Like many, I first became familiar with the Rocketeer through the 1991 Disney film of the same name. I was aware that the character originated from a comic, though it never seemed to be one that was easily accessible. In 2009, the year after artist/writer Dan Stevens’ death, IDW published The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures, which collected all of Stevens’ original Rocketeer comics from Starslayer, Pacific Presents, and The Rocketeer Special Edition. This collection has been in and out of print for nearly a decade, but now, on the 40th anniversary of the Rocketeer’s debut, The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures has been re-released in a new, definitive edition that includes over a hundred pages of bonus material.
This treasure trove features everything from original linework to production and promotional images that Stevens made specifically for the film. The deluxe edition meticulously covers every step of Stevens’ creative process and even includes unique little oddities. Notably, this issue includes a few scripted pages for a rejected story that would’ve seen the Rocketeer team up with Superman after the Orson Wells broadcast of War of the Worlds resulted in panicked civilians mistaking the Rocketeer for a martian.
The bulk of The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures Deluxe Edition is, obviously, the comic that Stevens wrote and drew. Like the film adaptation, it’s a heartfelt homage to old-fashioned pulp stories of the early 20th Century. The Rocketeer pulls from the same kind of Nazi-punching, dame-rescuing, gee-whiz adventures that Indiana Jones does, which is fitting because both Stevens and Joe Johnson (director of the Rocketeer movie) worked on Raiders of the Lost Ark. The result is a comic that more than makes up for its lack of narrative depth with a lot of charm and earnestness.
All of the characters are fully realized right off the bat, as it’s quickly established that Cliff Secord (the Rocketeer) is immature and childish but also good-natured and daring. Cliff and his wisecracking mechanic/mentor, Peevy, will both be instantly recognizable to fans of the film, though they’ll likely be surprised by how different Cliff’s love interest is. Rather than being enamored with aspiring actress Jenny, Cliff’s girlfriend is Betty, a model heavily inspired by Bettie Page. While a lot of the comic shares a tonal similarity with the movie, new readers who were introduced to the Rocketeer through the film will probably be a bit caught off-guard by Betty’s scenes. If you go into these comics unaware of Stevens’ penchant for drawing risqué pictures of women, then you’ll probably be surprised to see saucy pin-up art in an otherwise PG-rated story.
Cliff and Betty’s dynamic is an interesting one, as a lot of the tension comes from the class divide between them: Cliff is a simple-minded, blue-collar pilot, and Betty likes the glitz and glamor of high society. Refreshingly, the conflict between them doesn’t actually come from Betty rejecting Cliff because she thinks he’s beneath her, but rather it comes from Cliff’s insecurity. He imagines that Betty doesn’t think he earns enough money or that she wants to leave him for somebody else, and it causes him to behave in self-destructive ways that almost always drive Betty away. These characters themselves aren’t particularly complex by themselves, but the drama of them playing off of one another is what really gives the plot momentum.
Of course, it feels like you can’t give the plot too much flack because Stevens seems to know that he’s, first and foremost, an artist. I don’t think I’ve seen an artstyle from the Eighties that feels this complex in its expressiveness and detail, which are particularly impressive in the second arc, “Cliff’s New York Adventure,” where Stevens collaborated with titans of the comics industry like Mike Kaluta and Art Adams. Stevens’ work is dynamic and bold in a very cinematic way, with action scenes possessing an effortless flow to them. His art has a surprisingly modern feel to it, and its timelessness is emphasized through the digital coloring of Laura Martin (who notably provided that extra shine to John Cassaday’s work on titles like Astonishing X-Men and Star Wars).
While some might be critical that the modern coloring prevents the reader from having the authentic experience of reading these comics exactly the way they originally appeared, I personally feel that it doesn’t distract from any of the nostalgia or charm. The section of extra material shows a scanned, unaltered page from the original comic, and (this may be a sacrilegious thing for me to say) the dulled, blurred colors on yellowing paper immediately make it clear why the folks putting this collection together would go back to Stevens’ original penciling and start from there.
My only complaint is that the word balloons are sometimes a little jumbled. It doesn’t happen very often, and it doesn’t take long to figure out the right sequence to read them, but sometimes the word balloons will be placed in a peculiar way. One panel that has you start at the top right, then go to the middle left, and then back down to the bottom right. Again, it’s a fairly minor and infrequent issue, but one that’s there nonetheless.
The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures Deluxe Edition is a remarkably impressive presentation of Stevens’ original work. Whether you’re already a fan of his Rocketeer saga or just getting into them for the first time, the pairing of the main material and the abundance of archived content make this comic a delight to read.