Monday, September 13, 2010

Book Review: Brush With Passion: The Art and Life of Dave Stevens

Book Review: Brush With Passion: The Art and Life of Dave Stevens
Originally posted on Myspace: Sunday, February 22, 2009 _______________________________________
It has been a long time since I’ve written a book review but I’m more than compelled to do so at this late hour with the latest release, Brush with Passion, an excellent tribute and reflection on a great artist and person, Dave Stevens (1955-2008). Well, this is not a typical book review, I must say. Its more or less, a personal take on what I’ve read as well as my personal thoughts on Stevens. Before reading Brush With Passion, my mind went back to the time at the age of 11 when my cousin’s husband, a comic book fan and artist, gave me a set of comic books, mostly all independent publications . Two of them were a couple of Pacific Comics featuring Jack Kirby’s Silver Star and Dave Steven’s The Rocketeer. I thought they were very cool. It was the beginning of a realization that not all comics featuring super-heroes were only about Superman and Spider-Man. Dave Stevens was one of the first artists that I started to study and could recognize his distinctive style. From that point onward, I could spot a Dave Stevens illustration right away.

As the years went on I started to notice Stevens art in comics and pin-ups, especially the illustration he did of golden-age hero The Phantom Lady for DC Comics in their Who’s Who publication, among others. When The Rocketeer movie was scheduled to be released, I seem to be the only one among my friends who knew who “The Rocketeer” was and the guy who created him. I was probably among a “chosen” few who was more excited about it than Terminator 2 which was released around the same time.

Throughout my career, I began to expand my own artistic endeavors, writing poetry and experimenting with different mediums. I would soon find myself illustrating and working with various models, like Stevens, myself. I regret truly not having met Dave. If I had tried harder, I’m sure I could have made some connection. But, like most of us think, we tend to believe some people are untouchable or cannot be reached. I’ve worked with so many people and I’m sure if I had made an effort to contact him, it could have happened. Upon hearing about his death last year along with the young and talented artist Michael Turner, I took both losses pretty hard and have dealt with both emotionally ever since. Not just because they were both very talented artists, but, coming from an understanding of the creative process and the sacrifices made daily, I made my own “creative” connections with them as well as other artists, writers, poets, etc. throughout the years. When they pass on, it seems to take a piece of you with them. Its funny, but I felt more connected with them and saddened by their lost than my own father and my older half-brother who passed away in recent years. This feeling of connecting to these artists have always been my way of finding kindred creative souls. Maybe its because my father abandoned me and my sister when I was 6 and having my half-brother, who tried very little to be a brother to me, unable to get pass the issues of his own life fueled the need to connect to artists like myself. And so is the life of many creative souls, trying to connect to the one’s that influence them to create, making stronger connections than any bond of blood. And so goes my reading of Brush With Passion. When I purchased the book, I could feel that I was in for something special. I would have to read it immediately. That night, I turned on the music of the Irish Film Orchestra, playing a variety of suites. When I sat up on my bed with my new reading light, I opened the book to the first page. Within a matter of time, reading a few lines, the tears started to flow. The music didn’t help in stopping the waterworks but it suddenly fit the mood as I began to remember the times I came across various illustrations of Dave Stevens, finally watching the Rocketeer movie, the rumors I read about his depression after its disappointing box office receipts and other things I came to remember about him.

As I read each chapter throughout the week, I was both encouraged as an artist and satisfied with my purchase. One chapter in particular, Dave digs deep in reflecting on his life. He shows that being an artist is so much less glamorous than most would care to admit. And he hits the nail in his points that, like all of us artists, he started with a love for the printed image, the thrill of the sketch and a pursuit to create. Then reality steps in with everything in-between. But, as Stevens came to realize, one must take it all in stride and learn from each experience and work from there. Stevens, though very hard on himself for so long, eventually realized so much in his final years. That there is wisdom that does not come easy….It takes experiences and the inevitable ups-and-downs. I’m am so very grateful to have read “Brush With Passion”, despite the depictions of Africans that was a throwback to the racist illustrations of the 1940s and 1950s that Stevens strongly points out were wrong to portray. 

I feel I got to know Dave Stevens through his words, and his reflections and memories of others. He seemed to be a pretty cool guy. It would have been an honor to have known him but, I know his legacy will live on forever. --- Torrence King
Below is a more detailed review published by

Available at:

Dave Stevens (illustrator) and Arnie Fenner & Cathy Fenner (editors), Brush With Passion: The Art and Life of Dave Stevens (Underwood Books, 2008)

Brush With Passion: The Art and Life of Dave Stevens is an utterly gorgeous book. It's also a terribly sad one. This is not just due to the Stevens' untimely passing from hairy cell leukemia, nor is it entirely derived from the shoulda-woulda-coulda success of The Rocketeer. Instead, it comes from the reader's dawning realization that Stevens' autobiographical notes are the ongoing narrative of a man continually defining himself by what he's not -- not a comics artist, not the guy who's going to make a million doing The Rocketeer, not the guy who's going to replace Vargas doing pinups for Playboy, not this, not that. It's not until the very end of his life that Stevens seemingly figured out what he was, or more importantly, what he could be, and the fact that this was never given time to blossom is perhaps the saddest thing of all. But if there is sadness here, there is also beauty and joy. The joy comes from many places: the shared reminiscences of friends and peers like Jim Steranko and Arnie & Cathy Fenner; the pleasure that Stevens clearly took in sharing his influences and history with his audience, the unabashedly good deeds he did in helping out his muse Bettie Page, and more. This book is, after all, a celebration of the man's life as well as his art, and a celebration it is. One gets the sense, reading anecdote after fondly remembered anecdote, of the sheer love that these wildly disparate people all had for Stevens. Peers, employers, friends, lovers -- they all give testimony as to the depth to which Stevens enriched their lives. The last of these, an epilogue by the artist William Stout, is a graceful, hopeful remembrance that brings the story full circle, and which may just invoke a sniffle or two. That leaves the beauty, and there is beauty here a-plenty. The book is exceedingly lavishly illustrated. This is an illustrated life, after all, and the Fenners don't skimp. Everything necessary to telling the story is here, gorgeously reproduced and given detailed captions for explanation. Childhood iconography and family photos are included; so are pencil sketches, full color reproductions, movie storyboards, reference, and more. The end result is a book that is stuffed -- but not overstuffed -- with everything visually pertinent to Dave Stevens' career, both from his work and the world around him that provided his inspiration. It is, of course, the Stevens work that most readers will be eager to see, and that does not disappoint. Those who just know Stevens as “the guy who drew the Rocketeer” are in for a bit of a shock, as the full range of his work is on display here. That includes his non-PC homages, his Tarzan and Rocketeer work, the studies for the never-realized Mimi Rodin project, and most of all, the pinup art. There's lots and lots of it here, which is to say that anyone who opens the book and isn't prepared for an armada of magnificently rendered nude or semi-nude women is going to have a hard time getting past about chapter 8. The art itself is brilliant, unmistakably Stevens even when he was doing homage or rough pencil sketch. I'm no art critic, but even I can see the absolute vibrancy of the material, the energy that comes through in every image. It's clear that Brush With Passion is a labor of love, a lovingly assembled remembrance of a career that provided a great deal of memorable work. How fortunate we are, then, that Dave Stevens had such friends as these who were willing to produce a work like this; how even more fortunate that he was generous enough of spirit to set down his creative journey without excuses or lacunae. For both the sadness and the joy it contains, this book is a treasure of a kind, and well worth the time of anyone with even a passing interest in Stevens' life and work. [Richard Dansky]

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