A Comic And Movie Ian likes: The Rocketeer

Cliff Secord has problems. He’s a stunt pilot living off what he can get doing air shows, but his ambitions soar higher than that. His girlfriend Betty seems to be much more successful than him which he thinks spells doom for their relationship. And to make matters worse, some gangsters just tried to shoot up his plane while being pursued by mysterious government types. The only ray of sunshine is the mysterious duffle bag they left in the cockpit of his plane…

Dave Stevens serialised the adventures of The Rocketeer during the early 1980s. It was an instant success, getting collected into a graphic novel not long after that. It was a cult success, potentially an oddity in Stevens’ career, and he struggled to recapture that lightning in any kind of bottle for the rest of his life.

But the adventures of Cliff Secord, his girlfriend Betty, his mentor Peevy and the villains they go up against, with the – eventual – aid of a dapper gent, his brutish sidekick and their boss (the owner of the jetpack that Cliff retrieves from his plane) are phenomenally good fun. Part of it is the setting: Cliff lives in LA in 1938. Throughout this entire homage to the pulp fiction of the day you will find scattered nods and winks to the great characters made famous in those distant times. And even if you don’t get the references, there’s enough juice left over in the story to ensure that it is a hell of a ride, anyway. One of the great joys I’ve gotten from this book over the last three decades or so  is rereading it getting a few more gags or references as I’ve read further into the field that Stevens is mining from.

Stevens wrote and illustrated the comic himself. He was a fantastic artist, mixing the comical and dramatic to great effect – often in the same panel – and each page carries a tremendous amount of detail that rewards rereading or careful study. He was also highly knowledgeable of the period and that adds to the enjoyment and fun of the whole experience.

I came to the comic through the movie. I love the movie. I’m not normally a fan of adaptations that take tremendous liberties with the book it’s based on but I can forgive a lot if it still contains the spirit or essence of the source material. The Rocketeer knows where it comes from. I saw it on the big screen in late 1991 and utterly adored it. It was fun and didn’t take itself overly seriously (or not seriously enough) the way that a lot of superhero films did at the time. It moved at its own pace and built itself to a brilliant conclusion. It wasn’t perfect (there’s a lot of period detail which looks fantastic but does slow the story down a lot) but it was a great way to spend an afternoon. Joe Johnston’s direction was confident (and I was thrilled twenty years later to see him helming Chris Evans’ first Captain America film which covered a lot of similar ground as this movie) while Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo (whose scriptwriting work on The Flash had been a highlight of that series the previous year for me) managed to get the world of The Rocketeer across terrifically.

The cast helped as well: Billy Campbell and Jennifer Connolly are great as Cliff and Jenny (renamed for some reason) while Alan Arkin is wonderful as Peevy and Timothy Dalton (fresh off an all-too-brief run as James Bond) stops just short of leaving tooth marks on the set in his amazing portrayal of not-Errol-Flynn. The changes (probably because I came across the movie first) don’t bother me too much: I got that Howard Hughes might be a more recognisable character than Doc Savage so swapping him as the inventor of the jetpack made perfect sense (plus he gets that superb line about the Spruce Goose) and having a Hollywood actor being the villain also gave the opportunity to dig out a few more character types for the audience to appreciate rather than the literary types the graphic novel was going for. And, in any case, the basic storyline is still intact: it’s just had the serial numbers filed off.

Unfortunately, the movie wasn’t a hit, so we were denied further adventures of Cliff, Jenny and Peevy on the big screen, despite the best laid plans of the producers. However, that didn’t stop Dave Stevens eventually giving us a couple of extra chapters, in which Cliff follows Betty to New York and uncovers something from his own past that he’s tried to forget about. There’s also some wonderful cameos in them as well.

And it was, for me, a great introduction to the world of comics: I was a late starter to graphic storytelling so I started by reading stuff that I could find, or that I liked, and developed my tastes from there by working backwards and trying to fill up holes as I went along. Like a lot of Australians, I got my start with Lee Falk’s The Phantom and thought I’d outgrown the genre but it was through tales such as this that I fell back in love with them. Although I hadn’t ever really stopped reading them: I’d just regarded them for such a long time as literary junk food that it was hard to see any of the goodness before me.

Tragically Stevens died before he could produce any more adventures but there have been other hands creating adventures for us: there were several issues of a new series of comics, a prose anthology, a TV series featuring Cliff’s granddaughter and – teasingly – hints of a remake of the movie.

However, I’m perfectly happy with the small body of work left to us by Dave Stevens about Cliff. Being left wanting more isn’t always a bad thing.

You can find out more about Dave Stevens at https://www.davestevens.com/

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