Remembering Dave Stevens

As near as I can tell, the first drawing by Dave Stevens I ever saw was his illo of Catwoman (the golden age one) in Who's Who #4, back in early 1985. It caught my eye, to be sure, but it was his illo of Dolphin a couple months later in issue 7 that really set my mind on fire. It was like nothing I'd ever seen. Now, I'd been interested in drawings of pretty girls ever since the first time I picked up a comic book. Wonder Girl by George Perez was a personal favorite. But Stevens' girls had something extra. They had texture. You almost felt like you could reach onto the page and grab a handful of their flesh. Lordy, were they sexy, in a way my 14-year-old brain could barely comprehend. I must've traced that drawing of Dolphin a dozen times, trying to capture that...quality. Obviously, not one of my ham-fisted attempts came anywhere close.

A few years later, in high school, my pal Bill Burg discovered and introduced me to The Rocketeer, via the Eclipse-published collection that came out in 1988. Again, my mind was blown. It was absolutely unlike anything else I was reading at the time...light-hearted and fun, compared to the darkness of other books I was into like Watchmen and Year One. The language was spectacular, too...hilarious old-timey phrases like "Lamp them gams!" and "That'll settle your hash!" that immediately entered our vernacular and remain in use to this day. I could've read a thousand pages of The Rocketeer...but the fact that less than a hundred existed made it all the more special.

Sometime around the middle of 1990 or so, the news that a long in development Rocketeer movie was imminent, scheduled for release in the summer of 1991, had Bill and I both rapt with excitement. He did a much better job than I did in finding out the details of the production (who was starring, who was writing, etc.). I remember being exhilarated the first time I saw the poster hanging in the theater, and remember that we actually paid to see CAREER OPPORTUNITIES solely to get a look at (the admittedly spectacular, especially in those days) Jennifer Connelly, who'd be playing Betty (renamed Jenny) in the movie.

The euphoria spread to all things Stevens-related- we worshipped him like a rock star, mutually collecting anything with his signature on it, from upcoming items previewed in the Capital City catalog, to older 80's comic covers he'd done that required a little more hunting, to movie tie-in items like tin signs and t-shirts. The continuous scavenger hunt was a blast, all the more so because there was so little out there. We even dug up an old RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK making of book, which reprinted several pages of storyboards from the film. Stevens was among the storyboard artists who worked on the production, and sure enough, you could see his line, his expressions, in a few of them.

All this time, I was drawing, trying to duplicate Stevens' line, his inking facility. I was similarly enthralled by the work of Adam Hughes at the same time, so as you might imagine, my sketchbook was filled with attempt after attempt at realistic drawings of beautiful, voluptuous women. None of my grotesque, amateurish scrawling even came close to capturing that same magic, but it always provided an inspiration, and still does to this day. Similarly, the effect that Dave's storytelling in The Rocketeer had on me is significant. I so loved the tone of that book...and reading over it again the other day, I realized how similar in tone it was to the graphic novel I wrote last year and am working on now. He also just...I dunno, legitimized the idea of doing pin-up art for me? I always kinda felt guilty for drawing girls, and for wanting to be good at drawing girls...seeing Stevens' beautiful, elegant and tasteful work gave me an appreciation for what cheesecake could be.

Anyway, in the last decade or so, as Dave's public output diminished, so did my pursuit of his pin-ups, covers, etc. Rather than buy the book, I'd grab a jpeg on the computer and store it in my Dave Stevens folder, secure in the knowledge that I'd one day buy a huge collection of all of Dave's artwork, with all of those post-1995 images represented. Now, it seems that that collection is imminent...although it breaks my heart that it will be posthumous.

I never met Dave, as I seldom went any further west than Chicago for conventions, and never to San Diego. It's a shame, 'cause according to just about everyone who's ever met the man, he was a perfect gentleman who took the time to speak to everyone. I'm fairly certain that old adage about not meeting your heroes would not have applied to him. I also always appreciated that he seemed to be a bit of a rascal. You could tell just by looking at him...in some pictures he looked more like a 1930's matinee idol than a cartoonist. A friend once told me about a trip to a strip club with Dave, where he demanded the dancers go the extra mile and work just a bit harder before he'd generously tip them. I love stories like that.

Rest in peace, Dave. We never met, but I don't know if I'd be doing what I do if it wasn't for you.


Bill Peschel said...

Oh, man, I love that last picture. Reminds me of all the manuscripts and notes on my desk I need to plow through.

Thanks so much for sharing.

Jay Geldhof said...

Nice write up, Pally.

Anonymous said...

I think that the first time I saw Dave's artwork was in an issue of Pacific Presents. That issue featured Dave's Rocketeer and Steve Ditko's Missing Man. I would see his work again in the second issue of Bruce Jones's Alien World anthology (which I was collecting).

Eclipse Comics would later published a Rocketeer collection, which I bought, and his artwork would grace a few different Eclipse covers, including Airboy.

As a comic book fan, I wish Dave had been more prolific, but he did us with some great artwork and good memories.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Chaps. I was hoping you'd write a bit more about D.S., but this is more than I'd hoped for. I don't know how you made the time--with a midget biting your ankles, too. I still haven't written the last of my Christmas card letters.

What this write-up really captured is how special every Stevens drawing seems. He really invested so much warmth and humanity into every person he drew. Even background characters got the same loving attention-- not merely in terms of draftsmanship and inking virtuosity. It was as if he really thought about each one of them as a person, first and foremost. You see this in his pin-ups as well, of course.

The Rocketeer is one of those rare graphic novels you can recommend to just about anyone. I say "one of," but it's hard to think of any others, actually, that don't require some sort of genre interest or a backlog of comics-reading experience to fully appreciate the postmodern deconstruction of the form. It's just incredibly exciting and fun.

And good lord...Jennifer Connelly. I'd forgotten all about that. It's a shame she had to go and get all skinny. Something else I loved about Stevens' women--they didn't look like teenage boys!

Thanks again for this post. "Hasta Lumbago", Bud!