH: What did you give him to allow him to do that?

STEVENS: Money. [Laughter.]


GROTH: Creatively speaking, did you give him a script or an outline?

STEVENS: I gave him a full script and it was the first full script I've written. So in one sense it was a good exercise just because it got me off the dime and made me sit down and type out a script, something which I've never been able to do. But the reason that I was able to do it was because I was writing with Paul and Danny.


GROTH: Will you be writing a full script for yourself?

STEVENS: Yeah, and we did it for the third one, too. As a matter of fact, for the third one they went ahead and did a lot of the actual scripting. It's probably three-quarters done. I'm having a bit of trouble because it's running long and I may have to cut some stuff out. I hate having limitations on the page count... but that never bothered Eisner or the Bros [the Hernandezes]. So I guess I should stop whining and just get on with it.


GROTH: I know you consider yourself a commercial artist, in the sense that you do some Hollywood work and miscellaneous jobs that would be called commercial.

STEVENS: I'm more of a single illustration person, that's why I think I have so much trouble with the comic stories.


GROTH: Do you consider the comic work, The Rocketeer, commercial work?

STEVENS: No, that's a labor of love, and the only reason I'm doing it is because I feel like I have to. No matter how much work you do for this director or that advertising agency, it's never really satisfying.


GROTH: It's still a commission.

STEVENS: Just a job.


GROTH: And you're putting more of yourself into Rocketeer?

STEVENS: Well, everybody has a hobby or something that they take personal satisfaction from, and this is it for me. Unfortunately, it's taking up all my time. You can't call it a hobby now; it's an albatross.


GROTH: When you said that you're more of a single illustration artist are you developing an affinity for panel-to-panel continuity?


STEVENS: I feel better with each one that I do. I feel like they're getting closer.


GROTH: So comics isn't something that you had a natural talent for; it's something you had to work at.

STEVENS: Yeah. I always enter notions of being able to do one at some point, but I never had the motivation or the interest to sit down and go at it when I was a kid. I was more concerned with drawing pretty pictures. That's probably to my disadvantage. If I had studied the stuff at an earlier age — storytelling — maybe I'd be a lot further along. But who knows, maybe I'm just going to be a lousy storyteller all my life. Some people can educate themselves that way and learn and put it to use and be successful at it, and some people never seem to get on board. I hope I'm not going to be in the latter category because I do see a little step up each time I do it. It's a little clearer as far as depicting the dramatics.


GROTH: What contemporary comic artists do you look at these days and learn from?

STEVENS: I don't like to sound elitist because so many people have so many bitches and moans about everything and everybody. I go into the stores and look at a lot of stuff but I usually put it back. I don't seem to walk away with more than one or two things: Love & Rockets and The Spirit and maybe the odd something. But it's only those two books that I pick up regularly. Well, the Dragon Lady Press stuff once in a while — Wash Tubbs or Buz Sawyer. Really, there's just not a lot out there that is good storytelling and good art. As far as art goes, I'll pick up just about anything that Brendan McCarthy does. His new Paradax book is really inspirational. And, of course, I'm always impressed by Kaluta. Then there are the older guys, such as Gray Morrow. I really love his translations of photos or whatever he's working on. Academically, he can't be beat — the same with Russ Heath. Those two guys are just flawless as far as very literal and beautiful drawing goes.

To me the appeal has to be in the faces and the body language of the characters, and, if it's not strong enough, I can't get a hold of it. What drew me to Eisner's stuff is it's so animated and sosoulful. A lot of the expressions — I can't get enough of that and too many people aren't looking at that nowadays. They don't realize that's what they really should be trying to evoke, reaching in an pulling out emotional stuff that you can feed into those little drawings and really bring them to life. It's real, real tough to find that in contemporary comics. A lot of it is badly drawn, stiff, lifeless formula poses over and over again — the crash-bang-boom school. It's tough for me to look at it for more than two or three pages because of that total lack of life. I don't really know what the people who are doing this stuff are thinking. The normal, young comics artists... I wish I knew what their ultimate goal was. If they're trying to be another so-and-so, if they're trying to say that they drew so many different titles, so many different characters in their lifetime, what kind of goal is that?


GROTH: A prevalent one.

STEVENS: I wish I knew. I wish people would stop and step back from what they're doing and take a look at it real hard and ask, "Why am I drawing the way I'm drawing? Why am I illustrating stories that are so badly written, with no character content, no human...?" They, I think, play at doing human stories.


GROTH: Soap opera.

STEVENS: Yeah, but it's awfully heavy-handed. It seems to be playing one note over and over again, kind of like the John Hughes films that are so popular now.


GROTH: That are so awful.

STEVENS: Well, it's fun once, but not as a steady diet.


GROTH: What do you think of some of the mainstream artists who are achieving some acclaim such as [Frank] Miller?

STEVENS: He's got an intensity about his stuff that I admire. He really gets into what he's doing, really jumps in with both feet, and I can't help but appreciate that. It's not seen enough. There aren't enough people really believing in what they're doing to commit to something like The Dark Knight [Returns]. That was a massive amount of work to write it, draw it, and the whole shot. I admire what he's done and I think whatever kind of public acclaim he gets for it he deserves. He's done a great job. I can't say that I've really taken a fair look at the Elektra stuff because it's hard for me to read.


GROTH: What do you think of [BillSienkiewicz?

STEVENS: His work is stylistically wonderful. He tries things nobody else will touch and for that I've got to give the guy a clap of the hand. But I have a hard time reading his stories. Panel to panel it just doesn't work for me. Again he's a single-illustration artist. He may take exception to this. I'm not saying he's a lousy storyteller. I think he's telling a story the way he wants to tell it. Unfortunately, I don't think it's accessible enough. Visually, he's just boom, boom, boom. Even the quiet moments are visually jarring. That's the appropriate word for his work, everything he does. It's jarring, unsettling.


GROTH: You could use that word to describe Miller's work. Do you find Miller's continuity easier to follow?

STEVENS: Yeah, because he has quiet moments and they read as such. Bill's work is just so visually dazzling, you don't look at it as a quiet moment. You look at it as, "Oh, isn't that a beautiful piece of art?" You don't really get into the story when you're looking at Sienkiewicz's work, you get into the art. The art is so distracting the story could be anything. From what I understand, the stories in Elektra are good, but I still haven't been able to read them.


GROTH: You're a traditionalist at heart.

STEVENS: Maybe, maybe.

GROTH: How about Harvey Pekar, have you ever read his work?

STEVENS: Yes, and I liked it very much. I've got the first Doubleday book. I saw him on Letterman talking about it. He seems like a real interesting guy. Very funny, just like in the stories.

Binky [Life in Hell] is pretty exceptional stuff, too, the Matt Groening book. The art sometimes makes it a little tough to get through — because it's pretty much the same panels again and again — but the writing is so funny, it's priceless. There's another one that's just God-awful, The Angriest Dog in the World [which appears in the LA Reader].


GROTH: David Lynch's strip.

STEVENS: Aaaah! [Howls.] It's trying, I think, to do the same thing [as Groening] but there's nothing there. It's trying to be chic.


GROTH: Well, I'm not really familiar with it but I hear that they probably wouldn't run it if it weren't by [the film director] David Lynch. Are there are any other humor panels or strips? Gary Larson, Lynda Barry?

STEVENS: I like Larson. There's a couple of those single panel guys that just kill me. I don't know how they keep coming up with the great ideas they do. But I can't stand things like Bloom County. I can't stand it. There are maybe one out of every 20 or 30 that's funny. He's trying too hard or something. Do you read that one at all?


GROTH: I really don't. I was turned off by the fact that it was a rip-off of Doonesbury.

STEVENS: Everybody kept pushing the books on me. I took a book and sat down with it and was going through it and there was literally one out of every twenty that was funny. How does it survive? Well, it's merchandising. The characters are cute.