Friday, April 15, 2005

Jetpack jockeys

This week's Comic Art Friday is brought to you by Ovaltine.

Since only yesterday I was watching and commenting on the DVD release of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, it seems serendipitous that in today's mail would arrive this spectacular artwork, the retro style of which recalls those thrilling days of yesteryear. Courtesy of the phenomenally talented artist Michael L. Peters, meet the Rocketeer and Adam Strange.

If you've never seen the Disney film The Rocketeer, do yourself a tremendous favor -- get up out of your swivel chair this very second, and go buy (or at least rent) the DVD. Largely overlooked by audiences during its 1991 release (due in part to the fact that Disney had no clue how to promote the film), The Rocketeer is an old-fashioned, thrill-a-minute rollercoaster ride of a film that looks lovingly back at the comic books of the Golden Age and at the Saturday afternoon serials that once drew legions of kids into theaters during the Great Depression and the years of World War II. The film features a fine lead performance by Billy Campbell (most familiar today as Sela Ward's heartthrob beau on the TV drama Once and Again) as Cliff Secord, barnstorming pilot turned reluctant superhero, with the luminous Jennifer Connelly — who, if not the most beautiful woman in films today, has to be in the top three — as Cliff's girlfriend Jenny. It's the kind of all-ages adventure that can entertain every member of the family without anyone being condescended to or made to feel stupid. Goodness knows, we can use a few more movies like that these days.

The Rocketeer springs from an amazingly conceived, lovingly illustrated graphic novel (what artists and writers call comic books when they're trying to convince the world that comics are literature) series by an artist named Dave Stevens. With a lush, photorealistic technique that draws heavily on vintage magazine illustration, Stevens invokes all of the richness and charm of 1930s cinema in a style that is both reverently retroactive and vibrantly contemporary. He also singlehandedly revived public interest in 1950s pinup queen Bettie Page, whose wavy brunette locks and curvaceous figure form the visual reference for the character of Betty (rechristened Jenny in the movie, doubtless to remove association with the nudie model) in the Rocketeer comics.

It seemed only natural to me to pair the Rocketeer with comics' other jetpack-wearing hero, Adam Strange. Although I read far more Marvel than DC comics back in the day, Adam Strange — who headlined DC's Mystery in Space — was always a favorite character. Borrowing a theme from Edgar Rice Burroughs's John Carter, Warlord of Mars stories, Adam Strange was an Earth-bound scientist who encountered a mysterious radiation source (the Zeta beam, though I don't believe Catherine Zeta-Jones had anything to do with its development) that zapped him hundreds of light-years across the galaxy to the conveniently Earth-like planet Rann. There, Adam became something of a superhero, while simultaneously falling in love with a fair local girl named Alanna. (Funny how in these stories the protagonist never gets transported to a world where the atmosphere is laden with chlorine gas, or where the local girls look like giant armadillos.) Every now and again, the Zeta beam zaps him back to his home planet, where he can only hang out leading a boring civilian life until the next express to Rann strikes him.

As loopy as the concept sounds, the Adam Strange comics of the 1950s and '60s were cracking good, much more classic sci-fi adventure than superhero schtick. As noted above, the basic premise of the series was just different enough from the John Carter tales that DC could avoid a messy trademark infringement lawsuit from the notoriously litigious ERB empire. But like those old stories, the action in Adam Strange was fast-paced, fantastical, and fun. Although I've not read any of the new books, I understand the character is currently undergoing something of a revival at DC.

Doing justice to these two retro-sci-fi heroes would require an artist with a very special touch. When I first saw the beautiful, distinctive rendering of Michael L. Peters, I knew I'd found the perfect talent for the task. Michael's style recalls medieval woodcut printing by way of classical illustration, a visual approach not seen in comics — or anywhere else, for that matter — much, if at all, these days. Michael's published work appears regularly in the adult fantasy magazine Heavy Metal (which spawned one of my all-time favorite films, as SSTOL veterans are doubtless aware). I highly recommend that you pop over to his Web site and simply stand agog at the wonders that pour forth from his pen. I couldn't imagine how he could have done a more accomplished job depicting the two characters I suggested.

Now get out of here, before the next Zeta beam hits you.

1 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Blogger Joel offered these pearls of wisdom...

Are you following the upcoming war between Adam Strange's adopted homeworld (can't remember the name right now) and Thanagar (homeworld of Hawkman)?

4:06 PM  

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