The sensibilities of 1970’s Marvel Comics were largely shaped by Steve Gerber. He created a unique tone that mixed comedy, anarchy, and adventure. This was only possibly through comics’ ability to collect and comment on different types of people and characters through quick visual and textual signifiers. His Man-Thing cannot speak and must only observe the strange occurrences around him, acting directly as a surrogate for the reader’s experience. In this spread from The Man-Thing #1, Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik show the Man-Thing confronting “The Congress of Realities!”, a perfectly Gerber zone inhabited by all types of characters, real and fictional. Some of the types in the issue include superheroes, historical/mythological figures, and pulp characters. By placing them in conversation with each other, Gerber makes each separate type and tradition seem even more ridiculous.
By 1985, the middle of the Jim Shooter era, Marvel seemingly lost most of this chaotic anarchic energy. In an era of company-wide crossovers and editorial mandates, Bill Mantlo and Mike Mignola invoke and revive this sensibility for the insane 4 issue miniseries Rocket Racoon. This takes place on a strange sci-fi planet named HalfWorld, populated by humans, sentient (evolved?) animals, and robots. This series is a wacky space adventure focusing on Rocket liberating a group of enslaved humans, “loonies”, from the tyranny of two opposing companies entertaining them into subservience and boredom. In delivering this strange allegory, Mantlo and Mignola overwhelm the reader and dip into pastiches of almost every medium and genre of entertainment.
On a technical level, Rocket Raccoon floods the reader with detail while also constantly pushing the narrative forward. Mantlo uses an exaggerated children’s book narration on top of multiple speech bubbles in almost every panel. On top of this, he occasionally adds textual sound effects and labels on background settings. The constant rhyme and alliteration compliment the bright color palettes, creating a violently over the top comedy, shoving jokes in the reader’s face. The placement of text and visuals also often undercut each other, adding a comic tension while driving the reader forward. This allows individual panels and pages even to parody and pastiche multiple separate genres at the same time.
In this page from the climax of issue two, Rocket and O’ Hare’s bodies break multiple panel borders, even cutting into the text of a narration box, which in turn cuts through three separate panels. Pencils, inks, colors, and words all fight to occupy the same space with different tones and styles. This metaphor is even literalized in this issue with the key conflict; the evil “Red Breath” (literally the color red) spreads through panels eclipsing other details. Rocket and O’Hare only avoid it here by going off-panel themselves. This features iconography from science-fiction, funny animal comics, action comics and horror all in the same page for this insane multi-faceted conflict. The figures of the evil clowns here tie into both the horror and sci-fi genre trappings as well as a circus motif throughout the series. The series operates like a circus, with brief pauses between various entertainments. By often overlapping different entertainments, Mantlo and Mignola make sure any reader will pick up on at least a few different references.
Here are just a few examples of other genres it dips into:
MAD Magazine-esque Pop Culture Parody
At times, the series dips even into direct parodies, with references as wide as The Bible, The Beatles, Mary Poppins, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, John Updike, Edgar Allan Poe, Star Wars, Ranger Rick, and even Sam & Max years before their official debut elsewhere. And it does all of this without any superheroes or well-known Marvel characters. At a time when the indie scene was exploding, this insane book tested the limits of what Marvel Comics could do. Yes, superheroes can come in any form and genre and that’s great. But comics can do so much more outside of superheroes, and through their absence the series inevitably paints them as stale and ignorant in contrast to the colorful craziness and cultural awareness of these new characters and alternate genres.
The series features a few different types of real life entertainments outside of simply pulp genre tropes; humans drink, sing, dance, and party. The loonies’ problems are ultimately solved by the appearance of a radical new entertainment, a magic technological screen that manipulates their minds. Mantlo and Mignola show the reader nothing on or in the screens, despite their supposed educational and mental health value. The mundane nature of this solution for one of the central conflicts shocks the reader again; after 4 issues of insanity, the series seems to valorize boring, “sane” entertainments and people. Their newfound sanity feels eerily calm. This provides a heavy-handed anti-television ending to the allegory in the background plot. (Entertainment company M vs. entertainment company D struggle to entertain with their old tropes, only to be surpassed by something more captivating.) The series feels like it mourns the strangeness and anarchy of an earlier time. Mantlo and Mignola probably also thought (for good reason) that no one would ever continue or revive their strange creations throughout this series. It must’ve been a surreal experience for them to watch Guardians of The Galaxy on the big screen 30 years later.
Rocket Raccoon‘s extreme detail and strangeness stands out even today, but the idea of combining and condensing types taps into larger questions of American comics in the mid-1980s. At almost the exact same time as Rocket Raccoon, Marvel publishes Secret Wars, DC publishes Crisis On Infinite Earths and Watchmen, and Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird begin publishing early appearances of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. All five of these titles mash up and cross over all kinds of different types of comics characters to challenge the possibilities of comics. Later in his career, Mignola constantly does this throughout Hellboy, mashing together iconography and tropes of superheroes, various world religions, mythologies, horror stories and folk tales. Rocket Raccoon acts as a testament to comics’ possibilities to get capital w Weird, made even stranger by still laying dormant and forgotten.
Shout out to Monty Ashley on The Incomparable Podcast’s Marvel Unlimited Draft for recommending Rocket Raccoon
Also shout out to Keith Giffen for co-creating Rocket Raccoon with Bill Mantlo in The Incredible Hulk #271
Opening image from The Man-Thing #1 by Val Mayerik, Sal Trapani (inks), and Dave Hunt (colors)
Other images from Rocket Raccoon 1-4 by Mike Mignola, Al Gordon (inks 1-2, 4), Christie Scheele (colors 1-4), Al Milgrom (inks 3)