When Guardians of the Galaxy hits theaters on August 1st, millions of viewers will meet this summer's most unlikely action hero: Rocket Raccoon, a gun-toting, wise-cracking anthropomorphic rodent. And no one's more surprised about it than the person who helped create him 38 years ago.
"He was a throwaway character," says artist Keith Giffen, who co-created Rocket – originally named Rocky Raccoon, after the Beatles track -- with writer Bill Mantlo in 1976. "When you create these things, you're like a foster parent: You hand it off to the next guy and hope he won't fuck it into the ground."
An alien transformed by cruel experiments into a warrior with a wicked sense of humor, his first appearance lasted a handful of pages in the black-and-white science-fantasy story "The Sword in the Star" in Marvel Preview #7. Aside from a short-lived spotlight in 1985's four-issue Rocket Raccoon miniseries, written by Mantlo and illustrated by future Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, Rocket was a punchline, putting in brief comic-relief cameos in titles like Incredible Hulk and She-Hulk; he appeared in 10 comics total over 30 years. It wasn't until 2007's Annihilation Conquest: Starlord #1, in which Giffen revived him to join the Guardians of the Galaxy team line-up that would eventually wind up on screen, that his potential was unlocked.
Now this furry, funny avenger – voiced by bona fide movie star Bradley Cooper — is front and center in a space opera that takes the multibillion-dollar Marvel movie megafranchise far away from the Earthbound world of Iron Man and The Avengers. Marvel parent Disney, no stranger to success with talking animals, likely saw the lunchbox-icon potential.
But according to director and co-writer James Gunn, Rocket is the lynchpin not just of his Magnificent Seven-style team of interstellar tough guys, the Guardians, but of the film itself. "When I came on board, the first draft of the script had him as Bugs Bunny in the middle of the Avengers, and I wasn't into it. I don't think of him as a toy. If Rocket didn't work, the movie wouldn't work. That meant fine-tuning how this character could be real. We retained that feistiness and humor, but there's more sadness to this mangled little beast than there's ever been in the comics."
Still, as all the posters and trailers make plain, this is a raccoon with a gun we're talking about here. "You can only take these characters so far before it gets ridiculous," Gunn admits. "Honestly, some of the latest superhero movies take themselves so seriously, they feel like a joke. This desperate, angsty need for 'coolness' is sort of pathetic. Guardians is a big reaction against that." Will the grim-and-gritty-loving fanboys go along? Gunn laughs. "Who the hell knows?"