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Wednesday, 12 March 2008

In Memoriam: Dave Stevens

Writer Mark Evanier has paid tribute to Rocketeer artist Dave Stevens, who died this week after a long battle with leukemia. He was just 52.

A tributes page has been added to the American artist's official web site, and in lieu of flowers, Dave's family would like people to make donations to the Hairy Cell Leukemia Research Foundation.

Best known for his "good girl" art - particularly of 1940s model Bettie Page, the subject of a book with James Silke, Queen of Hearts, published in 1995 - and The Rocketeer, first published by Comico, Dave was born 29 July 1955 in Lynwood, California. As soon as he became known in comics fandom Mark Evanier says "his skills as an artist were instantly evident to all, and he was encouraged by darn near every professional artist who attended the early cons, but especially by Jack Kirby and Russ Manning."

His first work was for Manning when he began editing a line of Tarzan comic books in 1975 which were published in Europe, working on those comics and also assisting Russ with the Tarzan newspaper strip. Soon after, he worked on a few projects for Marvel (including the Star Wars comic, later working on the newspaper strip with Russ), followed by work as a storyboard and layout artist for Hanna-Barbera in 1977, working with another brilliant comics artist veteran artist and brilliant animator Doug Wildey producer of the Godzilla series.

It was around this time that he became briefly involved in a relationship with Laura Molina, for whom he became something of an obsession and the subject of a controversial art project, Naked Dave, to which he strenuously objected to the point of taking legal action. The controversial work has become the focus of much critical study.

In 1982, Dave created The Rocketeer, later a Disney film, the hero Cliff Secord based on himself and his sidekick, Peevy, on photos of Wildey. The comic first appeared as a back up strip in SF title Starslayer in 1981, centering on an aviator, Secord, who becomes a masked hero after stumbling upon a top-secret rocket backpack. Four ensuing solo comics later, The Rocketeer became an underground sensation, considered a hiply square update of old action serials.

The book was stunning but as Evanier acknowledges, Dave was "almost obsessively meticulous" and his many redrafts surely crippled the book's production, even though the final product was a diamond. Dave served as a co-producer on The Rocketeer film but its lack of real commercial success put paid to continuing the character on celluloid or in comics.

Since then Stevens continued to worked on what his official site modestly describes as "miscellaneous cover art and illustrations", as he had since 1985, many of which remain classics to his fans, such as this one, left, for DNAgents in 1986.

His credits also include storyboarding Raiders of the Lost Ark and working with Michael Jackson and director John Landis on the Thriller video.

"Dave was truly one of the nicest people I have ever met in my life," says Evanier, "and was certainly among the most gifted... Most of the time, what emerged from his drawing board or easel was a deeply personal effort.

To the end, Dave tried to work through his illness, compiling a collection of his work, Dave Stevens: A Creative Life, which was scheduled to have been published last year by Arnie Fenner, editor of recent books about Frank Frazetta and publisher of the highly acclaimed Spectrum, a regular showcase for the best fantasy, science fiction, horror, and otherwise uncategorizable artwork created each year.

Let's hope someone will complete Dave's final project as testament to a stellar comics talent.

Related Links
Dave Stevens Official web site
Mark Evanier Tribute
Heidi Macdonald's Tribute on The Beat
Rich Danny's Tribute

Update 9 November 2008: Due for release in February 2009 from Undrewood Books is Brush with Passion: The Life and Art of Dave Stevens, described as an introduction to the first retrospective popular comic film illustrator David Stevens. Brush with Passion charts Stevens' career, encouraged by legendary creators like Jack Kirby, Milton Caniff, and Burne Hogarth. Stevens talks about his work as a storyboard artist for Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video and Raiders of the Lost Ark, his days drawing comics, and the trials and tribulations of bringing The Rocketeer to the big screen. Renowned for his wink-and-flirt pin-up art, Stevens is credited with revitalizing interest in, championing the rights of, and befriending the reclusive 1950s model Bettie Page and he recounts their first meeting and subsequent adventures together - including a trip to the Playboy Mansion.

Featuring a wealth of iconic paintings and previously unpublished art, "Brush with Passion" also features commentary by comic book greats Todd Schorr, Richard Hescox, Michael William Kaluta and William Stout. The book is edited by Cathy Fenner and Arnie Fenner, recipients of the Locus Award and World Fantasy Award for Spectrum as Best Art Book.

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