The premise of The Rocketeer is simple: It’s the late 1930s. Hotshot sky circus pilot Cliff Secord is down on his luck and doesn’t see much of a future. The only bright spot in his life is his girlfriend, Betty, a rising starlet in Hollywood. Unfortunately, their romance burns hot and Secord finds a way to cause drama. Things change when he finds some kind of prototype jetpack and mask. He plans to impress Betty and make money off of the costume, but public use of the jetpack (as “The Rocketeer!”) brings with it international intrigue and danger. Comic books ensue!
While the premise is straightforward, the execution is magnificent. The Rocketeer’s creator, Dave Stevens, always loved the 1930s aesthetics and he presents 1930s LA and New York beautifully. He makes The Rocketeer soar in the way that little kids daydream of flying. The characters also have depth. Cliff isn’t a Superman type. He’s big-hearted, but also selfish and short-sighted. He gets in his own way, even though everyone roots for him. Betty (based on Bettie Page, whom Stevens befriended after the book’s publication) is classic Hollywood sultry, but with a sweet streak. Cliff and Betty might not be the best match ultimately, but you root for them. Stevens’ own mentor served as the likeness and inspiration for Peevy, Cliff’s mentor. You get the sense that all of the main characters are real people because they ARE real people, more or less.
The Rocketeer and his creator have a lot in common. The Rocketeer literally flies by the seat of his pants – he makes decisions by his gut and makes things up as he goes a la Indiana Jones. He’s an aerial swashbuckler more than a superhero. Likewise, when asked by a publisher to fill up six pages in the back of another comic book with a new character, creator Dan Stevens quickly sketched The Rocketeer and submitted the art with no real plan about filling two months’ work of story. He’d figure it out as he went. When The Rocketeer became a popular character in earned his own book, Stevens still didn’t make any real plans. He made up the pages or art and story as he went. The haphazard style served both the character and Stevens well. I have to think a lot of the charm of Secord/The Rocketeer is Stevens shining through.
Sadly, Dave Stevens died of cancer a few years ago. But, his legacy lives on through these comics. Stevens’ The Rocketeer became a Disney movie and an ongoing series of comics continued by powerhouses such as Mark Waid and Kurt Busiek.
This hardcover collection includes two of Stevens’ own Rocketeer storylines as well as over 150 pages of sketches, stories, and comments from artists who helped Stevens turn in his work on time. The giant-sized hardcover comes with a good-looking box as well.
I love The Rocketeer and would consider my collection incomplete without this book. However, it’s not necessarily family friendly as Betty is Bettie Page and is drawn accordingly. I recommend the movie or the Waid/Busiek comics more for kids.