Saturday, September 3, 2016

Fannish Speculation: The Rocketeer and the Shadow

This week, instead of enthusing about something I love, I'm going to dive even deeper into the geek pool. I don't usually indulge in fannish what-iffing and speculation, but I got a thought in my head the other night, and it won't shake loose. I've been rereading my Rocketeer comics lately, and I've also been trying to get caught up on the reprints of the classic pulp adventures of the Shadow we've got in the house. So I started to realize how badly I would love to see a Rocketeer/Shadow team-up story.

(Spoilers after the jump for Dave Stevens’ Rocketeer stories.)

In part, we've already had that, with the (unnamed) Shadow recruiting Cliff in the course of Cliff's New York Adventure, the final Rocketeer story by creator Dave Stevens. But that's primarily a Rocketeer story, with the Shadow making a couple of oblique appearances. I want to see a full-on crossover. I want to see the two of them on an adventure together.

Look at that profile! Look at that ring!
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that a story featuring the two of them could really represent a key moment in Cliff's development as a hero. In Stevens' stories, Cliff is very much a self-absorbed schmuck, out for himself. He does heroic things, but they're pretty much out of self defense or to help his friends. He's still not putting on the helmet and rocket pack for entirely altruistic reasons.

However, one thing clearly links Stevens' two stories, intentional or not: Cliff's tardiness, his failure to be responsible, results in problems he has to solve as the Rocketeer. For example, in his first adventure, the first time he takes to the skies is to rescue drunk veteran pilot Malcolm. But the only reason Malcolm is in the air at all is because Cliff was late for his air show performance, and Malcolm was put in in his place. 
The moment that spurs Cliff into action as the Rocketeer for the first time.

In the second, Cliff’s past catches up with him when he chases Betty to New York to stop her from leaving the country with Marco. While things with Betty don’t work out exactly as planned, Cliff meets up with an old friend, Goose, who introduces him to a mysterious hawk-nosed employer with a very distinctive ring. This unnamed character enlists Cliff in an investigation into the deaths of several of Cliff’s former colleagues from his carnival days.

It transpires that the murders are being committed by Rondo Hatton lookalike Lothar, in revenge for the death of beautiful little person Teena, with whom he had been in love. Unfortunately, Teena only had eyes for the young Cliff Secord, who was working as an assistant to magician/escape artist Orsino. Orsino and Cliff performed a trick where Cliff was locked underwater in a trunk, awaiting rescue from Orsino once Orsino himself escaped from a straightjacket.

One night, Teena invited Cliff to her wagon for dinner, not realizing that he was barely paying attention to her when he agreed. He stood her up, instead spending the night with Ruby, the beautiful knife-thrower’s assistant. When his night of passion stretched into a morning of sleeping late and missing his appearance with Orsino, Teena volunteered to take his place in the submerged trunk, hoping that by helping the act to go on and preventing Cliff from getting fired, he would finally notice her.
The way Stevens draws her, I get the appeal of Ruby. But Cliff is still a jerk here.

However, Teena’s small lungs couldn’t hold enough air to keep her alive until Orsino could open the trunk, and she drowned, sending Lothar on his spree of revenge killings. By the time Cliff meets the mysterious “Jonas”—in his earliest stories, the Shadow operated out of the B. Jonas office building—the entire troupe has been murdered except for Cliff and Orsino.

While we’ll never truly know what the course of the Rocketeer’s adventures would have been if Dave Stevens had been able to continue the series on his own, I believe that Cliff would have reached a turning point shortly after this story. Maybe on its own, having to save Malcolm, who was only in danger because Cliff wasn’t where he was supposed to be might not have been enough to shake Cliff out of his self-centered path. (Although, arguably, Cliff finally shows some self-awareness when he pushes Betty away from him in New York after traveling across the country to find her, telling Goose that she really won’t be happy with someone like him.) But almost immediately after his first adventures in Los Angeles, Cliff is confronted with the consequences of his actions from his youth.

If Cliff had paid more attention to Teena, or at least hadn’t gone off with Ruby and missed getting to work on time, Teena would never have offered to take his place, at the cost of her life. If Teena hadn’t died, Lothar would not have killed so many people in revenge. While Cliff isn’t the killer, I believe that between the Lothar murders and what happened with Malcolm, he may have finally had the wake-up call he needed to stop thinking mainly of himself and taking a broader view of the world and what he could accomplish with the rocket pack.
Still not clear that "Jonas" is the Shadow?

However, I’m not sure that Cliff would have developed into the full-blown hero we see in the later IDW comics if he hadn’t had that realization at the same time he met “Jonas,” who I will heretofore refer to as the Shadow. Because that’s who he is, just as much as the equally unnamed Doc Savage, Monk Mayfair, and Ham Brooks are those pulp icons in the first story. In New York, Cliff may have realized that he needs to be a better person, but the Shadow immediately gives him the opportunity to do just that: to use the rocket pack to become a hero. Michael Allred’s story in Rocketeer Adventures #1 makes this pretty explicit, I think.

So one of my dream Shadow/Rocketeer stories would be to learn in more detail of the time Cliff spends working with the Shadow. Certainly, IDW has shown a willingness to team up the Rocketeer with other characters from the period, as can be clearly seen in the Rocketeer/Spirit story they published.

My ideal dream team for such a story? Naturally, the art ought to be by Michael Wm. Kaluta. He is regarded as one of the best Shadow comics artists, and he did a lot of work on the second Rocketeer storyline, providing pencils for Dave Stevens to ink. Plus he drew a story in the first volume of Rocketeer Adventures. He doesn’t do a lot of comics work these days, but he did do a five issue run of Madame Xanadu with Matt Wagner several years ago. So he might be up to doing a four-issue miniseries.
Kaluta page from The Shadow #1 (1973)
Kaluta page from Rocketeer Adventures #1

Speaking of Matt Wagner, he would be my pick for writer. He’s done some great work on the Shadow for Dynamite Comics, plus he wrote a Rocketeer story for the second volume of Rocketeer Adventures. (He also did a fantastic job with Dynamite’s recent revival of Will Eisner’s Spirit, although they didn’t have the rights when IDW teamed the Spirit up with the Rocketeer. Still… Lots of connections.) His work on the Shadow, plus Sandman Midnight Theatre for DC show that he can imbue the classic pulp tropes with some very contemporary depth. 

This is just a dream, of course; I doubt we’ll ever see a Rocketeer/Shadow comic, let alone one by Wagner and Kaluta. Heck, at this point, I get excited every time a new Shadow or Rocketeer comic is announced, because I always assume every new story is the last one I’ll get of two of my favorite characters. Still, a guy can hope, right?


  1. Sounds like someone needs to write a fanfic. ;)

  2. Sounds like a x over for IDW and Dynamite....