Continuing Kelvin Green’s on-going
skewering examination of Marvel Comics’ catalog of characters. In previous installments Kelvin has written about Hank Pym, Reed Richards, Scott Summers and Black Cat.
This month Kelvin tackles a character he is actually fond of: Rocket Raccoon! If you don’t believe me (and I wouldn’t blame your doubt), read on!
There was a time in the mid-1980s when Marvel put out a bunch of four-issue miniseries featuring a wide range of characters and settings. These weren’t the Cyclops-goes-on-a-solo-adventure-that-was-too-boring-to-put-in-the-main-book type of thing that Marvel put out nowadays, and while I wouldn’t go as far as to call these series experimental, they were, more often than not, more varied in their choice of cast, setting and subject matter than the norm. This venture gave us the hugely successful Transformers tie-in comic*, and a stunning Barry Windsor Smith Machine Man series which also introduced the Iron Man of 2020, a character who was contrasted with his present-day counterpart by being somewhat villainous in nature**. We also saw the brilliant Hercules: Prince of Power, which turns the perennial poor man’s Thor into the vibrant character he always should have been, complete with a fantastic sequence in which Herc attempts to get Galactus drunk. And of course, we got Rocket Raccoon. I encountered these titles through the British version of Transformers, which had a weekly release schedule, so had to stretch out its reprints of the U.S. title by splitting the original issue into two or three parts, and bulking out the rest with British-originated stories or random reprints. Eventually, this support slot became the permanent residence of G.I. Joe/Action Force stories, but before the Joes took over, British youngsters were treated to a varied diet of robot and/or space related stuff, including all of the aforementioned stories.
So yes, Rocket is an anthropomorphic animal character, but he didn’t amble over from Marvel’s Star line, and the U.K. publication was perhaps a touch out of place in a toy tie-in. The series was full of ostensibly child-friendly concepts such as the animal cast and the central premise of a struggle between rival toy makers, and yet as it went on, elements crept in that were quite at odds with that approach. The setting turns out to be vaguely post-apocalyptic, an abandoned asylum colony, with the pets uplifted to sentience by the original caretakers as a final gesture to their patients, and some tasked with building toys to keep the humans occupied; the grand irony being that the current inhabitants of the planet are descendants of the lunatics, aren’t actually insane themselves, and are trapped in a constructed paradise. The third issue is an extended homage to Edgar Allan Poe as a crimson cloud infiltrates a ball and begins disintegrating the guests with indiscriminate ease, and the protagonist’s main foil is a roguish rabbit who is drawn in the least cuddly and fluffy way imaginable, all dangerously sharp teeth and blood-red eyes.
And then there’s the image that will stay with me forever: a man tears off his own face to reveal underneath a robotic clown with a fiendish grin. If this series was aimed at children, then Bill Mantlo and Mike Mignola hate children with the fury of a thousand raging Christian Bales.
Rocket himself was characterised as a swashbuckling Flash Gordon type, fearless and charming, only with the traditional Aryan look of the classic space hero swapped for a creature that would be rifling through your bins if left to his own devices. Oh, and his love interest was an otter. As mentioned above, it was all eventually explained in a semi-plausible comic-booky way, but the apparent incongruity of the pulp hero being a near-rabid bin-dweller is part of the immense charm of both the series and the character. There is something really quite nextwave*** about an intelligent animal in a bright green leather jacket zipping about on jetboots while sniping at Terminator-style robot clowns with his ray gun. Obviously, not everyone has my exquisite taste, as Rocket promptly failed to make any significant appearances for the next twenty years.
The first Annihilation crossover event thingie brought together many of Marvel’s often-neglected**** space-based characters into a crowd-pleasing barnstormer of a story, so it was perhaps inevitable that a sequel would expand that approach, and yet it was still an incredible shock when the first previews came in and a familiar furry space warrior was seen among the large cast. Now we’ll get to Death’s Head in another of these columns sometime later this year, but for now it’s enough to say that I was a bit disappointed to have a favourite character return, but having undergone such vast changes that it was essentially a brand new concept; Rocket, on the other hand, was coming back more or less exactly as he left. Which meant, of course, that he was undoubtedly going to get killed off again*****.
And yet the tenacious little furball stuck around, survived the crossover, and is now one of the new Guardians of the Galaxy. Okay, so he’s not an Avenger or anything******, but that’s still relatively high profile for such an obscure personage. He hasn’t made the long crawl from obscurity unscathed, however; whereas before he was a little wild, he was also erudite and witty, and had a strong sense of responsibility. Now he seems somewhat feral, has developed some form of obsessive disorder, and has become a gun nut. Lylla, Rocket’s mustalid love interest, and Wal, his ersatz father figure, are nowhere to be seen, so perhaps they’ve been lost, and this has affected his sanity; like the 9th Doctor, there may be an untold tale of How He Got This Way floating around somewhere. Or maybe he’s just gone rabid. What hasn’t changed, though, is that he’s still, as the bloggers say, awesome. The Kree consider him a tactical genius, and he’s now partnered with Groot, a massive sentient tree who doubles as a handy mobile artillery platform. Just so we’re clear, he’s a flying raccoon with a level of military genius that both impresses and frightens a race of warmongering space Nazis, and who rides around on the back of a giant walking tree with his collection of big shiny rotary cannons and missile launchers. If you honestly can’t see why that’s pretty much the best thing ever, I don’t know why you’re even reading comics at all.
Much like a certain other diminutive hirsute nutcase, Rocket made his first appearance in an issue of The Incredible Hulk*******. In some parallel universe somewhere out there, it was Rocket who caught the public imagination, it was Rocket who inexplicably appeared in nine comics a month for no good reason, and it was Rocket who was portrayed in a series of successful films by Hugh Jackman. If that doesn’t sound like the most awesome thing ever to you (except possibly the last bit), then you’re dead to me. Go and read a washing machine manual, nerd!
*I still can’t help but smile at the final issue’s “#80 in a 4-Issue Limited Series” tag line
**Clearly, this distinction no longer applies.
1. Having the properties of being utterly mental but also overwhelmingly awesome. At the same time.
2. The Marvel comic of the same name which exhibited these properties on every page but was still outsold by ten long, cold months of Captain America and Iron Man punching each other.
****Because cosmic stories aren’t “realistic”, so myopic and unimaginative former writers of crime comics aren’t interested.
*****Peter David hated the character and had him killed, and skinned, behind the scenes during his Hulk run. This is one of the few occasions when I heartily approve of Marvel’s slapdash approach to their own continuity.
******But he would be if Marvel came to their senses and let me write the book. What?
*******Sort of. There’s a proto-Rocket in a 1976 Marvel Preview, but he’s a bit different.