23 June 2013

Review: The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures

The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures
by Dave Stevens
Collected edition published 29 December 2009
144 pages | $29.99

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Rocketeer first came to my attention when Disney made the movie in 1991. I wanted to see it, but didn't. In fact, to this day I still haven't seen that movie! I get a crack at it on the big screen 27 July when Baxter Avenue Theatres will play it at midnight and I'm hopeful to make it to that. I discovered that the Oldham County Public Library main branch has this hardcover collected edition of the original comics and decided it was high time I checked it out (literally).

I didn't realize until I got hold of this collected edition that there were so few actual Rocketeer comics - a mere eight issues that comprise two different story arcs. The old school pulp influence is easy to see, from the very concept to the characterization and visual aesthetics. Betty clearly embodies Bettie Page, for instance, and Jonas is almost certainly The Shadow. Fans of that era - particularly its entertainment - will find plenty of homages and Easter eggs to appreciate. Dave Stevens's artwork is clean, easy to follow and imbues the narrative with a specific lighthearted energy that makes it a pageturner. I finished the entire volume in just under an hour.

One thing that I liked is that even though the story is clearly a celebration of the stereotypical juvenile male fantasy, Cliff Secord is not a particularly effective hero. He's clumsy. He's selfish and a bit cowardly, and he isn't much good at all in a fight. In fact, other than his daredevil piloting and the stolen jetpack, there's not a lot to him. He's an everyman kid, kinda like Peter Parker.

Cliff's competition with Marco the Hollywood photographer for the affection of Betty is the dominant arc of the two stories. It's accessible because petty jealousy and insecurity are both (unfortunately) so universal. Just when I'm ready to roll my eyes that Betty is nothing more than a trophy for Cliff to win, she speaks up for herself on page 32:
"Grow up, Cliff! It's not money--I've told you! You can't own me!"
Cliff is certainly still an intellectual and emotional adolescent, as witnessed by him directing "Colonel Mayberg" to Betty's apartment. That wasn't done to get Mayberg off Cliff's back nearly as much as it was a prank pulled out of spite against Betty. (Seriously, who would do that?!)

Reading The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures leaves the impression that Dave Stevens didn't have a big picture story idea in mind and sort of made it up as he went. It's also highly likely that the difficulty finding a publisher for each issue not only hindered the publication but the writing of the stories. It's hard, I think, these days to properly understand how difficult it must have been for Stevens to get The Rocketeer onto comic book shop shelves in the 1980s. We're used to Dark Horse Comics, Image, IDW and other independent publishers making a strong showing, and now crowdfunding through sites like Kickstarter make it possible for creators to get their content out to readers a whole lot more easily than could be done 30 years ago. It's important to cut Stevens some slack in that respect.

Betty suffers most from the inconsistency of publication. There's a sense that Stevens had in mind a maturation for both Betty and Cliff as individual characters and as a couple but we're left with only their squabbling over his insecurities provoked by her refusal to commit to him monogamously, to further her modeling career. Cliff is the kind of guy that Nicholas Sparks fans would adore, and would incite the ire of self-determining feminists. I'm in the middle. Part of me understands Cliff's thinking; that if he could just provide for Betty what those other guys could provide by throwing money at her, he would distinguish himself. Women want security. That's not unfair. Not being able to offer that puts a cap on how far a relationship will go and Cliff was at that cap. I get that.

The breakthrough on page 97 is cynical and embittered, but under that it's also healthy for Cliff to see Betty as more than just a prize to be won. They have different wants and needs, and it's okay that they do. It's a shame that Stevens didn't get the chance to write any further stories because I would really like to have seen both characters address those wants and needs, and to grow. Leaving them where we do, we have just enough reason to be hopeful but we're also left having to speculate for ourselves what became of them.

One last note: It's amusing to me that the language consists of such terms as "danged" and "blamed", evoking the "aw, shucks" era of tamed dialog while also presenting Betty's backside on page 47, or with her breasts all but completely bared to us on page 57. It's all in the spirit of the pinup, of course, but it doesn't quite jibe with the more wholesome aesthetic of the movie serials that set the tone for the rest of the comic.

I'm hopeful that I'll get to go see the 1991 movie version at Baxter next month, and I'm also hopeful that the screenwriter(s) addressed these characterization issues. There are kernels of really likable characters here, but going no farther than they do it's difficult for me to say just how much I actually like and care for Cliff and/or Betty.

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