Cross-posted to Black Gate.
The upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy movie is the biggest risk yet for Marvel Studios. Last year’s The Avengers was a daring crossover experiment bringing together all the heroes introduced so far into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the five lead-in films were all financial successes and audiences had some prep for what they were about to see. But The Guardians of the Galaxy is a light-hearted space opera starring heroes few people outside of comicdom (and, honestly, quite a few within it) know no better than the main generals of the Thirty Years’ War.* The majority of the characters come from unusual alien species… and one of the heroes is a sentient, blastgun-toting raccoon.
I recently watched an episode of Nature titled “Raccoon Nation.” The scientists interviewed on the program theorized that living in urban environments has pushed raccoons to rapidly evolve higher intelligence. “In a hundred years, they may be running the cities,” one scientist joked. If this pattern continues, the reality of a jet-boot propelled sentient raccoon armed with laser guns is not so far-fetched after all. Rocket Raccoon is already on his way to movie screens in 2014, so how long until his raccoon brethren on Terra follow his example?
Rocket Raccoon, a character introduced in an offhanded way in the mid-‘70s, may turn out to be the popular lynchpin of The Guardians of the Galaxy. Although the furry black-masked space opera hero has gone through publishing dry-spells, he has a loyal following and love that exceeds the other Guardians. (Sorry, Groot.) According to director James Gunn in an interview at SDCC, “Rocket is the heart of this movie. If Rocket doesn’t work the movie’s not gonna work. If Rocket does work the movie’s gonna work.”
Rocket Raccoon first caught readers’ attention during his absurdly imaginative 1985 miniseries. But he had only sporadic appearances in the near three decades since, never getting his own ongoing title until settling in as a team member of the revived Guardians of the Galaxy in 2008. And now we are on the verge of getting a major movie starring Rocket Freakin’ Raccoon before Warner Bros. and DC can even mount a Wonder Woman film! Truly, a puzzle to stump even the cosmic mind of Galactus, Devourer of Worlds. All power to Procyon lotor! Or, if Rocket does belong to a different species, all power to Procyon cosmicus!
Let’s take a brief look at where the heart of the Guardians of the Galaxy got his start.
The stories of Rocket’s early years are found in the collection Rocket Raccoon: Guardian of the Keystone Quadrant (2011). The volume brings together the first six issues featuring Rocket, all from writer Bill Mantlo. The core of the volume is the eponymous miniseries with legendary artist Mike Mignola (Hellboy) herding the menagerie.
And I can finish with it right now too, since there isn’t much to say. The hero of the story, Prince Wayfinder, crashes on a planet called the Witch World and meets up with “Rocky” Raccoon (the Rocket epithet never gets used) when the animal saves him from a killer tree. Readers get no background on “Rocky,” who speaks upper crust British dialogue nothing like his later mid-Western style. Indeed, there is little in “The Sword in the Star!” to suggest this is even a canon appearance of the character; it’s an easily ignored oddity.
The novelty of an armed talking raccoon could not get “The Sword in the Star!” to a third installment. The final page of the story pleads with readers to offer support for continuing Prince Wayfinder’s adventures (“It’s up to you, pilgrims!”). It never materialized, and no loss, honestly—except for Rocket. The character looked doomed to the fate of many heroes who played roles in Marvel’s try-out titles.
However, Rocket Raccoon must have itched at Bill Mantlo’s mind in the years after those few pages in Marvel Preview. In 1981, when Mantlo was writing The Incredible Hulk, he rescued Rocket from the back pages of the ‘70s magazine and wove him into the Marvel Universe with the help of artist Sal Buscema, who was on his decade-long tenure as the Hulk’s artist. The cover of The Incredible Hulk #271 advertised it as the twentieth anniversary of the green goliath, but the Hulk was peeved that he had to share the pages with a “puny talking animal.”
The story, naturally titled “In the Black Holes of Sirius Major There Lives a Young Boy Name of Rocket Raccoon!”, must have seemed like a goof to Hulk readers. The current storyline in the comic had Hulk aiding the Hulk-Hunters against the Galaxy Master and classic villain the Abomination. But charging into the Galaxy Master sent Hulk to the Keystone Quadrant and the planet Halfworld, taking him “off-topic” for an issue to fight alongside talking, tech-savvy animals in a war against clown automatons, humans dressed as “Keystone” cops, a system-conquering mole, a devious turtle inventor, and the deadly Black Bunny Brigade. The goal: possession of a book that may hold the secrets of the Keystone Quadrant; an obscure and unreadable text passed down from the Firstcomers… the Gideon Bible! (Another nod to the Beatles song.)
Mantlo was obviously having a riotous time blending pulp space opera with children’s television show silliness. But although readers in 1981 must have viewed this as a filler issue lark, 2013 hindsight makes Mantlo’s world-building and plans for more Rocket Raccoon adventures obvious.
So much background gets pressed into the confines of this single issue that Rocket Raccoon and his crew aboard the Rakk ‘n’ Ruin begged for more adventures. Halfworld gets only sketchy information, but a planet split between sentient animals in a natural setting and a robot-dominated industrial dead-zone is rife with potential. Rocket immediately takes control of the story, placing Hulk in the role of hired muscle. It’s Rocket story all the way through; he takes up the task of rescuing his girlfriend, the otter Lady Lylla, from the villainous Judson Jakes—the aforementioned power mad mole—and retrieving the Gideon Bible from Jakes’s headquarters, Spacewheel. Rocket’s rapport with his first mate, Wal Rus (try to guess the animal), gets established through fun banter, and Mantlo keeps the swashbuckling tough-guy dialogue flowing. (“That’s just what we were going to ask you, tall green and gruesome.”)
At the conclusion, the scientist turtle Uncle Pyko zaps Hulk back to Earth so he can continue his regularly scheduled story arc, and Rocket loses an important ally. Even readers thankful to get back from this weird one-shot must have felt curious about whether they would see Rocket and his friends and foes again.
For four years, Bill Mantlo kept pressure on Marvel’s editors to let him explore Rocket Raccoon in his own series. In 1985, he got his wish with the four-issue limited series Rocket Raccoon, the core epic of the character’s history… and unfortunately the last time Rocket would appear in the Marvel Universe for five years.
Not that you would know that the Rocket Raccoon miniseries was occurring in the Marvel U, aside from an obligatory mention of the Hulk dropping in on Halfworld. The Keystone Quadrant remains cut off behind the Galacian Wall, so none of the Marvel Universe’s many cosmic and SF denizens can drop by to interfere in the colorful animal and clown-crowded craziness. The miniseries is a gleefully bizarre adventure that expands and alters the setting seen in The Incredible Hulk into a vibrant world that could sustain dozens of issues. In The Incredible Hulk, Halfworld is silly. In the miniseries, Halfworld is absurdist. Mantlo invests the adventures of Rocket Raccoon with a purpose that makes them greater than a mere one-note joke: “Hey, a bunch of intelligent animals with space weapons!”
Rocket Raccoon is Brian Jacques’s Redwall mashed up with Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with a thick glaze of Lewis Carroll. And everything about it is marvelous. Comic books in the mid-‘80s were moving along the path of darker and more serious stories, and Rocket Raccoon is so radically different from the current trends while not playing exclusively in the kiddie pool either. It’s my ideal comic book tale: colorful, strange, not taking itself too seriously but also paying attention to crafting a solid story. It’s as sober as it needs to be, as high as you want it to be.
Halfworld’s background is expanded and altered from what was shown in The Incredible Hulk. The Gideon Bible is now “The Book of Halfworld,” in which founders known as “Shrinks” explain how the planet’s mixture of humans (“Loonies”), robots, and intelligent animals came about. All the humans on Halfworld are insane, and the animals have taken on the responsibility of looking after them. Competing toy companies run by Lord Dyvyne (a snake creature with limbs) and the mole Judson Jakes provide the gizmos to keep the Loonies distracted.
Mike Mignola was a bull’s-eye choice for the miniseries. Sal Buscema was one of Marvel’s finest artists, but superheroes were his specialty; the setting of Halfworld, with armored rabbit brigades and robotic clowns, was a better fit with Mignola’s emerging style. The visual details of Halfworld fill each panel, and the animal denizens feel like actual earth creatures given enhancements, not humanoids plastered with fur and some beast accessories. Rocket Raccoon wears a zippy green uniform with flared gloves and a wide belt. His design is nearer to a real raccoon, and his facial expressions approach human but never upset the realistic animal outline of the rest of him. His look of fury at the end of issue #1 when he learns of Lylla’s kidnapping—“And that makes my fur fly!”—is priceless. Rocket hasn’t looked this good since; current artists usually distort his head to nearly twice the size of his body, and he loses the realistic balance, the sense of a real raccoon, that Mignola gave him.
The miniseries Rocket Raccoon should have blasted straight into an on-going series: it had the quality and potential for an ongoing light-hearted jaunt through the greater spaces of the Marvel Universe. But sales didn’t support it, and Rocket Raccoon wouldn’t make another appearance until 1990. It was in 2007’s Annihilation: Conquest crossover event that Rocket started to stabilize as an ongoing hero. He became a fan-favorite as a member of the Guardians of the Galaxy—inadvertently placing him on a fast track to the big screen.
What happens with Rocket in the future will depend on the success of Guardians of the Galaxy—a success in no way guaranteed. If Guardians does make a smash, I hope that Pixar finally decides to adapt a Marvel property and picks Rocket Raccoon for the honor. (Pixar has discussed the possibility of a Marvel adaptation since parent company Disney purchased the comic company.) A loose adaptation of the Rocket Raccoon miniseries to fill in his backstory would be amazing in the hands of the Pixar folks.
But I still hold out for Pixar to make a Devil Dinosaur movie. An animated film of either oddball Marvel animal hero would please me. Miniature red Tyrannosaurus, or Han Solo dressed as a raccoon—a win either way.
*Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly; Albrecht von Wallenstein; Gustavus Adolphus; and Christian IV of Denmark. You’re welcome!