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Tue, December 15th, 2009 at 2:28pm PST | Updated: December 15th, 2009 at 7:06pm

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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THE ROCKETEER, COLLECTED AT LAST

If you're like me, your total exposure to "The Rocketeer" is the Disney movie from the early 1990s. It's a great one, to be sure. For a long time, it stood atop my personal list of Favorite Comic Book Movies. It's had some competition in the last decade, and the horrible lackluster DVD transfer hasn't helped. (Disney: I'd pay good money for a cleaned-up and restored print on Blu-ray.)

Wait, that's not entirely true. There was an article in "Comics Scene" magazine at the time of the movie that showed off some of Dave Stevens' original artwor, along with some of Neal Adams' storyboard work for the movie.

But that's it. I never read the comic. Honestly, it hasn't been an easy thing to do for a long time. A new issue of the series hasn't been published in 20 years, since about the time of the movie. IDW changes that this week with the publication of "The Complete Rocketeer." In its Deluxe Edition, it's a beautiful, Absolute-style reprinting of the original material, accompanied by over 100 pages of wonderful sketchbook material, commentary, covers, and more. It's a treasure trove of art from a man best known for his exacting style, done at larger-than-original size, in hardcover, complete with a slipcase (for the Deluxe edition).

For those not in the know, "The Rocketeer" is set in the late 1930s and stars Cliff Secord, a hot-headed flyboy who works as a stunt pilot in air shows, and whose brief dalliance with Hollywood was a clash of egos he couldn't win. So he left. Or maybe I'm reading into that too far. But out of it came a relationship with a knockout beauty named Betty. Yes, she was blatantly modeled on Betty Page, and Jennifer Connelly was the perfect bit of casting for the movie to play her.

Eventually, Secord comes into possession of a stolen rocket pack that straps onto a man's back and allows him to fly around. With the help of his mechanic/father-figure, Peevy, he learns to use it, with plans to make money as an Air Show Spectacle. It never quite works out that way, for reasons of international spying, governmental interference, and general tomfoolery.

There are gun fights, car chases, plane crashes, and feats of derring do. It's pulpy adventure at its finest, with what appear to be meticulously researched period piece cars, guns, and fashions. I believed it, which makes it good enough, at the very least. Stevens' art is meticulous when he lavishes the detail on people, most notably Betty, and his planes are believable and steal the show every time they rise into the sky. If there happens to be a person attached to the wing, all the better.

Laura Martin's new coloring for this volume is perfect. There's not a color out of place. It's relatively subdued, often very earth-toned and subtle. Best of all, it's very bright. It doesn't try to make a dark mood with dark colors, or to paint everything ultra-realistically. There are hints of shadows and some minor sculpting bits here, but none of it is there to show off the coloring. It faintly resembles more of the air brushed look of higher end comic coloring from the time "The Rocketeer" was originally published, so it fits right in. It's there to make the art look as good as possible. And it succeeds.

The only sore spot in the book is the lettering. Stevens is a great storyteller, but his panel layouts could have been a bit better prepared. Sometimes, panels seem to expand or shrink to fit the space of the page, as opposed to the action inside the panels. This is further magnified by a basic issue with comics construction: When two people on opposite sides of the panel are talking, I often read their balloons out of order. Stevens is trying to force your eye from upper left to upper right and then zig zagging back down to lower left, before the eye is supposed to hope to the next panel on the right.

It's also a generational difference in comics creation, though, isn't it? We're so accustomed to the relatively stiff and formalizing computer lettering of today that those larger hand-drawn balloons and letters can stick out like sore thumbs to us. The visual language of comics has been changed by computers to a certain degree.

But it's more than just that. Stevens packs his pages with panels, to the point where a climactic moment when a plane crashes into a water tower and water flies everywhere is tucked neatly into the top left corner of the page, barely making it a half width of the tier of panels. It's all about moving things along and getting more things to happen. What is 100+ pages from the 1980s here would be twice as many in the 2000s, with the way comic stories are told.

But here's the catch: There's not a lot there. Don't get me wrong: it's beautiful stuff and I loved every page of it. But "The Rocketeer" didn't have a terribly prolific publishing schedule. I always knew Dave Stevens didn't product that much stuff, but there's barely 150 pages worth of story in this book. When it ended, I was interested in the next chapter of the story, and sad that it would never come. I mean, the book ends, basically, in a personal cliffhanger, with another twist in the on-going relationship between Cliff Secord and Betty. Beautifully drawn, greatly teasing, but final. That's it. Time for the bonus materials.

It's sad that a book so beautifully done and so well respected just sorta ended like that.

There's a bunch more in the Deluxe Edition, though. I can't remember the last book I saw with this much bonus material in it. There's something like 130 pages of sketchbook material, pencil layouts, covers (reprinted at full-page size!), and commentary running alongside it. It's a treasure trove for process junkies. Those pages I saw that reminded me of Art Adams' style? Turns out Art Adams penciled them. Samples are included, with quotes from Adams, in the bonus material. There are models Stevens drew for figurines, layouts for collectible prints, original pencils for pages that changed direction midway through production.

The only other thing I might have liked to see in this book is a bit of historical perspective. The two page introduction by Thomas Jane -- a friend of Stevens', and not just a Hollywood "name" meant to sell copies -- is nice and all, but I'd have loved something along the lines of what "The Family Circus" got, or even "Bloom County." Give me some history on how the series started, how long it lasted, and why it ended. I know there's a whole biography out there on Stevens that covers all of this material, but I haven't read it yet. I would love to, and hopefully someday will.

None of these quibbles should take away from what is a very nice packaging of materials that so very much deserve them. The reproduction quality is top notch. There's not a moment in this book where I see pixilation or scratches or incomplete lines. This looks like a high-end production. You're getting your money's worth that way. Given how these books were originally published, that's no mean feat.

The bonus materials are like having a second book, though you are paying for it. The no-frills edition is $30. The Deluxe Edition is $75 for 276 pages total (with two beautiful fold-outs), and includes a slipcase.

It'll all be in stores this week for you. If you need more convincing, Chris Ryall has pics of the book at his blog. If they don't make you drool, I don't know what will.

BEST BOOKS OF THE DECADE IS ALWAYS A FARCE

The 2000s were my second complete decade of serious comics collecting. It's also the one in which my tastes expanded, the amount of good reading material grew, and then, ironically, I ran out of time for the volume of comics I grew used to reading.

Now it's the time to reflect on the decade. In internet bloggity-blog terms, that means Top 10 lists. Why? Numbered lists drive traffic. Check out the headlines on any social networking site like Digg.com. Second, Top 10 lists are argumentative. Their creation is suspect, and the audience for them likes being whipped into a frenzied state of commenting, which drives the hits and increases ad revenues. I guess not everyone realizes this, because there are still people outraged by them.

Why do people get outraged by Top Ten lists? I mean, really, they're all intensely personal things. It all depends on what the person coming up with one has read. Nobody's read all the comics, so nobody can truly do a Best Comics of the Decade list. And if they did read them all, their tastes aren't necessarily the same as everyone else's. All this whining and moaning and Sturm und Drang every time someone comes up with a list is petty and old and, frankly, a waste of time and typing.

People like to talk about how they've grown past superhero comics and so, too, should everyone else's Top Ten lists, but then they whine at top ten lists that only include superhero titles like superhero fanboys locked in their mother's basements upset that this week's "Superman" artist drew the spit curl clockwise instead of counter clockwise. See the irony here?

No Top Ten list is going to be right. Not the one that includes ten literary comics (no doubt topped by Chris Ware), nor the one obsessed with company-wide crossovers, nor the all-manga one. I look at the lists and am reminded of the good reads that they mention that I've already read, and chalk up the others as things that might be a good idea to look into some day. I'm not horrified that the lists are "wrong" somehow.

Besides, how can you pick ten comics out of the tens of thousands that were released in the last decade? Heck, how can you do one for just the last year, where thousands of comics were released? There's no way that list of ten will include all the special interest groups on-line who demand their spot on the list: manga, auto-biographical, mini-comics, superhero comics, European translation, female creators, female characters, GLBT comics and their creators, etc. etc. I just listed nine groups of fandom looking to be outraged, and you've only got ten spots on your list. Good luck.

I haven't figured out what my Top Ten list of the decade would be, though I imagine it would include "Ultimate Spider-Man," thus invalidating it in several of the tastemakers' eyes. Fooey on them. I like what I like. And your list with Chris Ware and Grant Morrison and Rumiko Takahashi isn't wrong for not including it. We just read and/or liked different things.

Good for us.

Like most internet arguments, this winds up circling the drain as a battle of semantics. That's why I talked about my "favorite" comics of the year when did such lists, and not "best" comics. If everyone just switched to that term, we could probably all get along a little better.

Or, if someone finds a way to quantify "best," please send me the algorithm and I'd be more than happy to apply it to my collection for you.

That said, I took a look at my spreadsheets of purchases over the last decade to see if there was any hope for a "Favorite Comics of the Decade" list for me. There's really not. My collection is in a state of controlled chaos, my memory for specific timeframes is a jumbled mess, as the years blend together the older you get, and I'm sure I've read more than what I have listed here.

But, for giggles, here's some books that I pulled out on my first pass towards making a "Favorites of the Oughts" list. Again, keep in mind that some of these books are in here for highly personal reasons. Some are absent because I didn't write them down when I bought them. Some will likely tick you off. I'm OK with that. It's my favorites list, not anyone else's. I'm not pretending like this is definitive, because, as I just explained, such a thing cannot exist.

First Pass at Favorite Comics of the Decade:

  • "Astonishing X-Men" is my favorite X-Men title of the decade.

  • "Batgirl" (see Pipeline Retro)

  • "Batman: Gotham Adventures" by Scott Peterson and Tim Levin
  • "Blacksad"

  • "Captain America" by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting (mostly)

  • "Daredevil" by Brian Bendis and Alex Maleev

  • "Fantastic Four" by Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo

  • "Hellboy: BPRD" by John Arcudi and Guy Davis

  • "Invincible" by Robert Kirkman and friends

  • "Irredeemable Ant Man" by Robert Kirkman and Phil Hester

  • "JLA/Avengers" by Kurt Busiek and George Perez

  • "My Monkey's Name is Jennifer" because every list needs chaos

  • "Queen and Country"

  • "Ruse" by Mark Waid and Butch Guice

  • "Savage Dragon" by Erik Larsen

  • "Scion" by Ron Marz and Jimmy Cheung

  • "She-Hulk" by Dan Slott and friends

  • "The Ultimates" by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch

  • "Top Ten" by Alan Moore, Gene Ha, and Zander Cannon

  • "Ultimate Spider-Man"

  • "The Walking Dead"

  • "Wildcats" by Joe Casey and Sean Philips

  • "Young Justice" by Peter David and Todd Nauck

It's also the decade I discovered "Asterix," "Lone Wolf and Cub," and the works of Francois Schuiten and Will Eisner. Most of that work was not new in the 2000s, but it was new to me.

Many of you are fixated on my list for including three Kirkman titles or multiple Bendis titles or -- gasp! -- CrossGen books. Isn't Mark Alessi the anti-Christ? Damn, why couldn't he have published a Rob Liefeld book while he was at it? Could've lit the internet aflame!

My Top Ten list is currently at 24 titles. I'm sure a more thorough indexing of my collection to include trades and graphic novels could double that. Next week I'd likely come up with a list that's 80% different.

It's all just grist for the mill, really. It's there to spark conversation, and I'd defend any of the books listed above. It's not your list. I imagine half of these books wouldn't show up in anyone else's list. But that's OK. We can still get along. I hope.

Or is it just that I have to have a "mainstream" magazine or newspaper masthead atop my list to really tick people off?

I have an even crazier idea than just a Top 10 list lined up for next week. It's the holiday season; give me some rope, would you? Come back for that in seven days.

And I'm still selling some comics. Reduced prices from last week, plus new comics this week. Check out the list today. Thanks!

I'm on Twitter at AugieShoots. Talking about comics, my on-going attempt to wire up my surround sound system, and raising baby.

My photoblog, AugieShoots.com, is still focused on the holidays, with Christmas tree ornaments and more. Check out the carousel pic from Monday, if you get a chance.

The Various and Sundry blog is still alive. I have more I'd like to write, but I'm running out of time. Just subscribe to the RSS feed and enjoy the occasional surprise.

Don't forget to check out my Google Reader Shared Items. It's the best of my daily feed reading, sometimes with commentary!

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

More than 800 columns -- more than twelve years' worth -- are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.

TAGS:  pipeline, the rocketeer, dave stevens, idw publishing

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