HAPPY LANDINGS, DAVE STEVENS
My buddy Dave Stevens died yesterday. He was 52.
Dave was battling leukemia. He had been for many years, a fact I was not aware of. This was the nature of Dave. He was private, and he lived life at his own accord. Part of me feels a guilt that I had not seen him in so long, but I also know this is the nature of some relationships. Had I run into him at any time in recent years, I know he would have been pleased to see me and pleased for the things I had done with my life. He was always one of my heroes.
When I was a teenager, Dave Stevens was my favorite artist. For those who don’t know, he created the Rocketeer, which was a comic book before it was a movie, and those wonderful comics are essentially Dave’s life’s work. He was a painstaking artist. Bill Stout often tells an anecdote about when he and Dave shared a studio, and how a piece of unfinished artwork sat on Dave’s desk for weeks. If I recall, all that needed to be done was the ink put down on one dog’s leg. Dave just wouldn’t do it, and it drove Bill crazy. He wanted to go over and just ink it himself, just to get it out of his sight. But then one day, Dave came in, sat down, picked up a brush, and the dog’s leg was complete.
This attention to detail meant we got a shockingly small amount of work from Dave over the years, but each piece was beautiful and precise. Those are two words that don’t rest easy together, but they did in Dave’s hands. His ink line was glamourous and graceful, and though there was never even a tiny speck out of place on one of his pieces, his material always felt alive. He was like Vargas crossed with Al Williamson, something very classic and yet very pulpy.
In high school, I had Dave Stevens posters on all four bedroom walls. Eclipse had released a series of them, all of his covers printed large with no logos or anything. A few of them were very risqué, because Dave liked to draw the lovely ladies. This is the man who reintroduced Bettie Page to the world, after all. I am not sure how I got away with them. I think it was the Crossfire cover with Crossfire reaching over the body of a sleeping Marilyn Monroe. My dad liked that one, and thus that single image made allt he rest okay. I also had a Rocketeer shirt where Cliff had a tied-up Bettie slung over her shoulder so that her panties bloomed for anyone who saw me coming. I was asked not to wear it to school. That was understandable.
I met Dave for the first time at my first San Diego Comic Con, before it was International, when it was just one hall in the old convention center. I was 15, so I guess it would have been 1987 or so. I showed up with a briefcase full of comics to be signed, including every Dave Stevens comic book I owned. By the end of the day, my hand was bruised from the weight of the damn thing, but I had them all signed. I remember waiting for Dave and waiting and waiting, and he was late to his table. Big surprise! Someone told him (might have been Kookie) that some weird kid was loitering and asking after him, and he ended up signing my books over a garbage can while he ate his lunch. I was a happy boy.
Years later, and I ended up at Dark Horse, which had become the Rocketeer’s home for the couple of comics that came out after the movie. I was able to meet Dave in a more official capacity at that time. I even became his editor for a short while. We did the one issue of Betty Page Comics that he compiled. It’s hard to say how much that was a book he wanted to do for the sake of it, and how much it was about getting some of the guys her admired a gig. Russ Heath drew a story in that book, and Dave had convinced me to get Russ paid before the work was done. You never do this in the freelance world, because once you take the carrot away, you have no threat to get the guy to hurry up. I had my ass handed to me when my bosses found out I had paid for art I did not have. I didn’t regret it. Hell, I should have thanked Dave for giving me a screw-you moment, because I always liked sticking it to my bosses.
We intended to work together again on a crossover with DC: Superman/Rocketeer 1938. Dave wrote an awesome pitch for it, but it never got off the runway, something that still pisses me off. It was a variety of stupid reasons that killed the book. For starters, Dave had written Superman the way he originally was, a far less powerful character. For instance, he could only jump really far, not fly. This was not allowed in the DCU at the time. Then Dave had the brilliant idea of setting it during Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast. The two characters would meet trying to clean up some of the hysteria that resulted fro the infamous radio show. It had tremendous dramatic possibilities. Beyond the usual distrust of two adventurers meeting for the first time, Superman was an honest-to-goodness alien trying to calm down anti-alien freak-outs. I loved it.
Turns out, not only did DC have one of their ridiculous Elseworlds books in the works where Superman discovers that the broadcast is not as false as Welles believed, but they had actually set out to try to license the original radio program and had been turned down, so DC legal said no one could use War of the Worlds. “But it’s an historical event!” we protested. “What next? You’re going to license World War II? The Great Depression?” Dave took it in annoyed stride. He had made a movie with Disney, he knew a little something about corporate nonsense. I’m pretty sure he knew a thing or two about sticking it to them man, as well.
It was shortly after that I went to Oni Press, and my contact with Dave dwindled to seeing him at conventions. I had been warned in the past couple of weeks that he had been really sick. He had recently left his own home and gone to be with his mother, which those who knew him took as a sign that things were getting bad. Thus, the news was only partially shocking, and there was the relief that his suffering was over. Even so, incredibly sad.
I have a wonderful little Dave Stevens treasure, though. When we were doing Betty Page, he drew a small illo of her for the inside front cover. It was an adorable little cartoon, somewhat in a Bruce Timm style. I immediately fell in love with it. It had a playful, carefree quality that you never really saw in Dave’s work. It looked like it took him no time at all to do, and yet it was still so fantastic, it suggested that his work was so labored because he wanted it to be. That was just his way.
When I returned the artwork from the book to him, I put a note on the cartoon that said, “If you ever want to sell this, please call me.” It came back to the offices shortly after with a note that read: “It was already yours, Bubba!”
Again, that was Dave Stevens.
He had a few basic phrases he used when he signed books for fans. One of them was “Happy Landings!”
Happy landings, Dave. Happy Landings.
Current Soundtrack: the score from The Rocketeer