Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Rocket Raccoon: Guardian of the Keystone Quadrant

Another look at a series that is not touched by the Essentials.

Rocket Raccoon: Guardian of the Keystone Quadrant is a Panini pocket book that reprints the four part Rocket Raccoon limited series from the 1980s plus the story introducing Groot from Tales to Astonish #13, Rocket's first appearance from Marvel Preview #7 and another Rocket tale from Incredible Hulk #271. Everything is written by Bill Mantlo bar the Tales to Astonish story, which is written by Larry Lieber. The limited series is drawn by Mike Mignola, the Tales to Astonish story by Jack Kirby, the Marvel Preview tale by Keith Giffen and the Incredible Hulk issue by Sal Buscema.

I first encountered the limited series as a back-up strip in back issus of Marvel UK's Transformers. There it suffered the fate of a lot of strips that when broken down into five or six pages an issue the flow can be jarring and I dismissed it as a piece of silliness. Reading it altogether brings a very different perspective. It's quite a good take on one of the traditional themes of science fiction - the long isolated planet that has evolved from its mission without really understanding it. Halfworld in the Keystone Quadrant is a strange planet, half a lush paradise occupied by anthropomorphic animals looking after the mentally ill, half a technological dystopia occupied by robots who manufacture toys the aforesaid mentally ill whilst also perpetually building a giant spaceship to breach the "Galacian Wall" barrier surrounding the system.

How this state of affairs came about is a mystery that is only slowly resolved when the inventor and scholar Pyko steals and deciphers the Halfworld Bible. In the meantime Ranger Rocket Raccoon gets caught in a power struggle between rival toy manufacturers Lord Dyvyne and Judson Jakes, the latter being the guardian of Rocket's girlfriend Lylla and proprietor of her firm, Mayhem Mekaniks. Dyvyne seeks to kidnap and marry Lylla as part of a hostile take-over, but his agent Blackjack O'Hare proves uncontrollable with ideas of his own. Rocket and his first mate Wal Russ, who is also Lylla's uncle, set out to rescue her aboard the ship Rakk 'N Ruin.

This is a tale that works well on two very different levels. On one, it's a simple adventure tale that uses animals instead of humans as its characters but otherwise presents a classic story of rescuing the girl and saving the world with Rocket himself as the hero. On another, it's a strong piece of social commentary, both about the intense rivalry and take-over business culture but also a plea for the plight of the mentally ill. Here they have been abandoned and left to be indulged for many generations, yet it's thanks to Rocket and Pyko that a true cure is found. The use of the term "loonies" may now seem insensitive but otherwise this is a strong plea for understanding the mentally ill and not writing them off. All in all this is quite a good little tale that would have been overlooked but for Rocket's later incorporation into the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Three additional stories are included as well. Groot's first appearance is a simple monster tale of its era where the hero is an intellectual who shows to his wife there's more to being a hero than being physically strong. Groot himself is just a strange alien that grows his body by absorbing wood and the main mystery is why a monarch is personally collecting specimens for examination. Rocket’s own debut in the pages of Marvel Preview is equally unmemorable bar for the very different location from what is to come. This black and white tale of Prince Wayfinder, "a modern Ulysses", sees a space wanderer come to Witch-World, a forest planet of wild trees and strange creatures, ruled by its own Kirke. On the planet he encounters a hunter in the form of Rocket, a talking racoon. It's very hard to fit this appearance with what's revealed in the limited series.

Also difficult to fit is Incredible Hulk #271, which sees the Hulk land on Halfworld and meet many of the characters in their first appearance but it's a slightly different set-up from the later limited series. There are no mentally ill on the planet and many of the item and company names are different. As a one-off tale of a strange planet visited by the Hulk it works but it's easy to see why more had to be added for the limited series to tell a mini-epic.

Despite exposing the continuity differences, this is a nice little collection that was released to tie in with the sudden new popularity of Rocket Raccoon and Groot when the Guardians of the Galaxy movie came out. It's a nice showcase of their early adventures and nearly thirty years after Marvel UK's split printing it's nice to see the limited series now reprinted here in one go.

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