Working with artist Paul Smith, Mark Waid’s most recent book, The Rocketeer and the Spirit: Pulp Friction, is a cross-over between two of comics most recognizable pulp heroes. They are an odd team-up. Danny Colt (the Spirit) operates in the dark and gritty streets of Central City while Cliff Secord (the Rocketeer) soars in the bright lights of Hollywood. Danny is from the East coast; Cliff is from the West coast. Danny is serious; Cliff’s a joker. Danny is alert; Cliff is reckless. Mark Waid and Peter Smith use the first issue of the series to explore these differences.
The two are brought together by a murder plot revolving around the 1940s expansion of television. A man killed on the east coast in the Spirit’s Central City washes up on the Hollywood coast where his body is found by Betty, the Rocketeer’s love interest. When the Spirit comes to interview Betty for his investigation, Cliff believes he is a villain trying to hurt her. The Spirit and the Rocketeer have a delightful fight in the sky, exchanging insults and punches. Still, having the two heroes fight at the beginning of a cross-over is a cliché at this point (most recently seen in Batman/Superman #1), but at least in this book the fighting makes sense and feels like just the beginning to the characters’ conflict. In the aftermath of the fight, Betty literally falls for Danny setting up a love triangle that should continue the hostility between the characters.
Paul Smith’s character art is solid, but it really shines when he is drawing setting details. These details help his art emphasizes the differences between the Spirit and the Rocketeer’s universes. He draws Central City with towering skyscrapers and neoclassical architecture. The skies are grey and the ground is snow covered. On the west coast, it is sunny. Smith uses beaches and swimming pools as set pieces to highlight the difference. It would be easy to think the two cities were in different hemispheres due to the drastic weather change. Jordie Bellaire’s always spectacular colors further emphasize the disparity between Hollywood and Central City. She uses blues and grays to color Central City, but opens up her full color pallet for Hollywood. At times, the differences can feel jarring. Nonetheless, the aesthetic mostly works because of the way the art parallels the story which pits the Spirit and Rocketeer as clashing, hesitant allies.
The first issue sets up the character conflicts nicely. Readers will get a good sense of the two titular characters and their relationship. The main flaw in the book is that it was very thin on plot even for a first issue. There are only about four or five pages of plot and they are just set-up. The subtitle “pulp friction” and the focus of the first issue lead me to believe that Waid will make character conflicts the focus of the book. That should work for a cross-over miniseries, but it might feel a bit slow for some readers. Despite its flaws, I enjoyed the book; this is a worthy addition to IDW’s high quality Rocketeer library and rare chance to see the Spirit in action.