Documentary Review: An Artist’s Artist in the Comic Book medium — “Dave Stevens: Drawn to Perfection”

Dave Stevens is one of those names whispered in awe among comic book cognoscenti. Because the people in the know know — his peers, collectors, the most fanatical fans.

He was “a once in a lifetime artist,” an exemplar who showed his corner of art “what a refined comic could look like.”

He’s best known for the exquisitely drawn, inked and colored “The Rocketeer” comics that inspired one of the most charming films that medium has ever produced. But when Dave Stevens took on inking duties for the newspaper comic version of “Star Wars,” you could see Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill’s photo-real faces, vivid in expression, emotional in the eyes.

He drew storyboards for films like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and Michael Jackson’s landmark “Thriller” video, stunningly-detailed illustrations that are as beautiful and collectible as Norman Rockwell or Maxfield Parrish. He did pin-ups that brought 1950s icon, model and actress Bettie Page back to life and cultural prominence. And his comics, lovingly re-issued in hardcover collections, are eye-popping, so vivid, playful and full of life, yet exacting down to the tiniest detail, that there’s no mistaking him for anybody else.

“Dave Stevens: Drawn to Perfection,” is an adoring portrait of an artist who gave his medium “more work than comic books deserve,” as his friend and peer Jim Silke puts it. “Comic books are not made to be fine art pieces.”

But that’s how Stevens treated them. Sure, “It’s a trash medium” we hear him relating in an archived audio interview. “Newsprint” is as flimsy as “toilet paper, with watered down color and ink.” Stevens went to extremes, blew deadlines and worked and reworked materials for $150 a page, starvation wages that made him the quintessential “starving artist” in a medium where the real riches didn’t arrive until just before his death in 2008.

Friends, colleagues and collaborators — one of whom, Kelvin Mao, directed this film — grin and laugh at their frustrations in trying to get him to finish something — the final panel in a comic that is simply a seated bulldog, with Stevens obsessing over how one leg looked, a feminine curve here, a shadowy grimace there.

“Dave’s favorite drawing tool was his eraser,” one notes. His pieces that went public were “polished, like a diamond,” another adds. And you “don’t rush” the guy polishing a diamond.

He is humanized, a man who “loved beauty” and the female form — and women. The film tells us about Stevens’ upbringing, early promise and breakthroughs, his inspirations and his mentors and his frustrations with the limitations of comics and the aggravation of dealing with Hollywood.

Disney scrubbed Bettie Page — a real person turned into actual sexpot comic book character — out of the comics in making the film, but otherwise got “The Rocketeer” right. Emerging star director Joe Johnston, screenwriter Danny Bilson and Stevens ensuring that the comics’ “gee whiz” 1930s vibe survived the transition to the screen, and two cast members, Jennifer Connolly and Alan Arkin, later won Oscars. The 1991 movie lacked the action sizzle of the our era’s comic book blockbusters, but lives on as a cult and cosplay favorite.

Of course, it’s all very “inside baseball.” But if you’re into comics, “Drawn to Perfection” will illuminate for you one of the greatest artists the medium has produced. And if you’re not, you’ll still be bowled over by the quality of the work, the life in the drawn figures and the wicked, inviting sparkle in their eyes that made Stevens the standard which every artist since has had to measure herself or himself against.

Rating: unrated, nudity

Cast: Dave Stevens, Bruce Timm, Brinke Stevens, Danny Bilson, James R. Silke, Adam Hughes, William Wray, Joe Johnston, Olivia de Berardinis, Kelvin Mao and Thomas Jane.

Credits: Directed by Kelvin Mao. A Samuel Goldwyn release.

Running time: 1:39

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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