Dave Stevens, R.I.P.
Rocketeer creator Dave Stevens dies at age 52
Comics legend and illustrator Dave Stevens, creator of The Rocketeer, died March 13, 2008, after a long battle with leukemia.
Born in Lynwood California on July 29, 1955, Stevens attended San Diego City College. When he became involved with the San Diego Comic Convention, which evolved into Comic Con International, his skill as an artist was immediately recognized by such comic book legends as Jack Kirby and Russ Manning.
Manning was so impressed with Stevens’ work, Stevens was hired to work on the European Tarzan comic series in 1975 and to assist Manning on the Tarzan newspaper comic strip. Steven’s later worked with Manning on the Star Wars comic strip and worked on Marvel Comics’ Star Wars comic book series.
In addition to his work with Manning, Stevens was also befriended by Jonny Quest creator Doug Wildey. Stevens was doing storyboards and layouts for the Hanna-Barbara studio in 1977, for cartoon series that included Super-Friends and Godzilla. Stevens would later do covers for Comico’s Jonny Quest comic series, including issue #5 (“Jade Incorporated,” in 1986) and Jonny Quest Special #2 (“The Luck Of Lenin’s Tomb,” in 1988).
But Stevens is best known for his creation of The Rocketeer. The first Rocketeer stories appeared in 1982 as back-up stories in Starslayer from Pacific Comics. The Rocketeer stories then moved Pacific Presents in 1984 and from there to Rocketeer Adventure Magazine, in 1988 and 1989. Dark Horse Comics published a trade paperback of Rocketeer stories called Cliff’s New York Adventure in 1996.
The Rocketeer comics were a homage to movie serials such as Commando Cody and to pulp heroes of the 1930s and 40s. In Steven’s comic book series, characters that referenced both Doc Savage and The Shadow made cameo appearances. In fact, it was implied in Stevens’ comic series that Doc Savage created the rocket harness utilized by The Rocketeer.
The Rocketeer comics were also a homage to 1950’s pin-up model Bettie Page. The Rocketeer’s girlfriend, Betty, was modeled after Ms. Page, and is often credited for reviving interest in the pin-up beauty. Another homage in Stevens’ Rocketeer comics was to his friend, Wildey, who served as the model for The Rocketeer’s aircraft mechanic sidekick Peevy.
The Rocketeer was released as a movie by Walt Disney Pictures in 1991. The film starred Billy Campbell as The Rocketeer and Jennifer Connelly as the often-in-danger Betty. The Rocketeer movie, although financially disappointing, was enjoyable and contained many sly references to 1940’s Hollywood. The villain in the movie, Neville Sinclair (played by Timothy Dalton) is based on Hollywood adventure star Errol Flynn, while Sinclair’s creepy henchman, Lothar is made to look like B-movie fan favorite Rondo Hatton. A character called “Bill,” who is obviously W.C. Fields, makes a cameo in a Hollywood nightclub scene in the film. The movie version even replaces Doc Savage with Howard Hughes (who was active in the 1940’s film industry) as the creator of the Rocketeer’s rocket harness.
Fanboys like me will always remember Stevens for his “good girl” art and his meticulous attention to detail. If Steven’s wasn’t the most prolific comic book artist, it was because he crafted each and every panel with craftsmanship and integrity rarely seen.
Perfectionism was not just a concept for Stevens, it was a tangible result of hard work. His art never looked rushed and when I look back on his work as a comic book cover artist, I can find nothing that is less than amazing. Like Frank Frazetta, Stevens was an artist whose work transcended comics and he will be honored as one of the finest American illustrators in the final few decades of the 20th century.