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Jesse Hamm

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DAVE STEVENS: An Appreciation [Mar. 13th, 2008|07:52 am]
Jesse Hamm

Artist Dave Stevens died of cancer the other day, at the age of 52. As is often the case when we lose a great talent, his passing prompted many to consider what they value in his work. Here are a few things I value about the work of Dave Stevens.


The property Stevens is best-known for, The Rocketeer, was originally commissioned as a short back-up story in a comic book, and was written and drawn when Stevens was 27.

For a young cartoonist looking to make his mark, there's significant pressure to conform to current trends in popular culture. The Rocketeer debuted in 1982, amid countless tales of dystopic, hi-tech futures. Popular films of the era included Alien ('79), The Black Hole ('79), Moonraker ('79), The Empire Strikes Back ('80), Tron ('82), Star Trek II ('82), E.T. ('82), Blade Runner ('82), War Games ('83), Superman III ('83) -- all of which dealt heavily with advanced computer technology. Sci-fi novels reflected a similar preoccupation: the fanciful, sword-swinging adventures of yesteryear's John Carter or Flash Gordon had long been replaced by grim, techno-centric fiction, from Asimov's groundbreaking robot stories to the the burgeoning cyberpunk genre -- computers galore! Comics, too, shared this fascination with grim futures and advanced technologies. The X-Men had just finished one of their most popular story arcs ever, a dark epic involving space travel and killer robots, and Starslayer, the comic in which The Rocketeer would debut, was itself a space opera. In such an environment, it would make perfect sense for a young science fiction writer to dream up a pessimistic story of a high-tech future.

Stevens did just the opposite.

The Rocketeer transported readers back to the '30s, where the only fictional technology was -- wonder of wonders! -- one simple gasoline-powered rocket-pack. No computers, no Orwellian dystopia, no cityscapes or vehicles inspired by sci-fi giants Syd Mead or Moebius. Just the tale of a small rocket, an optimistic everyman, his crusty pal Peevy, and a curvy love interest. What was Stevens thinking? It's apparent that market appeal never entered his mind. His interests had more to do with the heart: his was in a charming '30s adventure serial, and his readers could like it or lump it.

Happily, readers loved it, paving the way to more stories, and to one of the first -- and best -- film adaptations of an independent comic book: 1991's The Rocketeer. The film didn't do as well as Stevens or the studio had hoped, but it is well cast, well made, and faithful to the fun, free-wheeling spirit of the comic. With one movie and a handful of comic stories, Stevens left fans with an earnest, spirited, well done story of a kind too rarely seen in modern science fiction: light-hearted and low-tech.


Stevens was a masterful draftsman, and has been called one of the best comic book artists of the past three decades.

His inked linework, in particular, gains praise from fans and pros alike. Admirers often describe it as "lush" or "sensuous," adjectives that are hard to define where line is concerned. To me, these words describe how an artist "sweetens the form" by alternating thick and tapered lines to suggest nuances of shape and volume. Notice in this sample how Stevens tapers his lines to delicate points, and curves them carefully around the form:

In a Stevens drawing, muscles are sinewy, leather is shiny, cloth is pliant, hair is soft, fat is supple -- and each of these textures is accomplished by a delicate tapering and bending of lines.

This approach to line drawing was more common in the '40s, when cartooning was closer to its roots in classical art. Note the Rubenesque curves and volumes depicted by the finessed brushwork of cartoonists like Hal Foster, Alex Raymond, Will Eisner, Raeburn Van Buren, Ogden Whitney, Lou Fine, Frank Frazetta, and Matt Baker. Whatever their skill levels, a common goal among '40s artists was evident: to capture the tactile qualities of the pictured objects -- flesh, cloth, or otherwise -- by use of feathered shading and varied thicknesses of line.

But this approach had become passé by the early 1960's (when editors enraged Frazetta with the news that his style was "too old fashioned" to be published). Comics had been conquered by a new, streamlined style: an inorganic look combining straighter lines with geometric curves and corners, exemplified in the art of powerhouses like Alex Toth, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane, Ross Andru, Mike Sekowsky, and their inkers. Whether readers could "feel" subtle textures in their mind's eye was no longer of great concern. Like a no-nonsense typeface, this stark new approach was easily readable, echoed design trends in other contemporary industries, and was friendlier to reproduction methods of the day.

By the time Stevens came of age, the lush, feathered linework he favored had all but disappeared. Popular cartoonists of the period -- from John Byrne and George Perez in the mainstream to the likes of Dave Sim or Jaime Hernandez -- continued to favor more uniform lineweights, as did popular inkers like Terry Austin, Al Gordon, Bob Wiacek, etc. Even those mavericks who favored a traditional, painterly approach often leaned toward a rough, loose look (art team Steve Bissette & John Totleben, inker Dan Green) that parted ways with the careful precision of the '40s. Bernie Wrightson, perhaps the most visible remaining adherent to that classical, feathered-line approach, was already moving away from the comics field and into film work and book illustration.

But Stevens knew where his heart was. Although his earliest work experiences were in the company of such masters as Mike Sekowsky, Russ Manning, and Russ Heath -- all of whom favored inorganic lines -- he continued to swim against the current, imbuing his drawings with the sensitive, nuanced lines of a latter-day Frazetta. Comics are the richer for it. Though I myself usually prefer "dead" lineweights to such nuanced work, it's impossible to ignore excellence in any approach -- especially one so uncommon, and so hard to master. In the drawings of Dave Stevens, that approach never looked better.


Also notable is the attention Stevens paid in his drawings to unremarkable subject matter. To be sure, most of his drawings feature attractive women, which places him squarely in the camp of "good girl" artists. But while typical good girl artists devote all their attention to the women in their drawings, glossing over the less glamorous elements, Stevens lavished equal care on subtleties of form wherever they could be found. Whether in a woman's curves, or in the creases of a man's old shoe, Stevens's passion for form was always evident. Note the loving attention he pays to every detail of this homely face:

Or the care he lavishes on every wrinkle of the Rocketeer's jacket:

Any halfway decent artist can attract attention with drawings of pretty nudes, but Stevens regularly accomplished the harder task of enlivening small beauties we would otherwise have missed.

ON A MORE PERSONAL NOTE, let me add that I had the pleasure of talking to Stevens occasionally, at comic conventions. He was always pleasant and gracious, and presented himself and his wares with a professionalism that's rare among cartoonists. I shudder to think what impression I left on this well-dressed, well-mannered pro when I was a slovenly teen. (Now that I'm a slovenly adult, I have even more respect for the composure he showed at convention after convention; it isn't easy to appear upbeat and organized while exhibiting at those things.)

Everything I've read since Stevens's passing indicates that he left a good impression on everyone else who met him, too. I recall hovering over Adam Hughes's table during a WonderCon back in '92. Hughes had finished drawing a commission of The Shadow, and excused himself to hurry over and show it to Dave, for feedback. Respected artists are often known to be prickly and difficult, but Hughes's "kid brother" enthusiasm toward Stevens is a sign to me that Stevens was neither of those things. Here's hoping professionals will continue to follow his example, whatever their status.

The illness that killed Stevens was leukemia. Any fatal illness is awful, but as a leukemia survivor myself, and after losing my grandfather and mother to cancer, I'm hit with a personal sense of that special brand of crap Dave must have faced during his final months. That he bore it without complaining, by all accounts, is a testament to his character.

Thanks Dave, for the examples you set in life and art.

[User Picture]From: jbacardi
2008-03-13 03:15 pm (UTC)
Nicely done, but I don't know if I can agree with your appraisal of Russ Manning's line as "inorganic". It seems to have a lot more in common with the Burne Hogarths and Frank Frazettas than it does the Kirbys and Sekowskys, and Stevens' work has always reminded me of Manning's circa his early 60's Magnus salad days.
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2008-03-13 03:40 pm (UTC)
Well, Stevens denied (in his Comic Book Artist Magazine interview) that Manning was an influence on his style.

I think Manning's lines, though more fluid than those of Kirby et al, tend to have a geometric look, and to have uniform lineweights. I'd say the same of Hogarth, too.
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[User Picture]From: jbacardi
2008-03-13 03:48 pm (UTC)
Hm. I read that interview, but I don't remember him saying that. Of course, I also have a less than photographic memory, too! Oh well...

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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2008-03-13 04:00 pm (UTC)
Yeah, that interview was pretty packed.

The relevant line:

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.

But whether Manning influenced Stevens or not, he did fine work. Coincidentally, he also died of cancer at age 52.
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[User Picture]From: andrewfarago
2008-03-13 08:17 pm (UTC)
Great stuff, Jesse!

Any idea how much of Stevens's comic book work (not counting the covers) is actually available to readers? I've got the Rocketeer graphic novel that covers the origin story, but I've seen miscellaneous other covers posted in the past few days, so I'm guessing that I've got a few more books to track down.
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2008-03-13 10:45 pm (UTC)
Thanks Andrew.

Hm, that's a tough one. He did a 15 page story when he was around 22 that is reprinted in Alien Worlds #2, and he inked/finished a 4 page story drawn by Bruce Jones for Alien Worlds #4. I think that was his only non-Rocketeer comics work (not counting assistant work on backgrounds for Russ Manning in '75 or so).

For The Rocketeer, I think he did a little over 100 pages. There were back-up stories in Starslayer #2 & 3, two issues published by Pacific ("Pacific Presents" #1 & 2), and a one-shot published by Eclipse ("The Rocketeer Special Edition") -- all of which I *think* was collected in Eclipse's a 63 page graphic novel, "The Rocketeer." (Which is probably what you have.)

Then there were Comico's two issues of "The Rocketeer Adventure Magazine," plus a third issue of the same series published by Dark Horse, which was all collected in Dark Horse's "The Rocketeer: Cliff's New York Adventure." Some of that material was pencilled by Kaluta, Plunkett, Jaime Hernandez, and Art Adams, and inked/finished by Stevens. (You know you're slow when you must rely on Art Adams to pick up your slack...)

So as a sequential artist, he clocks in at well under 130 pages. His popularity-to-output ratio is probably the highest of any cartoonist.

(There was also a Rocketeer movie adaptation drawn by Russ Heath. It's not Stevens, but if you're hungry for more Rocketeer comics, you can't do better than Heath!)
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[User Picture]From: andrewfarago
2008-03-13 11:58 pm (UTC)
Were the movie adaptation and the 3-D special different projects? I know that I bought at least one, and seem to remember Neal Adams drawing one of them...maybe he drew the 3-D and Heath drew the regular adaptation?

What's Frank Frazetta's total comics output? I know that he ghosted for Al Capp for a while, but the few full comic book stories that he drew are really highly regarded, too. Alex Toth was more prolific than either of them, but he'd still be on my short list on that popularity-to-output list.
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2008-03-14 12:56 am (UTC)
Yeah, the 3-D book by Neal Adams was different from the movie adaptation by Heath, though they both came out the year of the movie. (I think Heidi MacDonald featured Adams's Rocketeer in her Stevens obit. D'oh!)

Frazetta did various short pieces here and there during the late '40s and early '50s, including 5 romance stories I can think of offhand, some White Indian stuff, an EC crime story called Squeeze Play, some Shining Knight for DC, a one-shot called Thunda, several funny animal stories, a kiddie comic called Snow Man, and various odds 'n' ends, plus occasional collaborations with other EC guys like Williamson. He also drew a short story for Warren in the '60s, and drew a newspaper strip called Johnny Comet for a year or two in the '50s, along with 8 or 9 years of drawing Al Capp Sundays. I'm sure he drew more comic pages than Stevens even without the strip work, but not by a wide margin.

Toth was actually pretty prolific. Apart from his two years in the army and his years spent in and out of animation, he did about as much as the average full-time cartoonist. The reason he's less visible than his contemporaries is that he rarely worked on characters that publishers see fit to reprint. But he drew thousands of pages.
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2008-03-14 12:59 am (UTC)
*I just checked; Heidi removed the Adams pic.
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[User Picture]From: andrewfarago
2008-03-14 06:17 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the clarification. You're absolutely right that I think of Toth's body of work being smaller than it is due to the lack of reprints available. I remember seeing a Toth-drawn "Real McCoys" comic at Shaenon's uncle's house a couple of years ago, and I'd bet that there are plenty of other books he drew for now-defunct properties featuring now-unmarketable characters. Aside from Manuel Auad's books, the occasional Zorro collection, the "Ghost of the Killer Skies" Batman story, a story in a recent SuperFriends comic collection a couple of Black Canary stories in the Black Canary Archives, there's not a lot of Toth work that's readily available.

The admiration for Toth and Stevens based on pages that you can actually see on any given trip to your local comic shop is pretty impressive, in that regard.
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From: (Anonymous)
2008-03-14 11:40 pm (UTC)
Steranko might give him a run for his money in having high popularity and relatively low output.
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[User Picture]From: andrewfarago
2008-03-13 10:45 pm (UTC)
And in answer to my own question, the follow-up to the original storyline was collected in a severely out-of-print book called "Cliff's New York Adventure," which is available used from Amazon.com for $90. I think I'll try to track down the individual magazines from the early 1990s to see if I can get those a bit cheaper.
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[User Picture]From: ndgmtlcd
2008-03-14 12:05 am (UTC)
Yes, that 1991 film was quite a good surprise for me. I didn't know that it was an adaptation of a US comic. I don't follow the big-output US comic scene much. I just learned this week that Dave Stevens existed. I know about Russ Manning because of my love of science fiction (I'm slowly trying to collect the entire original run of the Robot Fighter series) and I can see the places where they come near and go apart, with the Stevens examples you put up.

I only know Bernie Wrightson thru his captain Stern adventures, which were translated in French and published in a costly hardbound BD, and I loved it, all of it, but I don't see much in common with Stevens in there, art-wise. It was probably not typical Wrightson output?
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2008-03-14 12:40 am (UTC)
Wrightson's '70 output had more carefully feathered inking than his Stern stuff. For instance, here's a sample of his Swamp Thing:

His Frankenstein illustrations are also incredibly detailed, though he mostly used hatching on those, rather than feathering.
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[User Picture]From: david_porta
2008-03-21 05:45 am (UTC)



"Stevens did just the opposite."

Excellent. I never thot of it that way. Of course you are correct.

But how do you see these things?

I was late 20s, newly Christian. I remember being at Golden Apple Comics on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood, flipping through the new issue of Starslayer from Pacific Comics (issue #2), not liking the Mike Grell, but loving anything by Sergio Aragonés. It featured the 2nd appearance of Groo (he had first appeared in Destroyer Duck #1, which I had previously bought). The first chapter of The Rocketeer must have looked good to my art-discerning eye. I bought the comic. Still have it.

I never thot of it in the context of what was popular at the time. The sort of stuff that made money for Marvel and DC was one thing. Then there was the phenomenon of new companies proliferating, all about that time.

Pacific Comics, Eclipse Comics, First Comics and Comico were all new comics companies at about that time, and these were indie companies (as they were then called) producing a host of amazing things. MAC & Beatty's Ms. Tree was a private eye series at a time when private eye comics were mainly an artifact of the '40s and '50s (Kitchen Sink in 1982 had a couple of years or so earlier taken over from Warren the task of reprinting The Spirit). Doug Wildey's Rio was a traditional cowboy comic at a time when the western genre, sans gimmicks (e.g. Jonah Hex), was history. Chaykin's American Flagg, rather than "techno-centric" (as you call it), was using SF to comment on politics, sex, the media, sex, race/religion, sex, and Hollywood. Hunt & Dixon's Evangeline was a killer nun. Mage was boring and pretentious. Morrow's Edge of Chaos was a new take on Hercules. Alien Worlds and Twisted Tales were E.C. knock-offs. Gerber & Kirby's Destroyer Duck was satire. Staton's E-Man revival was satire humor. The Spirit monthly included a feature segment of new realism by Will Eisner which would soon morph into Will Eisner's Quarterly and end up collected as reality-based graphic novels. And Pekar, whose reality-based autobiographical American Splendor I didn't glom to until years later, was cranking out one issue a year from Cleveland.

Their market share was small, but, as a comics fan, I was looking at what *I* liked. Sure, DC was doing amazing things with Swamp Thing then, with Alan Moore. X-Men was still hot stuff from Marvel. But these small companies were giving comics creators the opportunity to produce different kinds of comics. Dave Stevens.

Dave Stevens helped make an amazing time in comics history all the more amazing.

"Stevens did just the opposite."

Yes, he did.

I guess sometimes one can't see the forest for the trees. I suppose I was too close to what was happening to notice the larger context. A young man like you, Jesse, looking at it as history, can see it with fresh eyes that those of us who lived through it don't necessarily have. (Plus, you are brilliant.) All I knew then was that Dave Stevens was a major talent, a new discovery for me, and I was happy to have found such great comics.

"A welcome nostalgia"? I understand true "nostalgia" as a feeling for a past one has actually experienced, and which one may remember selectively. I don't believe that nostalgia is the right word for period comics, any more than it is the right word for my enjoyment of music from WWII. I wasn't there. it's not true nostalgia. But it is a common phenomenon, and Dave Stevens participated in it, whatever one wants to call it.

An enjoyment of what has gone before.

Ellison, in his foreword to the original collected Rocketeer, remarked that Stevens could identify a 1930s jazz recording and the musicians playing on it, just by listening. I don't call that nostalgia. I call it a love of great OLD STUFF. Heh.

Dave Stevens was one of US! He liked the good OLD STUFF. And he brought us comics that evoked/portrayed a past time, fictional, as he saw and felt it.

We still have that.

Dave Stevens.

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From: williamstout
2011-05-11 06:06 pm (UTC)

Dave Stevens

Having a guy like Dave Stevens (and the art he produced) in our lives gives us all something to aspire to.

Dave marched to his own attractive drummer, thank god.
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From: (Anonymous)
2014-05-07 05:53 pm (UTC)
Dave was a nice guy, and a fabulous artist, but that and a quarter won't buy you a cup of joe. He had enormous talent. His work was polished and professional at every stage and you can tell that he studied every nuance of the figure, every lie of the face. And more, he had a balanced style, a firm grasp on the line and it's varying weight being SO important. He is, without a doubt one of, if not the best, inkers that ever lived.

Great guy, great artist, and great God, died WAAAAAAAY too soon,

God Bless you Dave,

Mark Boyd
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2014-05-07 06:04 pm (UTC)
Thanks for commenting, Mark. Yeah, his inks were wonderful. Not only skillful but full of panache.
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