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.
A WELCOME NOSTALGIA
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a similar preoccupation: the fanciful, sword-swinging adventures of yesteryear's John Carter or Flash Gordon had long been replaced by grim, techno-centric fiction, from Asimov's groundbreaking robot stories to the the burgeoning cyberpunk genre -- computers galore!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.