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…