The Rocketeer: 20 Years Later

Published on May 19th, 2011

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At the tender age of seven, my dad took me to see a film called The Rocketeer.  Being the dumb kid I was, I had little to no idea what I was getting myself into or the lifelong impact this film would have on me.  To this day, it remains one of the best and most true to the source material comic book movies ever made.  What’s that?  You didn’t know that The Rocketeer was a comic book movie?  Well, read on and learn some more!

The Comic
davestevensThe Rocketeer, an homage to classic pulp-fiction magazines, tells the story of Cliff Secord, a brash racing pilot living in Los Angeles in 1938, who finds a rocket-pack that was stolen by a pair of gangsters.  With help from his mechanic friend Peevy, Cliff at first plans to use the rocket for financial gain, but ultimately gets wrapped up in a plot of classic adventure and intrigue.

One of the earliest examples of a successful, independent comic book, The Rocketeer has stood the test of time and continues to be a strong seller nearly 30 years after its debut.  IDW Publishing put out a deluxe edition hardcover in 2009 which was limited to 3,000 copies and sold out immediately.  This zeal can easily be credited to the high quality of both the writing and art.

History
Written and illustrated by Dave Stevens, The Rocketeer was first published in 1982 as a backup feature in Mike Grell’s Starslayer as well as other series and was eventually collected as a trade paperback.  Stevens, who sadly passed away in 2008 after a long battle with leukemia, was a multi-award winning illustrator and comic artist.

Stevens did a great deal of work in animation and film.  He did storyboards for Hanna-Barbara cartoons as well as big budget movies like Raiders of The Lost Ark.   He also worked on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video.

Other than The Rocketeer, Stevens is best known for his pin-up style, cheesecake, “glamour art,” much of which focused on classic pin-up/fetish model, Bettie Page, who was also the basis for Cliff’s girlfriend in The Rocketeer, also named Bettie.  Eventually, after helping to revitalize interest in Page with his pin-up art, Stevens learned that the then retired Page was not only still alive, but lived near him.  He struck up a friendship with her and came to help the now elderly Page in matters both personal and financial.  Stevens later said, “It’s amazing. After years of fantasizing about this woman, I’m now driving her to cash her Social Security checks.”

Hollywood

Stevens saw the film potential in The Rocketeer and eventually sold the movie rights to Disney.  After several years in which creative teams would come, go and often return again, Disney signed on Joe Johnston to direct the film adaptation of The Rocketeer with Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo writing.  Stevens made sure to keep his presence known on the film, co-writing the screenplay and playing the role of co-producer.

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On June 21, 1991, The Rocketeer opened in theaters across America.  It starred Bill Campbell as Cliff with Alan Arkin playing Peevey.  The film version remained very true to the tone of the original comics, but was far more family friendly, complete with a PG rating.  The role of Bettie was re-worked into Jenny, played by Jennifer Connelly, who was a struggling actress instead of the nude model from the comics.  It also featured Timothy Dalton as the movie star/Nazi spy and villain of the film, Neville Sinclair.

Sadly, although it received generally favorable reviews with critics, the film opened with a less than stellar box office, earning only $9.6 million on its opening weekend.  It opened at #4, behind Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, City Slickers and Dying Young.  Stevens largely blamed the poor box office on the ad campaign, which was overly-stylized, more showcasing the art-deco style of the film and not any real plot points.

If you look closely, Stevens has a cameo as the Nazi test pilot whose rocket explodes in the stolen German test footage.

20 Years Later
rocketeeradventuresAfter its lackluster performance at the box office, The Rocketeer largely faded into history.  In 1995, Stevens finally completed the final issue of the second comic installment of The Rocketeer, “Cliff’s New York Adventure.”  This would prove to be the last Rocketeer work Stevens would accomplish.

With the 20th anniversary of the theatrical release of The Rocketeer rapidly approaching, Disney has announced that they’ll be having a special screening of the film on the anniversary, June 21, 2011.  The screening will be presented by the official Disney fan club, D23,  at the famous El Capitan theater in Hollywood, California, the same theater that the film premiered at in 1991.  Before the screening, writer and director Kevin Smith will host a special panel of cast and crew members from the film.  After the screening, there will be a number of props and costumes from the film available for viewing.

Reserved priority tickets went on sale May 2 for D23 members, but general admission tickets will be available on May 23.  Tickets to the event are $50.  For more information, check out D23’s website.  If you plan on going, keep an eye out for me!  This time around, I’m taking my dad instead of vice versa.

The Adventure Continues
The fine folks at IDW Publishing got their hands on the rights to The Rocketeer and they’re making use of it.  Available this week, you can start reading Rocketeer Adventures, a four issue mini-series chronicling the continued exploits of Cliff Secord, The Rocketeer.

The mini-series is brought to you by a who’s-who of the top talents in comics today, such as Mike and Laura Allred, Darwyn Cooke, John Cassaday, Kurt Busiek, Mark Waid, Mike Mignola, Bruce Timm, Ryan Sook and many more amazing creators looking to pay homage to Stevens’ incredible achievement.  Though Stevens has sadly passed, a little piece of him lives on in his timeless creation and continues to thrive thanks to the creativity of the unparalleled talents on this book.

Personal Experience
In January of 2003, I went to a small comic convention in Pasadena, California and I was joined by my good friend, Ken.  We walked around, checked stuff out and had an all around good time.

At one point, while making our way through the somewhat small artist alley, I saw none other than Dave Stevens himself, sitting alone at his table.  We went over and immediately struck up a conversation, telling him what huge fans we were of the movie.  I told him about seeing it with my dad and how he bought me a trade paperback of the original comics, not realizing their somewhat adult nature, and later went through it with a Sharpie marker, drawing dresses on every scantly clad image of Bettie.

Stevens was very warm and friendly.  He told us about the hassle that Disney created during the pre-production of the film version of The Rocketeer.  We learned that the studio not only wanted to set the film in modern day at one point, but even considered making it a musical!  Before we left, I made sure to get a signed Rocketeer print, which I still have to this day.

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Though the comic industry (and art in general) lost a true visionary in Dave Stevens, his memory will forever live on through his fantastic creations, especially The Rocketeer.  Hey, next year will be the 30th anniversary of the release of the comic, who knows what we’ll get for that!

Ian Candish
Ian@ComicImpact.com