Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

Home > CR Reviews

Dave Stevens’ The Rocketeer: Artist’s Edition
posted July 19, 2010


Creator: Dave Stevens
Publishing Information: IDW/Dave Stevens estate, hardcover, Summer 2010, $100
Ordering Numbers: Try here.

Later this week, a select group of fans will pick up their copies of Dave Stevens' The Rocketeer: Artist's Edition, having purchased one for delivery through IDW's presence at Comic-Con International. By this time next week they may be all gone. This is one of the grander and I think emotionally-suffused specialty book projects in recent comics publishing history. Stevens died in 2008 a successful and much-loved artist without, the realization came right after the flood of grief, having quite made the industry-transforming splash in comics that seemed inevitable a quarter-century earlier when his Rocketeer appeared alongside the best offerings of Indy Comics Generation One. Moreover, there have been depressingly few comics like it since, and the Rocketeer work itself lasted for only about as many pages as constitute your typical mainstream event comic side-series that shows what people were doing at the local coffee shop during whatever cosmic goofiness we're told is really, really important. At times it's hard not to see the rocket pack itself as some sort of comics skill set metaphor, a dangerous profession with unlimited potential into which Stevens stumbled for a short time as a younger man. At the very least, it's hard not to mist up a little bit over a time in comics when you could figure out the best ones in part through concepts like "rocket pack." It's not always nostalgia to wonder if we've lost a connection to something good.

imageThis latest edition of the two Rocketeer series casts a spotlight on the individual pages that make up the Rocketeer comics by shooting from the originals without processing them in a way that makes for completed comic book pages. You can see elements of the paste-up, some blue lines, the guides for lettering; you don't get color or corrections or any of the little refinements that change original art into final funnybook pages. The reproduced pages are even the same size as the originals, or supremely close to it. It's the entire Rocketeer saga in something extremely close to what was on Stevens' drawing board when he declared each story moment completed. It's great fun to look at the comics way, make no mistake about it. I'm not much of an artist, but I love puzzling out the decision-making involved, why this set of shadows instead of that one, what words might have been pasted over for what other words. The second volume, the one in New York, is well-served here. There are some pages from that set of comics that feel close to stunning as individual set pieces, such as one with the Betty Page character isolated at the left of the page while her story progresses in horizontal panels down the center-right. The problems with pacing that seemed to have a significant impact on those later comics when I've read them before can be more clearly seen here as an element of Stevens' learning curve. Stevens was more of a promising cartoonist than fully-realized by many rational measurements, and watching him struggle with how to convey certain kinds of movement and scene to scene work when working in and out of his primary visual comfort zone is a blast. Seeing the pages here, I would have loved to have seen what he was doing by volume six.

There was no volume six, of course. Stevens' career went in a different direction. The first reaction I had when I heard about this project is that it was being done because of the shallowness of the comics well from which we can draw Stevens' work. It wasn't an overly positive reaction. I certainly don't think that anymore: this book does exist in its own space, and provides a much different reading experience than IDW's done-in-one reprinting of the comics in final form. That said, it's not a transcendent book. I wouldn't advise anyone to buy it who didn't already feel a great deal of affection for Stevens' work going in. Still, it's compelling enough and solidly executed that in a way I can't imagine those inclined to make this specific journey will be disappointed. Shooting someone's original art pages at size and with as much fealty as possible may sound overly worshipful, but the lasting effect of this Artist's Edition is one of a super-talented working cartoonist who, like everyone else this many pages into their career, was still growing into the form. That there came a time soon after when he wasn't on this journey anymore, that provides as much resonance as any project of its type could ever desire.