Rocket 1

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.

For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?

2 comments on “Rocket 1

  1. The Star Lord running gag in the first Guardians of the Galaxy is great. It begins as a fun twist on the ‘it’s Superman’ trope. What if we inverted it? What if the only guy who cared about Superman was Superman himself? Which led to Korath’s fantastic ‘Who?’ joke (the fact that the joke is also a metajoke at just how deep a cut the Guardians are is just the icing of the cake). The joke gets developed, as it shifts from ignorance from mocking by Rhonan Dey ‘He has a code name’. And so on, all showing that arrested development of Peter Quill. Also this leads to the final moment, where suddenly, Gunn makes the joke meaningful. The reason that Peter cares so much about the name? That’s what his mother used to call him.

    What makes this ‘that joke is actually a meaningful character moment’ work is the way it recontextulises everything. Each time we watch the scenes, it has new meaning that enriches the story of Peter throughout the movie.

    So why did Ewing reveal to us the secret origin of Rocket’s parking tickets? I’ve been rereading the Annihilation Era comics, in part because of the new Guardians movie, in part because I always meant to read the Nova half (after reading the recent Nova comics, it is interesting reading Nova comics so focused on the pseudoscience of Nova’s gravimetric powers). So I recognised the scene of Peter meeting Rocket instantly, even if I chuckled at his blond hair (I thought the current canon was that Peter dyed his hair in those days). And what does providing this secret origin to Rocket’s parking tickets mean to Annihilation: Conquest – Starlord? Nothing. Hell, it weakens the scene – the whole point of that scene is that the ragtag band of old characters Peter is being given for his Dirty Dozen mission are more and more absurd, with the joke being that the next one in is a talking Raccoon complaining about parking tickets. So as pieces of Retroactive Continuity go, it doesn’t do a particularly good job. And from the perspective of this issue, Rocket going straight from the betrayal (caused by… parking tickets?) to Peter is simply throwing away a more interesting story – Rocket being so broken up by the betrayal that he self destructed to the point where he DID get arrested for parking tickets – for a simple piece of trivia. As examples of continuity games go, this is a boring one.

    Which fits into my constant criticism of Ewing. This idea that he places more focus on powers and historical trivia than personality, psychology and emotional headspace.

    Credit where credit is due. Finally freed from team books, Ewing has written a character that actually has an emotional headspace. Rocket feels like a character in a way that no one in New Avengers, Ultimates or USAvengers feels like. Yet I can’t help but feel that this is a function of not writing a team book, and not an attempt at correcting this problem.

    I mean, we have a scene where he constantly makes Earth references, in a character whose modern iteration is generally known for his distaste of Earth. Why is he bringing up the fact that he’s a raccoon? Or comparing himself to Daredevil? Hell, why is he a safecracker? Instead of using animal trivia, why not root this in actual character stuff? Rocket is full of characterisation that would work in much more interesting ways to connect to his criminal past than to just say ‘Raccoon ears’. Putting so much focus on this stuff is too superficial. Rocket is an improvement over recent work. Still a long way from being good.

    Though honestly, a big part of this is the pastiche nature. The idea is amazing. But Ewing can’t go beyond the idea. It is connected to the historical trivia argument. Just as Ewing can’t break out of continuity, he can’t break out of genre. He embraces noir/crime pulp style, but… doesn’t do anything. Maybe the joke of cute animals juxtaposed with real world elements has already grown stale with me – I’ve always found the real joke of Rocket is that he’s such a nuanced, three dimensional character that you end up treating the talking raccoon completely straight.
    But Ewing doesn’t do anything but regurgitate tropes. Otta is the most cliche femme fatale there is. Her backstory is exactly what you think. She enters exactly as you think she will, dressed exactly how you think she will dress. She tells exactly the tale you think she tells, and Rocket reads the script and does exactly what you think he’ll do (what makes Otta worse? Ewing doesn’t actually define her exact role in the crew this issue. Her role is to swim like an otter. Unless this book is going to be about solely aquatic crimes, Otta is so ill defined in who she is outside of her femme fataleness that we don’t even know what she does in the crew). Ewing has leaned too far into pastiche, and forgot the part where you do something original.

    Better than most Ewing books I’ve read recently (hell, it would be hard to be worse than the anti-democracy themes of Royals). Still disappointing. Ewing’s great ideas always sound appealing. But keep ending up being as empty as every other book. I’ve had enough of ideas in Ewing books. I want some heart

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