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March 12, 2008

Dave Stevens, 1955-2008


Dave Stevens, one of the first stars of the 1980s independent comics generation and a successful illustrator responsible for a revival of interest in the pin-up queen Bettie Page, has passed away after a long and painful struggle with leukemia. He was 52 years old.

Stevens was born in Lynwood, California. His family settled in San Diego after spending the bulk of Stevens' childhood in Portland, Oregon. (Casual references in a couple of interviews suggest that Stevens may have spent some of his childhood in Idaho as well.) While in San Diego, Stevens attended a local community college and became involved in the southern California comics scene through the still-dewy San Diego Comic Book Convention (now Comic-Con International). According to friend and comics historian Mark Evanier, Stevens was encouraged in his art "by darn near every professional artist who attended the early cons, but especially by Jack Kirby and Russ Manning." Stevens would later say that Neal Adams tried to find him inking work at Marvel as early as 1973.

Like many classically-talented comics artists, Stevens found a lot of work early on in his career from a variety of sources. Stevens' first professional comics gig was working on the syndicated Tarzan comic strip for Manning, and then moving into some more self-directed artwork on Tarzan books Manning was then packaging for European publication. He then worked on a few Marvel projects, and created the Moebius-reminiscent Aurora for Japan's Sanrio Publishing. Stevens would also later work with Manning on the Star Wars newspaper strip. He once said it was the early assignment that tempered his boyish enthusiasm for a long career in comics. Steven toiled in animation for Hanna-Barbera, where he contributed to popular shows of the period and met the cartoonist Doug Wildey.


Spring 1982 saw the release of the first comics featuring Stevens' signature Rocketeer character and title. Those stories first appeared as a back-up in two issues of a Pacific Comics effort from Mike Grell called Starslayer. Stevens to Gary Groth in 1987: "[Pacific Publisher Steve] Schanes approached me at a convention in '81. It was right after they had put out Captain Victory #1. They had another book called Starslayer, and they needed six pages in the back of it. They said, 'Can you fill two installments of six pages?' I said, 'Yeah,' and they sent me on my way. They said, "You can do anything you want," and so I did. I did one promo drawing -- the first back cover -- of The Rocketeer. I sent that off to them. I had no idea what I was going to draw. I just drew all that stuff in there. They said, 'Yeah, this looks great. Do it. We can't wait to see the story.' And I didn't have one at the time." Stevens learned quickly. The feature later moved to the anthology title Pacific Presents and then in 1984 became a comic book bearing the lead's name.

The Rocketeer was a throwback adventure story set in a pulp-informed 1930s about a down-on-his-luck pilot named Cliff Secord -- with girl troubles, naturally -- that finds a mysterious rocket pack. Despite its erratic publishing history, Rocketeer proved to be one of the first sensations of the independent comics movement. The success the comic enjoyed had a doubly powerful impact on comics culture at the time because Stevens 1) was young enough he didn't have a mainstream pedigree, and 2) he was obviously possessed of major-league cartooning chops. Not even the snottiest mainstream American comics booster could dismiss Stevens as an artist lacking the craft skills to get work elsewhere. Alongside other emerging artists like Steve Rude and Jaime Hernandez, Stevens helped provide the entire non-mainstream end of American comic books with a subtle, almost subliminal, legitimacy, a crucial development for a culture that valued prodigious displays of skill. Stevens was the Russ Manning Talented Newcomer award for 1982.

The Rocketeer comics remain well-regarded today, but were something of a novelty and even mini-sensation at the time of their release. One thing that proved compelling to adventure comics fans was that Stevens, unlike such past greats of the genre such as Milton Caniff, Noel Sickles or Alex Toth, wasn't tethered to specific, incremental deadlines. Instead of suggesting illustration-worthy art, Stevens could work on the books until he managed to provide that kind of art -- or something much closer to it than shadow and form -- on every page. Stevens was very much a cartoonist, though, not just an illustrator making comics. The best moment to moment scenes in Rocketeer jumped with the liveliness of the best animated work in that tradition. Stevens' comics did feature a number of well-drawn, stop and stare moments that were as lovely as any pin-up work ever folded into a comics story, but they worked within the overall narrative. Like the best all-time comics artists, a key to the success of Stevens' comics work was in his managing to execute multiple modes of storytelling and use their contrasts within the work to build even more suggestive power.

imageOne soon-to-be famous visual strategy Stevens employed in the Rocketeer comics was basing the hero's on-again, off-again girlfriend on the pin-up model Bettie Page. Stevens' ability to capture Page's then almost-completely forgotten brand of casual sexuality and the sense she brought to many pictures of being slightly flushed and overwhelmed sparked an underground cultural revival in the model's life and career. He would in the 1990s meet Page and form a kind of friendly, protective set feelings for her, even as the revival he had done more than anyone to instigate swirled about the now senior citizen-aged ex-model.

Stevens has long been an under-appreciated influence on comics as they developed over the next two decades. Like many of the cartoonists to come, Stevens would would create a number of stand-alone covers to comics not his own, and was in direct charge of his own career outside of comics and even in terms of developing his projects for Hollywood. Simply as an artist, Stevens seemed a model of cartoonists come: a number of mainstream comics artists since Stevens heyday have adopted a narrative approach reminiscent of his ability to mix animation-derived action with illustration-style pin-up moments. In most of those cartoonists' works the action scenes rarely moved as well as they did in Stevens', and the still moments stopped many of those stories in their tracks. Rocketeer moved and shimmered. It wasn't hard at the time to imagine a quarter century of those comics ahead of Stevens, waiting to be read, or an industry that would transform itself based in part on the type of creative effort Stevens represented.

Instead, lying in wait for Stevens' promising professional career were a number of setbacks and a not-insignificant amount of heartbreak, and not just that which arose from the glacial pace with which Stevens completed that first comics story. Marvel Comics in its full Evil Empire days lurched forward to make a claim for the Rocketeer name based on some forgettable villains, putting Stevens into legal conflict with the company from the mid- to the late-1980s. "From day one, I think it was nothing but a big mistake on their part to come after me because it doesn't have anything to do with their characters and they've never used the name in a trademark sense," Stevens told Gary Groth in 1987. "Now, I'm not a lawyer, but my personal feeling is that unless someone files for a trademark application, pays the money, publishes a book in the first place for several issues with that name prominent as the title of the magazine, they shouldn't be able to come after somebody else saying, 'You're violating our trademark,' because, as [then-Marvel Publisher] Mike Hobson admitted to me over the phone, they've never filed for trademark or copyright on those characters. And yet, they won't let go."

imageStevens also jumped publishers. He would find a home for a time at Eclipse Comics, who stepped in as publisher when Pacific Comics went out of business. Eclipse did a widely-circulated album-sized collection of the Rocketeer work to date and a special edition comic book that finished off the first saga's serialization. Stevens also did several covers for their comics line, many featuring an element of cheesecake, a hot-button issue of the time but certainly one that found consistently excellent representation through Stevens work. What he later described as a difficult working situation at Eclipse sent Stevens scrambling to yet another company, but only after doing work specifically designed to divest himself of any contractual obligations with Eclipse. A projected six-issue sequel story to the original Rocketeer saga to be told in six issues saw two books from Comico in the late 1980s and a third, suddenly final issue from Dark Horse Comics in 1995. It was later collected by that company as The Rocketeer: Cliff's New York Adventure. One of independent comics' first superstars was also one of its first major artists to move on and (mostly) move away.

A movie version of the first Rocketeer story would reach the silver screen in 1991, a film that now looks like an absolute precursor for today's big-budget comic book movie. The Rocketeer was directed by Joe Johnston and starred Bill Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, Alan Arkin and Timothy Dalton. It was a mostly loving but neutered recreation of the comic. Its eagerness to recreate the air field milieu and outsized landmarks of the comic was more genuinely felt than any attempt to bring to screen its physical energy, and the movie ended up feeling old-fashioned rather than reshaping old-fashioned values for a modern audience. Although the movie today has more than its share of passionate fans, The Rocketeer did not hit with movie-going audiences to the extent Disney had hoped. It took in slightly over $46 million in domestic box office and as such failed to ignite the usual smash-hit interest in the movie's potential licensing, which Stevens later described as the primary interest of the studio. Stevens would later say he enjoyed about 70 percent of the movie, not a bad percentage for a cartoonist with work being adapted, citing the general look of the movie and the acting of Campbell, its star.


Stevens settled into a career drawing mostly single images, including but certainly not limited to the commissioned pin-ups for which he had developed an aptitude, if not an outright passion. Of his commercial and illustration work, he told the interviewer Jon Cooke in 2001, "Every job is different, and I thrive on the variety of it, the range. Of course, you're not getting to tell a story. Instead, you have to say it all in one single image, but that's also the challenge of it. It's a constant test of your abilities as a visual communicator, or whatever you want to call yourself." A web site devoted to Stevens' illustration work contains a wide range of such material, all of it well-crafted, all of it with that spark of the old and the new.

Stevens was the model for Cliff Secord, and his friends within and without the comics industry have long testified to his sense of personal style. He was a well-liked, well-regarded member of the Southern California comics community and the general comics community as well, a welcome sight at Comic-Con International years after his final comic books was published. His illness was a poorly kept secret among his friends and many professionals. Upon his passing, one or two of Stevens' friends remarked publicly and privately that relatives and loved ones could at leat take comfort in that ordeal having concluded. Fans are likely to turn to his comics, lovingly drawn postcards to an era of visual entertainment and American life that has since slipped all the way from view, artifacts of a brief and equally forgotten time when the salvation of comics seemed to lie in the ability of great artists like Dave Stevens to make a new mainstream from the broken promises of the old.

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