Dave Stevens and Nostalgia
by Dan Nadel
Sunday, April 26, 2009
For weeks now I’ve been trying to wrap my head around Brush with Passion: The Life & Art of Dave Stevens. Because this is a blog, and because I think this is now part of a larger project, I’m going to indulge myself by rambling on for a little while. I picked up the book out of idle curiosity while staying at Sammy Harkham’s house in L.A. (fitting, since the book is mired in the kind of illusions and disappointments so well entrenched in that city) and have been fascinated with it ever since. It’s a deeply sad autobiography, left unfinished upon Stevens’ death and wrapped in the cloak of a “celebration” of his artwork. Stevens was the ultimate professional fan artist—pulled into comics and popular entertainment because of his love for both, and a rock star in a hermetically sealed world where San Diego Comic-Con is the nexus of the universe, Frazetta is considered one of the great artists of the 20th century, and everything is about “fun”, criticism and progress be damned. It’s the kind of universe that can be wonderfully supportive, very fun, and also severely limiting. For Stevens it was all three. All he wanted to be was some awesome amalgamation of his heroes Jim Steranko, Frazetta, Jack Kirby, Russ Manning, and Alberto Vargas. But by the time he was of age, there was no room left for that kind of work: too labor-intensive for comics, no longer fashionable in fantasy art, no pulps left to publish it… He was a nostalgist with nowhere to channel his fannish obsessions and no interest in transcending them.
I suppose I was drawn to the Stevens book as a lens through which to look at many of the same artists he admired. Guys like Manning, Wally Wood, Gil Kane, Alex Toth, and others are deeply intriguing both for the lives they lived and the idiosyncratic visual worlds they created. Somehow, studying Stevens in the context of this book is helping me think about the work of his predecessors and mentors.
So let’s back up for a moment. There was this thing that happened in the 1960s: Incredibly skilled, visually ambitious artists like Wood, Manning Toth, et al—men who were raised on pulp imagery and the classic American illustrators like Wyeth and Pyle—decided they wanted to do something “sophisticated.” They realized that despite the still-somewhat plentiful outlets (fewer than in the ‘20s and ‘30s, but still a few) for their work, they were never going to be free of the “juvenile” implications of their subject matter. These were guys who wanted to draw comics, but, given the circumstances (generational, financial, etc.), had nowhere else to go. They were, in essence, the last true work-a-day fantasy artists of the 20th century—still basically working for the pulps, at a high level for low pay. And it was a job—they were visionaries in a journeyman’s business. The work they tried to make on their own, like Wood’s Witzend material or Kane’s Savage, met with varying degrees of aesthetic or commercial failure. In any case, they certainly pointed the way so that the fantasy/adventure artists following them, aware of some notion of independence and certainly cognizant of the example of Crumb, et al, had some kind of choice in the matter.
Sort of. Ironically, the guys that came after Wood and Kane and Toth, like Bernie Wrightson, Mike Kaluta, Barry Smith, and Jeff Jones, followed them right down the manhole, dabbling in independent publishing but basically choosing to be pulp artists at a time when the pulps no longer existed. They chose to be willfully anachronistic. That helped make their work popular to a generation of guys who’d been children (if that) when the ECs came out and were now 20-something fanboys eager for more of the same, but, with the exception of Smith, who really brought a new kind of ferocity to his mark-making, it also severely limited the work. There was nowhere for it to go except for further wallowing in nostalgia – it would never transcend its nostalgic origins. The idea was to just make the best version of Arthur Rackham or Joseph Clement Coll as possible. There’s nothing wrong with that, really—it’s just rather limited.
Anyhow, back to Dave Stevens. Here was a guy who didn’t just come after Wood and Toth, but after Wrightson and Kaluta. So, we’re dealing with someone who grew up aspiring to the success of the second-generation stuff as well. But Wrightson and those guys at least had Creepy, Eerie, and other faux-EC mags; by the time Stevens hit his stride there was nothing but lower rung gigs doing storyboards and movie poster comps. And while he was a wonderful nostalgist and decent technician, Stevens was not a visionary. And he knew it. He broke no new ground or created anything very notable, really. His career seems divided between storyboarding, drawing pin-ups, and creating a readable throwback comic The Rocketeer, which became a fun but unsuccessful movie. His career never moved beyond the comfortable boundaries of mainstream fantasy fandom. And throughout his book he constantly seems trapped or burdened by his chosen professions. When his Hollywood dreams turn sour with The Rocketeer, he writes, “No good deed goes unpunished, especially in Hollywood.” And of the constant stream of “sexy girl” drawings he produced to earn a living: “While I do enjoy it and will probably always create pin-ups in some form, I don’t want to be defined by it.” But of course he was defined by it—by his revival of Bettie Page in the pages of The Rocketeer and by the oddly un-sexy women he drew throughout his career—all sinewy, inelegant line and no character. There is no mystery in his drawings—they look forced and labored over, with none of the grace of his contemporary, Jaime Hernandez, for example. And Stevens, so adored by his community, never had a chance to move past it. After all, he was giving a certain group of people exactly what they wanted: instant, safe nostalgia, “innocent pin-up girls”, an independent comic that felt exactly like a 1950s adventure comic. Something contemporary that Jim Steranko and Harlan Ellison (both contributors to the book and both brilliant as young men and then, like Stevens, trapped in their own “cool guy/king of the nerds” self-image and lionized by a lazy fanbase) could get behind; and, for nerd-dom, the all-important illusion of technical proficiency (here defined as a late 19th century notion that conveniently ignores 20th century art history).
And, by all accounts, he was a very nice guy. I mention this because it comes up again and again in the book. There are numerous testimonials from other professionals, and the editors themselves seem completely enamored of their subject. Stevens was loved in the way only this kind of fandom can love someone. What the book puts across is a world in which success if partly based on just getting close to the outside world–film, TV, “famous” actors or models. Success is getting do some throwaway storyboards for Raiders of the Lost Ark. This is a book that lovingly reproduces storyboards from Godzilla: King of the Monsters in 3-D and contains non-ironic jokes about the sexuality of characters from Jonny Quest, and, of course, prints numerous images with which Stevens himself seems dissatisfied. It’s all so insular.
Stevens struggled with depression throughout his last two decades, and, he writes, “By the late 90s I’d become wholly dissatisfied with the caliber of work that I was producing. My technical skills were limited and my ‘style’ seemed nothing more than a vague pastiche of others whose works I admired and had tried to emulate throughout my developing years.” He goes on later in the book to regret lost time and abandoned projects and to describe his own talents as limited: “My progress as an artist has indeed been slow and ponderous. My growth and potential has largely been limited only by my own lack of foresight and commitment.” I suppose these passages could be read as simple modesty, but I found them tremendously moving. Here’s a guy, ill with Leukemia, regretting parts of his life. That’s not unusual in literature, but extraordinary in fan culture, which is all celebration and good will. In the halls of San Diego and in your local comic shop you’re supposed to pretend that these guys are giants of culture, impervious to criticism as they march forward toward development deals and oil paintings for the latest Shadow revival. It’s all very earnest, but completely dishonest. But where else could he ruminate except in the pages of his very own fan-produced book? It’s as though at the end he needed to break out of the mystique, out of character, and just be human.
Now, it would be easy for someone reading this to make a good case that I’m ignoring all the fun Stevens obviously had and the fact that he entertained tons of people, and was clearly loved. All of that is true and all of that is valuable. And I’m not saying that Stevens should have regretted anything. To each his own and all that. But what a thing – to create a book of his own work and then, in his way, publicly disavow or regret so much of it. In that sense, Stevens really did become one of his idols–just like reading an embittered interview with Alex Toth, Gil Kane, or Wally Wood, all of whom were burdened by the knowledge that there was more to do, just out reach. Except that Stevens had a choice–unlike those guys, who loved comics but had nowhere outside of the mainstream to make them, Stevens made a conscious choice to marginalize himself, to live within the bubble of fandom. He was a willful anachronism, frustrated by his chosen intellectual and artistic world but unable or unwilling to see beyond it. Brush with Passion illustrates that conflict in vivid, sad detail.