Dave Stevens, 1955-2008

Dave Stevens was a wonderful artist whose influence exceeded his output, a meticulous technician who would draw and redraw (I am told by my friend Wayne) every panel until he had it right. The man had chops. I don't think I'm exagerrating to say that at least two generations of artists took his example to go back and put in the hours to learn technique. The retro-illustrations for his comic The Rocketeer -- never more than a couple of issues ever produced, because of the time he put into it-- were pored over by amateur artists. Dave Stevens taught us that it wasn't just an older generation of illustrators who possessed alchemical tricks of technique, that someone in our debased age could rediscover and surpass the illustrators of the past. I still have my tattered copy of the first Rocketeer, look over it in admiration at least once a year, and pinned on the bulletin board is a cover saved from the Jonny Quest comic "Jade, Inc."-- glamor! adventure! pluck! that sums up everything I loved about those characters.

Before anyone had ever heard of him, long before the leukemia that killed him, Dave Stevens did a wonderful thing for the scales of cosmic justice. His photo reference for those early comics was an obscure, almost forgotten pin-up girl of the 1950s named Bettie Page. Stevens' success with the image of Bettie led to his discovery that she was still alive and nearby. It was Dave Stevens who tracked her down in gratitude and curiosity-- did she know that there were fans and artists who still traded her likeness and spoke of her with affection? He protected her desire for privacy and became a surrogate grandson to Bettie Page, driving her to church and to the movies or dinner once a week.

Stevens' art brought the case of Bettie Page to the attention of Hugh Hefner, who had made a fortune from her in the Fifties, and who now, just as discreetly, arranged for lawyers to get Bettie Page some royalties for all the old Irving Klaw and Bunny Yeager photos and the thousands of Bettie images out there and her ongoing cult following. There are worse things to do with your life than to make the world a little bit safer for beauty and sweetness.

"It doesn't explain or justify. It just seems to remind me of how things are.
Picture a very swift torrent, a river rushing down between rocky walls. There is a long, shallow bar of sand and gravel that runs right down the middle of the river. It is under water. You are born and have to stand on that narrow, submerged bar, where everyone stands. The ones born before you, the ones older than you are, are upriver from you. The younger ones stand braced on the bar downriver. And the whole long bar is slowly moving down that river of time, washing away at the upstream end, and building up downstream.
"Your time, the lives of all your contemporaries, schoolmates, your loves and your adversaries, is that part of the shifting bar on which you stand. And it is crowded at first. You can see the way it thins out, upstream from you. The old ones are washed away and their bodies go swiftly by, like logs in the current. Downstream where the younger ones stand thick, you can see them flounder, lose footing, wash away. Always there is more room where you stand, but always the swift water grows deeper, and you feel the shift of the sand and the gravel under your feet, as the river wears it away. Someone looking for a safer place can nudge you off balance, and you are gone. Someone who has stood beside you for a long time gives a forlorn cry and you reach to catch their hand, but the fingertips slide away, and they are gone. There are the sounds in the rocky gorge, the roar of the water, the shifting, gritty sound of sand and gravel underfoot, the forlorn cries of despair as the nearby ones, and the ones upstream, are taken by the current. Far downstream from you are the thin, startled cries of the ones who never got planted, never got set, never quite understood the message of the torrent. Some old ones who stand on a good place, well braced, understanding currents and balance, last a long time. A Churchill, fat cigar atilt, sourly amused at his own endurance, and, in the end, indifferent to rivers and the rage of waters."

-- John D. MacDonald, "Pale Grey for Guilt"


Wayne Allen Sallee said...

Well said, Mike. I can add nothing else.

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