March 12th, 2008 at 2:36 am

Straight On Till Morning

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I can’t believe we’ve lost Dave Stevens.

Dave was, as I’m sure many people will be saying, a real sweetheart. There was a sharp character lurking behind his boyish movie star looks, but the gee-whiz factor so apparent in his work clearly came straight from the heart. If you didn’t walk away from him with a smile on your face, there was something wrong with you.

We only managed to talk at conventions, managing the occasional real conversation, but more often those quick “How-you-doing-we-gotta-catch-up” encounters that no one ever has time to follow up on. The few times we managed to get together, I was always aware of the eyes that were focused on the table or corner of the room that we’d staked out, as though I’d yanked a Hollywood celeb away from his public.

The fans had anointed him a superstar, but I never saw Dave take any of that seriously. He was clearly a guy who wanted people to share the fun he had with his work, and of course he wanted to be recognized for the painstaking attention he paid to everything he drew. But in a business that’s never going to suffer from a shortage of swelled heads, Dave Stevens refused to play the demigod game.

I remember one afternoon when he rescued me from some bizarro character who’d buttonholed me at the Dallas Fantasy Fair. The hotel restaurant was fairly quiet at the time, and we were able to talk like human beings for a few minutes before anybody spotted him. This must have been the year after Kings in Disguise wrapped up, and a year or so before the Rocketeer movie was released. He was rolling his eyes over Disney’s ability to pinch pennies and studying my reaction as he mentioned that they’d just added Howard Hughes to the storyline. (If I’d known Terry O’Quinn would be playing the part, I probably would have been more receptive to the idea than I was.)

One of those glad-handing guys who thinks he’s always welcome came up to us and remarked that the two faces of the Depression in comics were both right there at the same table – everything this guy said was a reach like that – and I tossed out something like, “Yeah, I’m the guy who made the Depression depressing again.”

“Well, somebody had to,” said Dave, “after I made it all look so damned wacky.”

Wacky.

Dave leaves behind a fine but too-small body of work for all of us to enjoy, and those meticulously rendered, inimitably sunny images are a lovely gift. I suspect that those who knew him well have memories that are even more precious than the art he sweated blood to create.

I’ll think of the man who called his wonderful work “wacky,” sounding like the self-deprecating flyboy hero he created. I’ll picture one of those gorgeously awkward Gee Bees making for the horizon.

And I just know I’ll hate the idea of waking up in a world that doesn’t have Dave Stevens in it anymore.

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