By Carter Glace, Staff Writer
You know what? I’m tired of talking about Marvel and DC heroes. I know ‘comics’ has become synonymous with ‘superhero films’ for most people, but the medium is still a diverse universe of brilliant ideas and worlds. So this week, I am going in a bold new direction: talking about a superhero comic NOT made by Marvel or DC.
The Rocketeer is in the same camp as Scott Pilgrim, where it is baffling to me that I haven’t already discussed it. For me, the 80’s hero captures a very special niche that comics often neglect. He embodies a fun, lighthearted, pulpy, and retro aesthetic that was slowly lost as the decades passed. Unfortunately, the character has been relegated to cult status, as Disney has struggled to decide what to do with him. But in the wake of news that the company was working on an animated television series, a spiritual successor film still in the works, now’s a wonderful opportunity to stump for one of my favorite characters.
The Rocketeer is, as the name suggests, a superhero with a jetpack. Pilot, mechanic, and aerial stunt performer, Cliff Secord discovers a rocket backpack hidden in his barn by a pair of gangsters on the run from the cops. Taking the pack for himself and donning a helmet, Cliff takes on the mantle of The Rocketeer and begins a career of crime fighting antics.
From there, his stories are a series of episodic minisodes, as Cliff fights bank robbers, mobsters, mad scientists and Nazis’ (I should preface, the comics take place in the 40’s, not the 2010’s). The recent collection of mini-series published by IDW has had him in crazier science fiction scenarios, fighting reanimated dinosaurs and Cthulhu Cults. In between action scenes, we have moments of banter between him and his older mentor and a sort of classic bickering couple routine between Cliff and his girlfriend Betty.
As I mentioned, the comic has a retro vibe that makes it feel like a perfect spiritual successor to the golden age comics in the 40’s and old school serials. There is a sentimental, occasionally wholesome, optimistic charm that you rarely see today. The banter is fun and light. Nazis are punched repeatedly. The characters all have an ‘aw-geez’ vibe to them.
And yet, there is a delightfully pulpy and edgy energy that drives the comics. The action is often sharp and surprisingly violent, the stakes get intense, and Betty is actually a pin-up artist inspired by real-life Betty Paige. This was one of the properties
The characters are archetypes, but they are those archetypes that work in this specific setting. Cliff is an engaging, dashing rouge, while Betty is one of the best characters straddled with the label of ‘girlfriend;’ a sassy, edgy character for the era. And villains all tend to be a very delightful blend of camp and malice.
Not to mention, The Rocketeer has one of the slickest and most practical costume designs in comics. The gold and red color scheme, minimalist design, snappy leather jacket and striking helmet make his design iconic even if the character isn’t.
The Rocketeer did have his day in the sun, with a film released by Disney in 1991. I won’t comment on it too much because basically everything wonderful about the comics is true about the film. It’s a pulpy, silly romp that captures this perfect balance between snappy, heartfelt and exciting. If you’ve seen “Captain America: The First Avenger,” you’ll find it shares the same energy and soul (which is fitting, because both films were directed by Joe Johnston).
Unfortunately, the film under performed, taking the brand down with it. The Rocketeer was doomed to remain a C List hero. When doing pieces like this, my main hope is that at least one person will be inspired to pick up a comic, check out a film or show, or study a character they otherwise might not have, and I sincerely hope that happens here. Much like Captain America, The Rocketeer is a more hopeful and fun character for a more cynical age, reminding us that even when the world is at its worst, some classic heroism can save the day.