Doug: Welcome to another work week! And what better way to face the day (well, the next five days actually!) than with comics! Our pal from the Great White North, Mike W. is here to offer his critique of the 1985 Rocket Raccoon mini-series. I've not read it, although a few times I've been tempted to purchase the digest-sized version that reprints the series. So if you're like me, after reading Mike's thoughts -- what do you think?
M.S. Wilson: I thought I’d tackle something a bit different this time, namely the Rocket Raccoon miniseries from 1985. This was one of the few Marvel miniseries that I actually bought back then...along with Jack of Hearts (which I don’t remember at all), West Coast Avengers (which was great ... hmm, maybe I should review that next?), and Secret Wars. Miniseries like Falcon, Gargoyle, Iceman, and Hercules didn’t really appeal to me. The weird thing is, I wasn’t actually familiar with Rocket Raccoon at the time; he first appeared in 1976 in Marvel Preview #7 (by Bill Mantlo and Keith Giffen), which I’ve never read. He popped up again in Incredible Hulk #271 (by Mantlo and Sal Buscema), which I also hadn’t read at the time. So why did I buy all four issues of Rocket’s miniseries when it came out? I guess I just thought the idea of a talking raccoon was cool. We’ll see how well it holds up, bearing in mind the character is written differently here than in the Guardians of the Galaxy comic three decades later (where I believe he’s more intense...almost OCD at times). This also isn’t the Rocket from the movie...at least I assume it’s not...I haven’t actually seen the Guardians movie. Now that I’ve destroyed all my geek credibility, let’s get on with the review, shall we?
Rocket Raccoon #1 (May 1985)
Written by Bill Mantlo. Art by Mike Mignola and Al Gordon
The story opens in a sector of space known as the Keystone Quadrant, on Spacewheel, one of those old-fashioned space stations shaped like...well, like a wheel, of course. On Spacewheel, the chief Toymaker (an iguana) labors to finish some toys for his employer, Lord Dyvyne. He’s interrupted by a Killer Clown, a robotic assassin that looks like the Joker and Pennywise had a child. The clown works for Lord Dyvyne’s rival, another toy mogul named Judson Jakes. The clown guns down Dyvyne’s chief toymaker, then flees, fighting his way through chimp sentries until he’s finally blasted by a gang of rabbit mercenaries led by Blackjack O’Hare (who doesn’t really look like Bucky O’Hare, but I keep mixing up their names anyway). Lord Dyvyne (a snake) shows up and realizes that Jakes sent the Killer Clown to kill his toymaker in order to start a trade war. Dyvyne decides to call in the furry arm of the law...Rocket Raccoon!
We find Rocket on the planet below, known as Halfworld. He’s reading a book beside a waterfall while his girlfriend (an otter named Lylla) and her uncle Wal Rus (three guesses what animal he is) frolic in the water. Rocket is absorbed in his book, the Halfworld Bible, which is written in an obscure code (or maybe just a different language...the book is depicted later as being written in English, but that may just be for the convenience of readers). This scene is a little weird...all the animals wear clothes, but Lylla takes her clothes off here to go swimming, so even though she’s covered in fur, I guess she’s sort of naked? It gets Rocket’s attention anyway, and he’s soon swimming with her. She invites Wal to join them (?!) but he suns himself and changes his prosthetic tusks with the help of some robotic arms in his chest pouch. They’re interrupted by the Keystone Kops, Rocket’s human deputies, which freaks Lylla out, so I guess she is naked...at least as animals go. The Kops tell Rocket about the assassination of Dyvyne’s chief toymaker and Rocket sends them back to their previous assignment (tracking the Snail Gang to their lair, which—according to Wal—should take them the next century and a half). It turns out that the humans on Halfworld are all insane; the animals look after them and provide them with entertainment, while the toymakers provide toys to keep the Loonies (as the humans are known) distracted and happy. Rocket realizes that a trade war between the top two toymakers could stop the flow of toys and jeopardize the Loonies’ carefree lives.
Rocket returns the Halfworld Bible to its shrine and watches the Loonies perform a ritual (involving straitjackets and what looks like a really weird form of breakdancing). We learn that the Bible was written long ago by the Shrinks and no one has ever managed to decipher it. Rocket meeets with Lord Dyvyne, who accuses Judson Jakes of assassinating his chief toysmith, displaying the Killer Clown’s head as proof. Apparently Jakes has a monopoly on the manufacture of Killer Clowns. Mantlo tends to use a lot of exposition, some of which falls squarely into “as you know, Bob” territory. We learn that Lylla’s parents owned Mayhem Mekaniks (Judson Jakes' toy company) and Lylla will inherit it when she comes of age. Jakes is her guardian until then, which is why he’s running the company. I can’t help wondering why Wal Rus isn’t Lylla’s guardian, if her parents are dead and he’s her uncle. Anyway, Dyvyne wants to marry Lylla (for her toy company, of course), but she only has eyes for Rocket.
Rocket and Wal go to see Judson Jakes in their spaceship, the Rakk N’ Ruin. On the way, we get some more exposition on the status quo: Halfworld is (appropriately) divided in half—the animals live in the forested half, providing protection and companionship to the Loonies, while robots live on the other half of the planet, where they build ceaselessly. The robots provide toys for the Loonies (apparently Dyvyne and Jakes design the toys and sell them to the Loonies, but the robots do the actual building), appendages for the animals (like Wal’s prosthetic tusks), and the robots are also constructing a gigantic humanoid-shaped starship. Nobody can figure out why the robots are building this starship, since an energy field around the Keystone Quadrant prevents anyone from entering or leaving (except the Hulk, who’s mentioned here). When Rocket and Wal arrive at Mayhem Mekaniks, sited in the desolate border between the animal and robot halves of the world, they fly the ship down into a hollow crater so they can approach from underground. Lord Dyvyne watches on a monitor (which not only contains the image from the previous panel, but the caption as well...a nice meta-moment). Dyvyne realizes Lylla is unprotected, so he sends Blackjack O’Hare to get her.
Back at Cuckoo’s Nest (as the Loonies’ home is known), they prepare for their Great Masquerade as Lylla looks on. The Loonies explain that the Great Masquerade is an annual tradition, in which they get to dress and act like whomever they think they truly are. According to the ancient wisdom of the Shrinks, this is supposed to be therapeutic, though I can’t help wondering where this wisdom comes from...if their Bible is indecipherable, it must have been passed down orally, but it’s remarkable that the Loonies were able to remember it. A cloaked figure enters the shrine where the Bible is kept and gloats to himself that HE alone has cracked the code and read the sacred text. He then substitutes a different book and leaves. Lylla spots him and thinks he looks familiar, but it’s not until the Loonies discover the book switch that she puts two and two together: the mysterious figure is...Uncle Pyko! (Yeah, I don’t know who that is either. It turns out he works as Judson Jakes’ chief toy designer, but we don’t find that out for a while.) Before Lylla can go after him, she’s grabbed by Blackjack O’Hare.
Rocket and Wal fly underground toward Judson Jakes’ headquarters. Jakes is a mole, so there are tunnels galore, holding supplies, assorted junk, and creepy deactivated clowns. TheRakk N’ Ruin is suddenly grabbed by a giant pair of nutcrackers (yes, you read that right, nutcrackers). Rocket heads out to blast them loose and is confronted by a posse of Killer Clowns called the Psycho Circus (which I think was the name of a KISS album), as well as another meta-reference when Jakes responds directly to one of the panel captions. Rocket fights off the clowns and blasts the nutcrackers, giving Wal a chance to repair the ship (although Wal gets in on the action by swapping his tool tusks for “more martial molars” and blasting some Killer Clowns). Jakes reveals that he started the trade war on purpose and that he also wants to marry Lylla to get control of her toy company once and for all.
Rocket finishes off the clowns, but before he can go after Jakes, they’re interrupted by Uncle Pyko, who’s mad at Jakes for letting the toys he designed get blown away. Pyko reveals that Blackjack O’Hare has Lylla (though I’m not sure how Pyko found this out so quickly). As soon as O’Hare takes Lylla back to Lord Dyvyne, he intends to marry her and gain control of her toy company. I'm not sure why these guys waited so long to go after Lylla...unless it's because she doesn't inherit the company until she "comes of age", and maybe they can't marry her until then? Jakes exhorts Rocket to save Lylla (which he would’ve done anyway...she IS his girlfriend, after all) and in the last panel, we get a glimpse of the more intense Rocket Raccoon from a few decades later.
Rocket Raccoon #2 (June 1985)
"The Masque of the Red Breath"
Bill Mantlo-Mike Mignola/Al Gordon
Rocket and Wal Rus hunt through the Loonies' Masquerade for Lylla and her captor, Blackjack O'Hare. We get some more exposition, recapping the first issue. Wal scans for Lylla, but she and O'Hare are in one of the parade floats, heavily shielded. Rocket is attacked by one of Judson Jakes' Killer Clowns and by a Drakillar (which seems to be some kind of giant space bat) sent by Lord Dyvyne. I get why Dyvyne is after Rocket's hide, but I'm not sure why Jakes wants him dead. At the end of last issue, Jakes was badgering (or moling, I suppose) Rocket to get Lylla back for him, so it seems strange for him to send the Drakillar after Rocket. Maybe Jakes realized he'd never be able to marry Lylla while Rocket was still alive, and figured now was as good a time as any to get rid of him ... but you'd think he'd have waited until Rocket got Lylla back from O'Hare. Speaking of O'Hare, he was sent by Lord Dyvyne to kidnap Lylla so Dyvyne could marry her, but he decides to keep Lylla for himself. Who woulda thought a mercenary couldn't be trusted? Lord Dyvyne gets mad and summons the Red Breath, which is a red cloud of vapour (I guess?) that erases everything it touches. Dyvyne sends the Red Breath after his "enemies"-- which at this point should include O'Hare and Judson Jakes -- but the Breath seems to lock in on Rocket for some reason. Dyvyne also mentions that the Breath was created by his chief toymaker (the one who was gunned down at the beginning of issue #1), but I'm wondering what kind of toymaker could design something like that? And how was it "manufactured"?
Back at Cuckoo's Nest, Rocket and Wal crash the Loonies Masquerade to find O'Hare and Lylla, followed closely by the Red Breath which starts erasing Loonies. Rocket, knowing his duty is to protect the Loonies, fights the Breath and loses one of his rocket skates. He refers to the Red Breath as a "nightmarish kneaded eraser", which I think is one of those malleable erasers that artists like because they don't leave crumbs all over the page. Meanwhile, Wal catches up with Blackjack and his mercenaries and starts blasting bunnies. When Wal and Blackjack square off, Lylla is worried her uncle will get hurt, so she agrees to marry O'Hare. I'm not sure if that was meant to distract him or if it was sincere. Lylla's characterization is inconsistent: most of the time she's the damsel in distress, but every now and then she seems capable of taking care of herself. She actually punches out one of her captors here, but then she turns right back into a shrinking violet. Luckily (or not) it doesn't matter, because a bunch of Killer Clowns riding Vacu-sleds come crashing through the window. (I'm pretty sure that's the only time in my life I've ever used THAT sentence.) All of O'Hare's mercenaries get vacuumed up, so he (predictably) changes sides. The three of them run, pursued by the clowns, and end up in the main room where Rocket is trapped against the wall by the Red Breath. Lylla gets really annoying here, as she basically scolds Rocket for not flying to safety. O'Hare jumps down, drawing the Vacu-sled-mounted clowns after him, and the diversion is enough for Rocket to fly them both out safely. The sleds suck up the Red Breath, and the Breath destroys the sleds (and their riders), until a perfect equilibrium is reached ... the Breath disappears and the sleds are all consumed. Conveniently, all the Loonies who were erased by the Breath pop back into existence (with no explanation as to why the Vacu-sleds don't reappear too). Rocket decides they need to fight a guerilla war against the two toymakers. O'Hare joins them; Rocket doesn't seem to trust him, but says his knowledge of hiding places and other shady stuff could come in handy. So they set off to take the fight to their enemies.
Rocket Raccoon #3 (July 1985)
"The Book of Revelations"
Bill Mantlo-Mike Mignola/Al Milgrom
This issue opens with Rocket, Wal, Lylla, and Blackjack O'Hare caught between the forces of their two enemies. Lord Dyvyne's simian soldiers man a Chimp Blimp (which spits explosive bananas) and Judson Jakes' Killer Clowns man Prank Tanks, firing on the ship from the ground. O'Hare (after making an obvious joke about a "gorilla war") leads them to a hollow crater that he claims will be a way to escape. They sacrifice their ship and bail out, tumbling down into the crater and landing far underground. O'Hare again shows his worth by summoning the Wild Worms, which live in the tunnel. The worms come equipped with saddles and Rocket and his friends ride them through the tunnels. Apparently they're called "wild worms" because the saddles straddle their pleasure centers, so having riders drives them wild (yeah, it doesn't make much sense to me either), but I'm wondering who saddled them in the first place? How did anyone figure out the thing about the pleasure centers? You know what, I don't think I want to know.
Elsewhere, Jakes and Dyvyne agree to cooperate to eliminate their foes, although their forces seemed to be already cooperating earlier. They also agree to split profits from selling toys to the Loonies 50/50, but it's obvious that neither one really trusts the other. They aren't quite certain if Rocket and the others are dead, since no bodies were recovered from the wrecked ship or the crater. Lylla is again referred to as nothing more than a means to an end ... in fact, they speculate that if Lylla had control of Mayhem Mekaniks, she'd put Rocket in charge and he'd give toys to the Loonies for free. Apparently it never entered their heads (or Mantlo's for that matter) that Lylla could run the company herself. She's just as altruistic as Rocket, so she'd probably give the toys away too, but everyone seems to assume she'd need her boyfriend to do it for her.
Before Rocket can have a full-blown existential crisis, O'Hare returns with a multi-species gang of mercenaries he calls the Awful Eight. (He also makes a John Updike reference, which I find strange rather than funny.) O'Hare wants to get back into Lord Dyvyne's good graces by bringing Lylla to him. A big shootout starts (it is a cantina, after all!) and Lylla has one of her rare moments of agency when she decks O'Hare. Rocket and the others (including Pyko) whittle the Awful Eight down to the Terrible Trio, and then take off. Pyko makes a reference to them "running low on powder and ammo", but they're using energy weapons, so that doesn't make sense. Pyko takes them to the Assembly building to meet the Head Robot (literally...it's a giant robotic head). Pyko says the Halfworld Bible can be fed to the Head Robot and it'll be able to manufacture a toy that might be therapeutic...maybe even cure the Loonies of their madness. He leaves the choice up to Rocket, who is torn: he's just found out that he's basically a glorified pet, but his mission has always been to help the Loonies in any way possible. Being the heroic raccoon we all know he is, he decides to do what's best for the Loonies, even though their being cured would leave the animals with no real purpose. Rocket feeds the Bible to the Head Robot and the assembly line soon spits out...some weird-looking helmets? How are those supposed to help the Loonies? Maybe we'll find out in the final issue.
Rocket Raccoon #4 (August 1985)
"The Age of Enlightenment"
Bill Mantlo-Mike Mignola/Al Gordon
This issue opens with Rocket, Wal, Lylla, and Uncle Pyko (plus a sassy robot horse) travelling around and distributing the helmets from last issue to the Loonies. The set-up is kind of like an old medicine show, with Rocket and company doing weird skits and puppet shows to demonstrate the helmets. I guess they're doing it this way so Lord Dyvyne and Judson Jakes have a harder time tracking them down. Unfortunately, one of Jakes' Killer Clowns is disguised as a Loony, so word gets back to the two toy moguls pretty quickly. The helmets are said to make people "think more clearly", which should cure the Loonies of their insanity. When Rocket puts on a helmet, it makes him realize the depths of his feelings for Lylla, and he lays a big smooch on her. We also get some more expository dialogue from Uncle Pyko, recapping the first three issues. By the time all the helmets have been distributed, silence reigns in the Cuckoo's Nest. Rocket and his friends are worried at first, but Pyko explains that the Loonies are doing something they'd never really done before -- thinking.
Lord Dyvyne and Judson Jakes join in an all out attack against Rocket. The heroes are hard-pressed, but the robot horse goes for reinforcements. We get another glimpse of the later, more intense Rocket Raccoon as he goes wild during the fight. In spite of that, he's almost overwhelmed, but is saved at the last minute by Blackjack O'Hare, who shows up out of nowhere like Han Solo at the end of Star Wars. It's a cool moment, but I'm not really sure what Blackjack's motivation is supposed to be here. He says "I guess I finally realized that there wouldn't be much future for a merciless mercenary if I let Jakes and Dyvyne skin you!"...which doesn't really explain anything. I guess we're just supposed to accept that O'Hare isn't as bad as he seems, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.
As the heroes prepare to make a last stand, the fight is interrupted by the giant humanoid-shaped starship, which lands nearby. Dozens of cured Loonies pour out of the ship and join the fight, tipping things in favour of the good guys. There's a scene (which I'm assuming was done on purpose) that looks like a reverse Planet of the Apes reference where humans are catching the ape soldiers in nets. Jakes and Dyvyne flee on a Drakillar, pursued by Rocket. The Drakillar gets tired of them arguing, so it umps them onto a garbage heap. I'm not sure if they're meant to be dead here, but they certainly look dead. Now that the Loonies are cured of their madness, they want the animals to stay and help them remake the planet. Some animals do decide to stay (like Uncle Pyko, since he makes toys not for profit, but for the sheer enjoyment of it), but most of the animals and the robots decide to leave on the giant starship. The robots have figured out a way to deactivate the force field around the Quadrant, so the whole galaxy is open for them to explore. The last panel shows Rocket, Wal, Lylla, and O'Hare setting out for new adventures...which, as far as I can tell, didn't really materialize. Rocket showed up a few years later in Quasar #15 and Sensational She-Hulk #44-46, but the others never appeared again. I'm not sure if any explanation was ever given as to what happened to them.