Saturday, August 20, 2016

Rocketeer Adventures Volume 1

When IDW originally published their first Rocketeer Adventures series, featuring new stories based on the late Dave Stevens’ creation, I was pretty excited. While in a perfect world, we would have seen new stories by Stevens himself, this was an acceptable substitute, for two reasons. First, obviously, Stevens’ passing at a far too young age precludes any new material from him at all. Second, I was well aware how much of the second volume of the Rocketeer was actually created by other people, although very much in line with Stevens’ vision and sensibilities. Regardless, I had been waiting most of my comics-reading life for new Rocketeer stories, so there was no way I was not going to be excited about their imminent arrival.

I will be the first to admit that when I read the first issue, I was a little disappointed. Not in the quality of the stories; those, by John Cassaday, Michael Allred, and Kurt Busiek & Michael Wm. Kaluta, were just fine. Instead, I was a victim of my own expectation. I had been waiting since 1995 to find out what happened after the final page of the final chapter of Cliff’s New York Adventure, the final Rocketeer story Dave Stevens worked on. And while Allred—who, I read in an interview, was equally concerned with what happened next—told the story of Cliff and Betty’s reunion in the pages of Rocketeer Adventures #1, overall, it didn’t feel like the next big Rocketeer adventure for which I had been waiting almost 20 years.
The Rocketeer takes to the skies to rescue Betty in this page by John Cassiday

Of course, that’s because the Rocketeer Adventures series was never intended to be the continuation of the series. Now that we’ve had two four-issue Rocketeer Adventures series filled with short stories, plus four four-issue Rocketeer miniseries (including one teaming him up with Will Eisner’s Spirit), I can appreciate the Rocketeer Adventures for what they are: loving tributes to a fantastic creator and his fantastic creations by some of comics’ finest writers and artists.

Fortunately, we do get a story that provides closure for Cliff’s New York Adventure, in the form of Michael Allred’s tale, Home Again. It could have been left up to the fans to just assume that Cliff and Betty eventually got back together again, because of course they are the kind of couple that always gets back together again. But, as a fan, it’s great to see it, especially from such a talented creator as Allred.
Mike Allred gives us Cliff's homecoming
It says something about the quality of work in the first Rocketeer Adventures series that as fantastic a story as Home Again is—and it’s got more heart and character in its eight pages than most comics stories have in 30 or more—it’s not automatically the standout story of the collection. In fact, sandwiched between a story written and drawn by John Cassaday and one written by Kurt Busiek and drawn by Michael Kaluta (who worked on the original series with Stevens), it’s not even necessarily the standout story of that first issue. Instead, it’s one fantastic part of one fantastic package. 
Betty pines for Cliff on the homefront, while in the Pacific, the Rocketeer fights a Japanese robot octopus, as depicted by Kurt Busiek and Michael Wm. Kaluta

I’m not going to go through each of the 12 stories in the first volume individually, but there are some themes that stand out. The original comics by Dave Stevens are certainly remembered for the sheer quality of art, and the roster of artists working on this first volume of short stories continues to set the bar high. In addition to Cassaday, Allred, and Kaluta, the artists featured here include Chris Weston, Darwyn Cooke, Gene Ha, Ryan Sook, Bruce Timm, Tommy Lee Edwards, Scott Hampton, Tony Harris, and Brendan McCarthy. It’s a fairly disparate collection of styles. Some, like Weston, Ha, Sook, and others, are fairly detailed and realistic, along the lines of Dave Stevens. Others, like Cooke and Timm, are more representational and expressionistic. All, however, represent the sort of clear, direct, classic storytelling that influenced Stevens (and whose art influenced countless others). In that vein, I would argue that someone like Darwyn Cooke is as appropriate an artist for the Rocketeer as someone copying Dave Stevens, even if Cooke’s art perhaps shows more of the influence of someone like Alex Toth, who very much believed that less was more when it came to drawing. They’re still all coming from the place of classic adventure artists, all drawing from the same well, and they all work beautifully for me.
Mark Waid and Chris Weston cross the hero streams

The writers are all well-chosen, too. Some of the artists, like Cassaday, Cooke, and Sook, write their own scripts, while Bruce Timm is credited with the plot for the story he illustrates. (Interestingly, Timm’s story is the only one told through illustrated prose, like a pulp novel, rather than comics; the actual story is written by Joe Lansdale.) And while Dave Gibbons is probably best known as an artist, he provides the script for the story drawn by Hampton. Other writers include Mark Waid, Lowell Francis, Jonathan Ross, Joe Pruett, and John Arcudi, and there isn’t a clunker in the bunch.
Ryan Sook gives us Betty at a Hollywood premiere. But where's Cliff? (Besides in the newsreel on the screen.)

Lowell Francis and Gene Ha give us an aerial battle over the rooftops of Los Angeles
In addition to the artwork, I believe the other memorable factor that Stevens brought to the Rocketeer were detailed, three-dimensional, likable characters. The stories themselves are pretty straightforward, but they are compelling because you care about the people in them. You root for Cliff and Betty, and hope that their love—apparent to everyone except them, it seems—will endure despite all their ups and downs, including the ones they inflict upon themselves. You know that despite the cantankerous griping between Cliff and his older mechanic friend/mentor Peevy, there is genuine love as well.
Betty on the beach, by Dave Gibbons and Scott Hampton
Jonathan Ross and Tommy Lee Edwards remind us of the Rocketeer's appeal to kids, echoing a classic Kaluta pin-up from the classic series

Without those characters, all the Rocketeer would have given us would have been a handful of pretty stories about a guy with a rocket pack. It’s the characters that made those stories endure, to be reprinted again and again, and to be seen as worthy of having a movie made about them, with a second hopefully on its way. The writers of this anthology understand that, which is why Betty and Peevy feature in most of the stories, just as heavily as the rocket-powered aerial action. And because Stevens created such detailed, complete characters, the other writers manage to get them all right.
Stylish action from Joe Pruett and Tony Harris

Some gorgeous work from John Arcudi and Brendan McCarthy

This book gives us a wide variety of settings and themes. Some stories feel like they are taken straight out of the period. Cassaday and Cooke’s stories feel like chapters from an old serial; Cooke even frames his story with a faux-movie-credits sequence and cliffhanger tease. Timm and Lansdale’s story comes across very much like an old pulp adventures. Other stories, like Gibbons and Hampton’s and Ryan Sook’s, take advantage of the period Hollywood/Southern California setting, while others, like Pruett and Harris or Arcudi and McCarthy, give us slam-bang adventures. They all feel very much of a piece with the original series, and all pay loving tribute to the work of Dave Stevens without aping his style or losing the voices of the creators.
Darwyn Cooke gives us the opening of a faux Rocketeer movie serial

Bruce Timm and Joe Lansdale give us a faux Rocketeer pulp magazine story

As time has passed, my affection for these stories has only grown. The more Rocketeer material IDW publishes—and I will be discussing it all in future blogs—the more I have come to accept that while we will get more Rocketeer stories, we won’t get a real continuation of Dave Stevens’ Rocketeer, not in the way that I want, not in the way that would ever be possible. And that’s okay. What we are getting is pretty damn good, and that’s why I want to share my thoughts about it all here.

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