Sunday, May 25, 2008

COMICS- The Rocketeer is Dead

Dave Stevens has died.

It was over a month ago, but since my connection with comic books is tenuous at best these days I only found out about it today. I was finishing BATMAN UNAUTHORIZED edited by Denny O’Neil (yes- THAT Denny O’Neil!) and part of the SMART POP series which I have just discovered, when a suggestion for a link caused me to do a Google search on Stevens’ name. Imagine how shocked I was to find that what Google was most interested in was his recent death.

Dave Stevens? If you don’t know, how can I tell you? Disney made a movie from his greatest and, perhaps only, creation in 1991. He was a gifted artist and comic book creator who transformed the comic zeitgeist in the early 1980s, riding the wake of the (relative) financial success of the first wave of independent comic creators into a chance to devote himself to a love of 1950s pop culture. He single handedly brought Bettie Page back from obscurity (truthfully, he introduced Bettie Page to the biggest audience she would ever have) and was no doubt the reason a movie was made about her a few years ago. (With an uncanny performance by Gretchen Mol.) He influenced a generation of comic book artists and remained a shining light in graphic illustration long after he gave up sequential narrative to do spot illustrations and covers.

Stevens’ artistic style hearkened back to a different era. In a time when comic books had been transformed by the independently published work of artists such as Wendy Pini and Dave Sim and when the work of Frank Miller and John Byrne was beginning to make the established publishers look for new talent, Rocketeer burst on the scene almost fully realized. Here were none of the inventive panel layouts of Miller’s Daredevil or the Kirby inked by Adams influence of John Byrne’s X-Men. Stevens drew his inspiration, not from the silver age but from the best of the classic golden age artists- Alex Raymond, Wally Wood, Frank Frazetta. His drawings were somehow both more cartoony and more realistic than mainstream comics yet without resorting to the illustrative shortcuts that were so common among the independent artists of the time. His panel layouts were simple yet dramatic. His inking showed a mastery of line weight that was all but forgotten in mainstream comics. His art style completely eschewed the overwrought cross-hatching and moody shadows that had blighted the industry in the wake of Adams and Miller. Instead of the strum and drang of the last twenty years of the medium trying for mainstream acceptance, his draftsmanship and story sense was more like a breath of cool air from a vintage Frigidaire.

So great was his influence that it broke though one college students current obsession with DaVinci and Rembrant to once again imprint upon him the comic book aesthetic that has interested him in art long before his first day at school. Evidenced by a very Stevens influenced portrait of a fellow classmate in an elective art class.

Stevens died of leukemia last month at the age of 52. Like Dave Cockrum and Wally Wood, he was taken so much earlier than we expect for people live in our society. Perhaps there is some universal law of conservation of talent that causes gifted artists and creators to meet their end too soon (Mozart and Poe would also give one pause to think). More likely it is just the law of averages. But there was nothing average about Dave Stevens. His work in the medium was brief but influential.

He will be missed.

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