Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Series Spotlight: Rocketeer Adventures

Rocketeer Adventures #3, cover art by Dave Stevens
Through the 1980s, cartoonist Dave Stevens presented The Rocketeer to the comics world. Influenced by the pulps and film serials of the '30s and '40s, these stories centered around Cliff Secord, a young stunt pilot living in Los Angeles on the cusp of World War II, and his adventures with an experimental jetpack. While only a few issues were published, the character gained notoriety in 1991 when The Rocketeer was adapted into a film from Walt Disney Pictures.

While Stevens' throwback to an era of Nazi-punching and prop-planes was beloved by many, including yours truly, Cliff never flew over Hollywood again before his artist passed away in 2008. However, a fondness for the character and his world still resonates, leading to IDW's recent collection of the original Rocketeer stories and a new limited series, Rocketeer Adventures.

This four-issue anthology comic, edited by Scott Dunbier, gathers talent from across the comicsphere for an exciting and heartfelt tribute to Dave Stevens' work. The issues I've gotten my paws on, #3 and #4, feature contributions from Dave Gibbons, Ryan Sooks, Bruce Timm, Ashley Wood, and others, leaving no room for disappointment in their twenty-six pages. What surprised me the most when I dug into these comics was the thematic consistency between the stories. Although coming from a variety of artists and writers (and a refreshing variety of styles), each story seemed to get the world of characters of The Rocketeer. The sense of fun and respect to the source material portrayed in these comics really shows how much the creators love the work they're revisiting.

But sappy emotions don't tell a lot about the content of Rocketeer Adventures. As the third issue resonates with me the most, there are a few elements of it I'd like to address. While the original Rocketeer comics always revolved around how Cliff's relationship with his girlfriend Betty (modeled after the late Bettie Page) intersected with his high-flying misadventures, the third issue's stories focus more on the actress beside the hero.

"A Rocketeer Story" by Ryan Sook features some fantastic artwork in its depiction of the awful luck and coincidence that characterizes Betty and Cliff's lives. While Betty still plays the role of a damsel in distress, this story's presentation is sensitive to Betty's view on the the Rocketeer and how their lives can never intersect peacefully. One's success is often tied to the other's failure, furthering the distance between them. I think that the story's last two pages, integrating the last scene of the in-story film with the comic's events, was notably well-executed, especially with Sook's ability to depict emotions (even on the masked hero).

Joe R. Landsdale and Bruce Timm's "Heaven's Devils" uses a nontraditional format, presented as prose with center-page illustrations by Timm. The story is rather straight-forward, but its presentation as a story in an old pulp adventure magazine helps carry it. Landsdale's writing and Timm's illustrations stick to this theme perfectly, making it a swell ode to both Stevens and his influences.

This issue closes with "Junior Rocketeers" by Jonathan Ross, Tommy Lee Edwards, and John Workman. Not only do I love Tommy Lee Edwards' brushwork and color palette, but I really enjoyed how the story deals with the period The Rocketeer takes place in while focusing on the comic's female characters. "Junior Rocketeers" introduces a gang of Rocketeer fans with a single girl member who get caught up in Cliff's latest misadventure. Ross portrays Betty as a character who gets into a lot of trouble but doesn't need Cliff's help to get out of it, joining the young outcast girl in getting Cliff out of a jam his jetpack can't help him out of. It's refreshing to see these roles flipped, especially since Rocketeer stories can get formulaic in that sense. The humor and attention-to-detail also make this a strong story in my eyes, taking advantage of the comic's late-1930s setting both aesthetically and within the plot, even referencing the old Captain Marvel film serial.

From what I've read so far, Rocket Adventures is a delightful, exciting, and tasteful memorial to the work of Dave Simmons. I'm certainly picking it up when it's collected next month! If you're a fan of the pulps, the '30s, or good ol' Nazi-punching adventure, you should grab a copy as well or track down a back-issue. And if you haven't read David Stevens' original comic, I couldn't recommend it more!

Eric Alexander Arroyo is a hot-blooded junior who wears a fedora, digs giant robots, and obsesses over flowing scarves. He's spent his life wandering Florida and Las Vegas, and hopes to find an apartment in the bowels of a volcano. Although he's training to be a cartoonist, he'd rather be a crime-fighting cyborg when he grows up.