The year was 1976. Gerald Ford was in the White House, Wings and Elton John were topping the charts, and in the ramshackle halls of Marvel Comics, a talking raccoon was born.
It would be hard to imagine a more unlikely ascent to stardom over the past decade than that of Rocket Raccoon, the short-tempered, bipedal forest-dweller who has become a staple of Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. But as the character’s Bradley Cooper-voiced movie avatar prepares to make what might be his final appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, we should reflect on whether the character’s cultural appeal isn’t mysterious at all.
After all, Rocket’s allure comes from the same set of contrasts that Stan Lee used to pioneer the new wave of troubled, humanized heroes from which the Marvel Universe was built. Just as Spider-Man was a leap forward in superhero storytelling from the cardboard dialogue of Silver Age Superman, Rocket is a troubled, complex departure from the Bugs Bunnys and Detective Chimps that preceded him.
As Marvel Comics scribe Al Ewing told Polygon via email, “Rocket was cast out of his Eden by unforgiving gods and left to fend for himself — of course readers and audiences want to take him to their hearts.” Rocket Raccoon, in other words, is the saddest funny animal who ever lived.
Rocket’s earliest origin story was presented in 1976’s Marvel Preview #7, part of the company’s short-lived line of offbeat black-and-white magazines. In that issue, Bill Mantlo and artist Keith Giffen used an installment of their spacefaring sword-and-sorcery series The Sword and the Star to introduce a talking raccoon with the Beatles-punning name of Rocky, who guides the heroic Prince Wayfinder through the forest planet of Witch-World. And if the preceding sentence sounds like a late-hippie fever dream more than anything resembling the Guardians of the Galaxy, that’s to be expected.
There is little in this first story to connect young Rocky with his later, cosmic iteration: the raccoon we see here speaks with a jaunty British accent, blows Gandalf-esque smoke rings with a tobacco pipe, and exhibits far more of a pip-pip insouciance than the angry temperament we’ve come to associate with the character. There would, in fact, be no reason at all to think that this character had anything to do with the Rocket who would later emerge, save for the fact that Mantlo himself went on to insist they were one and the same (a statement that, among other things, raises the troubling possibility that Rocket belongs alongside Blade the Vampire Hunter on the unexpected Englishmen list of the Marvel Universe).
Mantlo must have seen some hidden potential in the odd little critter, because six years later, he brought him back (this time firmly within the confines of Marvel continuity) in the pages of Incredible Hulk #271. The story finds the title character marooned on an alien planet called Halfworld, populated by intelligent, walking, talking animals. Among them is the familiar face of the raccoon who’s name is now expanded to Rocket, and who is said to be Halfworld’s chief law enforcement officer.
Despite the somewhat less Liverpudlian implications of Rocket’s new name, the story is in fact little more than a mounting series of Beatles gags: Rocket’s right hand man is a walrus named Wal Russ, and quest on which they lead the Hulk is a mission to retrieve a holy book called Gideon’s Bible from the evil priest Judson Jakes. With Hulk’s help, the animal squad defeats Jakes, saves Gideon’s Bible, and rescues Rocket’s captured true love (an otter named Lady Lylla), before sending the gamma monster on his merry way. And yet, despite these less than auspicious beginnings, Rocket would turn out to have more impressive furry legs than anyone might have suspected.
The reason was a left-field occurrence in the comic industry that ended up proving Bill Mantlo surprisingly prescient. In May of 1984, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird released the first, self-published issue of their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, an unabashed and affectionate takeoff on the Marvel comics of Frank Miller and Chris Claremont featuring a team of humanoid, streetwise reptiles.
What began as an obscure, underground title rapidly transformed over the course of the year into the biggest cult-hit comics had experienced since the days of Howard the Duck. So, in 1985, Marvel pulled Rocket off the shelf for a four-issue miniseries of his own, once again written by Mantlo, and this time penciled by a very young but very promising artist named Mike Mignola. And if Rocket’s personality this time around is still in the mode of his previous Hulk appearance, the story itself has enough grim-and-gritty revisionism of his origins to more than make up for it.
Within the first few pages, everything we know about Halfword, Rocket, and his animal pals is revealed to be an elaborate lie. Rather than being populated wholly by talking beasties, Halfworld is in fact an asylum planet, housing a community of mentally ill humans to whom the animals are required to tend. And far from naturally anthropomorphic aliens, the animals of Halfworld are, in fact, no more than everyday critters — adopted as comfort animals for the human inmates, they were made the victim of genetic experiments by the authorities of Halfworld, evolving them unnaturally into the planet’s caretakers in lieu of more respectable humanoids.
It’s an Alan Moore-esque instance of comic deconstruction, inserted in the midst of what had been a lighthearted animal milieu, and Mantlo doesn’t shy away from its bizarre implications (“B-but…that means that I’ve spent my whole life searching for sanity in a universe established to house the insane!” exclaims an appalled Rocket on learning the truth). At the story’s end, Rocket and his pals obtain their freedom from the madness of Halfworld, requisition a rocket ship, and set off into space for further adventures.
Which never, in fact, followed. Perhaps the market for revisionist, butt-kicking funny animals was already saturated. Perhaps Mantlo’s story was just too damned weird, even for an audience looking for the next Donatello and Raphael. Whatever the reason, it was clear that nothing could help with good Rocket’s revival: for the next three decades, Rocket disappeared almost entirely from Marvel’s books, save for a handful of jokey appearances in She-Hulk, Quasar, and Exiles that served only to emphasize his reputation as the go-to embarrassment of Marvel continuity, alongside Spider-Ham and Forbush Man. As late as 2007, Wizard Magazine was still treating the prospect of a Rocket appearance in the then-upcoming Annihilation: Conquest crossover as an absurd goof.
Yet that appearance would turn out to be the watershed moment Rocket had been waiting for. In the 2007 Starlord miniseries, written by Rocket’s co-creator Giffen, and penciled by Timothy Green II, the eponymous Peter Quill is tasked with the leadership of a veritable Suicide Squad of imprisoned cosmic ne’er-do-wells: among them disgraced Avenger Mantis, world-conquering sentient tree Groot, and Rocket himself. This, of course, was the nucleus of the newly-reimagined Guardians of the Galaxy, and it’s in this series that we finally see Giffen’s version of Rocket emerge as the angry, raspy voice we know.
Yet at the same time, Giffen allowed Rocket’s newfound role as a team player to add a new and previously unseen dimension to his character: a surprising and tenacious loyalty toward his friends, which even Rocket, if pressed, would be loath to admit. Indeed, beginning with Giffen’s revival and continuing into the ongoing Guardians of the Galaxy series that spun out of it (written, for the length of its initial volume, by the duo of Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning), that deeply-encrusted heart of gold increasingly became Rocket’s defining characteristic. (Abnett and Lanning also added some Weapon X-esque uncertainty by returning Rocket to Halfworld, and revealing that some or all of what he had learned about the planet’s asylum origins may itself have been a lie — so the actual origin of the animals of Halfworld remains, at present, unknown.)
By the time writer Al Ewing took the lead on Rocket’s story, first in 2017’s Rocket miniseries, he was drinking alone in cosmic gin joints after being manipulated and betrayed by his old girlfriend Lylla (who returned after years apart only to rope Rocket into an elaborate con game). Then in the writer’s too-brief but much loved Guardians of the Galaxy run in 2020, Rocket was falling into depression after Peter Quill’s apparent death.
In the space of five decades, Rocket had transformed from a one-note pastiche of Bugs Bunny by way of the British Invasion into a fully-rounded character, with as much depth and complexity as the hairless mammals around him. That this would seem, by then, not only natural but inevitable perhaps says something odd but important about what Rocket signified to readers all along.
Just as Stan Lee famously humanized superpowered humans by giving them recognizable flaws and feet of clay, Rocket humanized funny animals by bringing out the sadness and vulnerability implicit in that wide-eyed, furry form. Deep down, every reader wants to believe that a character like Rocket wants and needs to be loved, no matter how many f-bombs he drops or furious rages he flies into.
Ewing himself sums up Rocket’s appeal eloquently. “He’s a sad funny animal, and that’s baked in on a meta level,” Ewing told Polygon via email. “If you read his original adventures and the Mantlo/Mignola mini, it’s a real romp, funny, smart and with heart. As I recall, we don’t see him again until he turns up in a prison cell in the Abnett/Lanning books, which have a much tougher, very 2000AD-influenced sensibility. And the Rocket we get out of that is much more a character for those times - a little less playful and swashbuckling, a little more violent and sarcastic, and a lot more alone.
“It’s a horrible thing to put a fictional character through, and it turns him into a tragic figure on an existential level,” Ewing elaborated. “We all just want to be talking raccoons, but we’re stuck in this grimy space war. Rocket is us.”
And that, when it comes down to it, has always been the heart of Rocket’s appeal to us. He’s a funny animal, but the joke always seems to be on him.