Illustrator created ‘Rocketeer’ comic

Times Staff Writer

Dave Stevens, an artist best known for creating “The Rocketeer” comic book, which reflected a fascination with Bettie Page that brought the 1950s pin-up queen renewed attention, has died. He was 52.

Stevens, whose home was in North Hollywood, died Monday at Emanuel Medical Center in Turlock, Calif., from complications related to treatment for leukemia, said his friend William Stout.

In 1981, Stevens was working as a commercial illustrator when a friend asked him to contribute a story to another comic book. His “throwaway idea,” as he called it, was a succinct ode to 1930s-style, pulp-fiction adventures and movie serials.


The comic -- in which a stunt pilot battles evil after finding a rocket-powered backpack -- became a cult success. A decade later it was made into the live-action Disney movie “The Rocketeer” with Billy Campbell as the title character.

In trying to explain the comic’s popularity, author Harlan Ellison wrote in the introduction to the 1985 graphic novel “The Rocketeer”: The comics “are hip-deep in the right kind of nostalgia . . . adventure and affection, melded in just the right way. . . . “

Disney was attracted to the story because it had “a clear heroic structure . . . an innocent guy stumbles on something and ends up saving the world . . . and it was a world we hadn’t seen before,” David Hoberman, then president of Touchstone and Walt Disney Pictures, told The Times in 1991.

The Art Deco look that defined “The Rocketeer” had preoccupied Stevens since childhood. He grew up saving photos of old planes, trains and buildings -- streamlined designs that were “so much more charming than the world I found around me,” he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1991.

Stevens served as a producer on the film, giving input on architectural details. He also designed the helmet that the Rocketeer wears in the movie.

Writing in The Times in 2003, Geoff Boucher called “The Rocketeer” comic “sexy, irreverent and snappy” and said the movie “had an Indiana Jones-like bonhomie.”


The comic’s square-jawed hero, Cliff Secord, bore more than a passing resemblance to the soft-spoken Stevens. The female love interest, a lingerie model, was drawn as a tribute to pin-up Page.

“Bettie was a look, a standard of beauty that I spotted as an adolescent,” Stevens told the Post-Intelligencer.

The attention the retired Page received because of the comic helped revive interest in her. Stevens paid Page to use her likeness and helped her get paid by publishers who used her image, friends said.

Artist and subject became friends, which led Stevens to marvel: “After years of fantasizing about this woman, I’m now driving her to cash her Social Security checks.”

Mark Evanier, a comic book and television writer, observed that Stevens “was a student of great glamour illustrators from the past, a brilliant artist and a meticulous craftsman” with perfectionist tendencies.

“For the several years he did ‘The Rocketeer,’ it was enormously popular, but it only came out every time Halley’s Comet passed,” Evanier joked of the serial’s eight installments. “He was so fierce about doing it properly.”

Born July 29, 1955, in Lynwood, Stevens was the son of a “frustrated cartoonist” father who taught him to draw, he told The Times in 1991.

From early childhood, he was a fan of movie serials and vintage aircraft.

After graduating from high school in Portland, Ore., he attended San Diego City College for two years.

In 1975, he was hired to help Russ Manning draw his “Tarzan” newspaper comic strip.

Within two years, Stevens was a freelance illustrator, creating concepts to advertise such movies as “Superman II” and “Melvin and Howard,” the 1991 Times story said.

He also helped draw the storyboards for the 1981 film “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video in 1983.

A brief marriage to B-movie queen Brinke Stevens in the early 1980s ended in divorce.

After “The Rocketeer,” Page remained central to his art, and he continued to draw and sell classic glamour-style drawings of the model and other women. He was inspired by 1930s pin-ups commonly referred to as “cheesecake,” said Stout, who also is an illustrator.

“His pin-ups weren’t salacious. They had a charm and innocence, humor and mischievousness,” Stout said. “Whatever he did, he did it with sort of a wink.”

Stevens is survived by his mother, Carolyn; and a sister, Jennie.

Services will be private.

Memorial donations may be made to the Hairy Cell Leukemia Research Foundation,