Today, Taylor and Spencer are discussing Rocket 1, originally released May 10th, 2017. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Taylor: Rocket Raccoon is a walking, talking lesson in juxtaposition. At first glance, he looks likes one the lovable characters from the Looney Tunes gang. After all, he’s an anthropomorphic, talking woodland creature. However, this fuzzy exterior conceals his true nature as a loudmouthed, gun-crazy thief. If this contrast isn’t enough, he is frequently paired with the other Guardians of the Galaxy, a group that frequently saves the universe purely because it’s the right thing to do. This contrasts mightily with Rocket’s typical motivation of doing whatever job comes his way so long as the price is right. That being said, the juxtaposed nature that is intrinsic to Rocket should take center stage in a comic where he is the star. So is that the case in the latest series to bare his name?
Rocket has gotten antsy hanging out with the Guardians of the Galaxy and has gone off to drink his sorrows away in some random space bar. There, he is approached by an old flame, Otta Spice, who asks him to do a job for her. It seems her planet is under threat from an interstellar corporation and she needs his unique set of skills to scare them off. He agrees, but it’s not long before Rocket finds himself in over his head once again.
Writer Al Ewing hits all the right beats in his presentation of Rocket’s story, and it all boils down to his recognition that Rocket is a study in juxtaposition. The way he achieves this is through a narrative conceit that is endlessly entertaining. Throughout the book, the narrative is revealed through a series of narrations that frame the story as a hardboiled, noir tale. Throughout the issue, Ewing presents Rocket as a down-on-his-luck strong man with a dark past. That alone isn’t enough to make the issue reminiscent of a noir tale, though. Frequently, Ewing introduces elements in the story that would feel at home in a Raymond Chandler novel. Take, for instance, the introduction of Otta Spice, a prototypical femme fatale.
What makes the presentation of this story clever isn’t that it’s framed in a crime noir plot. Rather, what makes it fun is that it’s a crime noir story that involves talking raccoons and dangerous space otters. The serious, hardboiled tone set by the narration of this issue is undercut by the fact that the characters being talked about are all small mammals rather than humans or other, less fuzzy creatures. Ewing has taken a typical crime story and juxtaposed it with Rocket Raccoon and similar characters. The result is a story that works because the whole issue reads as a both a joke and serious exploration of the dark side of the human psyche.
What really sells this juxtaposition is Ewing’s commitment to the whole thing. It would be one thing if Ewing used cute animals as avatars representing the crime and depression only, but he stretches the conceit further. The reason Otta has sought out Rocket is that she hopes to save her planet from some evil, corporate beavers who have built — you guessed it — a dam on her home world which threatens her family.
Again, this plot point is introduced as being a serious problem, but it’s easy to see Ewing chuckling to himself as he writes about space beavers building a gigantic, industrialized damn. Once again, the presentation of a serious problem is undercut by juxtaposing it with animals usually associated with big teeth and wide tails. In this case, the problem presented is one that not only endangers Otta’s world, but one which is a serious issue in our own world. Ewing’s irreverent humor here is edgy, weird, and clever. In short, it’s what makes this book worth reading.
Ewing’s compatriot, Adam Gorham, has to get credit for diligently rendering Ewing’s odd vision. Ewing writes about a strange universe where raccoons and otters fight intergalactic companies and Gorham doesn’t miss a beat in reflecting the oddity of this world. When Rocket is first introduced he’s in a divey bar which has a clientele that would make George Lucas salivate.
Gorham and Ewing’s commitment to bizarre character designs is wonderful here. There’s a guy wearing cubes around his head, a horse drinking a cocktail, and at least one dinosaur in the crowd. It makes for an eclectic mix but also imbues the scene with humor. Right away, it’s easy to understand that this series isn’t going to take itself too seriously. This establishing shot immediately makes it clear that humor and oddity will always be there to undercut the serious tone of the narration. Gorham’s ability to establish this from basically the first page of the issue is commendable.
Spencer, do you enjoy the juxtaposition between the dark, gritty noir plot of this issue and its humor and weirdness? What do you think of the narration that frequently takes up about a fourth of the page on the left side? And after seeing the egg freak out on that vault door, are you ever going to be able to make an omelet without fear of it exploding?
Spencer: I’m certainly going to hold my eggs up to a light first to make sure there’s not an angry little chick in there from now on, that’s for sure.
Actually, let’s talk about Hard-Boiled Henry for a moment, because he’s a perfect example of the creativity Ewing and Gorham bring to Rocket.
There’s another brilliant juxtaposition here between Henry’s appearance — he’s a cross between Tweety Bird and Booker from Garfield and Friends — and his actual explosive abilities, but my favorite touch here is the clock on Henry’s head. Its purpose is so clear that Ewing never even needs to explain it, and it also houses a hidden joke — when Henry breaks free from his shell he’s already at a 4, meaning this level of anger (over half of what he’s capable of) is pretty much his norm. I don’t quite know why that makes me laugh so much, but it does. Gorham also shows off his formal chops here. Henry breaking out of his shell actually causes the character to break out of the typical rectangular-shaped panel and into the gutter, actually exploding into the entirety of the page, and the force of the explosion seems to blow away the other panels on the page. It’s really fun stuff.
[Editor’s Note: It’s been pointed out to us that Hard-Boiled Henry was not created by Ewing and Gorham, but Alan Davis and Mark Farmer. We apologize for the mistake.]
As for the narration, Taylor, I’m quite fond of it too. It frames the entire issue as almost a fairy tale that we’re being told, making the necessary exposition and the skipping throughout various times and locations feel far more natural than they probably should. It even makes one of my greatest pet peeves — the in medias res opening — palatable.
Under this narrative conceit, the in medias res opening feels less like a bait and switch and more like a natural extension of this particular story and the way it’s told. The narration’s prose flows naturally from the end of the story to the beginning, and in a way it only makes sense that any Rocket Raccoon story — but particularly this one — would open on the moment everything inevitably goes wrong. It’s the point where noir, heist, and Rocket collide, and that’s really this issue in a nutshell.
(It also helps that Ewing and Gorham don’t dangle a needless cliffhanger here, though. The point of this opening is to show us that Rocket’s going to get in trouble fast — what the trouble is is irrelevant right now, and to pretend that Rocket’s not going to survive would insult the readers’ intelligence.)
Despite the fact that, as Taylor mentions, this narration takes up probably a quarter of the page, it never feels intrusive. Part of that comes down to Gorham’s skill at packing a lot of detail and emotion into tiny panels, and part of it comes down to Gorham and Ewing knowing when to drop the conceit altogether.
Those first few tiny panels show us both that Otta is distraught and that Rocket is trying to avoid her gaze, but it isn’t until Gorham and Ewing dial the narration back and give the entire width of the page over to their faces in the final two panels that we’re hit with the full brunt of their emotions. Not only does the creative team know when to cut out the narration and let the art speak for itself, but doing so allows those emotions to hit far harder than they would if the entire page had that that much space to play with.
Taylor talks a lot in his lead about the various juxtapositions Ewing highlights in Rocket 1, but I want to mention one more: the juxtaposition between Rocket’s bluster and his more sensitive side. Ewing finds a fine balance between the two, never leaning too hard on humor or tragedy but instead showing how both coexist within Rocket simultaneously.
We see the many ways in which Rocket is vulnerable — the way his past pains him — throughout the issue, but Rocket can’t admit how badly he’s messed up himself. He clearly wants to, but when actually given the opportunity, he can’t without hiding behind swagger. He actually spells out exactly why he’s ashamed of parts of his past, but pretends he’s proud of those actions instead.
And for all his regrets, maybe he is proud in some way — he is a thief, after all. But he wasn’t always. Ewing points out in his afterwards that his aim with this series is to reconcile Rocket’s mercenary present with his more lawful past, and so far I’d say he’s doing a bang-up job. Rocket’s a complicated character with many often-contradictory sides, but Ewing manages to highlight them all and not only show how they’re all a piece of the same character, but how Rocket’s at his best when all the various facets of his personality are given attention. The way all these disparate elements, genres, and personality traits fit together so perfectly is what makes Rocket 1 such a blast.
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