I remember the first time I saw Dave Stevens’ art. It was in an obscure little backup strip for a long-forgotten comic called Starslayer, published in 1982 by a now long-gone publisher called Pacific Comics. Pacific had just launched their own line of independent comics, and each cover had the prominent blurb “For the NEW Era in Comics.” Well, the lead story in this issue, drawn by the then-popular Mike Grell was nice. But this “Rocketeer” backup? That was the real deal. Filled with gorgeous art-deco art and wonderful character design, the second story easily outclassed its lead feature. This backup really did seem to represent the potential of a new era in comics.
The next issue had the second episode of “The Rocketeer,” and my passion for Dave Stevens’ work grew with the introduction of the incomparable Betty Page, a voluptuous raven-haired beauty who captured my imagination, as well as the imagination of many other young men interested in comics. Betty was simply the sexiest girl in comics at the time, and I would have followed her anywhere.
Stevens had that kind of power over many readers. Despite a publishing history that could charitably be called erratic – a mere eight comics with “Rocketeer” stories appeared between 1982 and 1995, from four different publishers – the comic still proved to be fantastically popular. Stevens became a comics legend despite, or maybe because of, the fact that readers seldom got to see his art.
Stevens became legendary for his insistence that he only produce comic art that was of very high quality. It was better to be good than to be fast, he seemed to be saying, a radical attitude at the time but one that’s become much more pervasive today. He was meticulous to an absurd extent, his perfectionist attitude causing Stevens to redo panels time and again until he was completely satisfied with them.
This painstaking attitude may have come in part as a reaction from the fact that Stevens did so much advertising and film work. As Stevens told Gary Groth in a 1987 Comics Journal interview, “[The Rocketeer is] a labor of love, and the only reason I’m doing it is because I feel I have to. No matter how much work you do for that director or that advertising agency, it’s never really satisfying.”
But professional work was much more lucrative than drawing comics narratives, which is part of the reason we saw so little interior work by Stevens over the years. After a few years working as an assistant to the legendary Russ Manning on the Tarzan newspaper strip, Stevens went to work in 1977 for Hanna-Barbera animation, where he worked with a number of prominent artists, including his longtime friend Doug Wildey. Wildey, by the way, was the inspiration and model for “Rocketeer” character Peevey.
Stevens also worked as a storyboard artist on Raiders of the Lost Ark, an artist on the Star Wars newspaper strip, a designer for Mattel, including work on Masters of the Universe, and a freelancer for card companies, among other gigs.
After the success of The Rocketeer, Stevens became well known as a “glamour” artist, producing numerous sexy pin-ups for magazines and private commissions, including more of the sexy Bettie Page. In an ironic twist, Stevens became a caretaker and friend for the real Bettie Page during her later years, helping her to do basic daily tasks around the house and even helping Bettie cash her Social Security checks.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Stevens’ death from leukemia is that readers never got to see Stevens do the kind of work he dreamed of doing.
In an interview with Jon Cooke in 2001, published in Comic Book Artist, Stevens summed up his dreams for the next few years rather poignantly as “To keep publishing quality art of some kind, that excites and satisfies me. Of course, it’s always preferable to produce it on your own terms rather than somebody else’s. So it’s a balancing act, between making a living and feeling like you’re still contributing something of value that people may respond to. That’s why I’ve been concentrating more and more on painting, lately. The act of painting from life shows me how much more my art can become, if I just stick with it and keep learning and studying and moving forward. And, God willing, I hope to be around long enough to eventually achieve some work of that caliber.”
I never got the chance to meet Dave Stevens, but there are many wonderful reminiscences of him on the web. He was apparently a kind and intelligent man, a snappy dresser and a very passionate artist. Dave Stevens was a real original.