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Monday, May 26, 2014

Spider-Man, Batman, Rocket Raccoon, and Me

In my 35 years of varying levels of involvement (sometimes intense, sometimes merely cursory) with comic books and the whole geek world it has given rise to--as opposed to the numerous other geek words I'm also attached to--there have been only three characters that managed to become mainstays of my inner, imaginary world: Spider-Man, Batman, and Rocket Raccoon. Something needs to be said about this, because the first two are obvious, even predictable choices: those two characters have been repeatedly portrayed in numerous media for decades (in Batman's case, for 75 years; in Spider-Man's, over 50), and through those years and those hundreds of thousands of pages and rolls of film and reams of pixels, have been the narrative platforms upon which some truly tremendous, affecting stories and art have been laid out. You can't say that about my friend Rocket. So what's the deal? Let me try to explain.

Spider-Man came first. Why did I like him? For a million reasons--he was a nerd, a geek, a glasses-wearing schlemiel, who also happened to be awesomely intelligent and decent and talented and heroic and skilled, but never could really manage to translate that intelligence, decency, talent, heroism, and skillfulness into any actual social, financial, or public success. When I started reading the comics in the 1970s Spider-Man was still generally wanted by the police for any number of trumped-up reasons; through the 1980s and 90s, those troubles were mostly set aside by his many writers, and Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man, generally came to be written as a competent adult and a recognized hero, and that continues in most of his incarnations today. But he was never allowed to be too competent; when written well, it was always Peter who had the worst luck: he'd hide his clothes in a tree when he changed into his Spider-Man outfit, and would return to find a bird had built its nest in them; he'd carefully set up his brand new auto-focus digital camera to capture all sorts of wonderful photos of him fighting the Vulture, intent on cashing in on an offer from upstart news magazine challenging the Daily Bugle, only to find later that he'd forgotten to take off the lens cap. It was that sort of thing: the stories of Spider-Man gave me, as an adolescent and young adult, the ongoing adventures and passionate decisions and romantic debacles of a very cool super-hero who kept on going despite being, fundamentally, graceless and unlucky and un-smiled upon by the Powers That Be. And I liked that.

Batman came next; I didn't start reading him until around the time of Frank Miller's game-changing graphic novel, Dark Knight Returns, which I bought a first-run copy of when it came out in 1986. (From the late 70s through the mid 80s I was a Marvel zombie, avoiding DC comics almost entirely.) I was familiar with Miller from his early work on Daredevil, but I was completely unprepared from how this blockbusting Batman story of his would affect me. I became a huge Batman fan, searching out as many important stories from his long, convoluted past as I could, and frankly getting rather pedantic about the way Batman--a borderline crazy, ferociously disciplined, effortlessly wealthy, emotionally broken, physically perfect, self-made human justice machine--differed from just about every other super-hero out there. When he was written well, there were possibilities in the character of Bruce Wayne--impossibly aspirational stories, stories of detection and revenge and sacrifice and solitude that turned upon acts of will that a divided, confused, frustrated young man like myself could only absorb as the deepest kind of fantasy--which eclipsed, I thought, the best that could be managed by Wolverine or The Punisher or Green Arrow or any other putatively "hard-core" comic book hero. I never related to Batman the way I related to Spider-Man, but he quickly became iconic in my mind.

So where does Rocket Raccoon come in? He doesn't have nearly the narrative resources to draw upon in imagining him; he's hardly ever even been a main character. Even in the upcoming film, as awesome as it will be to see Rocket in action, he's clearly not going to be the center of attention. His occasional involvement over the years with the Guardians of the Galaxy and other space-based characters and stories have been a delight to read, but they don't really provide much of a basis for personal appreciation beyond the usual coolness factor and fan excitement. So what makes Rocket run so deep for me? The answer, I think, is Dungeons and Dragons.

When I picked up, and fell in love with, the one time Rocket Raccoon has been given his own comic, the character that was on display was a short, furry, fierce fighter--but he was also more. He was the guardian--the chief security officer--of half a planet. He was a responsible, well-connected, established and respected figure, but also recognizably human: he got flustered, he made mistakes, and was willing to make fool of himself if necessary to get the job done. The 4-issue limited series that featured him wasn't that great of a story--it was mostly an opportunity for writer Bill Mantlo, who had invented Rocket back in the 1970s, to indulge in his fondness of rhymes, puns, and Beatles-centric pop culture jokes ("Rocky Raccoon," "Gideon's Bible," etc.). But whatever weaknesses the story had were more than made for by the completely unapologetic and total goofball, cross-species anthropomorphism which Mantlo and artist Mike Mignola visited upon their characters. Rocket's beloved was an otter named Lylla (who is an heiress to an enormous toy-manufacturing fortune), and his best friend is a walrus (named Wal Russ, with hi-tech tusks), and his sometime opponent, sometime ally is a black-garbed rabbit mercenary named Blackjack O'Hare. You get it, right? Point it, it was enormous fun, one of purest bits of corny, cool comic delight I've ever read. And at the center of it was a raccoon. A short little furry raccoon. A raccoon who could be, as needed, totally bad-ass:

But who was also, in the end, a wise, visionary, and contemplative leader:

I think it might have been the pipe that did it. Because in the 1980s, when my brothers and I read comics and played D&D, the characters we most enjoyed creating were (as was the case for so many Tolkien-influenced dorky players like us) halflings--whom we would, of course, imagine as stupendous adventurers and thieves and fighters, while also still enjoying their second breakfasts and their pastoral retreats and their pipe-weed. That, I think, is what I saw in Rocket Raccoon: a short, furry, intelligent, good-hearted, pipe-smoking fierce hobbit warrior. Like my favorite, Meriadoc Brandybuck (who despite what the movie showed is actually equally responsible as Éowyn for slaying the Witch-King of Angmar, as anyone who has read the books knows).

Now I think about it, I'm pretty certain at some point in the distant past, I actually created a D&D stat sheet for Rocket, perhaps contemplating ways to somehow insert him into our existing campaign. No doubt I was realistic about his lack of strength, but likely loaded him up with a high level dexterity, constitution, wisdom, and charisma. Maybe I made him a paladin? He ended the limited series with his own war horse, after all. (Note the severed head of a robot killer clown in his hand--nice touch!)

I can't remember ever doing anything similar for Spider-Man or Batman, or any other comic book character for that matter. (Though, because I bought the Marvel role-playing game, perhaps there just wasn't any need for me to do so.) Nowadays, of course, much of the hobbitry has been written out of Rocket Raccoon, and he's more of a straight-forward disconnected rogue (except for his solid pal Groot, of course)--but the upcoming film would have to put Rocket into some pretty horrible situations and give him some pretty surprising reactions for me to become completely unable to see him as I once did.

In any case, the fact is that Rocket Raccoon managed to cross-over in my geek imagination, taking as deep a root as other far, far better developed comic characters, probably because my delight in the adventures of a small furry scrapper, exactly the sort of character who gets over looked in any adventure, got cross-pollinated with Tolkien. I suppose someone skilled in cultural deconstruction could make some observations at this point about how the soul of a furry lives within all gamers, but I'll take a pass on that. Spider-Man and Batman are psychologically complicated enough; I'd rather not let my deep affection for this little hero be poisoned by too much analysis. Might get in the way of my enjoying the movie, after all.

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