by George Khoury, Columnist
Dave Stevens’ Superman sketch evokes some of that Joe Shuster/ Max Fleischer goodness
News flash!!! October 20, 1938. Trenton, New Jersey. Chaos has arrived! Alien invaders with an intellect greater than our own are here to destroy us. There is nowhere to hide. New Jersey civilians run amok searching for a safe haven from enemy death rays. Martial law now prevails over the Garden State and regions of Pennsylvania. Two valiant young heroes, Superman and the Rocketeer, fight the good fight against these space intruders and their furious robot. If these heroes fall, the Martians will come for you next!
This is George Khoury, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that we’re still in the 21st Century and that, for better or worse, New Jersey still stands. This here is the story of Dave Stevens’ scripts for the untold Superman/ Rocketeer three issue miniseries, buckaroos.
Artist Dave Stevens was born with an old soul, a man essentially of another era. He was an individual with a fondness for the popular culture of yesteryear, particularly those good old days of the Dirty Thirties and Flying Forties. In the summer of 1981, Stevens’ affinity for the past led the successful Hollywood storyboard artist to create the Rocketeer, his hallmark character, for what originally was intended as just a two-part story in the “Pacific Presents” comics anthology. The public outcry for more high-flying adventures of the beloved hero and his gal Betty would ultimately lead to new comics and, seemingly, culminate with a big Disney self-titled summer motion picture in 1991.
With the movie behind him, Stevens returned to comics and completed “Cliff’s New York Adventure” in 1995, his last published Rocketeer story. Although the high quality of the art in the stories never floundered, the sunny hero and his title became lost in the glut of dark titles of the era. Not long after, Stevens became intrigued with the notion of teaming his character with a certain Man of Steel. Maybe it was triggered by nostalgia and the memories of how much joy those old Superman television shows gave him as a child. In a 2001 interview with Jon B. Cooke (in “Comic Book Artist” magazine), Stevens reminisced, “We all watched ['Adventures of Superman'] and ‘Zorro’, and tied towels around our necks and jumped off the roof! [Laughs]”
Besides his story treatment, Stevens left behind the plot and scripts for the first two issues of this proposed three-issue miniseries, along with a plot and notes for the final issue from an earlier draft. Accompanying the material was only a single pencil sketch of a Joe Shuster-style Superman by Stevens, the way he envisioned “The Man of Tomorrow” appearing in this event.
In the “Comic Book Artist” magazine interview, Stevens elaborated more about this project. “Well, there was a scripted three-issue miniseries that I pitched to DC about three years ago, but they weren’t crazy about it because it involved Superman of 1938, and they wanted some major revisions to the storyline and I felt it was good as it was. So, unfortunately, that never went forward either. Too bad for the readers, it would have been fun.”
From Dave Stevens’ script: issue #1, page 7 – The Rocketeer bumps into trouble, again. And from issue #1, page 11 – The first interaction between Rocketeer and Superman. Good stuff!
The Rocketeer/Superman story takes place on October 30th of 1938, the same night of Orson Welles’ infamous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, the science fiction drama that much of the listening public mistook as fact. The comic book begins in Trenton, New Jersey, with Cliff Secord readying his Gee Bee for a flight back to California. With the radio show on the airwaves, even Cliff catches the heebie jeebies from the alien invasion hysteria all around him. Coincidentally, reporter Clark Kent is in the area on assignment to interview a scientist. Smelling a bigger story with the extra-terrestrial hullabaloo, Kent instead decides to investigate the paranoia. In the chaos, the full-costumed Rocketeer is soon confused as a Martian by gun-carrying farmers who attempt to blast him before a super fast-moving Kent saves him. With his street clothes torn to shreds, the “S” of Superman’s suit is exposed to Secord. All these developments take place in just the first issue!
Reading the script, full of the good-natured humor that Stevens’ books evoked, one can see Stevens just having a blast while writing it. The well thought-out story was also intended to be visually striking. It evokes a sense of romanticism for those early Siegel & Shuster stories and the classic Fleisher Studios Superman toons in a satisfying fashion.
In “Rocketeer/Superman: 1938,” both heroes are still learning to use their powers, even ribbing each other to that effect. Superman still hasn’t learned to fly; Rocketeer is still trying to get his get-up right. In the backdrop, the Bix Bentley gang has stolen a massive prototype robot, one that they fully intend to use for evil and bank robbing. The two heroes team up to investigate the alien invasion, retrieve a robot, and endure more adventures on this restless October night.
Ever the perfectionist when it came to his artwork, Stevens intended to produce this proposed book in a similar fashion to “Cliff’s New York Adventure,” collaborating with a fellow friend and major industry talent. As he told interviewer Jon Cooke, “At the time, I was going to have [Michael] Kaluta do the breakdowns and I would finish the art. At this point, I’d probably still do the covers and splash pages, but just supervise the rest of it. I definitely would’ve overseen the entire thing to make sure it had the right look. That’s pretty crucial with a book like ‘The Rocketeer.’”
Last year, IDW’s Rocketeer collections sparked a wave of renewed interest in the high-flying character, and with the recent shake-up at DC Comics comes perhaps a new opportunity for an attractive project like this to get a chance. You know, if the right artists were brought in, and if they stayed true to the spirit of Dave Stevens’ script, this story would work in spades. The entire book is basically written. In many ways, this is Dave Stevens’ final work and deserves a moment in the sun for the legions of Rocketeer and Superman fans out there.
Keep the faith, kind readers. Special thanks to Michael Kaluta, Jon B. Cooke, David Mandel and Kelvin Mao!