Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Rocket Raccon mini-series (1985)

This review originally ran as the premire 'Dig the Long Box' column on the now defunct RCB.net 

Bill Mantlo was the Brian Michael Bendis of his time. Check that, Mantlo was Bendis and Jonathan Hickman … combined. Come to think of it, Mantlo might have been the Wolverine of 1980's comic book writers, seriously. At the height of his career, Mantlo was writing as many as eight Marvel titles a month.
Best remembered as the writer of The Micronauts and Rom Spaceknight, Mantlo introduces over fifty characters to the Marvel universe during his twelve year career. His creations range from the infamous, Shamrock and Hypno-Hustler, to fan favorites Cloak and Dagger, Lady Deathstrike and Rocket Raccoon.
Mantlo learns the art (and artistry) of comic books literally at the feet of the master -- Jack Kirby was his neighbor. As a teenager Mantlo would spend his afternoons hanging out with Kirby (!) talking about superheroes and storytelling. Mantlo made his Marvel, starting as a writer and a colourist in 1974. By April of 1975 he was writing full-time. In his tenure he would write almost every Marvel character before leaving comics for good to become a public defender in New York City. As Tragic as his departure from Marvel was for comic book fans, the real tragedy occurred in 1992 when Mantlo was hit by a car while rollerblading. The driver fled the scene and was never identified. Mantlo has never fully recovered from his injuries and now requires round-the-clock care.

Artist Keith Giffen and Mantlo debut Rocket Raccoon in the pages of Marvel Preview #7 (1976). At that time, Rocket was known as Rocky -- you can decide for yourself if this is a joke, a blatant rip-off of a Beatles song, a loving homage or all three. The Incredible Hulk #271 (1982), written by Mantlo with art by Sal Buscema, is where Rocket Raccoon earns his stripes as protector of the Keystone quadrant on the planet Halfworld. A four issue limited series, Rocket Raccoon, is published in 1985; Mantlo handles the writing with Mike Mignola on pencils, Al Gordon inks, the colors are by Christie Scheele and the letters are done by Ken Bruzenak.

At this point in his career, Mignola was known (primarily) as a cover artist and an inker at Marvel. Before Rocket Raccoon, Mignola draws the interior (and exterior) art on two other Mantlo-penned series, The Incredible Hulk and Alpha Flight. One could call his work on Rocket Raccoon proto-Mignola. The artist's distinct style -- ''a mix of German expressionism and Jack Kirby,'' according to Alan Moore -- was still in its Cretaceous-phase. The sun on the cover of issue #1 looks like it could set over the headquarters of the B.P.R.D., but not quite yet -- take look at Mignola's cover to the recently released Rocket Raccon and Groot Ultimate Collection to see the artist's current interpretation of the character. 

Rocket Raccoon had only appeared twice in a Marvel publication and his last appearance had been in a stand-alone Hulk story three years prior to the release of Rocket Raccoon. How does a D-list character, at best, manage a four issue limited series? What, was Professor Phobos on sabbatical?  Never underestimate the power of a quick buck.  By May of 1985, the world of comic books was in a full-blown revolution; The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had arrived a year earlier. The not yet christened 'heroes in a half-shell' were already changing comic book publishing and before long the names Michelangelo, Donatello, Leonardo and Raphael would be more than merely renowned Renaissance masters. So, the time was right to dust off a talking bipedal raccoon who dresses like a fencer, smokes a pipe and fires laser pistols. Never let it be said Marvel's long-time editor in chief, Jim Shooter, didn't know how to seize an opportunity and ring the cash register.   

I. Is this some kind of joke?

The opening page of issue #1 is a pure delight stuffed with wit, goofs and gags. The image of a craftsmen working on deadline late into the night must have felt very familiar to the young Mignola. In narrative boxes made to look like scraps torn from some arcane text (more on that score in a moment), the reader is told the necessary particulars. Front and a bit off-center sits the Chief Toysmith. He is propped up on a pillow, his many efforts encircle him. Mignola fills the foreground with various toys, dolls and sundry implements of an artisan's labors. Humpty-dumpty crowds into the far right-hand corner adjacent to a real Easter egg, Rocket Raccoon himself, a banner sporting the words ''New! Improve-''acts as an arrow to draw the reader's attention to the titular raccoon. Rocket's first-mate, Wal Rus, is at Rocket's flank on the opposite side of the title card, the Rack 'n Ruin (Rocket'a ship) is tucked in behind Wal Rus. Another great inside joke shows Gumby as he poke(y)s out from behind the Rack 'n Ruin.
Along with Gordon's inks and Scheele's colors, Mignola's composition creates great depth by placing a battery of Kirby-like lights behind and above the toysmith. In the lower right-hand side of the page a silhouetted figure looms in a lighted entryway. Scheele uses the straw yellow of the light bulbs to reflect the color outside the opening; the toysmith, hunched over his workbench, echoes the doorway's arch. Gordon's inks on the back wall help draw the reader's attention to the approaching menace, going so far as to offset the hatching on a hanging clipboard. Only the empty eyes of the English bobby bear witness to the toysmith's approaching doom. Rocket Raccoon (and his world) may have started as larks; however, in the hands of skilled creators even jokes can make for serious comics. Then again …

II. ''... a strange and not always rational galaxy''

'Madcap' is perhaps the best word to describe the world of Rocket Raccoon although 'convoluted' could contend for the title as well. Ostensibly, this series is built around a trade war -- two words that give every fanboy a case of the howling fantods -- between two toymakers: Lord Dyvyne of the Spacewheel and Judson Jakes of Mayhem Mekaniks, the former, a lizard and the latter a mole. Jakes and Dyvyne provide entertainment, in the form of toys, for the mentally-handicapped human inhabitants (referred to as ''loonies'') of Halfworld. The 'loonies' are cared for by genetically enhanced animals like Rocket and Wal Rus. Yep.

For all intents and purposes, Rocket Raccoon is a four issue, eighty page, origin story. The trade war gives Mantlo reason to stage near death escapes, bar fights, and rides through underground caverns on giant worms (David Lynch's Dune had come out the year before). That's all foreground, the background is where this otherwise average 80's comic book gets bizarre.
A long time ago, a group of psychiatrists colonize a planet in order to care for people ''whose mental disorders had caused them to be cast out from our world and the companionship of our race.'' While the psychiatrists are ''expanding [their] knowledge of the functioning -- and disfunctioning -- of the human mind,'' their patients are cared for by robots; also in attendance are a diverse set of animals for the purposes of ''entertainment and companionship.'' When the psychiatrists funding gets cut (!), they are called back to their home world (not Earth). These well-meaning do-gooders decide to leave their patients behind (!!) in the care of the robots and in the company of the animals (!!!). And before these benevolent overlords skedaddle, they construct ''a space-encircling Galacian Wall that … would shield them [their patients] from the same society that loathed them'' which makes the planet kind of a prison or an asylum, albeit one filled with compassionate robots and benign woodland creatures.
These giant gobs of exposition and explanation are contained within the 'Halfworld Bible,' which neither the animals nor the ''loonies'' can read until Uncle Pyko, the chief toysmith of Judson Jakes, deciphers it and learns its secrets. Which happens while the trade war rages on between Jakes and Dyvyne, natch. What the Halfworld Bible doesn't explain is how Rocket, Uncle Pyko, Wal Rus and the rest gain sentience, not to mention their genetically-enhanced geegaws.

Uncle Pyko manages to noodle through this mystery and comes to the conclusion: the robots (must have) exceeded their programming -- the cause of which, Pyko figures, could have been from radiation from a nearby nova -- and ''developed and artificial intelligence.'' Before too long these logical machines tire of tending to their illogical charges and begin to dabble in genetics and enhanced intelligence -- instead of continuing the psychiatrists work and finding a 'cure,' but I digress.

You don't need to be an 'Uncle Pyko' to figure out how the animals learn to talk, walk and develop skills like marksmanship. With the animals now in charge, these industrious automatons retreat to their own side of the planet (hence the name, Halfworld) where they make the toys per the animal's design and work on how to deactivate the Galacian Wall so they leave Halfworld in a spaceship they've been building along with the toys, etc..
When Uncle Pyko finishes his dissertation, Rocket screams out: ''B-but … that means that I've spent my whole life searching for sanity in a universe established to house the insane!'' Rocket's reaction is a very human emotion, the reader can relate to trying to make sense in a world where randomness and irrationality sometimes seem de rigueur.
As I like to say here: so what? Mantlo needs to construct a backstory and explain (I suppose) how and why Rocket became the protector of this literal fool's paradise. It serves as a character moment to establish Rocket has integrity. If this one-note character is going to avoid becoming a demisemiquaver, not only does he need a reason to (ahem) blast off without abandoning the planet and the people he has sworn to protect, but he's got to do it with style and grace, otherwise, he becomes a punch line. Credit Mantlo for not having Rocket half-ass either of his obligations; Rocket Raccoon, it could be said, gives it his whole-ass.

For all its silliness and complexity for complexity's sake, Mantlo's world-building trips up on itself when the reader begins to consider how long it took between the time the psychiatrists left Halfworld to when the robots were able to genetically-engineer the animals to care for the 'loonies.' Continuity wonks will no doubt cry foul as well that it is not made clear how many generations Rocket and his pals are removed from the animals that first landed on the planet. Same goes for the 'loonies,' who several generations removed from even the sons and daughters of the original patients brought to Halfworld by the psychiatrists. Uncle Pyko speculates there were ''generations of loonies who, if not congenitally insane as their ancestors had been were born into it.'' And let's not get into the fact that this entire society is built on the making and selling of toys to a captive population. It feels less like a critique of our society and more like a dare from one of Mantlo's colleagues, some kind of Marvel Bullpen one-ups-manship -- 'yeah, but I bet Shooter won't let you get away with this!" 
In the last issue, the reader learns what passes for currency on Halfworld which is too grand to spoil and makes sense in a nonsensical Lewis Carroll meets Roald Dahl kind of way. Maybe Mantlo should be given some credit for going to a place where few comic books -- then (1985) and maybe even now -- would dare to go? Today's reader will chafe at the word ''loonie'' being thrown around so liberally (I did) not due to political correctness, but plain decency; and it should have bothered Shooter and series editor Carl Potts as well. There's a silver lining (of sorts) because for all its overdone intricacies the narrative of Rocket Raccoon, like a fairy tale, works out in the end. Rocket feeds the Halfworld bible to the Head Robot -- which is exactly what its name implies, a robot head with teeth -- for analysis (pun intended) and it produces a cure, the ''wonder toy,'' so all's well that ends well. The fact Mantlo would offer a cure for mental illness is wish fulfillment of the highest order and something one can (sadly) only get in a comic book.
''… under the cover of laser smoke''

As awkward, cringe-inducing and at times too hackneyed for its own good, Mantlo's scripting and plotting possess an esprit de corps that puts it alongside 1980's cartoons like Transformers, G.I. Joe and Thundercats. Mantlo knows (Kirby-like) when to move a story along and how to retain the reader's interest. Unlike too much of today's mainstream Marvel fare, talking heads don't dominate issues of Rocket Raccoon in order to delay gratification so that issue four plays out as one big showdown. Mantlo consistently writes to Mignola's strength to draw action; and each creator allows Rocket Raccoon do what Rocket Raccoon does best: fly around on his rocket-skates and fire laser pistols.
Because Rocket Raccoon takes place in space and because it came out after Star Wars there is an inevitable cantina/bar sequence in which Rocket and company get to blast away. Mignola shows his sequential art chops when Rocket's girlfriend, Lylla, is taken hostage (for like the fifth or sixth time in the series) by the chaotic neutral Blackjack O'Hare (he's a rabbit, in case you were wondering). In the first panel Mignola has O'Hare's left arm swing around Lila while his right arm holds a knife to her throat. Again, using opposite sides of the panel (as he did on the first page) Mignola uses similar visual elements to frame the action. In this case, the movement, the swish, of O'Hare's arm mirrors Lylla's tail as it swings up from the bottom of the panel and pulls the reader's eye to the knife at her throat. In the following panel Lylla elbows O'Hare in the face in the same exact spot where the reader's attention is focused. Lylla's elbow moves O'Hare up and to the left-hand side of the second panel which sets up the third panel showing how O'Hare gets a good 'Kapow' for his troubles. In this final panel Mignola shows the sweep of Lylla's arm which completes the 360° arc which was started in the first panel with O'Hare's arm. Mignola's hard-edged, horn-headed hero may be eight years away, but boy, Rocket Raccoon shows Mignola to already be a damn fine draftsmen and a hell of an artist.

When Lylla flips O'Hare over she calls him, ''you horrid hare!''. This is all but one example of the alliterative nature of Mantlo's script, no joke; there is alliteration at almost every turn of the page. It also appears as if Mantlo and Mignola were paid by the pun. The title to each issue is a play on words that reflects the issue's themes and plot. For example, issue #2, ''The Masque of the Red Breath'' takes place at a masked ball held annually by the 'loonies.' The big bad in the issue is an amorphous ''crimson cloud,'' the aforementioned Red Breath, which absorbs everything and everyone it touches -- no worries though, order gets restored when a quintet of Killer Clowns riding vacuu-sleds suck up the cloud and allow Rocket to escape. It's this kind of cartoon violence that gives Rocket Raccoon that Saturday morning or after-school cartoon feel, nobody really gets hurt, except maybe a few clowns, but there are always plenty of them to go around.
'' And the stars do beckon''

Rocket Raccoon makes for a gantry, a launching pad for fiction's best (and only) question: 'what's next?' Mantlo and Mignola's creation remains sturdy because its playfulness never takes itself too seriously, only seriously enough. Rocket's complicated and at times torturous backstory makes him more than a cartoon, more than a novelty (song), and more than a knock-off to turn a quick buck. In The Micronauts and Rom Spaceknight, Mantlo took the disposable and gave it a spark, a life -- like Geppetto, Mantlo made a toy real, made it live.

Guardians of the Galaxy is going to introduce mainstream pop culture to Rocket Raccoon; and for comic book readers, those of us who are already in on the joke, Rocket Raccoon is going to be a monster. How 'loony' is it going to be when today's twelve-year-olds (or younger) will be sporting Rocket Raccoon t-shirts and buying Rocket Raccoon toys … insanity, absolute insanity. As Mantlo proves, insanity makes for a 'rocky' start; however, if creators toy with it, tweak it, the sky (and the stars) are the limit.

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