At the start of the 1980s, Pacific Comics was one of the first of the new breed of comic book publishers. They had started out as one of the many distributors into what is now called the Direct Market chain of comic book specialty shops that had been popping up nationwide. Eventually, there was a enough of a network that people realized that it might be financially viable to sell product directly to them, bypassing the inefficient and corrupt Newsstand distribution model. Pacific Comics rolled out with books provided by big name creators: Jack Kirby’s CAPTAIN VICTORY AND HIS GALACTIC RANGERS (which we’ve talked about previously) and Mike Grell’s STARSLAYER. Grell was a popular creator best known for his creation for DC, THE WARLORD, and STARSLAYER was its inverse: rather than a modern man dropped into an Edgar Rice Burroughs fantasy realm, STARSLAYER was about a man from the past drawn to the far-off future But if Pacific Comics had a break-out character, it was really the feature that debuted inauspiciously in the back pages of STARSLAYER’s second issue.
That feature was THE ROCKETEER, the brainchild of one Dave Stevens. Prior to THE ROCKETEER, virtually nobody in comic book fandom had heard of Stevens. He had plied his trade primarily as a storyboard artist and designer for the movies. But he had a love of comic books and pulp adventures, and he ran in west coast comic book circles, often helping out uncredited when some artist or another got into a deadline jam. He was also phenomenally talented. Based on that fact and the fact that he was also local and something of a known quantity, the Schanes brothers, owners of Pacific Comics, offered him a short back-up slot in STARSLAYER for two issues.
The result was THE ROCKETEER, a distillation of everything that Stevens was wild about. It was set in the late 1930s and concerned down-on-his-luck aerialist Cliff Secord, who stumbled into possession of a sought-after personal jet engine that could make a man fly. Far from being a paragon of moral virtue, Secord immediately began scheming how he could make some scratch with the thing, rather than trying to get it back to whoever created it. This was unfortunate, because the nefarious forces who had tried to steal the prototype in the first place would go to any lengths to recover it–thus setting up the premise for a series of wild adventures.
Stevens based Cliff Secord visually on himself, and his frequent partner-in-crime Peevy on fellow storyboard and concept artist Doug Wildey. Most memorably, Stevens made Secord’s girlfriend Betty the spitting image of pin-up queen Betty Page, whom Stevens was fascinated by. (Stevens himself had been married to model and actress Brinke Stevens, though they had split up by the time of THE ROCKETEER.) This bit of appropriation brought a sudden new wave of interest and attention to the career of Page, who had vanished from the public view years before, and it eventually led to her stepping back into the spotlight.
Pretty much from the moment the strip first appeared, it caused a stir. The Schanes brothers, no fools, immediately promoted it to headliner status–it would run as half of the new PACIFIC PRESENTS title, backed up by Steve Ditko’s creation the Missing Man. The reason it was only half of the book was that Stevens was very slow in producing pages. Not only was he meticulous in his efforts, but he also had a day job. Plus, now that editors in the field had taken notice of him (and particular his skill at doing cheesecake shots) he was inundated with requests to do covers. Consequently, the strip fell immediately behind schedule–only two installments ever ran in PACIFIC PRESENTS, and the finale to the opening cycle of stories wound up being published as ROCKETEER SPECIAL EDITION #1 by Eclipse after Pacific Comics went belly-up.
Eclipse also issued the entire storyline as a collection, which is where many people first saw the material. Given Stevens’ connections in the film industry, it was perhaps no great surprise that the strip came to the attention of movie producers, who wanted to option it for a feature film. Surprisingly, the movie actually got made, somewhat staggeringly based on a property with so few pages drawn, and it opened in 1993, well before the current spate of super hero blockbusters. It was a good film, but it suffered poor returns at the box office, though it’s readily available on streaming. The content of the movie was sanitized from the strip a little bit–characters based on real people and other properties, such as Betty Page and Doc Savage, had to be changed into figures less likely to get the producers sued. Dave Stevens himself made a cameo in the movie, as the hapless test pilot of the German attempt to duplicate the rocket pack’s design.
Between when the film rights were sold and after the movie opened, Stevens produced one other three-issue Rocketeer adventure, in the pages of ROCKETEER ADVENTURE MAGAZINE. But true to form, it ran excruciatingly late, and in a reversal of fortune, Stevens was forced to turn to artist friend Arthur Adams for help in completing the final chapter. And that was it for the Rocketeer, at least in the hands of his creator. Sadly, Stevens passed away in 2008.