PUBLISHER: PACIFIC/ECLIPSE, 1982
WRITER & ARTIST: DAVE STEVENS
Adaptations are a funny thing and as far as I'm concerned The Rocketeer fits that bill. I'm wrong, I know, but sometimes things aren't that easy. The film version, starring Bill Campbell and Jennifer Connolly, was something I watched a great many times as a child and remains one of my favourite films. I didn't know there was a comic until much later, let alone that this was radical difference. Therefore, initially, the Eclipse 'album' (it's a TPB in large-format size, i.e. Eclipse's usual habit of being a bit pretentious, effortlessly combined with their other main characteristic of mucking up trades) of Dave Stevens' original batch of Rocketeer strips didn't go down too well. That it's the original canon can matter little when you're so much more familiar with the unfaithful adaptation.
While initially it was a bit of a jolt to see Cliff Secord as a bumbling amateur and generally making a complete arse of just about everything, it's a more believable course than his performance in the film. Similarly, the plot for the comic revolves largely around the recovery attempts of the rocket-pack's owner, with the Nazi sabotage angle a lot more subtle - rather than the full-on airship-full-of-blackshirts versus gangsters, there are a couple of German agents trying to steal a prototype aircraft. Peevy isn't quite the cuddly father figure seen on screen, being more of a crotchety old man - he helps Secord initially, but clearly thinks the boy's a bit of an idiot. And then there's Betty, in the film a good gal overwhelmed by the glitz of Hollywood, here a fame-seeking vamp who seems pretty desperate to get away from Secord. However, in the comic she is Bettie Page, beautifully rendered by Stevens. This manages the not inconsiderable feat of making Jennifer Connolly look very plain indeed. Of course, while these characters are different, they're all also a bit more believable.
It's much easier to take Secord as constantly on the run when owning the rocket pack, as opposed to the easier ride he gets in the film. If you had to work with Cliff, you'd probably be as grumpy as Peevy, or as impatient as Betty. This is what would probably happen if some kid pilot got hold of a top-secret rocket-pack.
Despite this, this isn't some gritty, Miracleman-style revision of pulp material. It retains the period feel. Well, to be fair, I can't tell you what 1938 felt like as I was minus 43 at the time, and this makes my memories from the period a little hazy. But, damn it, this is what it should have been like. It's got that pulpy movie-serial feel to it, enhanced by Stevens' smooth, detailed art. The design of the title character and the experimental Locust aircraft gel beautifully with the real P-26 'Pea-Shooter', airshow specials and cars. On top of Betty/Bettie (who has a wardrobe largely based on her shoots, but gels effortlessly into the 1930s despite hailing from the 1950s) there are all sorts of little gems for buffs of pulp magazines - most of these will go over my head (I didn't know the owner of the rocket-pack is Doc Savage in all but name, quite happily swallowing Peevy's theory about Howard Hughes, what with the film as well), but it's not like the thing is reliant on them, and it's perfectly enjoyable.
The Rocketeer manages to be adult without losing too much innocence, and remains an entertaining read. The art is gorgeous (to be fair, Stvens' work doesn't suffer in large-format pages), and the plot charming. The characters are superbly defined, and, just like the film, it remains an excellent slice of retro-styled escapism.