PUBLISHER: COMICO (1988-1989), DARK HORSE (1995)
WRITER: DAVE STEVENS
ARTISTS: DAVE STEVENS, MIKE KALUTA, ART ADAMS, SANDY PLUNKETT
In the annals of slowly published comics Dave Stevens' The Rocketeer must hold some sort of record - the original run involving the creator took from 1982 to 1994 to come up with around 100 pages of story and had four different publishers. The strip started as a backup in four Pacific comics in 1982 and then finished off for Eclipse in 1985, the latter publishing the Rocketeer Album which collected the work to date. This ended with Cliff Secord chasing Betty across America before she went overseas with her shifty model agency photographer. The story started up again with The Rocketeer Adventure Magazine for Comico in 1988 but only two issues appeared before they hit severe financial trouble and the arc wasn't finished until Dark Horse picked up the licence in 1995 and publsihed the third issue (finished with help from all-star friends including Art Adams), also bundling the whole second story into a trade. In the meantime the property had also been turned into a film, a much-underrated different but faithful adaptation helmed by Joe Johnson for Disney. A planned series featuring other artists and writers for Dark Horse never materialised (though there was a comic adaptation of the film) and it would take until 2011, three years after Stevens' premature death from leukaemia with his iron-hard principles still intact.
The second loose bunch of stories in the New York Adventure follow much the same template as the first, being highly episodic as part of Stevens' nod towards the world of pulps and movie serials. Cliff meets up with a friend in the form of George "Goose" Gander, based on autogiro pioneer George Townson, who got a feature article in the original issue, and goes to get Betty (still modelled blatantly on Bettie Page and still subject to unnecessary but lush pin-up style poses at random intervals) from the clutches of thinly-veiled pornographer Marco Marconi. The resulting scuffle in a high-end nightclub was clearly influential on the similar scene in the film but as ever compared to Billy Campbell's clean-cut hero we're reminded that the comic version of Cliff Secord is a chippy little sod and he promptly stomps off after winning his girl back. He also turns down a job offer from the mysterious Jonas; just as the first volume featured a royalty-free appearance by Doc Savage the second has Lamont Cranston thrown in under a cover name.
Cliff eventually does agree to work for the Shadow, who needs the use of Goose's autogiro and the Rocketeer to investigate something. This leads to a dippy plot line where Secord is revealed to have previously worked as part of a circus troupe that are being wiped out; only he and illusionist Orsino have survived, the culprit being strongman Lothar. The latter is modelled on Rondo Hatton and was later included in the film as a henchman for the main villain. Out for revenge as he blames the rest of the troupe for the death of midget lady-love Tina in a stunt gone wrong. Again Cliff doesn't really come out of the whole saga looking like a particularly nice chap; Tina's unrequited feelings for him led her to take his place in the underwater stunt while Secord was giving some to another member of the group and he doesn't even seem to feel particularly bad. But then part of the fun of the Rocketeer comics are that Secord's a bit of a prick.
The serial ends with Cliff tidying up the Lothar business and heading back towards the Bulldog Cafe, where Bettie is waiting for him. We don't actually get to see the pair reunited (though Peevey gets an appearance), which leaves things nice and open, in that it's easy to imagine Cliff arriving and calling her a massive bitch before picking a fight with three other people. He really is that much of a chippy sod. Honestly, I don't think I've read a comic with an angrier lead; at least the Punisher and Wolverine have some sort of motivation, Cliff just seems to be out to yell at anyone he comes across. He could start a fight in an empty room and would lose as well. It should make him unsympathetic but really there's a strangely compelling feeling to keep reading and see just how he's going to screw things up.
The thing is that not a huge amount actually happens; for all the pinup posters of the Rocketeer punching Nazis and what have you the comic's about Cliff chasing after his girlfriend, getting involved in a faintly implausible whodunnit that's entirely his fault and then going back home where his white-hot girlfriend is somehow waiting for him. Jasper's Warp it is not. But then that's part of the fun and what really shines through is Stevens' love for the universe; he's almost not got time for much Rocketeer stuff with all the fun he's having drawing prewar New York or squeezing cultural references in. Somehow he makes this all seem much more fantastic than it actually is, a genuine auteur at work unbound by modern conventions, he probably hadn't ever read a comic made after about 1942. Flawed but somehow still fun.