The Comic Book Club: Rocketeer Adventures and Batman: Gates of Gotham

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This is what happens when Techland goes to the comic book store: We end up discussing what we picked up. This week, Douglas Wolk, Evan Narcisse and Graeme McMillan talk about the first issues of Rocketeer Adventures and Gates of Gotham.

DOUGLAS: Rocketeer Adventures #1 is a strange thing to see–a tribute to a fantastic artist that’s sort of displaced onto being a tribute to his creation. The original Rocketeer series was much less an interesting story, or about an interesting character, than it was a showcase for the late Dave Stevens to do his stuff, and draw the things he loved to draw: the helmet, the costume, the period settings, Bettie Page. And he was incredible–I can’t think of many artists whose influence-to-finished-pages ratio is as high as his. (There are four issues of Rocketeer Adventures planned from IDW, which means twice as many consecutive issues of a Rocketeer series from a single publisher as there have ever been before.)

IDW published two different versions of a complete Rocketeer collection a year and a half or so ago; for this series, they’ve got an all-star lineup of creators doing short Rocketeer stories and pin-ups. Of the three stories in this one, my favorite has to be John Cassaday’s–partly because I never realized how much Cassaday’s line owes to Stevens’ until this made it clear, partly because of its perfect opening scene, an in medias res Betty-in-bondage sequence that’s exactly the kind of thing Stevens drew at every opportunity and also makes a joke about both his perpetual tardiness and how long it’s been since we’ve seen a new Rocketeer story.

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GRAEME: I am so glad that you said that, because the similiarity between Cassaday’s art and Stevens’ was the first thing that jumped out at me from that story, and it made me wonder whether I was imagining things. It’s not as if Cassaday is making any massive changes to his style to more closely ape Stevens’, but it reads in a very, very similar way, for some reason. Maybe Laura Martin’s coloring helps?

Cassaday’s story is an excellent primer for the Rocketeer concept. You get the Betty bondage, the pulpy rescue set-up, but also the deflation of the cliché, with the “take off your helmet”/punch punchline (literally, and no pun intended, etc. etc.). Even if you’d never read any Rocketeer before, that one story tells you everything you need to know, and in so few pages! I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything else written by Cassaday before, but this makes me curious to read more.

DOUGLAS: The Kurt Busiek/Michael Kaluta story is sweet (it’s really a Betty story), and it’s nice to see Kaluta throwing himself into drawing something again; I wasn’t crazy about the Michael Allred piece, though–it reads like a hastily executed Madman outtake, and “hastily executed” is contrary to the spirit of this particular project. In general, though, reading The Rocketeer without Stevens feels a lot like reading The Spirit without Will Eisner: it’s incredibly sophisticated fan-art, and almost all of the contributors here are always worth a look, but there’s not much potential in the character or premise that Stevens didn’t already realize himself.

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EVAN: I find myself in the same place as you, Douglas. As good as this stuff was–and the Busiek/Kaluta thing was really, really good–it mostly left me hankering for the original material. I’d really want future issues to find new angles on the characters Stevens created and not just do stories that feel like what they just like they think he’d do.

GRAEME: I think Kurt Busiek was right when he described the book (on Twitter) as being a Dave Stevens tribute album. The stories here (and I agree that the Busiek/Kaluta one is very sweet, and the Allred one very… thin) are, at best, love letters to Stevens’ work instead of continuations of the character, if that distinction makes sense. Cassaday’s story fares best, giving new readers a reason to like the entire set-up in a way that the others don’t, but as much as I enjoyed the first issue – and I really did – there’s little here to make me want to come back month after month for more. There’s a sense of, Yeah, I really liked Dave Stevens as well, but not enough to listen to all of these cover versions, I guess.

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