Today, Shelby and Drew are discussing The Rocketeer & The Spirit: Pulp Friction 1, originally released July 24th, 2013.
Shelby: As I mentioned recently, I’m a big fan of pin-up culture. I love the way pin-ups could be innocent and classy, but still extremely sexy. I also totally dig the style. The makeup, the hair, the clothes: if I weren’t so lazy, I would dress that way every day. I don’t know how Dita von Tease does it; that woman is my hero. If you’re not like me, though, and don’t have a love of pin-ups and the charming aspects of the 1940s, The Rocketeer & The Spirit might seem like nothing more than a remake of a dated style of story-telling. Luckily for us all, Mark Waid is in the driver’s seat, and he can balance historical charm with contemporary relevance with the best of ’em.
There’s been a murder most foul! Alderman Cunningham was found dead the morning after vociferously protesting the privatization of television and radio broadcasts in Central City. The strange thing is, he was found 3000 miles west a mere eight hours after last being seen, an impossible mystery in 1941. So, The Spirit heads west with Commissioner Dolan and his star-obsessed daughter to investigate. Turns out, the body was found by pin-up star
Bettie Page — er, just Betty, girlfriend of Cliff Secord, the Rocketeer. Cliff doesn’t like strangers in masks asking about his girl, so naturally a fight ensues until everyone figures out they’re on the same side. The crew heads over to Betty’s to ask some questions, and she promptly swoons at the sight of the handsome Spirit.
This issue is charming as all get-out, and a lot of the credit for that goes to artist Paul Smith. His style seems ripped right out of the Young Romance books of the 40s, and is perfectly suited for this story. I love the way he’s captured the sexy-not-sleazy pin-up vibe with Betty. She’s actually my favorite character so far, with her drama and eye for the fellas. Please note that, going forward, anytime I talk to a man I think is dreamy, I will be speaking solely in heart-shaped speech balloons.
Plot-wise, this issue seems to be fairly straight-forward: a man is killed, two heroes team up (naturally after punching each for a while first), a wealthy hit man schemes with a mysterious villain in the shadows. But our poor, dead Alderman is fighting against corporations controlling the content of radio and television. He recognizes the power of these forms of media, and doesn’t think that power should be placed in the hands of a wealthy few, to allow them to dictate what the rest of the country sees and hears. Basically, he’s fighting for net neutrality. In case you’re not familiar, supporters of net neutrality feel that all data on the Internet should be treated equally, and that the government and internet service providers do not have the right to dictate who gets to see what content. Net neutrality is very important to me personally, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, as someone who creates media for a living, it’s very important to Waid as well. Not only am I looking forward to solving the mystery and seeing which hero gets which dame, I’m curious to see who the villain is who wants to keep this Alderman silent, and how he ties into contemporary discussions of censorship and equal access to information.
What did you think, Drew? It’s hard to say sometimes, with a first issue, but I think this title will shape up to be a fun one. And come on, a pseudo Bettie Page! Drew: Oh, this is without a doubt going to be fun. Mark Waid has made his career on cannibalizing his favorite moments from the comics he read growing up. Please, let me be clear: I don’t mean this as a slight on his immense creativity, just that his infectious enthusiasm is clearly fueled by his love for the classics — the same could be said of any artist, to some degree, but I think it’s especially true of Waid (he’s similar to Spielberg, in that way). Of course, the wrench in that narrative is that the Rocketeer isn’t a golden age comic book character — he was created in 1982. Classic or no, the 1941 hollywood setting cements the throwback feel of this title, allowing Waid the freedom to spread his homage wings.
Shelby is right to site modern day connections in Alderman Cunningham’s standing up for the little man — and I think the period setting allows Waid to make more directed commentary without getting preachy — but I was drawing more parallels to publisher control of comics characters. Cunningham’s argument is that our hearts and minds — which is where media is ultimately directed — are more valuable than the resources needed to create those materials, and should be treated as such. Waid seems to be openly chiding DC for mothballing a character like the Spirit for the past four years (and maybe Wally West, another Central City resident, while he’s at it). Of course, the last laugh is had by the fat cats, as the DC logo appears on the cover, and Cunningham’s crumpled body is found 3000 miles away. In fact, the exaggerated figure of 3000 miles (which would place Central City a few hundred miles into the Atlantic Ocean) drives home just how far astray we’ve come from Cunningham’s lofty goals.
In spite of all of the commentary, this issue feels like a classic comic. Modern comics don’t have the patience for a tirade like Cunningham’s, and — somewhat counter to that — many don’t have the brisk pacing of a four chapter story. That’s a bit of a cheat on Waid’s part — you can bet this story would have been told in one, maybe two issues if Eisner was writing it — but we still cover a lot of ground here. It’s a full first act where many first issues seem content to give us half of a prologue. Just as importantly, this issue looks like a classic comic. The layouts are clean and simple (with nary a splash page in sight), and Paul Smith’s inkwork serves as a masterclass in the lost art of feathering.
At first glance, Jordie Bellaire seems to be working from a strictly old-school, pre-computer 64 color palette, but closer inspection reveals a number of subtle modern techniques that really make the art pop — note the colored inks of the Rocketeer’s exhaust, or the effect on the headlights. It’s the perfect match for the mix of old and new that Waid is writing, and compliments Smith’s artwork beautifully.
Perhaps it’s fitting that the Rocketeer is a throwback character in his own right. While the Spirit was (at least at his inception) set in the present day, the Rocketeer has always been a period piece, adding an interesting wrinkle to just what this is an homage to. My aside about Waid being similar to Spielberg comes out here, as the spirit of adventure and homage reminds me of all the world like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Both pay tribute to a bygone era by highlighting the elements that are truly classic about them, ultimately reminding us of the magic their mediums are capable of. It’s nostalgia at it’s best — something new from something old — and is an absolute blast. I can’t wait for issue 2.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?