It has been 40 years since Dave Stevens’ adventure comic The Rocketeer was first published in the pages of Starslayer. Despite only a handful of stories existing that feature the old school adventurer, Cliff Secord, and his friends, there is a loyal fan-base, especially within comic creators. When IDW launched a new anthology series based on the character in 2011, a host of big name creators produced a collection of short stories that read like a love letter to Stevens’ original work.
For those who don’t know, The Rocketeer is influenced by the classic Hollywood movie serials of the 1950’s and the larger than life actors of that era. Stevens’ was drawn in by the beauty of Bettie Page and the distinctive looks of actors like Rondo Hatton. The original story was an unashamed tribute to the latter day Golden Age of Hollywood, with obvious villains, larger than life stunts, and a lovable rogue for the lead. The artwork was stunning and the story pure entertainment in the vein of Indiana Jones. It is not surprising that so many within the comic industry are drawn to the potential of the character.
Over the years, a number of great creators have worked on The Rocketeer, from the likes of Mark Waid to Alex Ross, each incorporating their own idiosyncrasies into the style designed and mastered by Dave Stevens in the 1980’s. Some have been more successful than others and they have been able to capture the spirit of the character while still making it relevant to a modern audience. One look at Stephen Mooney’s previous comic work will explain exactly why he is a perfect fit for this franchise. Aside from his artistic work on titles such as Image’s The Dead Hand from 2018, written by Kyle Higgins, and Half Past Danger from IDW in 2013 with Jordie Bellaire, who has already contributed to the legend of The Rocketeer, Mooney has produced work for Dynamite’s Betty Page comics. His style is already suited to the Art Deco, romanticized Hollywood of the 1940’s and 1950’s.
The Rocketeer: The Great Race opens with a scene setting action sequence that places the story historically and thematically. A news report spreads rumors that German spies are training in the hills around California promoting Cliff Secord to don the jet-pack and fly into action. Mooney incorporates a classic superhero costume change and flight into action with the aesthetics of 1940’s adventure comics. The result is awe-inspiring and entertaining. It captures the emotional excitement of watching the adventure serials as a child and the pleasures of reading the original Stevens comic strips. The emphasis is on excitement and adventure with a side order of style.
The pacing of the artwork is superb. The story unfolds from panel to panel at a speed that matches the narrative beats. Some pages have a steady movement from top to bottom while others are more chaotic, the panels twisted by the action they contain. Mooney isn’t afraid to play with the page layouts and switches from standard layered panels to obscure panel shapes to pages without any panel borders at all, merely a collage of images laid next to and on top of each other. All of this diversity in layout is held together by the distinctive style associated with the Rocketeer.
The opening sequence not only shows off Mooney’s majesty over comic artwork but also his abilities at telling an engaging story that gives the reader everything they need to know in a short and entertaining few pages. Mooney sets the scene, the tone, and pays homage to the history of the character, in a magnificent few pages. And this approach continues throughout the rest of the comic. Mooney tells an almost perfect Rocketeer adventure using the characters and the narrative styling employed by Stevens’ 40 years ago.
One of the most pleasing aspects of this new Rocketeer comic is the vibrancy of the color. Len O’Grady makes the images leap from the page and never dampens the action in unnecessary darkness. So much of the narrative takes place under the bright blue Californian skies and O’Grady brings the visuals to life with classic cinematic coloring. The bright colors add to the playfulness of the comic but also allow O’Grady to highlight more serious elements of the script. There are panels with flat, red backgrounds that emphasis the horrors spoken in the word balloons, or contrasting colored objects that act as symbolic warnings. The entertaining pace of the comic is not broken but these occasional color shifts allow the narrative to subconsciously lay the groundwork for future twists and turns.
Shawn Lee does something similar with the lettering. Overtly playful speech balloons exaggerate elements of the script to mirror the larger than life characteristics of the cast. Meanwhile, the clever use of bold text hints at double meanings in the speech and, as with the coloring, future twists. Lee’s placement and separation of the word balloons leads the reader across the page while helping to enhance the character’s personality. And whoever’s idea it was to include thought balloons is a perfect fit for the overall design of the comic. It brings to mind early 1980’s comics and the style employed by Dave Steven’s in the original Rocketeer adventures.
From the cover to the final page, The Rocketeer: The Great Race #1 is both a thrilling ride and a beautiful homage to a forty year old franchise. Mooney shows the utmost respect for the original material and he clearly enjoys playing in Stevens’ sandbox. The artwork, colors, and lettering, all invoke a classic Hollywood aesthetic that compliments the high adventure narrative. Not all of the stories in the franchise have captured the essence of the original or do the character justice, however, The Great Race could have come straight from the pen of Stevens himself. It is a near perfect follow up to the original.
Mooney, O’Grady, and Lee are clearly fans of Stevens’ work and their excitement for the character is evident from the pages in The Great Race. First and foremost this comic is a piece of entertainment that one hundred percent succeeds in this role. However, the comic is so much more as it is tied to comic and cinematic history. It has depth and a pedigree worthy of study. The Rocketeer: The Great Race is a pleasure to read and will demand more attention from you than you might expect.