|Dave Stevens' original depiction of the Rocketeer, his plane, and Betty under siege by gangsters.|
The character made his debut as a back-up featuring in Pacific Comics’ Starslayer #2 in 1982. Pacific publisher Steve Schanes had approached Stevens during a convention in 1981 and asked him to do two fill-in stories to pad out the second and third issues of Starslayer. Given complete freedom on the content, Stevens submitted a drawing of The Rocketeer--which was used as the back cover of #2--to show his intended idea. He then worked out a story to go around it. The character was an homage to the Saturday morning matinee serials from the 1930s-50s and took particular inspiration from King of the Rocket Men and Commando Cody. The character proved popular, due in large part to Stevens’ art (he was a self-proclaimed perfectionist and would work on a piece until he felt it was perfect), and became one of the first successful entries in the growing independent comics movement. Stevens was also credited for helping reignite interest in 1950s pin-up model Bettie Page, having drawn numerous pictures of her and using her as the basis for the character of Betty.
The Rocketeer continued on in the first two issues of the anthology series Pacific Presents, and concluded in 1984’s Rocketeer Special Edition published by Eclipse Comics when Pacific went bankrupt. A final three-part adventure penned by Stevens was published by Comico for two issues in 1988 and 1989, and then Dark Horse Comics for the third in 1995, as well as the collection Cliff’s New York Adventure (research and Stevens’ meticulousness led to the extensive delays). The remainder of Stevens’ career was generally devoted to pin-up work until his death from hairy cell leukemia in 2008.
Stevens had always viewed The Rocketeer as a character primed for a film adaptation. A film version had been in production in some form or other since 1983. Steve Miner purchased the rights first, but strayed too far from the original concept and they reverted back to Stevens. Stevens then offered writers Dany Bilson and Pauil De Meo a free option on the rights in 1985 after liking their movie serial approach. They considered making it a low-budget affair, but when they took on William Dear to write and direct they set their sights higher. The Rocketeer was pitched to major film studios throughout 1986, but they had no interest in an expensive comic book movie (clearly, a very different time in Hollywood). Enter: Walt Disney Studios, who saw the toyetic potential for the character and agreed to make the film after a series of rewrites. Because of the numerous delays in getting to production, Dear was forced to exit the project and was replaced by Joe Johnston as director.
The Rocketeer largely adapted the initial four-part story, adding in the character of actor/Nazi agent Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton) as the primary villain. The character was based on movie star Errol Flynn and the fabricated biography written by Charles Higham that accused him of being a Nazi spy. Brought over from the second story was the character Lothar (Tiny Ron Taylor); a hulking man modeled after journalist and actor Rondo Hatton who once worked at a carnival with Cliff (that shared history was abandoned for the film). Because of Disney’s involvement, certain things had to be rendered more family friendly; in particular, Betty was changed from a nude model to a struggling actress and was renamed Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) to avoid comparisons to Page. Finding an actor for Cliff proved difficult for the studio, with the likes of Dennis Quaid, Kurt Russell, Bill Paxton and Emilio Estevez auditioning for the role and Vincent D’Onofrio turning it down. It ultimately went to Billy Campbell after Stevens and Johnston convinced Disney he was perfect for the role. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the same luck for Peevy when their choice, Lloyd Bridges, turned it down. Alan Arkin ended up with the role instead. Stevens himself had a cameo as a Nazi rocketeer who was blown up by their own experimental pack.
The Rocketeer was released on June 21, 1991, opening up in fourth place at the box office. It received generally positive reviews from critics, but in the end only managed to bring in $46.6 million in the United States making it a commercial disappointment. Stevens, Bilson and De Meo had envisioned the film the first of a trilogy and Disney hoped it would give them their own Indiana Jones-type franchise (which Disney would end up owning decades later anyway), but the box office combined with the falling out Johnston had with the studio resulted in the notion of a sequel being squashed. The film was nominated for a Hugo Award and several Saturn Awards, ultimately winning the one for Best Costumes.
In the years following, The Rocketeer film had developed a significant cult following while Stevens’ original comics were still very much in demand. New merchandise, such as poseable figures and replica helmets, were made, and in 2011 IDW Publishing began releasing all-new Rocketeer comics. In 2012, Disney reversed its earlier decision and began revisiting the idea of a new Rocketeer. In 2016, Disney announced it would be making a reboot sequel set six years after the original, with a Black female pilot taking up the mantle when Cliff goes missing.
Meanwhile, Disney also started work on another project: an animated series. Developed by Nicole Dubuc, The Rocketeer followed the same premise as the new film; except this time around the new Rocketeer was Cliff’s great-granddaughter, Katherine “Kit” Secord (Kitana Turnbull), who was obsessed with aircraft and flying (guess it runs in the family). On her seventh birthday, Kit was gifted a mysterious box containing the Rocketeer’s helmet. Upon showing it to her grandfather Ambrose (Frank Welker), he followed his father’s instructions and gave her a box containing the rocket pack, making her the new Rocketeer.
The series was set in the fictional town of Hughesville, named for Howard Hughes. In the center of town was a statue of the Rocketeer, regarded as the town’s greatest hero. Ambrose, like his namesake Peevy, was an airplane mechanic that worked out of the airport and kept the pack in working order, as well as designed a new helmet for Kit. Aiding in Kit’s adventures was her best friend, Mitesh “Tesh” Cheena (Callan Farris), an inventor that created new gadgets and upgrades for Kit to use. And, of course, there was Kit’s trusty sidekick, her pet bulldog Butch (Welker). Other characters included Kit’s father Dave Secord (original Rocketeer Campbell), a stunt pilot in the local air show; Kit’s mother Sareena Secord (Kathy Najimy), the manager of the Bulldog Café that served as Cliff’s primary hangout in the film and comics; and Valerie d’Avion (Navia Robinson), Kit’s other best friend from Valkyrie Flight Academy which her parents, Chantal (Yvette Nicole Brown) and Michael (Imari Williams) own, and who has her own plane.
Along with the occasional happenstance like boulders blocking the train tracks and aerial accidents, Kit often found herself protecting the town from a variety of criminals. Laura and Harley (patterned after comedy team Laurel and Hardy, voiced by Maria Bamford and Kari Wahlgren, respectively) were bumbling thieving sisters; Sylvester Slapdash (modeled after quick change artist Sylvester Schäffer, Jr., voiced by Maurice LaMarche) was known as the “Costumed Bandit” for his tendency to use disguises in his thefts with the help of his pet ferret and assistant, Lillith (Welker); The Great Orsinio (based on an acquaintance of Cliff’s from the comics, voiced by Charlie Adler), a magician that wanted to incorporate the jet pack into his act; Deany (a play on Harry Houdini emphasized when characters ask “Who? Deany?”, voiced by Parvesh Cheena), Orsinio’s hapless assistant with a background in engineering; Rolland Poly, aka Doctor Doodlebug (Luca Padovan), a kid genius in pillbug-themed armor that created inventions out of garbage he steals and was advised by his watch A.I., Newton (D.C. Douglas); Xena Treme (a play on “extreme”, voiced by Stephanie Lemelin), an extreme sports athlete who did whatever it took to stay on top; Cast-Iron Chef (food author and television host Ted Allen), a food truck chef who constantly sought to steal great recipes to improve his business; and Norman Sinclair (Raphael Alejandro), the descendant of the film’s villain who wanted to become the Rocketeer himself.
The Rocketeer debuted on Disney Junior on November 18, 2019. Disney approached Dubuc about helming the show while she was still working on programs for Hasbro. As a fan of the movie, Dubuc accepted the gig and became a showrunner for the first time. The series was co-produced by Disney Junior and Wild Canary Animation, with computer animation duties handled by Icon Creative Studio, Inc. based off of the “steam pop” style—a bright, arts-and-crafts visual with elements of machinery—developed by art director Max Miceli. Character, background and prop designs were handled by Chad Frye, Brent Gordon, Michelle Kowalski, Diana Ling, Corey Loving, Quintin Puebla, Jeff Purves and Bryan Sims.
Each episode contained two 11-minute stories, with two episodes having a story that spanned across both segments. As with other Disney Junior shows, a member of the cast would recite the story title instead of it being displayed on screen. The series was written by Dubuc with Kendall Michele Haney, Brain Hohlfeld, Greg Johnson, Claudia Silver and Kristofer Wellman, with Johnson serving as story editor. Dubuc wrote the lyrics to the theme song with music by Beau Black, who also composed the music heard during the stock “suit-up” sequence whenever Kit donned her flight gear. Dominic Lewis composed the rest of the series’ music.
The Rocketeer was well-received, praised for its writing, characters and diversity. In 2020, it was nominated for five Daytime Emmy Awards, although it didn’t win any. Since the season finale has aired, there has been some question as to whether or not the show was renewed for a second season—especially considering it’s no longer listed on the Disney websites. Dubuc has stated on social media that because of non-disclosure agreements she’s not permitted to confirm or deny anything until the network makes any official announcements. The entire season has been made available to stream on Disney+ and for purchase on YouTube.
“Skyway Robbery / A Doggone Adventure” (11/8/19) – Foiling a robbery at the café results in Kit’s rocket pack and helmet being stolen. / Butch sets out to rescue his new friend.
“Ground Control to Rocketeer / Save the Statue” (11/15/19) – Tesh’s improvements on his bike don’t pan out quite the way he hoped. / Kit and Tesh raise money to repair the Rocketeer statue.
“Carnival Caper / Songbird Soars Again” (11/22/19) – The Great Orsino sets his sights on acquiring Kit’s rocket pack. / Kit befriends an old pilot and helps her return to the skies.
“Downhill Derby / Flight Class Heroes” (12/6/19) – A scheming young inventor plans to ruin the downhill go-cart race with his weather machine. / Stranded in a pilotless plane, Kit’s flight class has to work together to land safely.
“Hypnotic Hughesville / The Piggy Bank Caper” (12/13/19) – The Great Orsino manages to hypnotize the entire town. / Sylvester Slapdash steals Kit’s piggy bank when looking for a special coin.
“X-Treme Hero / Hot on the Trail” (1/10/20) – Kit introduces Tesh to his extreme sports idol after rescuing her. / A hike with Tesh turns into a need to stop Laura and Harley from stealing a precious gemstone.
“Valerie the Valkyrie / Follow that Bulldog” (1/17/20) – Jealous of the Rocketeer, Valerie creates her own alter ego. / The Cast-Iron Chef steals Kit’s family cookbook in order to spice up his repertoire.
“Recipe for Disaster / The Critter Gang” (1/24/20) – Cast-Iron Chef makes another attempt to steal the Secord family recipes. / Kit investigates wild animals robbing the town.
“Cleared for Takeoff / First Class” (2/7/20) – Kit volunteers at the café to prove she’s responsible enough for flight school. / Kit befriends the coolest girl in class, however she may like to show off in the air a bit too much.
“Underground Doodlebug / Bruce Goose” (2/21/20) – The Rocketeer sets out to find a mischievous kid inventor. / Rocketeer teaches a goose that bonds with Bruce how to fly and reunite with its family.
“Runaway Lilith / The Hughesville Howler” (3/13/20) – Sylvester Slapdash’s pet ferret runs away to join the Critter Gang. / Sylvester Slapdash plans to use the legend of the Hughesville Howler to clear out the town and make it easier for Lilith to steal things.
“Friends and Family Picnic / Lights, Camera, Action Hero!” (4/3/20) – Rocketeer sets out to ensure Valerie’s dad can make the Friends and Family picnic. / Tesh’s camera goes missing, and it contains footage of Kit’s identity.
“Special Delivery / The Hunt for Hughesberries” (4/10/20) – Tesh asks the Rocketeer to ensure his father will arrive in time to see the birth of his new sibling. / The Cast-Iron Chef returns to steal all of the town’s Hughesberry pies.
“Super Deany / Dr. Doodlebug’s Fair Game” (4/17/20) – The malfunctioning jet pack ends up in Deany’s possession and he uses it to play hero, unaware of its problems. / Rolland’s latest invention may ruin Kit and Tesh’s art projects.
“The Valkyrie Cleans-Up / The Bank Job” (4/24/20) – Villains infest the town looking to claim the reward for finding the stolen Rocketeer statue. / Kit helps Tesh earn enough money to buy a new skateboard.
“Big Top Problems / One Trick Pony” (7/4/20) – The circus is in town, and thefts always seem to happen during The Great Orsino’s show. / Xena Treme cons Valerie into flying for her new stunt despite Kit’s warnings.
“Pack-A-Doodle / Sitti’s Visit” (7/11/20) – Roland invents a device to help him win a new merit badge. / The Cast-Iron Chef tries to steal Sitti’s cookbook.
“The Haunted House / The Halloween Heist” (7/16/20) – Kit uses a haunted house to keep Orsino from getting his hands on the rocket pack. / Kit has to stop a stampede used to cause a distraction from a theft going on in town.
“The Christmas Star” (7/17/20) – Sylvester Slapdash plots to steal all of the town’s Christmas presents.
“Scarlett’s Search / Rocketeer Day” (7/18/20) – Kit’s Aunt Scarlet comes for a visit to find where her grandfather’s plane crashed decades ago. / Sylvester Slapdash plans to impersonate the original Rocketeer on Rocketeer Day in order to steal the Rocketeer’s watch.
“Heart of a Hero” (7/25/20) – Kit turns to her foes for help in order to reclaim her rocket pack from Norman Sinclair.