From the TCJ Archives

Dave Stevens, “Unmasking the Rocketeer”

GROTH: Four Color Magazine ran an article about Marvel's copyrights. It was an article from Marvel's point of view — how they upheld their copyright claims. They mention you, they mention Dave Sim, they mention Don Simpson. Marvel threatened Sim and Simpson because they were engaged in parody. You, I think, they're actively litigating over the name "Rocketeer." Can you talk a little bit about the issue involved there? It's a trademark issue?

STEVENS: It's a trademark issue. It has nothing to do with copyright, imagery, or anything like that because their Rocketeers, plural, is a group of six guys in green suits who are spacemen, villains, and are very, very minor — nothing remotely connected to what I'm doing.


GROTH: The dispute is over the name, "Rocketeer"?

STEVENS: The ownership of the name. From day one, I think it was nothing but a big mistake on their part to come after me because it doesn't have anything to do with their characters and they've never used the name in a trademark sense. Now, I'm not a lawyer, but my personal feeling is that unless someone files for a trademark application, pays the money, publishes a book in the first place for several issues with that name prominent as the title of the magazine, they shouldn't be able to come after somebody else saying, "You're violating our trademark," because, as Mike Hobson admitted to me over the phone, they've never filed for trademark or copyright on those characters. And yet, they won't let go.


GROTH: How long has this been going on?

STEVENS: Since '84; three years. Ask my pocketbook.


GROTH: So you've been fighting it. That's my next question — it's costly?

STEVENS: I don't like to think about how much it's cost me because it's money being spent for no creative or productive purpose. It's not money hat I can ever recover.


GROTH: But you felt strongly enough about this to not capitulate and change he name.

STEVENS: What for? I don't believe they're within their rights to come after me. As far as I'm concerned, it's nothing but an aggravation suit. All they're doing is flexing their muscles because they can. I think they were hoping that since I’m a little guy, they could bleed me dry very quickly. But I hung in there. I think at some point it's going to be resolved in my favor. It can't end any other way, really. I believe they have such a weak, weak stance, if any. If it weren't so stupid it'd be hilarious.


GROTH: Yeah, that's how I felt.

STEVENS: I feel sorry for some of the other people they have gone after. They've caused similar grief to others because they weren't able to defend themselves financially. Luckily, I used most of my profits off the Rocketeer album to fight the thing. Unfortunately, now I'm in a position where I've had to work something out with Henry Holmes, my lawyer, regarding payment. I wasn't going to back down, though, because it was my character. I built up a certain amount of credibility over the years with it, and it's readily recognizable. Everybody who hears the name or sees the name associates it with me, not with Marvel. Their whole bone of contention was that it was causing confusion in the marketplace between my character and their characters, and I haven't found anybody who has read, seen, or even heard of their characters.


GROTH: If you had ever considered working for Marvel in the past, would this change your mind about that?

STEVENS: Well, I don't hold grudges, really, because business is business. I did, however, want to do a project that I had to pass on because of this battle, because my lawyers thought that it would be just asinine for me to get in there and do a job for people who were costing me thousands of dollars and I had to agree.


GROTH: This was a project for Marvel.

STEVENS: Yeah. Kaluta had done a Shadow graphic novel that I wanted to ink. It was the most gorgeous piece of work I had ever seen him do and I think it's going to be looked at forever after as the definitive '30s statement for Mike Kaluta and it killed me not to be able to it. But I was entertaining the notion because I wanted to do that book so badly. Before this lawsuit happened, they did come to me with several covers that they wanted me to do. It was all work for hire, and I explained to them I don't do work for hire. They got a little miffed, I guess — they thought that I should... prostrate myself on the floor making obeisance because they are Marvel, the God that is, she who must be obeyed. But even without work for hire, there really isn't any other project at Marvel besides the Shadow that I would've been interested in working on.


GROTH: But you wouldn't exclude the possibility.

STEVENS: Never. I'd like to think that I could do work for anybody at this point. It's just that the two major companies, Marvel and DC, are so difficult to work with, with all the red tape you have to go through. I had a terrible time getting paid from DC for those Who's Who drawings I did, not to mention Elvira's House of Mystery.


GROTH: Just because of the bureaucracy?

STEVENS: Yeah. Just because one hand knows not what the other is doing. There are so many different people you have to go through to get an answer. I don't know why, but their payroll department is really impossible. I'm sure their regular employees don't have that kind of trouble. Maybe it's because I'm a new person that they had to put on the computer. But if just took forever...


GROTH: You live 3000 miles away.

STEVENS: Maybe that makes me less vocal.


GROTH: Out of sight, out of mind.

STEVENS: The rates are pretty lousy at both companies, anyway.


GROTH: The base rates?

STEVENS: When you come from advertising or when you come from film work and you're used to getting a fair rate of pay for your work, a fair compensation, it's really a big lump to swallow to go to a comic company and get peanuts, a pittance. It's insulting to get the kind of horrible money that they offer you for really sweating blood on these books. That's another reason I will probably never do another series besides The Rocketeer. It's just too much work and the rewards are almost nonexistent. The only reward you get is your personal satisfaction of saying, "I did it, here it is, it's tangible in my hands."


GROTH: How great a priority to you is money?

STEVENS: Well, right now it's pretty great because I've got huge legal bills. Money only provides the means to do what you want to do. If it's important to you to be able to do the kind of work that takes time — unfortunately while you're doing that work you're not making any money — then ahead of time you're going to have to take money jobs, commercial jobs, stockpile some money so that you can live while you're doing this work that you really want to do. Right now, I'm doing what I want to do but I ran out of the stockpile of money so I'm kind of in a hard spot. But it's not an irreversible situation. Lawyers' bills can be paid eventually.


GROTH: You're telling me?

STEVENS: You have to go to a lot of trouble that you normally would never consider, do things that you wouldn't consider. But it's not like we're helpless.


GROTH: Eclipse sort of inherited you from Pacific.

STEVENS: Well, they didn't inherit me, but they came in and offered to pick up the book when Pacific took a nosedive.


GROTH: They published the Rocketeer album.

STEVENS: And the one issue that wrapped up the series before that.


GROTH: And then you went to Comico for the series. Can you tell us why you didn't stick with Eclipse?

STEVENS: I had a lot of communication problems with Eclipse. The one bad thing about independent companies is they don't communicate well at all with their contributors because they're wearing too many hats. Their staff is grossly overworked. Everybody there is trying to do umpteen different projects at once. They try o put out too many books and spread themselves too thin, too fast. They have no idea where or how they're screwing up, but they are all over the place, all independents. And they don't realize, I think, how much it's hurting their credibility. When they're spread so thin, they can't competently edit books or stick to a decent schedule. If I were going to start a company, I would put out two books and no more and just do those two books as well as I could, with as much quality and a price that would enable me to publish them. But I wouldn't add to those until I had more people.


GROTH: How does your criticism apply to your relationship with Eclipse?

STEVENS: Like I said, it was a problem with communication. We just could not come together. I had a lot of questions while we were putting the album together that didn't get answered. A lot of problems came up with the physical printing of the thing, color separations, and all that stuff that I wasn't equipped to deal with, and at that time [publishers Dean Mullaney and Cat Yronwode] were all on the convention trail. Once that happens you kiss whatever project you have in the works goodbye. Either it's going to come out horrible or it won't come out for months. That's one big complaint that I have with the whole convention business, this sideshow. Once [Cat and Dean]'re gone, there's nobody to mind the store except the peons and it's not fair to criticize them because they don't know what's going on. That was a big, big problem trying to put that album together and get it out in time for the San Diego con, which didn't happen. I knew that if I had to deal with them of if they had to deal with me again on a series after that, knowing my work habits and my angst, all the crap that I have to go through ever time I do a story — I'm cutting and tearing pages left and right until the thing is done and I never stick to a schedule — I knew we'd end up suing each other. I told Dean, "Look, there's bad faith on both sides — I don't think we can make a series work here." So I wanted to take it elsewhere and I went to a lot of trouble trying to get the thing free of Eclipse because here was a clause in my contract that said they had the first right of refusal on the new series. At the time I signed the contract, I didn't think anything of it because I was planning on doing the series there, but that was before I did the album.


GROTH: Does that have something to do with why they're printing posters of your covers?

STEVENS: That was something that I had no say in — if I had my druthers, those posters never would have come out. It was a trade-off. In order to get loose to go elsewhere I had to give Dean the rights to 12 covers to do posters of and I had to give him rights to the second graphic album and I also had to do a certain amount of new covers for them.


GROTH: New covers?

STEVENS: Yeah, and that was...


GROTH: To buy your freedom?

STEVENS: Literally, I had to buy my way out. And it took, believe it or not, it took a year to finally get him to sign a release and even then I had to have my lawyer draw up all the contracts. That was an enormous pain in the butt.


GROTH: It was a pretty tough negotiation?

STEVENS: It took forever because Dean didn't want to let go of the property. He wasn't about to let me go easy. So here we are a year later. Actually, it's a year and a half, about to put together the first issue, three years after the last issue. The Comico folks have been the most patient people I've ever dealt with. They seem real adept. I like their staff. People on the staff seem very competent. They got rid of most of the dead weight, the people that just weren't qualified to do the right jobs and brought in people that could do them and actually hired people from the outside who maybe didn't know actually hired people from the outside who maybe didn't know anything about comics but were good at art directing and layout and paste up. It just seems to me that they got a lot more on the ball than people ever thought they would.


GROTH: They really pulled themselves out of a bad rep.

STEVENS: I've got nothing but good to say about them. They probably have plenty bad to say about me so far just because this thing has taken so long to put together. But they've given me every courtesy and every consideration all down the line and I hope it work out real well for them. It's unusual for a publisher to go to that trouble. They wanted the property but I was sure at some point they were going to jump ship just because it was so much trouble hanging in there for so long.