Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Dave Stevens, Cliff Secord, and Rocketeer 2021

Would it surprise anyone to find out that one of my favorite movies of all time is The Rocketeer? Probably not. It's got that perfect pulp-action blend that sears right into the brain of a 9-year-old, which is how old I was when I saw it. The summer of 1991 was, all in all, not a greatly happy one, but the night I saw that movie for the first time still stands out. The good guys and the bad guys, bigger than life, chases, thrills, two-fisted action, the dashing hero fighting for the fate of the world and the heart of a beautiful young woman. They make 'em like that these days, but not near often enough.

All of which is my way of saying that news of the passing of Dave Stevens kicked me right in the pants. Not nearly as well-regarded as he ought to have been, Stevens was one of the few artists working in any medium who really understood adventure fiction, both why it works and why we need it. He's also the man responsible for bringing Bettie Page pin-up art to my generation, for which he has my eternal, undying thanks.

It's my hope that Stevens will be one of those artists whose fame and popularity explodes after his death. He deserves the recognition, and comics, hell, entertainment in general could use more of his bold, optimistic "here comes tomorrow" style. Things aren't as simple as they were in the pulp era, true, but I think the time has come again for an outlook that says we're on the edge of a bold new frontier in history, and that the future is in our hands. Because we are, and it is, and somebody ought to be saying that the future is going to kick ass.

Which brings us to Rocketeer 2021. It's an unabashed fanfic idea I've been kicking around in my head the last couple years, brought on by the impulse purchase of Peter David's Rocketeer novelization from a used bookstore. While reading the book, I got to thinking two things: What had happened to Cliff and Jenny through the tumultuous twentieth century, and where the hell is my jetpack? Those thoughts eventually coalesced into a Secord family history that led to a near-future techsploded world where the grand promises of science fiction were finally starting to come true, and a new Rocketeer stood ready to lead the way into the future. I never did anything with it because that would have been imposing. It probably still is, but tonight I wanted to put it down, just out of tribute. I expect it to go fully nowhere; I just wanted to give a shout-out to one of my favorite movies ever, and the guy who thought it all up.

Behind the cut for those of you who are interested. I gotta go watch a movie now.

Cliff Secord, born c. 1917 to unknown parents. Raised in a number of traveling airshows by Ambrose "Peevy" Peabody. In 1938, while working for the Bigelow Air Circus in southern California, recovered a stolen rocket-pack prototype designed by Howard Hughes (along with the never-revealed "reclusive inventor" who initially developed the idea) and became the performing daredevil and crimefighter known as The Rocketeer. Although the rocket-pack was destroyed in an aerial battle over Hollywood with actor and fascist spy Neville Sinclair, Secord and Peabody created a series of successive packs based on detailed schematics Peabody had made while studying the original. Secord continued his career as the Rocketeer, battling organized crime and foreign subversives in and around Los Angeles, until the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the United States's entry into World War II.

Drafted by the US military, who had been keeping tabs on Secord in conjunction with the Federal Bureau of Investigation since the 1938 incident, Secord was given a cover as a military test pilot to allow the Rocketeer to remain in the States as a propaganda piece and anti-saboteur. Married actress Jenny Blake December 25, 1941. During the war, Secord was twice awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in secret for his efforts as the Rocketeer, including his now-legendary battle above the skies of France with the German science-agent known as Der Maschinist (records of both citations were sealed by Presidential order until the 1980s).

During and following the war, however, Secord clashed with the government over proprietary interest in the rocket-pack. Secord's claim, backed by Hughes, was that the series of improvements he and Peabody had made to the design qualified the pack for a separate patent. The government countered that Peabody's plans had been made in violation of their original patent (shared with Hughes Aerospace), and were therefore also subject to government ownership. After the war, Secord tabled the issue of the government creating successive Rocketeers by publically revealing his identity and announcing his retirement. The legal battle, however, continued for decades, with Hughes and his business partners financing Secord's side of the deal. Secord's resignation from the Army also scrubbed his plans to join the newly-formed US Air Force, and his dreams of being a pioneer in man's race to the stars. Instead, Secord took over ownership of the Chaplin Airfield outside Los Angles, and ran it along with Peabody. Secord's wife Blake continued her acting career, weathering dangerous accusations of Communist affiliations during the McCarthy era with aplomb and remaining active in the film industry until well into the 1990s. Secord himself was also subpoenaed to testify before the House Unamerican Activities Committee over Peabody's membership in the Communist Party during the 1920s, but the subpoena was withdrawn after Peabody's death of heart failure in 1957.

Secord was a passive participant in the domestic resistance to the war in Vietnam (see below entry, Howard Secord), but largely removed from public life following the settlement of his longstanding lawsuit with the government in 1961. The details of the settlement are unknown, but speculation states that the rocket's unique fuel system was adapted for the Apollo space program; the naming of the Apollo 11 Lunar Excursion Module "Peevy" would seem to corroborate this.

Secord remained owner and proprietor of the Chaplin Airfield until his death on March 10, 2008, at the age of 81. He was survived by his wife, children, grandson, and great grandson.

Penelope Angela Secord, called Penny, born May 6, 1946, to Cliff Secord and Jenny Blake. From an early age, showed a precocious and intellectual demeanor. Was enchanted by the United States' "space race" against the USSR, and spent much of her youth targeting herself towards being the first woman to walk on the moon. The "glass ceiling" of NASA and the American aerospace industry led her to abandon this dream in the early 1960s; she instead traveled Europe until a chance meeting with famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau inspired her to explore the world below rather than above. Rededicating herself to marine biology, Penny became Cousteau's assistant, partner, and in time surpassed even his fame in the popular mind. Her 1978 documentary, Beyond 20,000 Leagues, received the Academy Award, and in 1985 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in biology for her discovery of the Leviathan squid, named Archetuthis secordis in her honor. Never married. Was publically reticent about her father's wartime adventures, famously stating in an interview with National Geographic, "My father's adventures were his own business; I prefer to get on with mine." As one of the civilian scientists on board the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986, she was killed when the shuttle exploded during take-off. A memorial in her honor exists at the UC-Berkeley Secord Oceanographic Institute.

Howard Ambrose Secord, born January 12, 1948, to Cliff Secord and Jenny Blake. In spite of his father's wishes, volunteered for military service on his 18th birthday. Served as a United States Marine through two tours in the Vietnam conflict, during which he was awarded several Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star. Following his return to America, Howard became one of the most outspoken military critics of the war, delivering his famous "This is not our fathers' war" speech in front of the Washington Monument. His father, although refusing to enter the public debate, issued a statement in general support of his son through the Los Angeles Times. Howard remained publicly active throughout the 1960s and 1970s, finally withdrawing to civilian life following the war's end in 1975. He joined his mother's independent production company, Blake Studios, and served as executive producer on Penelope Secord's Beyond 20,000 Leagues. Secord remained active in this company and the administration of the Chaplin Airfield until his retirement in 2013. Married Be Thi "Betty" Pham June 16, 1968.

John Clifford Secord, born November 4, 1968 to Howard and Be Thi Secord. A small, introspective boy, he was profoundly affected by his mother's death in 1980. Becoming further and further estranged from his father through his teenage years, he severed all ties at the age of 18. Enrolling in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he eventually attained a PhD in astrophysics, where he became one of the founding developers of superstring theory. A private man, he published papers and conducted his research largely from seclusion in his home in Oregon. Married Dominique Moreau May 14, 1995. Died of a sudden embolism June 21, 2021.

Jacob Auguste Secord, called "Jake," born January 1, 2000 to John Secord and Dominique Moreau. Son of a brilliant physicist and a brilliant geneticist, Jake floundered in school as a boy, receiving average marks but taking no particular interest in any subject. His fondness for adventure films, novels and video games worried his parents, particularly his father, who forbade the boy from having any contact with his paternal grandparents or great-grandparents. The Secord name largely having passed into history, he was only vaguely aware of his great-grandfather's career until his father's passing in 2021. Meeting his grandfather for the first time at the funeral, Jake learned of his family's history and, not having much else to do in his life, moved to live with him in Los Angeles. There he came into chance contact with Jacqueline Hughes, the 45-year-old heiress and CEO of the Hughes Aerospace empire, along with Hughes's daughter, Marie. During a raid on the facility by unknown agents attempting to sabotage HA's planned Mars flight, Jake "borrowed" the original Rocketeer uniform and pack from a public display, launching a spectacular chase across Los Angeles ending at Los Angeles Aqueduct, as well as his own career as the Rocketeer 2021.


Greg Manuel said...

Way too cool...The Rocketeer was one of my favorites as well - just pure fun, that was the best way to describe that movie.

I also wanted to give you a heads up...I recently started a new column over at Inside Pulse, and I linked one of your posts - check me out at http://comicsnexus.insidepulse.com/2008/03/10/im-just-sayin

Keep on bringin' it!


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