DAVE STEVENS 1955 – 2008

A dear friend of mine, who also happened to be one of our greatest artists, passed away yesterday. This is a personalized adaptation of an obituary I had sent out on him:

Celebrated comic book artist and illustrator Dave Stevens left our physical presence due to complications from his treatments for hairy cell leukemia on March 10, 2008. He was 52. Dave was most famous for creating The Rocketeer and for his classic pin-up style drawings and paintings of beautiful women. It was Stevens who single-handedly resurrected the fame and career of 1950s pin-up queen Bettie Page. Dave was the first person to win Comic-Con International’s Russ Manning Award in 1982.

Born July 29, 1955 in Lynwood, California, Dave’s first professional comic work was when he replaced me as Russ Manning’s assistant, inking Russ’ pencils for the Sunday and daily Tarzan of the Apes newspaper comic strips. That was around the time I first met Dave, a fresh-faced good looking kid with a great sense of humor and loads of talent. Dave also helped Manning out on the early Star Wars newspaper strips. Many fans cherish the Jonny Quest covers he did for Comico. Dave worked for a time at the Hanna-Barbera animation studios where he established a close friendship with Jonny Quest creator Doug Wildey.

After leaving Hanna-Barbera, Stevens joined science fiction paperback cover illustrator Richard Hescox and me, becoming a member of my art studio on La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles. Occasionally Dave would help me out on jobs when I was under the deadline gun. He also posed for a lot of Richard’s paperback covers and for me as well when I needed a young heroic guy for a drawing or painting.

I also shared offices with Steven Spielberg at the time. On my recommendation, Stevens was hired to storyboard the harrowing truck fight sequence for Raiders of the Lost Ark. I also recommended Dave to board Michael Jackson’s Thriller video for director John Landis. Dave worked directly with Michael Jackson on other projects after that. Later I hired both Stevens and Wildey as storyboard artists for an ill-fated American Godzilla – King of the Monsters film project on which I was the production designer.

It was The Rocketeer comic Dave began in 1982 at our La Brea studio that really brought Dave Stevens’ work to the forefront of national (and international) attention. Stevens successfully wove classic pulp fiction heroes like Doc Savage and the Shadow into his 1930s Rocketeer narrative. The first adventures were published by Eclipse Comics. The fifth chapter ended in a cliffhanger. The story picked up again in the Rocketeer Adventure Magazine. Two issues were published by Comico Comics in 1988 and 1989, but the third installment did not appear until 1995 (Dave was not known for his speed) when it was published by Dark Horse Comics. All three issues were collected by Dark Horse as The Rocketeer: Cliff’s New York Adventure.

The soap-opera theme of The Rocketeer parallels Stevens’ own mercurial relationship with Charlene Brinkman (later known as scream queen actress Brinke Stevens). Dave and Charlene met at the San Diego Comic-Con; they were married for just six months. Stevens based the physical appearance of The Rocketeer’s female lead on an obsession of his, 1950s pin-up queen Bettie Page. In these pre-video days, Dave used to show us some great film clips of Bettie on an old 16 mm projector of mine. The popularity of The Rocketeer and Dave’s delectable and recognizable renderings of Bettie brought a new focus of public interest and attention to Ms. Page. In the process Dave located Bettie Page, now a retiree, and they became friends. Stevens took care of Bettie whenever she visited Los Angeles and helped her to set up a licensing business. Not only was Stevens the first to (generously) pay her for the use of her likeness, Dave was successful in getting Bettie payment from many of the publishers who were exploiting her image.

Dave used his old friend Doug Wildey as both the physical and psychological template for the Rocketeer’s best friend, Peevy. Other mutual acquaintances who show up in the comics include real-life glamour and porn photographer Ken Marcus. Dave Stevens portrayed Marcus as the sleazy “Marco of Hollywood,” with a readily identifiable caricature. Dave modeled the boyishly handsome Cliff Secord (the Rocketeer) after himself.

Dave’s passion for the 1930s and old Hollywood came to life in The Rocketeer.

Once you stepped through the doorway of Dave’s home you were in the ’30s. He lived and breathed that era. Dave also had a vast knowledge of Old Hollywood. He was close friends with many of the wonderful stars and starlets of Hollywood’s past, like Yvette Vickers (from “Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman”). Their tales of The Biz back in the day fed Dave’s rich imagination.

Anyone who read The Rocketeer knows that Dave was pretty nuts for vintage aircraft. For one of his birthdays, a girlfriend of Dave’s bought him a flight on a bi-plane over at the Van Nuys Airport. Dave enthusiastically asked the pilot for “the works”. The pilot did barrel rolls, dives, outside loops and other harrowing maneuvers, all to Dave’s delight.

The film rights to Dave’s comic were purchased by the Walt Disney Company in the late 1980s. A full length live action feature film was released in 1991 directed by Joe Johnston. It starred Bill Campbell as the Rocketeer, Jennifer Connelly as Bettie (“Jenny Blake” in the film) and Alan Arkin as Peevy. Dave co-wrote the screenplay and was a hands-on co-producer of the film.

Dave had more artistic integrity than anyone I’ve ever known. He always marched to his own drummer whether it benefited him financially or not. He turned down many lucrative job offers — including a monthly pin-up assignment for Playboy offered by Hugh Hefner as a replacement for their regular Alberto Vargas feature — when they didn’t jibe with his own highly personal vision of what he should be doing. As a businessman, Dave often drove his close friends nuts. We’d watch in astonishment at the riches passing him by. We’d try to guide him into being much more financially successful, but Dave would usually have nothing of it. It took me decades to convince him to publish a sketchbook. When he finally did, it sold out immediately, as did each subsequent volume.

For a man of his huge talents, Dave was also amazingly humble. At the peak of his artistic powers and career Dave went back to art school. Hell, Dave could have taught at any art school in the country! But he felt by not going to art school in his formative youth he had missed out on some very important fundamental training and valuable academic lessons. Amazing.

Dave Stevens is survived by his mother Carolyn and his sister Jennie — and millions of fans of great art and fine storytelling across the world.

I miss my little brother already…

21 Responses to “DAVE STEVENS 1955 – 2008”

  1. Scott Conner says:

    I just heard about it from Mike Kaluta.

    Harlan Ellison once told me the worst part about getting older is having to bury your pals.

    I’m sorry for the loss of your friend.

  2. Bruce Story says:

    I’m sorry to hear about the passing of your good friend. I enjoyed his work as much as I enjoy yours.

  3. Scott Foster says:

    Dave Stevens had been on my mind quite a bit lately. Ever since I first discovered his sumptuous art in The Rocketeer for Pacific Comics,I haven’t been able to shake his shared visions. Often revisiting his work,as I had recently done.The news of his passing was a real torpedo to the hull of the hope of art lovers awaiting his next move. His art was so sporadic in general,that I barely gave his abscence a second thought.I never suspected anything may have been wrong.And how wrong I was. Dave Stevens was an artist who made an impression that stuck with you like a cattle brand. Evident in the fact that his work wasn’t spoon-fed to the masses,(in fact,it was in short supply: sadly) yet those who saw his work, patiently waited for the next salvo of genius art from the man,ready to lap it up without complaints!

    Please excuse this spontaneous & long winded note. Suffice to say, Dave Stevens will be missed, and will not be forgotten by those of us,.who,.on first sight..his art connected with.

    R.I.P.

  4. Steve Gordon says:

    Hi Bill:

    I first met Dave back at Filmation and we shared an office together along with Russ Heath. Despite the dreck we were working on it was a great time. We double dated a couple of times and hung out some, but after we worked together on Fire and Ice briefly we lost contact and it was only a few years ago, when he had his last booth at SD Comic-Con, that we reconnected.
    We had several lunches and had even planned another after the last Comic-Con that he never showed for despite there being a panel devoted to him.
    The lunch never happened for one reason or another and when I called him back to set up a new time there wasn’t an answer – not too unusual for Dave. I never thought much of it because he would always call back in his own sweet time. Now I wish I’d called back on my own instead of waiting.

    I’ll miss him, his good sense of humor and his no-regrets attitude. Not to mentiuon I’ll still envy his incredible talent.

    Quite a loss.

    Sorry for rambling on.

  5. Bronnie Barry says:

    Hey Stout..
    Clay and April Croker called to tell me the news yesterday morning..
    This is a horrible loss for all of us.
    I hadn’t seen Dave in years but had known of his illness and that it was to be kept quiet.
    Wonderful eulogy you wrote..

  6. Rich Dannys says:

    Hello Bill!

    You might remember me as the fellow Frazetta fan that usually got seated next to you, at Bob K’s famed CFA-APA Dinners?
    I expected to find something written on Dave’s passing, on your website.. And thankfully, wasn’t disappointed.. A nice thoughtful remembrance, beautifully written!

    I sat next to Dave in his booth in 2003.. And like you, I was dumbfounded by all of the work/jobs he was turning down. Or, recommending should be given to his friend: Mike Kaluta..
    I could tell that most of these people were Hollywood film execs & the like. And imagined that the money, would be pretty green.. But he seemed to have Zero Interest, like you say?
    Too many other things to do, that were more interesting to him, I suppose..

    A great guy & humongously talented artist.. who will truly be missed!

    — Rich

  7. A huge and true talent. Gone too soon.
    Thank You Dave Stevens for all the years of Eye Candy.
    Thank you Mr.Stout for the same, and this heart felt piece on Dave.

  8. John Ageeb says:

    Bill,,

    I really appreciated reading your personal thoughts on Dave Stevens.I never had any contact with the man personally but I always admired his work and hoped to meet him someday..From what I have heard he was always considered a classy guy and was very well liked…one of the ‘good guys’. I discovered his artwork at a time when I had rediscovered for myself my love of reading comics..I was hooked and soon tracked down just about anything I could find, even the ‘bad’ inking jobs. His storytelling ability ,draughtmanship and talent to inject personality into his characters was uncommon. Hearing that he was so sick all this time explains alot but still came as a shock.This really is sad news and the fact that he was suffering makes it so much more so.My condolescenses for the loss of your friend.
    .

  9. Mike O'Connor says:

    Mr.Stout
    I am Truly Sorry for the Loss of your Good Friend, Mr.Dave Stevens.

    I was Lucky to have met Dave some years ago at Chillercon in NJ,where He kindly sketched a Rocketeer Head for me.

    The Art World has Lost an
    Gifted Giant

    Leonardo & Michaelangleo had better make room as Dave Stevens is There on the Wings of Angels

    Thank You, Dave for the Beauty you put on a page

    a Fan Forever…
    Irish Mike

  10. Jon Killough says:

    Mr. Stout- After reading Mr. Stevens obituary, I find that not only did the world lose an incredible artist, but also an amazingly ethical and self-centered person. A rarity in this world. My heart goes out to those who knew him.

  11. Thanks for the piece on Dave; it made me smile, which has been difficult to manage since I found out about ‘it’ yesterday morning. Dave was such an admirable spirit, kind, generous, affable, and so much in tune with my own feelings about stuff we both loved. I feel too sore at heart to say much more, except that I miss him now, and will for the rest of my life, more than he could ever have guessed.

  12. Hi Bill-

    Sorry about Dave’s passing. He really was a tender and sweet man. I posed for him a very long time ago- and I remember very clearly his love of vintage radios! We discussed where to find the old bulbs at length. He also was a damn good-looking man, and I must confess I had a mad crush on him. 🙂

  13. Mike Lemos says:

    Thanks Bill,

    Great what you’ve shared here about a great friendship and a great artist and person.

  14. Rick Tucker says:

    Dave was great to me twenty years ago. Over the years he was always a classy guy with such incredible skill that it was easy to be impressed and envious!
    When Mike Kaluta posted the news all those years came flooding back.
    The Rocketeer is earthbound.
    Thanks Bill.
    Happy Trails Dave.

    Rick

  15. Jewel Shepard says:

    Devastated… at least you made him laugh in November.

    Sometimes… there are no "next times" — remember that, my friend.

    Stay well…

  16. Joe Thompson says:

    This is indeed ashame.

  17. Terry Betts says:

    Damn, just…..damn.

  18. We have fond memories of the olden San Diego Comic Con days with Dave Stevens and your attendance. He was a very talented artist and well liked by many friends and fans. Losing a special friend is never easy. Your words say it all. You and his family have our condolences.

  19. Thank you all for your past and continuing comments. I deeply appreciate your sharing your memories and thoughts about Dave. He touched so many lives with his kindness, his humor, and with his remarkable talent and art.

    Parker: I can guarantee you weren’t the first model to have a crush on Handsome Dave!

    I should add that Dave left behind two sisters, actually — and a brother. My apologies to the Stevens family for this omission.

  20. Keith Domonkos says:

    I first found Dave in the back pages of Starslayer by Mike Grell. His style was amazing and the nostalgic look to his work hooked me. I grabbed almost every issue that contained The Rocketeer at the time. But, like alot of collectors, I lost interest in comics and stopped buying them. I wasn’t aware of Dave’s passing until I “fell” back into collecting a few years ago. Now, I find myself obsessed with everything he ever layed pen to. You are missed, Mr. Stevens.

  21. Charlie White says:

    We have just brought dave’s 40 ford coupe and would love to have any info on this awesome rod.Love the history we have but would love more…like why the number 7 on the doors. His name will stay on the car and keep his memory alive. Thanks Charlie

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