Rocketeer to the rescue! Artist: Dave Stevens.

THE ROCKETEER

Medium: Comic books
Published by: Pacific Comics
First appeared: 1982
Creator: Dave Stevens
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The Rocketeer was an early beneficiary of the expansion of comic book publishers, brought on by the shift to the Direct Market and consequent reduction of risk for that segment of the industry. As such, it couldn't have existed, at least not in the same form, before the 1980s. But it was "retro" through and …

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… through — not just set in the 1930s, but also based on a superhero style more closely associated with old movie serials than with comic books.

Stunt pilot Cliff Secord, trying out an experimental plane with his friend, Peevy, gets caught up in a conflict between G-men and mobsters. In connection with this, he comes into possession of a powerful rocket that can be strapped on a man's back, enabling him to fly — just like the one worn by Jeff King in the 1949 Republic Pictures serial King of the Rocketmen. (Cliff's turned out to be the work of pulp hero Doc Savage.) Peevy makes a helmet for him, and thus Cliff becomes an effective player in the conflict he's involuntarily entered. The story was crafted by cartoonist Dave Stevens, who got his start in the field as assistant to Russ Manning on the Tarzan newspaper comic.

The Rocketeer first appeared in Starslayer #1 (February, 1982), but only for one page. The actual story began in the following issue (April). Starslayer was published by Pacific Comics (Captain Victory, Groo the Wanderer), and starred an interstellar adventurer created by Mike Grell (Jon Sable, Warlord). A second installment appeared in the following issue, then the series switched to Pacific Presents, which it shared with Steve Ditko's Missing Man. After a couple of issues there (the final one of which ended in a cliffhanger), its publishing history gets complicated.

Eclipse Enterprises (Destroyer Duck, Ms. Tree) published a collection of the chapters so far, as well as an issue of Rocketeer Special Edition, Cliff's first foray into a title of his own. Comico (Mage, Grendel) and Dark Horse (Concrete, The Mask), between them, published three issues of Rocketeer Adventure Magazine, but it took them seven years to do it. It was practically impossible for a fan to sit down and simply read all the chapters in order.

Despite the property's spotty history in the comics medium, it provoked two reasonably prominent media events — the first a little on the oddball side, and of little or no material benefit to its owner. From the start, Stevens made no secret of the fact that he'd based Cliff's girlfriend, Betty, on the appearance and personality and even name of real-life 1950s pin-up queen Bettie Page, and this led to a general revival of interest in Page's career.

But the second was a feature-length movie. The Rocketeer, with Bill Campbell (no other toon connections) in the title role, Jennifer Connelly (Betty Ross in the 2003 version of The Hulk) as Jenny (changed from Betty to avoid possible conflict), Alan Arkin (Schmendrick in The Last Unicorn) as Peevy and Terry O'Quinn (no other toon connections) as Howard Hughes (replacing Doc Savage), was released by Disney on June 21, 1991. Disney also published the adaptation of the movie back into comic book form — the only Rocketeer comic book that didn't contain the work of Stevens inside (tho he did paint the cover). The adaptation was written by Peter David (Aquaman) and drawn by Russ Heath (The Haunted Tank).

Since then, the property has mostly been dormant.

— DDM

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Text ©2006-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Dave Stevens.