ROCKET RACCOON's Story: Humble Beginnings, Tragedy and Film Triumph
Like all comic book superhero movies, the Guardians of the Galaxy film has a huge group of creative minds behind its characters and concepts — and decades of development as part of the Marvel comics universe.
But in this movie's case, one of those minds has been trapped by tragedy, unable to create anymore.
Rocket Raccoon, the character that director James Gunn described as "the heart of the film," was created in 1976 by writer Bill Mantlo with artist Keith Giffen. And like most breakout characters, Rocket made a much-overlooked debut in a small story within Marvel Preview #7.
"It was this black-and-white comic, and Rocket Raccoon showed up in a back-up story called 'The Sword in the Star,'" said Giffen. "But the main feature was Satana, and Rocket was just this guy in the back-up story. He didn't even make the cover."
From those humble beginnings, Rocket has evolved over the years — with help from Mantlo, Giffen and writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning — into the wise-cracking but lovable technician that filmgoers see in the current hit film.
Although his creation is finding a new life in film, Mantlo's career as both a writer and lawyer came to a halt after being the victim of a hit-and-run in 1992 — resulting in a devastating brain injury.
"Bill is, and has been, trapped in a world of confusion and despair since his accident 22 years ago," the writer's brother, Michael Mantlo, told Newsarama. "The cognitive deficits he suffered have left him unable to reason or understand his situation, and he struggles daily to maintain any control over his own mind. For someone with his intellect and imagination, this was the absolute worst type of injury that could ever have happened to him."
Michael, who is his brother's legal guardian, is hoping the movie renews interest among fans in the Bill Mantlo Support Fund (accessible through Greg Pak's "Pakbuzz" website), which raises money for Bill's continuing care and recovery.
Honored in film
Despite Bill's ongoing physical struggles, Michael said he recently had "the greatest day of the last 22 years" when Marvel Studios arranged a private viewing of Guardians of the Galaxy. And after Bill gave the movie two thumbs up, his brother reflected on the way the movie honored the writer's vision for Rocket Raccoon.
"I thought Guardians Of The Galaxy was outstanding, and am predicting that it will be this new generation's equivalent of Star Wars!" Michael Mantlo said. "I believe it is the best movie Marvel has made, to date.
"Bill Mantlo's creation (along with Keith Giffen) Rocket Raccoon is true to the character that Bill created all those years ago, albeit brought up-to-date dialogue-wise," he added. "He is irreverent, sarcastic, cynical, bold, cunning, daring, and unbelievably powerful far beyond his physical size. And yet, underneath the gruff exterior beats the heart of a caring, compassionate hero, which was exactly what Bill wrote him to be."
The characters and concepts of Guardians of the Galaxy have been around since the '60s, but their current incarnation as a team came about more recently. Star-Lord, Gamora, Groot, Rocket Raccoon and Drax the Destroyer all had their origins in America's alien-obsessed, space race era of the '60s, '70s and '80s. They were introduced in Marvel's slew of sci-fi stories during that time period, along with dozens of other costumed characters in what would eventually be called Marvel's "cosmic universe."
For Giffen, the story he drew with Rocket Raccoon was the earliest part of his career — which continues today, as he still writes and draws comics 38 years later.
"I don't know if you realize this, but Rocket Raccoon was created on my very first ever professional comic book job," Giffen said. "I did a few posters before that, but that back-up in Marvel Preview was my first professional story.
"Remember the old Beatles song Rocky Raccoon?" Giffen said. "I think that was part of the inspiration. I think we were trying to do our version of Howard the Duck. You know, wink, wink, nudge, nudge. He was a throwaway gags.
"But like most throwaway gags, it started making money," the creator laughed.
Rocket was featured in other stories written by Mantlo in the '70s and '80s, but eventually he became one of many neglected Marvel cosmic characters during the '90s and early 2000's.
"My next exposure to Rocket came with Annihilation: Conquest [in 2007]," said Giffen, referring to the sequel to his 2006 Annihilation series. "I was doing the Star-Lord mini-series, and we had to pull together a group for him. And I remember that I pulled in Gamora and Drax, and I think I pulled in Groot, because I'd dealt with him a little bit in another series, and I liked the idea of a tree that thinks its royalty.
"And it was Andy Schmidt, [Marvel editor at the time,] who said to me, you know, Rocket Raccoon's available," Giffen said. "And I said, 'Oh God! We'll put him with Groot! He'll be the heavy weapons guy! And they were the group in the Star-Lord mini-series. They were not called Guardians of the Galaxy back then.
"I wish I could say I had a lot more to do with his development, but honestly, I'm credited with creating the character when… all I did was draw a raccoon," he laughed.
In 2008, co-writers Abnett and Lanning, who guided the main story of Annihilation: Conquest, launched a spin-off comic called Guardians of the Galaxy. Although it wasn't the first time a team at Marvel carried that name, it was the first time readers saw the film-featured version of the team — including Rocket Raccoon, paired with his loyal friend Groot (who could now only say, "I Am Groot!").
"I think it was something we put the idea forward about doing a cosmic Avengers team," Abnett said, "due to the fact that we were enjoying writing these characters. And it came out as we were working on Conquest that Marvel realized that they wanted to create another book out of the event."
The Guardians were born, with Lanning describing the comic as having "a flavor of fun… counterbalanced by us creating a real sort of danger and momentum to what they're doing."
So what do the creators think of the current film?
"Loved it!" Lanning said. "Fun, funny not so much a superhero movie but a cosmic comedy adventure. James Gunn and everyone at Marvel Studios did us proud!"
"Absolutely adored it, to be frank," Abnett said. "I don't think James put a foot wrong, despite the necessary changes that have to be made between comic and movie. … Seeing the actors 'in character' was a blast. Especially Star-Lord. Chris is so cool. Also, seeing Knowhere and Cosmo, and Groot in the pot."
"I really enjoyed the movie!" Giffen said. "It's like Star Wars. It's unapologetic science fiction with a sense of humor. I think it's the best of the Marvel movies, actually. And I'd say that even if I had no skin in the game."
Bill Mantlo was acknowledged in the credits for his creation of Rocket Raccoon along with Giffen, and Jim Starlin got a credit for creating Drax, Gamora and Thanos. Abnett and Lanning, who actually got to visit the set during filming, were acknowledged in the credits for creating the modern Guardians team.
Mantlo is also well known for his work on Micronauts. "And when I was writing the Hulk, Mantlo's earlier run on the book was a huge inspiration and influence, particularly when it came to exploring Banner's childhood and psyche," said writer Greg Pak, who set up the Paypal link where people can donate to help Mantlo. "In my last issue of the Incredible Hulks, I dedicated my entire five year run on the character to Mantlo."
Giffen further credits Mantlo with helping him break into the comics business. "Bill really helped me get a foothold in there," Giffen said. "He was a huge supporter of my stuff, and he was one of the only supporters of my stuff when I broke in. And I'm just glad that, before it all went to hell for him, I was able to sort of return — not so much return the favor, but at least help him out after he helped me out, when I asked him to come do something with me at DC, when he did Invasion! I'm glad I was able to do that, to show that it wasn't just a one-way street."
Pak said that fans can give even more acknowledgement through donations. "Literally millions of people have been entertained and moved by Bill Mantlo's work," said Pak, who currently writes comics for DC like Superman/Batman. "It's incredibly easy for folks to give back a little and make a real impact on his quality of life. I've been blown away by how warmly folks have responded and am thrilled to be able to play a little part in helping spread the word."
The writer's brother is hoping that readers — and perhaps new fans of the movie — will continue to help. "Although the medical/scientific community has given up hope, I refuse to believe that his life cannot be improved," Mike Mantlo said. "I feel that if he can experience new surroundings, with a caring and attentive team/staff supporting him, he can regain some semblance of control, and his quality of life can be upgraded into the future. That is my goal.
"Any and all contributions to the Bill Mantlo Support Fund (through the "Pakbuzz" website) are used to assist me, as Bill's legal guardian, in helping to bring him a happier and healthier future, and those who donate have my eternal gratitude!"