Wednesday, March 12, 2008

NYCC Featured Guests Jim Steranko & J. David Spurlock Remember Dave Stevens

It is a very, very sad day.
I thought the world of Dave Stevens. Besides creating the Rocketeer, Dave ochestrated the Bettie Page comeback and looked after her quite a bit. He was very supportive of my Space Cowboy strip and there was talk about him doing a Space Cowboy cover. I told him he had let Adam Hughes runaway with his King of Cheesecake crown by slowing down so, in the last decade. I knew he suffered from Leukemia for years but we wouldn't talk about it.

Though we discussed various book projects: Art books, Rocketeer collections, etc., the only times we really worked together were when, on rare occasion, I'd represent him as a booking agent for some personal appearance like the Creation convention in Pasadena a few years ago. I look back warmly on many great times we shared--frequently in social occasions with other Art Pack types including his idols Jim Steranko and Carmine Infantino, and contemporaries MW Kaluta, Bill Stout, Bob Burden...and even decades back to the Doug Wildey days (I remember Doug saying Dave had single-handedly brought cheesecake back to comics)! There were usually a few great looking women with us too. I still have a sketch Dave did on one such occasion in Atlanta. Great times with a brilliant artist. I was proud to call him friend and I will always remember him.
J. David Spurlock
Dave Stevens died today and the art world lost one of its most passionate practitioners. Our loss, as friends and fans, was infinitely greater. With the exception of Kirby and a few others, one would be hard pressed to name anyone in the field who was more admired and beloved.

Those who knew him will also confirm that, even though he was a superb draftsman and a rendering perfectionist, there wasn't an erg of pretension in him. Who had more right?He was easily one of handsomest, best-dressed, and well-spoken men that could be found behind a drawing board or on a convention floor. Although he may have taken ten minutes to comb his hair and make certain his shirt hung well, there was not a hint of ceremony or conceit in his manner or attitude.

Although he was completely accessible to anyone offering a comment or criticism, Stevens was an extremely private individual. He gave a massive amount of his time, effort, and creativity to those who loved his work. No speed demon, he'd meticulously deliberate over each panel, each figure, each line, until they were as perfect as he could make them. It was an expensive habit, with a killer toll taken from his personal life. He was driven by his professionalism and it showed in the work.
What did not show were the internal processes and sometimes the turmoil in the man behind the work. Stevens was essentially self-educated in artistic techniques and his desire for perfection kept him relentlessly on that track. The result was that no one was better at creating a certain kind of adventure, atmosphere, and anatomy than Stevens. But making it look so easy was only a mask that concealed hard work and serious sacrifice. He kept all that to himself.

And when he was diagnosed with a rare, terminal illness, he kept that to himself, too. His closest friends were aware of the condition, but he had no interest in community—or even private—sympathy, and went to considerable lengths to conceal the problem from his public. Most of his associates were unaware of what he endured physically, mentally, and spiritually because he kept such an inexorable focus on his aesthetic vision. Even the punishment of year-after-year chemo treatments, only deepened his commitment to his art; he began attending sketching sessions (after being a celebrated, successful pro) and eventually enrolled in painting classes, to help his skills transcend the line tradition to the tonal. He was moving from cartoonist to painter, a goal few artists seriously attempt in their 40s, let alone with a terminal sentence hanging over them.

Several years ago, Stevens confessed that his physician had given him about ten to twelve months—to February 2007—to live, based on a calculation of his leukemia's progression. Rather than be ignited by rage, self-pity, or other negative emotional reactions as most of us would do, he opted to go on with his life as though no end was in sight. We frequently talked about business, about our work, about other's work, about film, about music, about food, about the woman we
loved, about our artistic discoveries, about new theories, about the forces that shaped our universe and we sparred, scolded, wisecracked, and laughed, just as we had throughout our 35-year+ relationship.

It led to a point that puzzled me deeply. He knew that unless some miracle cure materialized (insiders scoured the net periodically for clues and news of such a cure), the end was in sight. Yet Stevens' behavior was more normal than mine. I didn't understand how he could awaken every morning and face a doomsday countdown, a personal Armageddon, so cavalierly—and questioned him about it. He revealed that he had no intention of allowing a fatal prognosis to corrupt whatever remained of his life, that he was living every day as naturally as possible.

I was stunned, not by his comment, but because he made it happen—in his terms! He was exhibiting the kind of unbridled courage that generally doesn't exist off the comicbook page. The chips were down and the kid showed his moxie! I never admired him more than at that moment and told him that for a pretty boy, he had plenty of nerve! Stevens' philosophy endured until the end. We spoke a few weeks ago. His voice was faint and he was exhausted, but he made our late-night conversation continue for ninety minutes, heavily punctuated with laughs, each of which generated a coughing fit. Nerve!

I knew the end of the story for a long time, but wasn't prepared--and maybe never will be--to accept the terrible finality of his death. It is painful to start every day knowing there will be no new Stevens images to savor. Or all-night conversations fueled by trivia duels, arcane experiences, esoteric insights, and ongoing laughter. I'll add him to my list: no new Wes Montgomery solos, no more Bob Peak posters, no additional Mickey Spillane thrillers. Life goes on, just the way
Stevens wanted, except he won't be here to make it more interesting.

I can tell you, however, that he'll live in my heart as long as I can take a breath. See you around, pal!

Jim Steranko


Dave Chow Illustrations said...

Wonderful and heartfelt remembrance by Jim Steranko over the loss of Dave Stevens. Dave Stevens will be missed dearly by admirers, friends and family.

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