To people familiar with the independent comics boom of the eighties, the name ‘Dave Stevens’ is synonymous with dazzling artistry. Stevens’s most famous creation is The Rocketeer, a throwback to the pulp movie serials of the 1940s. Fans and industry professionals alike swooned over his lush yet delicate brushwork, the seemingly effortless way his storytelling not only paid homage to the past, but created something that was unique and contemporary, a heady mix of cheesecake nostalgia and crackling adventure. Even though Stevens never managed to complete the story he had started – the reasons being a mix of delays caused by his painstaking perfectionism, his professional commitments outside the comics industry and in the later stages of his life, a battle with cancer – his limited body of work includes a number of comic covers and movie production art. A cover drawn by Dave Stevens, regardless of who wrote or drew the content within, or the quality of the comic itself, would sell extremely well, people cherishing the chance to view another example of this man’s sublime talent.
I became familiar with Stevens’ work through ad inserts for The Rocketeer in other Pacific comics that I bought in the mid-eighties. Getting issues of Pacific Comics Presents (the comic in which the character appeared for the first time) was tough – I didn’t manage it until 2007, when I found copies in a comic-shop sale in Mountain View, for 50 cents each. But the funny thing that I realized later was that I had seen Stevens’ work a long time before I heard of the Rocketeer. This image, in particular.
This is one of Stevens’ most iconic works, and was used without credits or permissions to grace a 3-D comic called Jungle Ki Rani published by Diamond Comics. Diamond Comics ( not to be confused with Diamond Distributors) is an Indian company that started off publishing Chacha Chowdhury, Pinki, Billu and Tauji – somewhere down the line, some of its titles became thinly Indianized versions ripped off from American comics. Some issues of Mahabali Shaka were panel-by-panel copies of Phantom and Tarzan stories from the sixties, a title called Chimpu had a story that was a shameless remix of Tintin and the Black Island and Tintin in America. And anyway, Jungle Ki Rani. Don’t believe me?
And hell, I loved this image. I think I even wanted to buy a copy just for the cover, but my father got me something else instead probably because it was too risque.I finally read the complete Rocketeer on scans, sometime around 2004-2005. I was not so impressed, probably because I had outgrown the swashbuckling men’s adventure genre by that time. No doubt I would have been completely in love with it had I read it 10 years ago, but it felt a little dated, a little too innocent.
Stevens passed away in 2008. In late 2009, IDW Publishing released a collection of the complete Rocketeer stories, recolored by award-winning colorist Laura Martin (Planetary, Astonishing X-Men). This was the first time all of Stevens’ Rocketeer work – published over 13 years by different comic companies, including Pacific comics, Eclipse and Dark Horse – was collected in one volume. I was in LA during the release party of the book, but it was a weekday evening and Golden Apple Comics, the store where the party was being held, was on the other end of the city. Apart from the standard paperback, there was also a deluxe hardcover edition, with 100+ pages of bonus material, including unpublished sketches, script excerpts and original art scans, limited to 3000 copies, all of which sold out in a matter of weeks.
But editor Scott Dunbier – a Stevens fan and an avid art collector – had more plans in mind. Comic art aficionados love Stevens’ work; the few pages that the artist sold are in offer-proof collections, most still reside with his estate. Dunbier came up with the idea of an Artist’s Edition of the Rocketeer, aimed at the same art-collecting crowd that paid extra money to get an insight into Stevens’ creative process by buying the Deluxe edition. One could argue that this was like finding excuses to make money off the same body of work, but then again, the end product was a complete labor of love. Dunbier, before he left DC/Wildstorm and joined IDW, was the guy who came up with the idea behind DC’s Absolute Editions, oversized, special-feature-laden archival hard-cover versions of series like Planetary, Watchmen, Sandman, and The Dark Knight. To call him a marketing genius would be selling him short – the man knows his shit inside out. He sold art to Graham Nash and Stephen Stills, for god’s sake!
The idea behind The Rocketeer Artist’s Edition was this – every page was scanned directly from Stevens’ artwork, at the same size as the original pages, making the book a super-sized 12 by 17 inch item. Some people said that Stevens the perfectionist would not probably like the flaws in his work to be laid bare. But there was no denying the fact that if there was an artist who deserved a release like this, it was probably Dave Stevens. And for a comic collector who does not have the means to own one of Stevens’ original pages, this is a brilliant way to pore through the intricacies of a master draftsman’s sequential art. The idea is not original – there have been similar projects in France, where legendary artist Franquin’s Spirou books received a similar treatment, but it’s a novelty for the American market. It was also a gamble for the fledgling company, because comic fans are notorious for not putting their money where their mouth is. 1200 copies were printed, and Dunbier talked about it on forums and comic sites, noting that the experiment would also be a worthwhile way to find out if other books could get a similar treatment as well, if this one sold well. And boy oh boy, it sure did. The release at Comic-Con this year saw a large percentage of the books sell even at the hefty price-tag of 100$, while a glowing forum message by inker Scott Williams ensured that the remaining stock sold out by the end of the next week. I was in two minds about buying a copy for myself, I was on a book-buying hiatus, and shipping charges to India would bring the price to 150$. But it was Williams’ message, and the fact that Madhav was in the US at that time that helped me make up my mind. I think I probably picked up one of the last few copies from the site.
The binding on the book is surprisingly sturdy. Each page is printed on high-quality paper. The pages still contain pencil markings, splashes of white-out where the artist corrected aspects that he did not like. Yes, they are in black-and-white. But even an art-luddite would be awed by the magnificence.
Though the book is technically out-of-print at the IDW website, you can still get copies, though at a small premium. eBay USA sellers are asking for anything between 140-200$ ( shipping extra). Online retailer Reed Comics is selling copies at 125£ in the UK.