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The untold truth of Rocket Raccoon

Prior to 2014, it was inconceivable that a talking raccoon could help anchor a superhero blockbuster—but then, pretty much everything about Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy took people by surprise. Despite featuring a team of heroes unfamiliar to the casual film fan, the movie was a global smash hit and raked in more than $770 million at the worldwide box office, propelling Rocket and his fellow Guardians to the forefront of the genre. But how did such an unconventional character come to play a key part in both Marvel's comics and their Cinematic Universe? Rocket has come a long way since he was created by writer Bill Mantlo and artist Keith Giffen in the 1970s, and this is the untold truth of his bumpy journey to the top.

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​His co-creator was left in a coma after a hit and run

When the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie became an unexpected phenomenon for Marvel, it turned many new fans toward the original comics—and brought to light the tragic story of Rocket Raccoon co-creator Bill Mantlo. During the '70s and '80s, Mantlo worked steadily for Marvel, penning a number of classics including a string of issues of The Spectacular Spider-Man (during which Frank Miller's definitive version of Daredevil made his debut) and a five-year run on The Incredible Hulk (known for the way in which the big green guy was humanized more than ever). As a writer of comic books he was criminally underrated, a master at subtly making social commentary just as he did with Rocket Raccoon, whose origin story was an allegory for mental health care in the United States—or the lack thereof.

Up until recently Mantlo's been one of Marvel's unsung heroes, which makes the fact that he's unable to properly appreciate Rocket's ascension all the more heartbreaking. Mantlo's career was horrifically cut short in 1992 when he was knocked down in a hit and run while out rollerblading, leaving him comatose. He was eventually pulled out of his coma, but the brain damage inflicted during the incident left him in need of 24-hour care and in no shape to return to work. His relationship with Marvel reportedly remains at least partly positive, however: they arranged for him to have a private showing of Guardians of the Galaxy around the first film's release.

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​He was engineered by robots

Rocket comes from a place in the Marvel Universe that would eventually become known as Halfworld, a planet that was uninhabited until a technologically advanced humanoid race decided to take advantage of the space and use it as a giant insane asylum. When this unidentified race ran out of funding and were unable to continue to care for 'the Loonies' they'd locked up, they decided to build robots to carry on with their duties in their absence and got out of there, encircling the planet with a forcefield for good measure. What they didn't bank on was the robots getting sick of the job, too.

Wanting to build their own starship and flee the planet themselves, the AI creations retreated to the other half of the planet (which is where Halfworld comes from) and left the care of the patients to whatever animals had been previously left behind, one of whom was Rocket. The robots took the helpless animals and started experimenting with their genetics, even cybernetically enhancing some of them to the point that they were practically human. Their tinkering with Rocket was so successful that in the end they allowed him to captain their ship and get them (as well as all the animals who chose not to stay behind with the Loonies) off Halfworld.

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​He was only meant to be a one-off character

Rocket's first appearance came in 1976, when he was included in the back-up story of Marvel Preview #7, an issue primarily focused on a plot by half-demon succubus Satana to possess a mortal woman in the hopes of furthering her father's evil will. Rocket actually went by the name Rocky at this early stage, and didn't come with any kind of backstory, with his speech explained away by the fact that the hero of this particular tale (Mantlo and Giffen's Prince Wayfinder) had landed on Witchworld, where animals not only know how to speak, but do so with attitude.

Apart from the fact that the original rendition of the character smokes cigarettes and seems to be upper-class British (he refers to Wayfinder as "old bean"), the character is otherwise recognizable as the Rocket we know and love today, with the same sharp wit and willingness to kick ass. The creators never imagined that this talking raccoon would one day be doing things on the big screen, however. "He was a throwaway character," artist Keith Giffen admitted. "When you create these things, you're like a foster parent: You hand it off to the next guy and hope he won't f*** it into the ground."

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​The character was inspired by a Beatles song

The fact that Rocky was a British raccoon makes a lot more sense when you listen to the Beatles' White Album, whose song "Rocky Raccoon" was Mantlo and Giffen's inspiration for the character. Both Marvel men were massively into the legendary band (as was the entire world at the time), and their tune about a feisty young boy named Rocky who seeks vengeance on his rival after he steals the girl of his fancy was a particular favorite. When the character appeared for a second time six years later in The Incredible Hulk #271, he'd been fleshed out and his name changed to Rocket, but the references to the song remained as blatant as ever.

The track opens with the lyrics "Now somewhere in the Black Mountain Hills of Dakota there lived a young boy named Rocky Raccoon," whereas the title of this Hulk issue is "Now Somewhere In the Black Holes of Sirius Major There Lived a Young Boy Name of Rocket Raccoon!" That's pretty cut and dry, but if you needed any more convincing, just read the comic itself. Gideon's Bible (a particular print found in most motel rooms) is mentioned as a source of comfort for Rocky by the Beatles, though for Rocket, Gideon's Bible became a text written by Halfworld's original inhabitants (it was actually their research log) that's believed to hold the secret to escape.

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​Bradley Cooper loves the song too

If you find yourself blown away by the fact that Rocket was born out of a shared love for a Beatles song, you're in good company. Bradley Cooper, who provides the voice for the Marvel Cinematic Universe version of the gun-toting rodent, was also shocked to find out that the character had his origins in "Rocky Raccoon," especially seeing as he loves the song.

"This is actually kind of crazy, talk about a weird thing. 'Rocky Raccoon' is one of my favorite songs, for some reason it just f****** kills me," Cooper told MTV. "When the role of Rocket Raccoon came upon us, I was talking to [Guardians of the Galaxy director] James Gunn and I said, 'I'm doing this movie now, and we're always tripping on Rocky Raccoon. Isn't it weird that I'm playing Rocket Raccoon?' He told me that was the inspiration for the character, that song. I don't know if that's the truth, but it's what he said, which if that's the truth, it's kind of insane."

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He's been voiced by many other actors

Cooper is just the latest in a string of actors who've voiced Rocket over the years, all of whom brought something slightly different to the character. Greg Ellis (best known as the stiff-lipped Lieutenant Commander Theodore Groves from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies) was the first to breathe life into an animated version of the cranky raccoon in 2010, giving him his traditional British accent in Disney's The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes. Veteran video game voicer Tom Kenny was next, providing his gruffest tones for free MMO Marvel Super Hero Squad Online; Billy West and Trevor Devall picked up the mantle in 2012, sharing Rocket voice-over duties for the Ultimate Spider-Man series.

2013 was a good year for fans of Rocket, who featured in a new animated series and two more video games in the span of 12 months. Online RPG Marvel Heroes featured the work of both Steve Blum (who voiced Wolverine in the Wolverine and the X-Men series) and Nolan North (a Marvel stalwart who most famously voiced Deadpool in Hulk Versus) as Rocket, and for Lego Marvel Super Heroes John DiMaggio (Wreck-It Ralph, Transformers: The Last Knight) was used. Seth Green also voiced the space rodent in 2013, bringing a younger, higher pitch to the character when he took over for Avengers Assemble, the successor to The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes.

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​Movie Rocket is much more downbeat

Of course, Bradley Cooper came next, and he faced a challenge that none of the previous voice actors did—introducing Rocket to live action. A gun-slinging, wise-cracking raccoon is easier to accept when you're watching a cartoon or playing a video game, but stick one alongside some real actors up on the big screen and things could get ridiculous fast if care isn't taken to get it just right. According to Guardians of the Galaxy director and co-writer James Gunn, that's exactly how the film was shaping up until he decided Rocket needed to be approached with more realism.

"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," explained Gunn. "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."

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​He only made 10 comic appearances in his first three decades

Considering that his image can now be found on school lunchboxes the world over, it might come as a surprise to learn that Rocket's history is rather sparse compared to most of his galactic comrades. In fact, the character only appeared in a total of 10 comics in the three decades after his creation, following up his short Marvel Preview and Incredible Hulk stints with his own four-issue limited series drawn by enigmatic Hellboy creator Mike Mignola (the first time Mignola did interior pencil work for Marvel).

Next up was a minor appearance in Quasar #15 , published in 1990, and then three consecutive issues (#44, #45 and #46) of John Byrne's Sensational She-Hulk in 1992, the latter of which was his tenth run-out and the last he'd make until the mid-'00s. Rocket resurfaced in 2006 with a very brief flashback appearance in Exiles #73; the following year, he met Star-Lord and everything changed.

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​He didn't hook up with the Guardians of the Galaxy until the late 2000s

Original Rocket artist Keith Giffen decided he'd try his hand at writing in 2007, and marked his maiden effort as a comic scribe with Annihilation: Conquest – Starlord #1. The influence of this issue can be seen quite plainly in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie—in particular the prison break scene. In the comic, Peter Quill finds himself in debt to the Kree after the security system he built for them failed to stop an attack by hostile organic race the Phalanx. To get off the hook, Star-Lord agrees to lead a team assembled from the Kree Empire's most suitable prisoners, and while the team he picks doesn't match up with the one assembled onscreen in the MCU, some future Guardians do get acquainted at this point.

The now much-loved (and well marketed) talking tree Groot makes his first appearance alongside Rocket in this series, marking the start of their fruitful partnership, and Mantis (who recently joined the MCU in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) is chosen to join the mission. By the time the Annihilation: Conquest miniseries came to an end in 2008, Gamora and Drax the Destroyer had also entered the fray and helped defeat the Phalanx, whose attack on the galaxy inspired Star-Lord to form a team worthy of guarding it from future assaults. Rocket was the first member invited to join, and he even came up with the idea of using their name—having previously heard it from Major Victory, one of the original Guardians of the Galaxy.

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​Rocket's recent history

When the dust settled on Annihilation: Conquest, the heroes that were still alive seemed like an odd bunch to begin with, but according to Marvel editor Bill Rosemann the survivors of the event were hand-picked to take the team forward. "As the planning on Annihilation: Conquest came together, it occurred to us that, if things went well, there would be a group of characters left standing who would make for a very interesting and fun team," he said. That came to pass in 2013 when the team was relaunched as part of the Marvel NOW! rebranding with Guardians of the Galaxy #0.1, in which Star-Lord, Rocket, Groot, Gamora and Drax are joined by Iron Man. This was the main source for the movie adaptation, which proved so popular that solo titles seemed inevitable. Rocket was one of the first to get his own series, which consisted of 11 issues by writer/artist Skottie Young, who's slowly becoming synonymous with the character.

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​He has an all-new web series

So what does the future hold for Rocket, both on paper and onscreen? He was briefly killed off during the 2015 Secret Wars comic event, but the Guardians were immediately rebooted as part of Marvel's "All-New, All-Different" initiative, with Star-Lord and Gamora leaving the team and Rocket becoming self-appointed leader. The Thing joined up and Kitty Pryde took on the Star-Lord mantle from Peter Quill, but it was Rocket who stole the show, once again proving so popular that Skottie Young was called back in to pen a spinoff, this time focusing on both Rocket and Groot. A web series based on the duo's exploits has dropped online, and Young has said he's pleased with how perfectly his work has been adapted.

"For me, it was cool to see how seemingly effortlessly they took that, translated it, and really made what I hope worked in that medium," he told SyFy. "When they did their first couple of passes, they nailed it so hard. When I was brought on to consult, my only advice was to go back to exactly what they did from the start." Marvel's VP of animation Stephen Wacker, interviewed alongside Young, also had nothing but good things to say about the project. "I remember watching the pitch—I was peeing my pants excited to get out of there and show Skottie what they'd done. It was so cool."

Looking forward a little further, James Gunn has confirmed that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is slated to come out after the next two Avengers installments, and while there's no official release date for their third team outing, it's safe to say Rocket will be returning, perhaps in his biggest role yet.