Character: Rocket Raccoon
Creators: Keith Giffen, Bill Mantlo
First appearance: Marvel Preview #7
First encounter: Besides the Internet? Annihilation: Conquest - Star-Lord #1. That's where that panel comes from, courtesy of Keith Giffen and Tim Green II.
Definitive writer: In his original incarnation, Bill Mantlo, obviously. He's a little more Errol Flynn, swashbuckling hero in that form. In his more recent revival, he's more Bruce Willis, with the snappy one-liners and the sarcasm. So for that Rocket, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning.
Definitive artist: For the earlier version, Mike Mignola. For the more recent years, Timothy Green II.
Favorite moment or story: Just on an amusement level, I like his 'That's how we do things in the Raccooniverse' line from Annihilation: Conquest #5. He even puffed away the smoke from his blasters when he said it. His attempt to save his big buddy Groot from the cyborg woodpeckers designed to kill him (the first Annihilators mini-series). That time the Guardians of the Galaxy were able to rescue Moondragon from a planet full of Church of Universal Truth dopes because Rocket figured out how to pilot the decapitated Celestial head that is Knowhere and use it to attack the Church (Guardians of the Galaxy #22, I think). His whole '80s mini-series where he's able to survive two different factions of evil toymakers trying to kill him (with mercenary rabbits and evil clown robots), and essentially free everyone on the planet from the roles they'd been confined to.
What I like about him: He fights and destroys murderous clowns for one thing. Seriously, look at these things. Anyone who exterminates them is OK in my book.
On the most basic level, he's a cute little furry critter that saves the day with a combination of tactical genius, heavy artillery, and sarcasm. He seems like he should be a joke character, the "funny talking animal", but he's not. The situations he's placed in may seem absurd from our perspective, but they're deadly serious and real to him. Kelvin Green had a good quote that sums it up in this article here: 'Just so we're clear, he's a flying raccoon with a level of military genius that both impresses and frightens a race of warmongering space Nazis, and who rides around on the back of a giant walking tree with his collection of big shiny rotary cannons and missile launchers. If you honestly can't see why that's pretty much the best thing ever, I don't know why you're even reading comics at all.'
I mentioned Abnett and Lanning write him a bit differently from Mantlo (I haven't read Bendis' stuff, so we'll be ignoring him, but I assume he writes Rocket the same as he writes all his characters, a lot of chatter that doesn't say anything). I think you could chalk the difference up to circumstances (unless you wanted to chalk it up to him having his memories tampered with to help keep Star-Thief imprisoned on Halfworld). On Halfworld, in the Mantlo/Mignola mini-series, Rocket is a big wheel. He's the law, for all intents and purposes, and the threats are on a similar scale to him. Robot clowns that throw explosive juggling balls, weird shadow bats (as you see to the left, thank you Mantlo and Mignola), evil turtles and moles bent on world domination. Dangerous, but on a somewhat lower level. It's a world built for him (or he's a hero built for that world, whichever you prefer).
Once he got off Halfworld and went exploring, he's the little fish in a big universe. Now there's all these alien galactic empires to deal with, full of superhumans, often run by genocidal lunatics (D'Ken, Vulcan, the Supreme Intelligence, the Badoon). There are Heralds of Galactus, Mad Titans, Abstract Concepts like Death and Time that assume physical form and walk among mortals, the Phalanx. It's a completely different scale of things, and suddenly, Rocket looks a little outclassed. It gets harder to survive, the rules are different, he gets a little meaner, a little sneakier, a little more caustic. He drinks some now. Exploring what lay beyond Halfworld and the Keystone Quadrant lost some of its shine once he met reality.
Maybe it's allowed that innate tactical sense to come to the forefront. The nifty weapons he had there - the blaster, the jet boots - aren't so special out in the galaxy. Lots of people have that stuff, or better. The odds are that much higher against him, he has to be that much more clever to survive. And he pulls it off. Star-Lord might lead the Guardians, but he's no tactical genius. Rocket is the one who comes up with the plans. He's the one who figures out how to destroy the Babel Spire Ultron was using to keep the Kree Empire walled off from the rest of the universe. Star-Lord was the one who thought trusting Thanos was a good idea, that he had it all under control. Rocket was the one who had the big weapons necessary to drop the Titan when he went berserk again and thrashed the rest of the team.
He's a little smartass underdog who always comes through. I love characters like that (see also, Spider-Man). It took him a little while to remember what he was good at (helping others), but once he did, he committed to it. He didn't let the duplicitous methods Star-Lord and Mantis used to put the team together wreck what they were doing. He gathered together the ones he could, those who didn't leave in a huff, and kept on with it. Still people out there who needed help. When a bunch of the team died in Thanos Imperative, yeah, he was at loose ends for a time. He'd formed some real bonds, probably the first since he left Halfworld, and many of them died, in circumstances beyond his control. The doubts about whether he could accomplish anything crept back in. I think he'd always had so much success saving the day on Halfworld, the times where he can't make it all turn out OK hit him hard.
Well, that's not unusual. Sometimes we do well at handling the smaller problems in our lives, but find bigger things come along we can't handle. It's frustrating, it can be humbling. It happens to me, where I get mad, or get down on myself because something's come up I either can't resolve as quickly as I'd like, or I can't handle it without dragging other people in, which always bugs me. But ultimately he pulled himself together, rescued his friend, and got back on track. You can't keep him down.
I think it's worth noting that even when Rocket loses his way, he's still doing productive stuff. When Star-Lord first met him, Rocket had been arrested by the Kree for going through some restricted zone (he claimed they failed to set up proper notification beacons which yeah, sounds like the sort of crap the Kree would pull as a way to harrass all the "inferior" species out there. You know Kree cops are big on racial profiling). But he must have been doing some sort of space trucker/smuggling work (which explains how he's friends with that space trucker U.S. 1/US Ace/whatever his name is. When the team fell apart after Thanos Imperative, he took a job as the mail room guy at a company. Not necessarily noble work, but at least he's doing something. When Star-Lord lost his drive after he had to sacrifice a colony to stop a rampaging former Herald of Galactus, he let himself be thrown in prison and sat in there engaged only in self-loathing and moping. That's not helpful to anyone.
Rocket at least tries to get on with his life, until he realizes helping people is his life. He's good at it. He's brave, loyal, resourceful, fearless, and he and Cosmo have a love/hate relationship, as is only natural between a raccoon who sometimes skirts the edges of legality, and a dog that's essentially a space cop. Maybe Rocket recognizes a little too much of who he was on Halfworld in Cosmo, and that's the problem. That final image there is drawn by Wes Craig, from Guardians of the Galaxy #23 or 24.