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The Rocketeer(pop culture)
In 1991 few moviegoers would have been aware that The Rocketeer had been a comic book before it was a film, but, in fact, the character had been a cult favorite in print for years before he appeared on the silver screen. The character’s genesis was inauspicious, to say the least: Artist Dave Stevens was approached at a comic book convention by upstart publishing house Pacific Comics to fill a couple of six-page gaps at the back of their new Starslayer comic. Pacific was desperate and simply did not care what Stevens came up with, but to their undoubted surprise the resulting strip provoked a torrent of rapturous acclaim. With a blank canvas to work on, Stevens decided to indulge his love of 1930s movie serials, especially the ones featuring Commando Cody a.k.a. Rocketman (King of the Rocketmen, Radar Men from the Moon, and Zombies of the Stratosphere), and created a beautifully rendered homage to a more innocent age.
The story, set in 1938, begins with a couple of hoods on the run from the law, who stash a stolen rocket pack in the cockpit of stunt pilot Cliff Secord’s plane. Discovering the strange contraption (effectively a small rocket with a harness to attach it to the pilot’s back), Secord seizes on it as the chance for him to become a star at his local airfield, earning him lots of money and impressing his girlfriend Betty. With the help of his curmudgeonly pal Peevy (based on Jonny Quest creator Doug Wildey), he fashions himself a costume of brown breeches, flying jacket, and metal-plumed steel helmet and flies into action. As a normal human being with no superpowers or superweaknesses to speak of, Secord, as the Rocketeer, relies on his super-fast rocket pack to help him save the day. Inevitably, the hoods who had stolen the jet pack in the first place (Nazis, of course) want it back, as does the FBI, and its mysterious inventor (a thinly veiled Doc Savage, complete with cohorts Monk and Ham). This initial story appeared in Starslayer #2 and #3 (1982), and the strip was promoted to the lead feature in the first two issues of Pacific Presents, before being wrapped up two years later in a Rocketeer special edition from Eclipse Comics (after Pacific went under).
Stevens had two trump cards: First, he was a fantastic artist, whose mastery of brushwork was second only to his mastery of the female form— which brings us to the comic’s second selling point, Secord’s girlfriend Betty. Stevens based Betty’s appearance on a largely forgotten 1950s pinup model, Bettie Page and, as fans devoured the comic and bought up posters of the fictional Betty in droves, interest was revived in the character’s original inspiration. From forgotten model to major twentieth-century icon, Bettie Page’s re-emergence as a sex symbol, with a merchandising machine to match, stemmed almost entirely from the pages of The Rocketeer. If Betty was a remarkable comic book character, so too was the artist’s depiction of the 1930s milieu surrounding her adventures with Secord. Stevens delighted in delineating the eccentric architecture of prewar Hollywood, its stylish cars and airplanes, and its sense of fun.
However, Stevens’ burgeoning career as a comic-book artist was matched by his successful life in Hollywood’s movie world as a storyboard artist and designer, which meant that it was four more years before a second Rocketeer adventure was serialized. This new tale appeared in 1988, from new publisher Comico. Then Comico went bust after only two issues of the comic, and it was an astonishing six years before the final installment crept out, published by Dark Horse Comics. The new yarn was, if anything, even more majestically drawn than the earlier episodes, and featured hardboiled gangsters, and old-time carnivals and freak shows, not to mention the Shadow (in all but name), complete with autogyro.
Both stories did well in comic book form, but long before the first tale had even been completed, The Rocketeer was optioned by Hollywood and eight years later (in 1991) the live-action feature film finally appeared, from the unlikely stable of Disney. The Rocketeer was directed by Joe Johnston, a longtime friend of Stevens, and starred Billy Campbell and Jennifer Connelly. Connelly’s role, significantly, was as a new damsel-in-distress, Jenny, and not Betty (Disney was wary of the character’s connection with the real-life Page and her pinup background). The film was reviewed as a breezy family entertainment film with great special effects. Careful viewers noted the multiple Hollywood references, such as an effective villain (played by Timothy Dalton) that was clearly based on early film actor Errol Flynn. Disney saw the project as a merchandising bonanza, but its loving re-creation of a bygone era failed to connect with a young audience, and so the merchandise was abandoned and the option for two sequels was not executed. Johnston, however, would go on to direct another period superhero movie, Captain America: The First Avenger (2011).
Dave Stevens died in 2008, but his most famous creation lives on. IDW Publishing launched the new comic book series Rocketeer Adventures in 2011, featuring covers by Alex Ross and new Rocketeer stories by Michael Allred, Kurt Busiek, John Cassaday, Michael Kaluta, and others. —DAR & PS