When I was a Freshman in college, there were these two seniors, Danny and Paul, that I only knew in passing, but they were always talking about this film project they were going to do, or wanted to do, or were in development hell with. Honestly, I don’t remember that was way way long ago in the days when people carried beepers and you didn’t need a payday advance to buy a tank of gas. It sounded neat though, a homage to 1940s action serials about some young pilot who somehow ends up using a jet-pack to stop spies.
Well, it turns out that those seniors were Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo and the movie project they were talking about was, of course, The Rocketeer, under performing in its initial 1991 run but quickly becoming a cult classic. Based on the character created by the late Dave Stevens for his 1982 comic series, which, incidentally featured characters from both Doc Savage and The Shadow, the Rocketeer is basically the story of Cliff Secord, a ne’er do well stunt pilot who ends up in the possession of a jet-pack created by Howard Hughes himself after the invention is stolen by Nazis. From initial back up features in the end pages of other comic books, eventually the series was picked up by Dark Horse Comics before ending up with IDW Publishing.
This month sees a new creative team on the book, Mark Waid and Chris Samnee and they are a perfect team to present this new story. Going back to those old tales of mysterious items retrieved by shady men who are paid well for their silence, layered perfectly within the slice of life story of the flying circus that our stunt pilot hero works for attempting to comply with the regulations of the newly formed CAA, this book could easily have been presented in one of those old serials. Paying your nickel, sitting through the cartoon, and watching as the Rocketeer faces down those villains in glorious black and white! But presented in this comic book format, it’s even better. From the open sequence when the plucky young tomboy Sally bravely faces the near disaster of a handsy inspector nearly causing a crash (thankfully averted by the titular hero) to the gruesome sight of whatever horror is being shipped by a half lobotomized madman ripping the hands off a careless sailor, to the back and forth, on again off again romance of Cliff and his bombshell girlfriend Bettie, there is not a moment wasted in this book, but that’s to be expected from old DC and Marvel veteran Mark Waid.
I’ve been a fan of Waid since back in 2002 when he made me give a darn about the Fantastic Four again, and he doesn’t disappoint. One of my pet peeves, I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, is when a writer gives his characters all the same voice (Bendis, I’m looking at YOU), but with Waid, that is never a problem. Every line of dialog fits the character who speaks it, not a word is a wasted, not a moment missed. The story is intriguing enough that though this is issue one and so just an establishing issue, that it never has that “just blow something up already” feeling that I can often get from story starts. What IS the mysterious object in the crate, some sort of animal by those eyes that peered from it… or is it some mythical monster, or mad man in chains? Why is it coming to Los Angeles? And why is the eerie Master who ordered it so interested in the Rocketeer?! Tune in next time, kids!
Art by Chris Samnee suits this story absolutely perfectly, every character just that perfect mix of archetype and convention without crossing the line into caricature. The initial drawings, even before Jordie Bellaire’s perfectly executed colors are alive with movement. No one stands still and passively looks at stuff. Everyone runs with long legged strides and fiercely pumping arms. The Rocketeer shoots through the sky at the end of a plume of dramatic smoke. Expressions are readable and filled with emotion. Pant legs wrinkle and hair moves in the wind. Thick guttered rectangular panels are only broken occasionally but only with major impact, and eye catching drama. Story telling is never stagnant, and even the most mundane of backgrounds are so lovingly rendered, it’s hard to not picture Samnee basing these places on actual locations. But it’s the last page as Cliff and Bettie, at last share a long denied kiss, framed by the shadowy figure that lurches out of the night that sticks with you when you close the book.
This book is a definite purchase, for not just fans of the franchise, but also just lovers of a simpler time in storytelling. A time when a man was a man, a lady was a lady, good guys were good, bad guys were bad, and cliffhangers brought you back for more.
Written by Mark Waid
Art by Chris Samnee