Sunday, August 24, 2014

Marvel-ous Cosmic Laughs - Rocket Raccoon & Groot Steal the Galaxy, Reviewed

In a an unprecedented but hardly surprising move, Marvel has timed the release of their first in-house prose novel to their immensely successful cinematic space opera, Guardians of the Galaxy. When you consider that they could have featured Captain America, Iron Man or even Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., It's funny to think that when the book was announced back in February, much of the public had not yet heard of either Rocket Raccoon or Groot.

Obviously this is no longer the case.

With a stable of both established and up and coming writers to draw upon for the task, it was gratifying to me that Marvel chose to tap Dan Abnett for this inaugural novel. Abnett, along with co-writer Andy Lanning, coordinated almost all the Marvel Comics space based properties from 2008-2010, and is as responsible as anyone for both the character line-up and tone used in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie.

I've been a big fan of Abnett's since the the mid-nineties, when he began writing a series of short stories and then novels for Games Workshop featuring an Imperial Guard regiment called Gaunt's Ghosts. He is an incredibly prolific writer who has written for everything from the children's Mr. Men books to the Legion of Superheroes comics. Abnett's knack for military science-fiction extends into a lot of his comics work, especially in books like Nova or GotG, but his fantastic visual sense and appreciation for the scope and scale of space based drama make him an excellent candidate for Rocket Raccon & Groot Steal the Galaxy.

The book is set at some point in the comics continuity rather than the Marvel Cinematic Universe, although there are a couple of nods to the latter, such as the keen, star-shaped spacecraft the Nova Corps fly in, as opposed to their being largely self-propelled in the comics. Also, [COMICS SPOILER ca. 2008], the Xandarian homeworld of the Corps still exists, like in the movie, but the Worldmind of Xandar has a role as well, so it is difficult (and probably ill-advised) to determine precisely when and where the story takes place.

The narrative refers to the Guardians team being 'on hiatus', which is why Rocket and Groot find themselves with the keys and papers to a sub-compact jump-freighter and frequenting a seedy bar looking for someone on which to unload "between forty-seven and forty-nine tons of fresh zunks".

As is so often the case in such circumstances (and such drinking establishments), Fate intervenes, putting our heroes in the midst of a battle to secure an android; to be specific, a Rigellian Recorder, a not unfamiliar sight in the Marvel Universe. Impartial observers of an advanced it cautious interstellar society, Recorders are excellent conduits for important exposition that also make excellent straight-men, as shown most deftly in Bob Layton's Hercules stories.

This particular Recorder, however, is carrying special knowledge he cannot access, part of a devious plan for galactic domination, which has two effects: the first is that it makes him incredibly valuable to a number of powerful parties, including, but not limited to: the Kree Stellar Empire; a Badoon War Brotherhood; the Alpha Centauri mega-corporation called Timely Inc. and their covert agent, a disenfranchised Galadoran spaceknight (like Rom!); and the lord of the Negative Zone, Annihilus, and his proxy, Gamora (!). Before too long, the recorder will also be pursued by the Nova Corps and elements of the Shi'Ar Imperial Guard, with Rocket and Groot along to see if any financial gain can be had from their association.

(The Imperial Guard are an interesting addition to the tale, since they originated in the pages of the X-Men back in the '70s, and are, for all intents and purposes, a Marvel analogue to DC's Legion of Superheroes. My interest stems from a) Abnett having written quite a few Legion stories back in the grim and gritty '90s, and b) the Marvel Cinematic Universe being unable to use the Shi'Ar since Fox owns all things X-Men,

The second effect is that this knowledge gap has made Recorder 127 behave in a very erratic and eccentric manner, described on the book jacket as 'about as sane as a sandwich with no mustard', and since he also serves as the primary narrator of the tale, this makes for some entertaining insights, such as his initial description of Rocket:

He is very much less than a human meter tall. His coat is glossy and in wonderful condition. His spectacular tail is bouffant. He walks upright in a way that makes the human in you want to exclaim, "Lookit the little man! Lookit! Walking on his back paws! Ooooaww!"
Do not do that. Ever. If you do that, he will shoot you to death as many times as necessary.
And then there's the hands. Look, this is the thing. I can't get past it. Rocket's hands...they're so disconcertingly human. It's uncanny (not in the mutant sense, obviously. Mutants are uncanny in an entirely different way). It's amazing, astonishing, astounding, incredible, adjective-less...okay, it's just distressing. Rocket Raccoon's hands are disconcertingly human in the most distressing way.
Let's think about something else for a moment, because the hands thing is creeping me out a little bit.
Narration duties slide between multiple perspectives and from first to third person, but the humour is never lost. Fans of Weird Al's recent business catchphrase anthem "Mission Statement" will no doubt appreciate some of the dialogue that comes out of the diabolical HQ of Timely Inc.:

"As you know, Timely Inc. leads the way in innovationized development to make all of its products optimized for maximum market-agreementabilization. It's our core philosophy. We want to resolutionate the lives of all our purchase benefactors and redactify the problemistic areas of their day-to-day existence experience with synergistic solutionoids."

(The first 21 pages of the book can be read online at, if you are so inclined.)

Obviously, I was predisposed to enjoy the book as a rollicking space adventure, but I was unprepared for exactly how much humor Abnett was able to bring to the fore in this novel; in fact, it is probably going to draw favourable comparisons to the high water mark of sci-fi comedy, Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Sure, there is an overwrought description of Rocket's favourite cocktail (the Timothy) somewhat reminiscent of the pan-galactic gargle blaster, but consider this description of the device Timely Inc. gives the former spaceknight Roamer to find Recorder 127:

"It's essentially a teleport device," replied Gruntgrill, "but it operates off tachyon-state temporal energies. It contains a multi-phase destiny generator, totally experimental, that, once triggered, calibrates the causal nature of reality, recognizes the pathways of the Universe in terms of satisfying dramatic progressions, and deposits the user at..."
"At what?" Asked Hanxchamp.
"Well, sir," said Gruntgrill, "in theory, exactly the right place in time and space to effect the greatest dramatic consequence. It assesses universal life as a story, and places the user in precisely the right moment to influence that story."
As if the concept of machine-driven intentional coincidence is insufficient, Abnett not only uses the Interpolation Inserter to keep the story at a satisfactorily farce-like pace, but also to make incisive insights about its user and his motivations in a surprisingly sensible manner. Certainly a worthy successor to Hitchhiker's Infinite Improbability Drive!

I'll level with you, I've actually fallen out of book reading for a while now, having read only one dead-tree novel in the past year or so. I've done plenty of reading, but it's been largely online articles, short stories, magazines, and scads of comic books on the iPad rather than the backlog of actual factual books accumulating on my nightstand. Picking up Rocket Raccoon & Groot Steal the Galaxy was a means of getting me back in the habit of proper page turning, and I couldn't have made a better choice.

Abnett's tremendous descriptive ability, his innate familiarity with the Cosmic side of the Marvel Universe, his quirky and playful sense of humour, and his enviable command and use of language made this book a real treat to read, and I often found myself reading the more amusing portions aloud to my family (who, of course, now know and love the main characters thanks to the movie). Abnett's knack for crackling dialogue makes it continually surprising to me that he hasn't transitioned to screenwriting, but who knows, maybe they will adapt this novel as an animated feature.

Complications get resolved in often violent but occasionally creative ways, such as when Recorder 127 uses his knowledge of legal process to circumvent an arrest by Nova Corps Centurions, lamenting afterwards that he has no briefcase to close when departing. Or that he doesn't look more like Matthew McConaughey. The large and species-diverse cast of characters behave in a manner consistent with their goals and allegiances, except when they don't, with the exceptions being entertaining and insightful. Most of all, the entire novel positively revels in the insanity of its circumstances, and delights the reader as it does so.

It's a light read, to be sure, but I can give Rocket Raccoon and Groot Steal the Galaxy my unequivocal (but disconcertingly human) thumbs up.

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