Comic Book Artist Edited by Jon B. Cooke Comic Book Artist, Eisner Award winner for "Best Comics-Related Magazine", celebrates the lives and works of great cartoonists, writers and editors from all eras through in-depth interviews, feature articles, and unpublished art.

Of Hollywood & Heroes

Rocketeer creator Dave Stevens on his life as an artist

Conducted by Jon B. Cooke
Transcribed by Sam Gafford

From Comic Book Artist #15

The sensual art of Dave Stevens burst forth on the world of comics fandom like a buzz bomb during the Spring of 1982 in, of all places, a back-up strip in Starslayer #2, featuring a new character, The Rocketeer. Stevens' stylings-and his new comics adventurer-were immediate hits and the artist remains very popular even though he has produced a relatively small number of (albeit high-quality) comics pages over the years. Ye Ed was fortunate to interview Dave at the 2001 International Comic Con: San Diego in July with a follow-up talk via phone in August. Dave copyedited the final transcript.

Comic Book Artist: Dave, where are you from?

Dave Stevens: Lynwood, California, which is basically part of South-Central Los Angeles.

CBA: When did you get interested in comics?

Dave: About age four, or five. My dad had a box of Disneys and ECs-though not the horror books, unfortunately! Only the tamer ones. He had Stories from the Bible and a couple of the science-fiction titles. He liked Ray Bradbury and also had a couple of hardcover compilations like The Omnibus of Science Fiction, etc. So, I started out with Bradbury, too, as a youngster, along with Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, and a handful of others.

CBA: Except for some of the fan drawings you had done in the '70s, you were not really known at the time you started at Pacific Comics?

Dave: No, not at all. I was just an anonymous wrist.

CBA: Yet, Pacific Comics, when they got together, lined up some dynamite talent. Jack Kirby, the King of Comics, was there at the beginning.

Dave: That was primarily because they gave him total carté blanche, to do exactly what he wanted, with no interference. That was the deal.

CBA: But you, a virtual unknown in the field, were there, too!

Dave: I came into Pacific Comics right after Jack had done his first issue of Captain Victory and Mike Grell had done his first issue of Starslayer. The only reason I was even approached was because Grell's second issue was shy a few pages and they had to fill those pages with something and they knew that I drew...

CBA: Did you frequent the Schanes brothers' store?

Dave: Yeah, I was a customer when I lived in San Diego, five years earlier. So, at the San Diego Comic-Con in 1981, they made the offer: "Do whatever you want, but we need two installments of six pages." So I said I'd see what I could come up with and went home and started kicking around some ideas.

CBA: Did they seek you out or was this a casual conversation?

Dave: Just a casual conversation. I think they were trying to decide how best to fill that spot and I was around, so either Steve or Bill mentioned it to me. I really didn't regard it as anything important at the time; just "filler" material.

CBA: Was this your first solo comics work?

Dave: No, I had done "Aurora" in 1977, so that was the first solo work. It was for Sanrio Publishing in Japan, so it wasn't planned to see print here in the States. They had specifically asked me to do it à là Heavy Metal. They wanted it done in Moebius' style (which is why it's so over-rendered, compared to my usual approach). But, in the case of Pacific, the Schaneses just told me to bring them something and left it entirely up to me. So, I came up with a promo drawing (which was also used as the first back cover), and wrote it around that image.

CBA: Did you come up with the name from the old serial, The Rocketman?

Dave: It was my own personal homage to Commando Cody and all the other serial heroes of that era. I'd always been a huge fan of the serials. I loved all those edge-of-your-seat, cliff-hanging chapter plays.

CBA: Specifically the Republic stuff?

Dave: No, all of it! Even some of the bad ones.

CBA: The Sam Katzman Columbia stuff?

Dave: Sure. And, I'd always loved the idea of a guy flying like a bird, with just a combustible contraption strapped to his back. The image really appealed to me. But I didn't want to be stuck doing an exact replication of the serials, with Martians, death-rays, etc. That wasn't the quite the approach I wanted to take. I wanted to do a real period aviation strip, but with one small element of science-fiction added: The rocket-pack! So I came up with the outfit and the name. You know, a funny take on the word, racketeer, "The Rocketeer." I thought it sounded catchy and the drawing seemed to work. I showed it to a couple of friends and they liked it, so I went ahead with it. I thumbnailed around a bit and came up with a threadbare story that didn't have a whole lot to it, but it was only intended to be filler material. So I just had fun with it. The Schaneses liked it, but nobody made a big deal about it. Well, by the time the second installment came out, it was suddenly a very big deal, because Pacific had gotten a ton of mail over it!

CBA: I remember the first time I picked up Pacific Presents #2, going, "Who is this guy?" You came out of nowhere...

Dave: In the first issue of Starslayer, they ran a full page ad: "Coming next issue," so by the time the character appeared, it had already gotten some buzz and people really responded to it. By the time the second chapter came out, Pacific was getting a lot of calls and the immediate thought was that they had a potential cash cow.

CBA: Did you do your own lettering?

Dave: Yeah, I did everything. I enjoyed doing everything. It was a challenge.

CBA: Did you read a lot of Doc Savage and Shadow pulps?

Dave: I read a lot of them when I was still in high school. I particularly liked The Shadow. I thought the writing was actually quite good.

CBA: Did you enjoy them?

Dave: Oh, yeah. But, after I'd read a dozen or so Doc Savages, I thought to myself, "Gee, these are becoming pretty repetitive. But, it was formula pulp-writing. I did like Doc Savage for the character interaction of Monk and Ham. I enjoyed the humor, and the exotic locales, the bizarre situations that they found themselves in. But I preferred The Shadow because it was more realistic, hard-edged, urban crime fiction. With that slight supernatural twist. Very compelling stuff.

CBA: Do you think that if Pacific had attached more importance to the back-ups that you would have come up with something different?

Dave: I doubt it. I probably would have come up with something at least similar, because I had already done the spoof cover for Bettie Page Comics the year before (in 1980) as a portfolio piece for myself, just for fun with no intention of ever developing it. I'd been playing around with her image for quite a few years prior, just to see how it might look if I ever got the opportunity to do a comic book cover. Obviously, the 1930s was visually the era of choice, for personal taste. The music, clothing styles, the cars... all of that stuff. I'd surrounded myself with it all my life. I remember seeing It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World when it opened in Hollywood at the Cinerama dome, and at that time, Old Hollywood was still very much intact. And visually, magical to me-all spires, temples and palm trees-still potent. None of it had been touched, none of it had been bulldozed over yet for parking lots and high-rises. So, I wanted to show some of Old Hollywood in the strip, the kooky architecture. Things like the Bulldog Café. I just filled the strip with imagery that I loved as a kid. My aunt used to eat at the Bulldog. I carried around a kind of visual file in my head, of images and people-Doug Wildey, of course, ended up being the crotchety sidekick, Peevy. I hadn't even intended to do that, it just happened. Betty just fell into the strip and Doug became Peevy. He didn't know what to make of it at first. He thought I was making fun and taking shots. But, he quickly saw that I was sincere about it, and so he actually helped me lay out some of the panel arrangements in the first chapter.

CBA: Which panels?

Dave: The inside the hanger sequence where they're hiding the engine in the plane.

CBA: Was that typical of Doug to help out?

Dave: Absolutely. He wanted me to do the best job that I could. He wanted to help out to make it better. In the final scene, when we see Cliff take off for the first time, Doug gave me a better layout than I had. He said, "Y'know, you could do it like this-and use inserts, rather than just panel, panel, panel. You could do the whole aerial thing as inserts," à là Kubert, and it worked beautifully. Then, he got more excited and wanted to write his own captions for me! I had to gracefully decline. [laughs] After a while he even started posing as well. I'd give him a cap and glasses. It was great fun for both of us! We had a ball.

CBA: You mentioned that you had some candid pictures from those sessions.

Dave: He really enjoyed it. Doug was a real ham for the camera-though he would never admit that to anyone!

CBA: But he was there, smiling!

Dave: Especially after he saw that people were really enjoying the strip and that the character was finding an audience. Because he was suddenly a fictional character!

Dave Stevens' most enduring creation, The Rocketeer as rendered by the artist for a fan. Courtesy of and ©2001 Dave Stevens.

CBA: One aspect of Pacific was that it was famous for creator-owned comics. Did you get a certain profit margin off of sales?

Dave: At the time it was a flat rate of $100-$150 per page for everything: Art, story, pencils, lettering, coloring, everything-"in advance against royalties." And, remember, it was still 1981. Plus, I never viewed it as a job, per se. It was just something I was doing for myself, on my off-hours from advertising. I wasn't looking at it seriously in any financial sense at all. It was like... bus fare.

CBA: But did it start generating money?

Dave: No. It never really did for me because I didn't choose to take it on full-time. I think Pacific expected me to immediately drop everything, hit the board [snaps fingers twice] and commit to it, totally-long term. I said, "Look, I want to do the best job that I can on this, but I already have regular work that pays me very well." I knew that I couldn't do comics as my life's work. I found that out while assisting Russ Manning. It was just not for me. I didn't have the temperament for one thing. The drudgery, long hours, and the repetition drove me nuts. I gave it a shot and tried to give them what they wanted in a reasonable amount of time but I just wasn't able to. So, since Pacific couldn't get a regular, monthly book out of me, they quickly created another character called Cliffhanger written by Bruce Jones and drawn by Al Williamson. Then they had another guy come in and do a book called Crash Ryan which was just a Rocketeer clone. It was strange to see what I'd done being almost copied in a sense by my own publisher trying to tap the same audience for quick sales. I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised; that is the nature of publishing. I was too preoccupied with trying to figure out what I was doing, learning on the job, and it didn't come as naturally to me as it did to a lot of guys-like Gilbert and Jaime-who do it as easily as breathing. I was learning as I did each chapter. How to flesh out the characters a bit more. Layouts, storytelling, spotting blacks... and at the core of it, I'm not a writer. The whole experience was very "seat of the pants" and totally unplanned. I wrote and drew it a page at a time. I'd just sit down and start page one with no idea where I was going!

CBA: Not even vaguely? That Doc Savage was going to be in there?

Dave: No. It just happened, it was sort of linear. You could make sense of it, but there were huge gaping holes all over the place. Coincidence after coincidence. That's not good writing.

CBA: So did you have a problem when you approached the collection?

Dave: Nah. I really couldn't worry about it that much. It was what it was.

CBA: But you slipped in a couple of pages to flesh it out?

Dave: Yeah. I tried to slip in a couple of bridges so that it felt less disjointed to me; flowed a bit better. But, if I thought about it too much I would have had to redraw and rewrite it entirely, from top to bottom.

CBA: Are you generally satisfied with your work the way that it is?

Dave: I'm definitely ready to move on after I finish each project.

CBA: You don't want to look at it again?

Dave: No, it goes into a drawer and that's where it stays.

CBA: Are you highly critical of your own work?

Dave: Well, I do expect a lot of myself. I'm a harsh critic because I know what I'm capable of. I have hit those occasional peaks amongst the valleys, but the peaks are so few-things like genuine flashes of virtuoso brush inking, like I've never executed before or since-I can count on one hand the number of jobs where I've been able to hit that mark. The same with penciling. Sometimes it just flows, but more often than not, it's pure physical and spiritual torment just to get something decent on paper. I often get very discouraged with the whole creative process.

CBA: What's the most difficult aspect? Layout?

Dave: No. Layouts can be fun, because it's just arranging and problem-solving. Coming up with the concepts and characters is also fun. Visually styling a series is fun. What is pure, deadly drudgery is the detail and precision of penciling and inking. The inking is quicker, but only if you've got it all nailed down in the pencils first. Detail penciling is an absolute bore. I'd rather just lay it out and move on. I don't ever want to do all that rendering and perspective, or backgrounds... or crowd scenes. Ack!

CBA: And yet that was what you were doing.

Dave: Yep, I locked myself into that illustrative style very early on without realizing it, but that was what I loved in other artists' work. I loved seeing beautifully drawn planes and period cars. So, when I did it, I had to get the details right. If not, people wrote letters! If I made a mistake on the grill of a car or got the rag top wrong. One guy even dressed me down in public: "You've got two different GeeBees in here!" [laughs] They would catch me because obviously, they were aviation buffs. They knew the material and these were our readers, the people we were getting the letters from, you know? People my dad's age! We weren't getting letters from kids, that's for sure!

CBA: The older guys probably felt that you were their age.

Dave: Yes! They thought I was an old-timer, who'd been doing it for decades.

CBA: That's what I thought. When I first saw your work and then saw your photo, I didn't think I was looking at the same person. It's like the first time I learned that Crumb was only in his thirties; I thought this guy's gotta be 60-years-old and just off his rocker. You were one who I thought would be a lot older than you turned out to be.

Dave: The one really gratifying thing about the first installments was, after it first appeared in Starslayer, I got a hand-written letter from Mike Kaluta, who I'd only met once, a few years earlier and it was a fan letter, a rave. "Whatever you do, don't stop!" It was great. That, from somebody whose work I respected tremendously.

CBA: So, from then on, have you always been close with Mike?

Dave: Yep. We've been great pals ever since, like Mutt 'n' Jeff. In fact, he came out to LA to visit in 1983 and we hung out, solidifying the friendship. We had originally met in 1977, right after Star Wars was released (at the San Diego Con at the old El Cortez) and compared notes, because Lucas had darned near everyone working on that film's ad campaign. And we talked about The Shadow as well, but we hadn't really connected as one artist to another. I was just another fan at the convention who appreciated his work. So, when I got that letter, it was like saying: "Welcome to the club!" Magic time. I also remember Steranko being in town and stopping by the studio. I had known Jim since about 1974, from doing conventions. He had always been really generous and supportive of my work for years prior, and he knew that I was doing this backup feature; I think we had talked about it. So he saw the first and second chapters and then we sat in an IHOP in Hollywood and talked about it all night. He says, "You know, Dave, I was very disappointed when I saw your "Betty" character. It's a Frazetta girl. I wanted to see a Stevens girl." I said, "But, Jim-it's really Bettie Page, she's not a Frazetta girl." But he wasn't buying it."Yeah, but this blouse, Dave... come on!" Everybody jumped on the striped blouse because it was a Johnny Comet/Jean Fargo blouse and Frazetta had used that blouse repeatedly, in just about every other strip he ever did! I loved that blouse. It showed the form off, beautifully. I had to use it! Jim also had some interesting suggestions for Cliff's uniform. He felt it should be more unified, have directional piping and gloves and look more like a complete costume. He objected a bit to the character's selfish motives as well. He felt that Cliff should be more altruistic, more noble, more heroic. He thought that because of the trappings, he should be more gung-ho, all-American and not quite so self-serving and "small" as I had written him. I took notes and thought, "Okay, maybe I should re-think this." But ultimately, I felt drawn to the character because of his flaws. He's unstrung. He's got faulty priorities. Only two things on his mind: to keep his girlfriend and to keep this amazing machine that he's "found." I was approaching it like here's a guy who's operating on the fringe, in a rag-tag air circus, barely scraping by. He gets an opportunity that literally drops in his lap and it's during the Depression. What would you do? You'd maybe try to make a quick buck before turning it in, and impress your sometime-girlfriend! I also gave him the viewpoint of one of those prop-jockeys who knew that every time he went up in the air, he could end up crashing, and he just didn't care. So I had to keep in mind that he's a bit of nut, and only a hero by default. He's just a down-and-out flyer who's hooked on adrenaline, got major girl troubles, no real prospects, and let's just see what he makes of this. That, to me, was much more appealing than the tried-and-true hero archetype.

Preliminary designs for The Rocketeer's distinctive helmet. Courtesy of & ©2001 Dave Stevens.

CBA: Pretty soon thereafter you were doing a ton of covers for Eclipse.

Dave: That just followed a course already set in place before Pacific went under. I guess it started when Bruce Jones had come on board and was producing Alien Worlds. He was only two issues in and some artist had just flaked on him for 12 pages. He had seen "Aurora" and asked if he could use it in a pinch. So, I let him doctor it and rescript it. And I created a new cover for the issue.

CBA: Because the rights were owned by you?

Dave: Yes, the rights had reverted to me a couple of years earlier, but I had no plans to ever run it in the States. I thought it was pretty stiff, stilted.

CBA: So did Bruce rescript it?

Dave: Yeah. At this point, looking back at it, I probably should have just left it alone. Not that he did anything wrong; it was just a completely different tone. Anyway, when it came out, apparently the cover really sold the issue, so they asked me to do the next cover as well, and ink the feature story, "Princess Pam." After that, I sort of became the "cover guy." Whatever titles they had that really needed a good launch, I did the cover art for.

CBA: Was it a good rate for the covers?

Dave: I think so. Somewhere between $300 and $500 for an inked drawing. So, I kept doing covers, along with my own feature. By Summer of 1984, they wanted cover art for a Sheena 3-D book, and although nobody knew it at the time, the company would be bankrupt within a couple of months. I remember I had just finished the last issue of Rocketeer, handed it in, then did the Sheena cover. And I waited and never heard anything. So I called and reminded them I hadn't gotten the original art back yet. There was a hesitation on the other end of the line and it turned out that the original had "disappeared" from the offices the day it was shot, and it's never been seen since. Someone there had decided to take home a bonus! Boy, that one hurt. I was crushed, because I felt it was my best work to date, and I didn't even have a negative of it. Anyway, they did a quick fade right after that, within a matter of weeks, they were basically gone as a publishing entity. So, even though I did a lot of covers for Eclipse, Pacific was really the starting point for all that. I had no idea that I'd be any good as a cover artist or that anyone would want to see me drawing girls before then. What a concept!

CBA: You did that great Crossfire cover.

Dave: That was for Mark Evanier, he recruited me because he thought I'd enjoy drawing Marilyn Monroe. It just worked out well.

CBA: Then you pretty much abruptly stopped doing covers?

Dave: I must have done about a dozen for Eclipse but the last eight or so were to buy my way out of my contract with them because I wanted to take The Rocketeer elsewhere. They had the first rights to any new Rocketeer material.

CBA: So you signed what you consider now to be a bad deal?

Dave: Just a sloppy deal. And over the months, I found Dean Mullaney to be someone that I could no longer work for. Comico was just coming into their own and they made me an offer that I could live with, so I ended up giving Eclipse the rights to eight new covers-reprints and poster rights for a period of time.

CBA: Were you ever privy to any kind of sales figures to issues that featured your covers?

Dave: I probably was, but it didn't mean that much to me at the time. I knew that they made money and that was why I generally never granted any other rights beyond that first usage. And I started producing my own posters of those images soon after.

CBA: Did you care for Airboy Comics as a title?

Dave: Not particularly, I liked the original Valkyrie and the Airmaidens as characters and I liked some of the old artists that worked on it, guys like Bob Fuji. I'm told that the revival issue that I worked on, #5, is very hard to find these days.

CBA: I have that poster on my office wall.

Dave: [laughs] But again, the "good girl" art was something that just happened. I wasn't intentionally trying to revive it. I genuinely missed the old Fiction House look, and Quality-I just loved those great covers. Girls riding airplanes and rockets, all that nonsense. It was great fun, and they were so well-drawn and so unabashed in tone that I wanted to try and bring some of that feeling to the covers I was doing. It was a personal challenge for me. I got a lot of satisfaction from doing those, trying to make each one better. Then, I noticed other publishers starting to feature girl art on their covers, as well. A lot of guys were suddenly drawing Betty Page or Betty-type characters. I thought, "Jeez, I had this territory staked out in my own strip, but I don't own this likeness and I can't claim to own it because it's based ultimately on a real person, so what do you do?"

CBA: But you established a relationship with the real Bettie Page, didn't you?

Dave: Yeah, but that was something that came about after she re-emerged to do an interview in a Tennessee newspaper. They ran a story about her on the TV show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. I got a phone number for her brother, Jack Page, who was in Nashville, and I wrote him a letter and sent a check for him to pass along to her. I told him that I used her likeness as a supporting character in a comic and I definitely felt like I owed her something and I wanted to make sure that she got some money because I had no idea what kind of financial shape she was in. This was in 1992.

CBA: Was Bettie aware of your appropriation?

Dave: No, totally unaware. You know, she was in her seventies and most women her age don't buy comic books! [laughs] They don't frequent comic book shops.

CBA: Certainly there was a resurgence in interest in Bettie in the '80s that was spawned by the Rocketeer, right?

Dave: Yeah. But again, she was out of the loop completely and never caught wind of any of it until 1992 or '93.

CBA: Did you get to meet her?

Dave: Not right then because she had management attached to her almost immediately. It took another year to meet her, and it was right after the LA earthquake in January of 1994. She had to do a signing of some Robert Blue art prints and needed a ride because she didn't drive. So I was volunteered. And that was my first meeting with Bettie and it was pretty profound.

CBA: Did she like the work?

Dave: Oh, yeah, it was all new to her. She'd never heard of it, but she thought it was funny and cute. She got a big kick out of it.

CBA: Was there any consideration to use an actress that looked like her for the motion picture?

Dave: Well, the problem with the film version of The Rocketeer was that it ended up at Disney and they wanted nothing to do with a female character that was based on a real person for rights reasons. Plus it was a very sexy character and Bettie Page had really caught on in pop culture before we even got into pre-production. So they immediately called for changes in the character. We were still calling her Betty in the first few versions of the script, but by the time we were shooting, the name and appearance had changed, and she wasn't Betty anymore.

CBA: Is she still around?

Dave: The real Bettie? Of course! She just turned 79-she's determined to see 100 and she's stubborn enough that I'm sure she will. She's a real ball of fire. I really admire her. She's been through a lot and still has tremendous faith in humanity. She likes to take people at face value which, in this day and age, is a rare and often dangerous thing.

Yow! It's our gal Betty Page in this, the very last page of the final Cliff Secord saga in The Rocketeer Adventure Magazine #3. Courtesy of and ©2001 Dave Stevens.

CBA: At what point when you were doing the original story did you consider putting together a graphic novel?

Dave: Ah, I don't remember. The first two filler chapters were just that. Then I did two more installments for Pacific Presents, or maybe three... Pacific didn't last long enough to publish the final issue and [Rocketeer Special Edition] was picked up by Eclipse and it may have been them suggesting that we combine that issue with the previous material and call it a graphic novel.

CBA: Did you chomp at the bit to do that? Did you want to tweak it a little bit?

Dave: Yeah. I didn't want to redraw any of it because I felt that it should stand as it was, but there were a few things that I added here and there to sweeten it and then recolored it. It was nice to have it in a complete package... and I do remember now, that other publishers had approached me about collecting it. So it wasn't just Eclipse.

CBA: Can you recall specifically what you added?

Dave: Oh, a two- or three-page intro, just introducing Cliff and setting the tone for the thing and an occasional added page or expanded page here and there. Not much at all, really.

CBA: And you credited Jaime as "Hurricane" Hernandez in there...

Dave: [laughs] He came down and spent the weekend at the house, just goofing around, while I was working on the revisions for the graphic novel and I said, "Here, do a couple of these for me!" So he sat down and took a couple of my layouts and did finished pencils on a couple of pages and I think he laid out a page or two and I finished them. Just kind of a give and take that artists do whenever they visit each other. And the results were great.

CBA: Did you have a long-lasting relationship with the Hernandez brothers?

Dave: Yeah, we met in '83, at my old studio on La Brea. Bill Marks, the publisher of Mister X and Vortex brought them by one night and we hadn't previously met, so I guess he kind of used them as bait to get into the studio. We became fast friends and have been ever since. We still get together for breakfast once a week at a local diner.

CBA: So you admire their work?

Dave: Oh, absolutely. I have from the very beginning. I bought the very first black-&-white issue of Love and Rockets that they self-published. Yeah, I was aware of their work right away and thought it was some of the best being done at the time. Really rich, juicy, character-driven stuff and really fun.

CBA: Would you consider Russ Manning an influence on your artistic style?

Dave: Not so much, but in terms of ethics and practical working methods, yes, absolutely.

CBA: Who would you call your biggest artistic influence?

Dave: For comics influence, it would probably be Steranko. Along with him, Frazetta, John Buscema, Eisner, Kubert, Wood, an assortment of the guys that most young artists liked, but primarily Steranko.

CBA: I can see a sweetness, a humanitarianism to your work.

Dave: That's just me, I guess. I like quirkiness and whimsy. I like getting into the faces and spirits of characters as I draw them. I enjoy animating a figure or a face with expressiveness, joy, sadness.

CBA: As bodacious as you draw women, it's the eyes that are always the center of attention. It's the eyes that draw you in.

Dave: Again, that's where my interest lies. I want to know who that person is. It's not just a body to me. The face is where everything happens.

CBA: Were you the model for Cliff Secord?

Dave: Not originally. Initially he was a red-haired, freckle-faced guy that I just made up. A real character face. Almost a Sterling Hollaway type. Not quite so adam's applish, but a bit of a hayseed. I just couldn't find anyone who looked like that to pose for me. So, out of necessity, because I was doing this stuff on the fly, at night between my commercial jobs, I just had to resort to using a mirror or winging it. The need for speed was there and I just had to get it done.

CBA: Do you use photography?

Dave: Not initially, and I only did, I think, by the last chapter because I found that I really needed good reference for cars and planes and lighting. So I went around and tried to either shoot or find good photos with information that I could use. Then I did start to shoot some of the good girl covers that I was doing, again, to give me accurate information on drapes, folds, and things like that.

CBA: But did you use people as models? Was that live or photographs?

Dave: A combination of both. Initially, I just tried to make do with my pre-existing scrap files that I had. But when I started doing covers that were designed, I had to do custom shoots with models and that happened pretty quickly. It was fun for everybody. I met a couple of models that I used for several years after that, on a fairly regular basis.

CBA: I just got a package from Scott Saavedra and he showed a couple of the panels from the graphic novel and noted, "I was the model for that arm!" [laughter] So I guess you just used whoever you could?

Dave: Yeah, pretty much. It's long ago and hard to remember. We just tried to do the best we could in the time we had.

CBA: Was the graphic novel the first time you used art assistants?

Dave: No, because I shared a studio with Bill Stout and Richard Hescox from 1980-85, so the whole time I was doing that first series, there were artists around always, coming to visit or sitting around yakking. I remember Hescox roughed out one or two panels. Russ Heath penciled one or two planes for me, just little shots, not full page things.

CBA: There was an introduction in the Rocketeer Special Edition [Eclipse, 1984] by Mark Evanier teasing you about how late you were with the book.

Dave: [laughs] Mark has known me since 1973 and he enjoys taking the occasional shot, but it's good-natured. I had asked him to write something for that final Pacific issue (once Eclipse had picked it up), as he'd done for Groo, because both books had sat in the shelf for months during Pacific's bankruptcy. I felt a humorous explanation was appropriate to let readers know what'd happened.

CBA: Was there a lot of criticism of your taking a lot of time completing each issue?

Dave: Not initially, because the first installments were done very quickly. The problems came when Pacific insisted on immediately scheduling The Rocketeer as a bi-monthly series. So right away, I got that reputation of being somebody who was either extremely lazy or completely incompetent. As I said earlier, I just had too many other gigs going on at the same time. I was doing storyboards, ad art for films, development art, toy packaging. I had quite a full plate for about five or six years straight. As much time as I tried to give to the comic, it was never enough to put it on any kind of a realistic schedule. So I would plead with them. "Wait until you get the issue in and then schedule it." But, for solicitation purposes alone, that just never worked.

CBA: Obviously, The Rocketeer jumped from company to company for some time.

Dave: Only because the companies kept dying! [laughter]

CBA: Were you privy at all to why Pacific went under?

Dave: At the time, I remember that it just kind of imploded, with a whimper. Apparently, they'd been in trouble financially for some time, because they'd overextended themselves.

CBA: Pacific was one publisher that really jump-started the independent movement. It seems a shame.

Dave: Well, they tried to become a major player too fast and just didn't have the experience or the resources to back it up.

CBA: That seems to be a continuing syndrome. Do you think that Eclipse suffered from the same problem?

Dave: Well, Eclipse suffered an act of God-a major flood! That's what did them in, I think, more than anything else. I don't believe they ever quite recovered after that.

CBA: You did the Rocketeer Special Edition with Eclipse and that was it?

Dave: That, and the softcover collection.

CBA: But you did a number of covers for Eclipse as well?

Dave: Yeah, but as I said, that was to buy my freedom.

Dave's rough pencils for his Airboy #5 cover featuring "The Return of Valkyrie." Courtesy of the artist. Characters ©2001 Todd McFarlane Productions, Inc. Art ©2001 Dave Stevens.

CBA: Why Comico?

Dave: I liked the staff and they had decent production values. They were offering good distribution, good color, and a free hand so it seemed like a good move at the time.

CBA: No hassles about scheduling?

Dave: Well, Bob Schreck was working for them and we'd known each other for a number of years. He and I agreed that I would do three complete issues before they published the first one. I believe that's how it went. There were to be six issues total and then they'd collect them as a second graphic novel. But as you may recall, they published the first issue and just as the second issue was at press, they went bust! So there we went again-publisher number three!

CBA: Rocketeer Adventure Magazine was a projected six-issue series?

Dave: Yeah.

CBA: But you only went for three?

Dave: Well, they were only physically able to get two out before they folded. The third issue was nearly finished, but unfortunately for me, Comico had (in their bankruptcy proceedings) declared Rocketeer Adventure Magazine as one of their assets which they absolutely did not own. But the "entrepreneur" who came in and assumed all their properties claimed that he owned it and actually solicited for that third issue and beyond, without even contacting me to find out where I stood. I didn't want to get involved in a lengthy, legal tug-of-war with the guy, so I just put the book away. During that time, I was knee-deep in development on the film anyway, so there was more than enough keeping me occupied, regardless. But, that third book literally sat in a drawer for several years until he finally stopped publishing and went away.

CBA: But eventually Rocketeer Adventure Magazine went for three issues, right?

Dave: Right. The third was published by Dark Horse in 1995.

CBA: So what about the other three installments?

Dave: They'd been scripted, but Dark Horse felt that it was too costly a book for them to make profitable, so they weren't interested in doing any more. Unless I'd be willing to run it in black-&-white, but since I wasn't-I'd always thought of it as a color series-they passed.

CBA: So we could have had three more Rocketeer stories?

Dave: Sure, still could.

CBA: We're not even going to get one more Rocketeer story, are we?

Dave: Well, there was a scripted three-issue mini-series that I pitched to DC about three years ago, but they weren't crazy about it because it involved Superman of 1938, and they wanted some major revisions to the storyline and I felt it was good as it was. So, unfortunately, that never went forward either. Too bad for the readers, it would've been a fun story to do.

CBA: Someone else would do the layouts and you did the finish work?

Dave: At the time, I was going to have Kaluta do the breakdowns and I would finish the art. At this point, I'd probably still do the covers and splash pages, but just supervise the rest of it. I definitely would've overseen the entire thing to make sure it had the right look. That's pretty crucial with a book like The Rocketeer.

CBA: The second graphic album was produced after the Dark Horse issue?

Dave: Yeah, they collected the Comico issues and the one issue they published. There were some really sloppy production glitches on that collection that, unfortunately, I never got to fix. There were a couple pages that involved new panels that should have been stripped in, but only the dialogue was. Weird little glitches like that, that no one caught.

CBA: Was The Rocketeer a good seller?

Dave: I recall that the Pacific issues sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 80,000 units, which I thought was a good number for 1982.

CBA: It's an incredible number today.

Dave: But that's only what I was told. I don't know if that's at all accurate.

CBA: Do you ever check out the current value of those issues?

Dave: Several of them are hard to find, but I think you can still buy them for pretty modest prices.

CBA: Did the graphic novels go into multiple printings?

Dave: The first one from Eclipse did and there were several pirated editions as well, that I wasn't aware of until years later.

CBA: Pirated editions? European?

Dave: European and domestic. There were several printings of that book that I was never paid for. That's still a pretty sore subject with me. As for the second collection [New York Adventure], it sold out, but Dark Horse has never printed a second edition. So, at present, I'm discussing repackaging both volumes with a new publisher, but no deal has been made yet. So, we'll see.

CBA: With new art?

Dave: Of course, and new covers.

CBA: Cool. You did some storyboard work for motion pictures?

Dave: Here and there, but I really don't care for it. It's mostly all think-work; just a job. You don't have to be able to draw well at all to do storyboards. And I'm more interested in putting my energies toward images that require a lot more skill and sensitivity. It's a much more satisfying investment of my time and talents, these days.

CBA: Though you worked on some notable pictures like Raiders of the Lost Ark, correct?

Dave: Yeah, the first one. I also boarded Michael Jackson's Thriller video, and there was a Godzilla in 3-D, a feature film that Steve Miner was developing with Doug Wildey and Bill Stout-it was actually Stout's gig and Doug and I just helped out on it, with a lot of presentation boards. And I did lots of storyboards for television commercials in the '70s.

CBA: What did you do on Thriller?

Dave: Shot-for-shot boards.

CBA: For the entire video?

Dave: Yeah.

CBA: Did you get a chance to meet Jackson?

Dave: I was only hired because Michael liked my work. If he hadn't, there's no way I would have gotten on.

CBA: He liked The Rocketeer?

Dave: I brought in my portfolio because John Landis had called and asked me to come in. He and I had known each other previously, and while I was there showing him what I had been working on, Michael stopped by and before I knew it he was on the floor, poring through the drawings on his hands and knees, like a little kid. He was more impressed with the more Disneyesque cartoon work I'd done because he loved animation.

CBA: He's not necessarily a comics fan?

Dave: No, not really.

CBA: Did you contribute any specific designs or was it all storyboards?

Dave: All storyboards. John's very descriptive, and he went through the whole thing with me in his office, shot-by-shot, so I knew what he wanted to see.

CBA: Spielberg is known to use boards quite a lot, right?

Dave: Oh, yeah. He's very thorough. I went in to see him on Ron Cobb's suggestion, just after Steven had completed 1941, which would have been Winter of '79. I think I was the first artist he hired for Raiders, and he had me do some large audition drawings of Indy in several key scenes from the script, so I got to style the character a bit. And that was fun. But, again, Steven loved the comics work. He liked the melodramatics of "Aurora" and whatever else I had in my portfolio at the time. He felt I was a good draftsman and was good with characters, so he wanted me on board. It was a short stint-only a couple of months, but it was a good gig while it lasted!

CBA: Do you stay in touch with celebrities you worked with?

Dave: As much as possible, but this business promotes a kind of unspoken nomadic lifestyle and people tend to drift in and out of each other's lives at random. We're almost gypsies, in a way. You can live and work closely with someone for months at a time, then not see them for five or ten years! Then suddenly, you're in a restaurant together and it's as if no time has passed. It's very strange. So some people I have kept in close contact with and others I just see whenever we work together or bump into each other.

CBA: Do you still like Hollywood?

Dave: Well, it's a love/hate relationship. I live here. I work here. I'm a big fan of good storytelling and I admire anyone who can spin a good yarn whether it's on celluloid or paper. So I enjoy the opportunity to work with these guys whenever it comes up. But, the business end of it you can have!

CBA: In a perfect world, would you like to be a film director?

Dave: In a perfect world, yeah. In the real world, no way.

CBA: So you're still avidly interested in film?

Dave: Always will be. It's the perfect blend of ideas and imagery.

Dave's pencil rough design for the cover of the first graphic novel collection. Courtesy and ©2001 Dave Stevens.

CBA: When did the idea of The Rocketeer as a motion picture begin to gel?

Dave: Well, believe it or not, from the first character sketches. I always viewed it in my mind's eye as a film. I never really looked at it as just words and pictures on paper. I saw it and I heard it in my head. So for me, it was always a film. There was never any real big jump there. But, in terms of other people getting involved, Steve Miner was the first to option the property in '83, and after that, it was in and out of development with different players for the next seven years, until we finally got a green light.

CBA: Is there any connection in your mind there that if Raiders is a retro project, why not The Rocketeer?

Dave: People have suggested that and while it may sound a bit disingenuous of me to say so now, I never thought of it as the same kind of animal at all.

CBA: Did you ever pitch Marvel or DC in an attempt to get work?

Dave: Oh, sure. I had tried to get work through Roy Thomas and Mike Friedrich at different times. In fact, Neal Adams had talked to me as early as 1973, at the San Diego Con, and told me that I could make it as an inker then, and tried to hook me up at Marvel. But, at that time, Marvel was having a real work shortage and couldn't feed their own people enough, so there was no way they were going to send anything out West. I'd had a couple of phone conversations with John Romita Sr., who was art director at the time, and he was very nice, very apologetic, but said essentially that their own employees came first. He said he'd try and do what he could to get me a Western cover to do, but it never worked out.

CBA: You didn't have any work appear in comic books in the States during the '70s?

Dave: No, no. I helped out occasionally on other artists' jobs in emergencies, if someone had a deadline and needed a hand. I worked on an early issue of Star Wars before the film came out. Howard Chaykin had done the layouts and the finishes were being done by Rick Hoberg. I inked a few odd pages, just things like that.

CBA: Why were the pages out West?

Dave: I don't really remember.

CBA: Because Roy Thomas might have been out West?

Dave: Probably. I remember that Chaykin was doing the layouts and Steve Leialoha had been doing the finishes. So it may have been for expediency in getting approvals from Lucas. I don't know.

CBA: Did you get to see an early cut of Star Wars?

Dave: Interestingly enough, I was on the set when they were filming the final Death Star scenes at Industrial Light & Magic while they were still in a little warehouse in Van Nuys. And that was... what? January of 1976? Something like that. I had gone up there to meet with Charlie Lippincott for some of the advertising art and had to show Lucas my samples. I didn't get the gig, but they gave me the 50¢ tour and I got to watch some shooting. Incidentally, that was also where I first met Joe Johnston. Who knew that 15 years later, we'd be working together on a project of mine? Strange how things dovetail, huh? Anyway, he was doing boards for some final inserts they were shooting. Then Charlie took me up to the loft and put on a reel of about 10 minutes of highlights, which nobody had seen yet. Holy Moley! I think I was literally drooling by the time it was over! It was like nothing I'd ever seen before! That was visually brand new territory...

CBA: Joe Johnston has directed some solid films, including yours!

Dave: [laughs] We thought so! We thought we had a hit!

CBA: Was he initially attached to the film?

Dave: No, originally it was William Dear.

CBA: How did The Rocketeer become a film?

Dave: Well, like I said, it went through several hands over the years. First Steve Miner for two years, then in '85, I got together with the two writers, Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo and believed in them enough to give them a free option for as long as it took to sell it because I really felt they had the right sensibility for it; they came from the same roots as me. They understood what I was reaching for. Within that same year, we met Bill Dear, who was directing Harry and the Hendersons. In fact, Bill sought us out. So, again, another kindred spirit fell in as director and co-writer. Then we just started working on the story. We soon pitched it, literally, to every studio in town and they all passed on it. This was 1986, long before Batman or Dick Tracy or anything similar. In those days, no studio was interested at all in an expensive comic book movie. We got there about three years too early for our own good!

CBA: What was your idea in the mid-'80s of what the budget would be?

Dave: Well, at first, the guys and I were thinking of doing it ourselves, as a b-&-w independent, very low-budget, like the old serials. And just making it as fun and quirky as we wanted and loading it with great faces, character actors-and just having a ball. But once Bill Dear got attached, it instantly became much bigger and we started to think that maybe we can try something more ambitious here. Plus, once we started pitching to the studios, we quickly found that no one would even look at a project that cost less than $5,000,000. No one would even talk to us! [laughs] So, we had a lot of interesting meetings with executives who passed on it but gave us some good criticisms. The last studio on the list was Disney. They took one look at it, and said "toys!" So... that's where we eventually made the deal. We originally signed on as a trilogy at Touchstone, the division of Disney doing more adult-themed films.

CBA: Did you have the whole trilogy mapped out?

Dave: Not yet, but we were working toward it... but as soon as we all signed on, [Disney executive Jeffrey] Katzenberg pulled a switch and said, "Nope, it's going to be a Disney release, because Disney needs a live-action hit." So immediately, Betty and anything else "adult" went right out with the bathwater. They really tried to shoehorn it into a kiddie property so they could sell toys. All they really wanted at the end of the day, was the name.

CBA: Did you spark to that?

Dave: Not right away. Hey, I thought it'd be great to have one or two merchandised items out there: a model of the Gee Bee, or a Rocketeer figurine, but Disney was looking to generate millions of dollars worth of stuff. That's what they specialize in: Kiddie toys, plush dolls, apparel. So, when the film didn't perform in the first couple of weeks like they'd anticipated it should, they lost faith in it, and just blew out all that merchandise to the Midwest. A lot of it was never even seen on the East or West coasts. It ended up in places like Pick 'n' Save and 99¢ stores.

CBA: Did you have any say on the comic book merchandise that Russ Heath and Neal Adams worked on?

Dave: Wherever I could I always suggested the best people I thought would be appropriate, and they listened. Because there were people in Disney publishing who I had known for years, so we agreed on most things.

CBA: Do you think that perhaps your relationship with some of the people within Disney kept some dignity to the project?

Dave: Only in as many areas as I was allowed input.

CBA: How much interactivity did you have with the actual filmmaking itself?

Dave: Well, I was on the set day and night, from pre-production till post! And initially, I had to fight to prove that I was there for the benefit of the film, and not for my own ego.

CBA: Besides the whole concept and plot, can you look at the film today and say, "This aspect is better because I was there on the set"?

Dave: Oh definitely, quite a bit. But it was only through the good graces of Joe Johnston, along with Ian Bryce, our production manager, and a handful of key crew members that I was able to be involved in the process at all.

CBA: Can you tell me a for instance?

Dave: Well, certainly, the physical look of the film... I gave the production designer [Jim Bissell] and his two art directors my entire reference library-everything I had: Blueprints for hangers and bleachers, schematics for building the autogyro, photos and drawings of the Bulldog Café, field uniforms for the air circus staff, contacts for the vintage planes we'd need, including securing the Gee Bee itself. Virtually everything of the period I either had or knew where to find it. So they literally just took the reference and built the sets.
I remember the helmet was a real problem at first. Disney wanted to change it completely. [Disney executive Michael] Eisner wanted a straight NASA-type helmet. They wanted to update the whole thing anyway, in the beginning. But fortunately for all of us, Joe told them that if they changed the helmet at all, then it was no longer The Rocketeer and he would not be interested in directing. He really stuck to his guns. So they acquiesced and tried to generate a couple of prototype helmets on their own and everyone thought they just looked terrible. I told Joe, "Look, let me get with my sculptor, give us a week and I promise we'll come up with something you can shoot." He thought about it for a second and said, "Okay." That was a major leap of faith too, because we were right down to the wire, due to start shooting in days, and getting the helmet was crucial to the context of the film (not to mention the overall importance of it as a necessary visual to market the film)-it had to be perfect! There was no room for mistakes at all. So I immediately had a cast made of our main stuntman's head, grabbed my good friend Kent Melton (who had already done the bronze Rocketeer statue) and we proceeded to brainstorm at his studio with my sketches and his expertise and came back with a helmet that really worked, from all angles. We brought it in, showed it to Joe and he smiled and said, "That's definitely the comic book!"

CBA: You said something one doesn't often hear from people who have had their properties made into films, and that was that you were satisfied with 70% of the film.

Dave: Yeah, definitely. That whole first flight sequence where he rescues Malcolm was right out of the comic, and what Joe did with it was breathtaking. I was so proud! And the overall spirit and sweetness of the series is still there, intact. We lost some good character stuff in editing for time, but the tone of it is still what I was trying to project in the comic pages. I also thought Joe's casting choices were excellent. Eddie Jones' portrayal of Malcolm was sublime! William Sanderson as Skeets, Ed Lauter, Jon Polito, all the rest of them; they gave great life to those characters. To his credit, Joe did not fill out the cast with a bunch of 90210 kids-Barbie and Ken types. Billy Campbell is a good-looking guy but he also happens to be Cliff! I would never have cast him based on good looks alone, but he came into the audition and just nailed it shut. He was made for it. The part was his.

CBA: He did the job?

Dave: Boy, did he! But, Joe really had to fight the studio for him, because understandably, they wanted a "name" actor. So Billy was a longshot in many respects, but he really came through, God bless him. I'm glad to see him finally re-emerging again, too. He's had a good couple of seasons on TV, especially this past year!

CBA: What's he doing now?

Dave: Once and Again with Sela Ward on ABC. He's doing some terrific work.

CBA: I saw him on [the Showcase mini-series] Tales of the City.

Dave: Oh, yeah. He loves to be reminded of that! [laughs] He's also just finished a film with Jennifer Lopez. He plays an absolutely wicked character. No type-casting there!

CBA: Did you ever consider pursuing acting? You have the looks...

Dave: [scoffs] No, what are you, nuts? [laughs] Never. I did enough of it in high school to realize that I was much more at home behind the scenes, doing old-age make-up or painting backdrops, or working the light board. The stagecraft of it, I really enjoyed. Being out on the apron was just too traumatic. I found it way too intimidating. I'd much rather watch someone else do it, who really enjoys it.

CBA: So you only model for yourself?

Dave: Well, Hescox used me for a number of paperback covers, and Stout used me for some of his early comics jobs, but I didn't exactly volunteer. We were just helping each other out.

CBA: What other comic stories have you done?

Dave: Not much- a couple of short stories for the anthology titles.

CBA: So it was Rocketeer, "Aurora," some sporadic inking, like this "Princess Pam"...

Dave: Yeah, there was another one for Bruce called "Fair Play" in Alien Worlds 3-D. And, I don't know, one or two other things like Bettie Page Comics, later.

Our hero, Cliff Secord: The Rocketeer! Courtesy of and ©2001 Dave Stevens.

CBA: Does it take a long time to ink?

Dave: No, actually that's the fast part.

CBA: It's the breakdowns?

Dave: The initial storyboarding and laying-out doesn't take that long unless I'm undecided on how to play out a scene, or pay it off. That can eat up time. Mostly though, it's just the drudgery of detail penciling, like I've said before. That is the most incredibly dull aspect of producing comics for me. It's like wading through mud...

CBA: It's interesting that you worked for Russ Manning, worked in a lot of studio environments in animation and you've been with a lot of workhorses, and certainly being in San Diego, you've been exposed to a lot of artists who have worked in comics who, all their lives, just really put it out. Is that part of the lesson? If you don't enjoy it, why do it?

Dave: I realized that pretty quickly, when I was 19. Quite a rude awakening, too. I knew after my stint with Russ, that particular kind of life was not what I wanted for myself. I'm just glad that I found out early and got out in the mainstream and tried a lot of other things, while I had the enthusiasm and energy. And, ironically, I was able to come back to comics years later and get the chance to produce a small handful of stories; something that I could be proud of, and have it well-received.

CBA: You were known for a lot of fan work that you did in the '70s and you were obviously interested in comics?

Dave: Oh, sure, sure.

CBA: Did you think, when you were 15, that you wanted to be a comic book artist?

Dave: Only ever.

CBA: Then by the time you're 19, you're like, absolutely not.

Dave: But, that was after doing it for a year and realizing it was not fun. The repetition of it was what was killing me. Being strapped to a drawing board for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for me, was just absolute death, and still is.

CBA: Was that part of the appeal of illustration and commercial work? That you weren't doing the same thing every day?

Dave: Every job is different, and I thrive on the variety of it, the range. Of course, you're not getting to tell a story. Instead, you have to say it all in one single image, but that's also the challenge of it. It's a constant test of your abilities as a visual communicator, or whatever you want to call yourself.

CBA: You've obviously been producing pin-up art for quite some time now. Is it satisfying and can you make a living from that?

Dave: Well, it's not all I've done, but it is something I've been known for. And, yeah, it can be satisfying in different ways, and it can provide a decent living, but it's not the end of the rainbow, by any stretch. Pin-up, by it's very nature, is fairly shallow, innocuous, flirty fluff. So, while I do enjoy it, I also have a lot of other subjects that I devote my energies toward as well.

CBA: Do you ever plan to do more comic stories?

Dave: I'd like to get the chance to package some more new Rocketeer material. I think there's still a potential audience for it, and I've got plenty of ideas! So, who knows?

For the rest of the Dave Stevens interview, be sure to order a copy of COMIC BOOK ARTIST #15, on sale now!

To make subscription and back issue orders easier for our readers (especially those overseas), we now accept VISA and MASTERCARD on our secure web store! (Phone, fax, mail and e-mail accepted, too!)
MasterCard logoVisa logo
Click to join!
Sign up here
to receive periodic updates about what's going on in the world of TwoMorrows Publishing.
New Fall/Winter catalog cover

Click here to download our new Fall-Winter catalog (2mb PDF file)

Search Search the web
All characters © their respective owners. All material © their creators unless otherwise noted. All editorial content © their respective authors.
Comic Book Artist content ©1998-2000 Jon B. Cooke/TwoMorrows. Website © 1996-2003 TwoMorrows Publishing.