State of the Art III

I generally don’t talk too much about the books Cathy and I do: I have nothing against self-promotion per se, but it’s not something I’ve ever done especially well or was particularly comfortable doing. Mark Twain once said, “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt,” and I’m always convinced I’ll prove him right.

Still, Irene Gallo suggested that I talk a bit about the bio we edited for Underwood Books—Brush with Passion: The Art & Life of Dave Stevens—and since I’m always happy to talk about Dave…

While extremely popular with comics fans and followers of pin-up art, Dave Stevens was hardly a household name and mentioning him in a casual conversation would usually be answered with silence or a blank stare. And yet literally millions have enjoyed Dave’s work in one form or another through the years without ever knowing he was the visionary behind those wonderful entertainments. Perhaps best known as the creator of short-lived Rocketeer comic—which Disney adapted into the film starring Billy Campbell and Jennifer Connelly—Stevens also was a storyboard artist for Raiders of the Lost Ark, concepted the cryogenics chamber Mel Gibson was awakened from in Forever Young, updated the costume of The Flash for a TV series, and was responsible for the look of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video and Victory concert tour.

He drew 1950s model Bettie Page as the Rocketeer’s girlfriend in his comic and as a result was largely responsible for the renewed interest in Bettie—which prompted her reemergence after 40 years of seclusion. Dave became her close friend and protector and saw to it that she benefited financially from the plethora of products various entrepreneurs had been producing without her permission for decades.

Dave helped revitalize interest in pin-up art, bringing back a sense of flirty innocence to a genre that had, since the 1950s, devolved into explicitly crude erotica: Stevens brought back a sense of “fun” that subsequently has influenced a wide range of gallery painters, tattoo artists, and even burlesque dancers like Dita Von Teese. Dave’s first poster book back in 1991 was appropriately titled Just Teasing and featured work that literally sparkled with charm and personality.

My feelings about Dave through almost twenty years of friendship were always divided—almost equally—between delight and frustration. Delight in that he was enormously talented, an artist whose brush technique fully matched Frazetta’s in his prime (and there’s no higher compliment than that), a creator of remarkable skill. Delight, too, because Dave was genuinely a pleasure to be around: smart, funny, charming, and incredibly knowledgeable about a wide variety of subjects. People have tossed around the term “obsessed” when describing Dave’s interests (in comics and the 1930s and hot rods and Bettie), but I don’t think that’s quite accurate: I would say a better description might be that he was passionate about the things—and people—he loved. In our many talks through the years he always displayed a mature and well-balanced perspective of whatever or whomever he was enthusiastic about.

But the frustration aspect kicks in simply because Dave only rarely (if ever) capitalized on his talent, popularity, and gifts—which contributed to his relative obscurity. Doing art precisely the way he wanted—and drawing or painting only those subjects that he really wanted to—meant that he lost out on many lucrative opportunities and we lost out on seeing much more of his superlative work. When Alberto Vargas retired from painting, Playboy offered Dave the opportunity to create a pin-up for them every month for a fee that was extremely generous—and he turned them down without a moment’s hesitation. Not because he didn’t appreciate being considered: he just wanted to paint without having to meet anyone’s expectations but his own. I tried to hire Dave for various jobs through the years, especially when I knew he needed the money: he’d cheerfully ignore me and talk about Steranko or his restored 1940 Ford Coupe instead.

At the height of his career Stevens decided that he wasn’t satisfied with his self-taught skills, stopped taking on commercial assignments, and enrolled in oil painting classes. Always incredibly self-critical, he struggled with oils until having something of an epiphany—and then an entire new world of opportunities seemed ready to beckon. Unfortunately, coinciding with that artistic breakthrough was a bleak diagnosis from his doctor: leukemia.

His very private battle with cancer (which lasted for the better part of a decade and about which we would deflect, at his request, queries from the concerned or curious through the years) had little to do with his decisions or what he did: regardless of his health he’d go where he wanted and took on work—or not—as he wished. He spent a lot of time with us planning his biographical art book, but he never felt particularly rushed: the clock was never his concern and, subsequently, never his friend. Brush With Passion was far from done when Dave passed away in March of 2008 and Cathy and I were left to try to figure out how the pieces all went together. Dave’s friends and family wanted the book completed while the publisher (who had been patiently waiting for Dave to complete…all the things he wanted to complete) was suddenly contractually obligated to get it into print.

We barely had time to catch our breath after delivering Spectrum 15 to the publisher—and, frankly, were still coping with our grief after Dave’s death—before we were up to our necks with his book, going through notes, emails, transcripts, and art, racing to put the puzzle together. Almost as soon as it was delivered to the publisher it was in the hands of the printer—Dave would have undoubtedly been both horrified and amused at all the rushing that took place. And just as certainly he would have been perturbed at the errors that slipped through because of the expedited schedule—he was a stickler for details and preferred that things be done “right” instead of “right now.” So Brush With Passion is far from a perfect book: there are plenty of things not included, stories that only he could tell and art that he never finished or which we weren’t able to track down, while THIS wrong date or THAT typo pokes me in the eye whenever I see them. Yet…so much of Dave shines through that I can’t help but smile when I crack the pages. In many ways his is an inspirational story and Dave tells it with honesty and self-effacing humor. Boy, do Cathy and I miss him.

We had posted some excerpts from a series of interview with Dave on the Spectrum website that had been done in preparation for the book. The response was so positive that I’ve included another—along with some samples from the book—with this post to give readers the barest of hints at what Dave Stevens was like and why he counted. You can listen here.


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