Secret Psychiatric Origins of Rocket Raccoon

October 29, 2014

The main character of Guardians of the Galaxy directly connects to psychiatry and comments on continuing controversies about patient care and health care delivery systems.

FILM ANALYSIS

Guardians of the Galaxy (Marvel Studios, 2014) conquered the box office in 2014.1 It is the year’s top-grossing movie to date and will soon become an animated Disney channel TV show.2 The film’s broad appeal to adults and children alike was surprising, given that it stars a talking raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and a sentient tree voiced by Vin Diesel, a street tough action-adventure star.

With its cast of improbable characters and a human-like star, Marvel’s film could be billed as “Disney meets Wizard of Oz” (which is not a bad idea, since Disney bought Marvel Comics and also owns Marvel Cinematic Universe).Yet Guardians moves in a decidedly different direction. In spite of everything it offers, Guardians of the Galaxy film version omits Rocket (Rocky) Raccoon’s comic book origin story. Rocket hints that something extreme happened in his past, something related to unethical animal experimentation. We see surgical scars on his back, but that is as far as it goes. However, Rocket directly connects to psychiatry and comments on continuing controversies about patient care and health care delivery systems.

Before Rocky Raccoon achieved big screen superhero status, he was a comic book character who lived in “Halfworld,” a planet that housed once incurable psychiatric patients. Hundreds of years ago, space-traveling humanoids searched for a place for scientific research. They also needed a safe place for chronic psychiatric patients who could not survive in general society. They chanced upon Keystone Quadrant and turned it into an Insane Asylum [sic].

Rocket Raccoon’s first comic warns: “You are about to enter a strange and not always rational galaxy . . . a sector of space called Keystone Quandrant.”3 More explanation follows. “We psychiatrists were determined to prove that those poor souls deemed hopelessly insane could be cured.” “Thus we administered to them from our headquarters in Asylum.” “For years, we studied and experimented, expanding our knowledge of the functioning-and dysfunctioning-of the human mind. . .while animals were brought along for the purposes of entertainment and companionship.”3(p114)

The psychiatrists made robots to aid the patients and to assist in their quest to learn how and why some people become psychotic. The robots also manufactured toys to entertain the patients. Compared with horrific reports about mid-20th century state hospitals and some contemporary “adult homes” for persons with “serious and persistent mental illness” (SPMI), this imaginary arrangement sounds idyllic-even if patients are segregated from society.

The psychiatrists and psychiatric robots recorded their observations in “Gideon’s Logbook,” playing upon the term, “Gideon’s Bible.” When research funding was cut, the psychiatrists were told to return to their home planet. They acquiesced, but not before devising ways to care for patients after their departure. In their LOG/Bible, they documented their reasoning: “It having been decreed by the council that certain forms of insanity are incurable, we have been ordered to transport our planets’ insane to a world of their own, where they may be cared for by robots and kept amused by pets for the rest of their natural lives.”3(p88)

To protect patients from potentially harmful intruders (rather than the other way around, where locked wards protect society from presumably harmful patients), the psychiatrists created a force field around the star system. The robots stayed behind. Life in Halfworld grew more complicated when patients produced progeny who become psychotic.

The patients called themselves “The Loonies.” They even began a religion of their own. They developed rituals and worshipped the ancient shrinks [sic] as gods. Their priests were known as “The Good Humor Men” (in keeping with the entertainment theme). They called the old Asylum logbook their “Bible” and stored it in a sacred place known as the “Admissions Ward.” The comics note that “ASYLUM was most sacred shrine of the Loonies on Halfworld, and the focal point of their annual pilgrimage and celebration,” when they wore costumes of their own choosing. The comics say “On the night of the Great Masquerade on Halfworld, each Loonie Incarcerate of Cuckoo’s Nest can act out his or her fantasies.”3(p79) This phantasmagoric touch recollects historical facts about “Lunatic Balls” of the past, which attracted curious onlookers as well as confined “lunatics.”4

Reciting their Bible, the Loonies affirm that “the acting out of fantasies is therapeutic, so sayeth the ancient lore of the shrinks, which we must all obey.” They wear ritual straightjackets during their religious rites and chant, “One flew east, one flew west, and one flew over the cuckoo’s nest.” The allusion to the cuckoo’s nest reminds us of the rabidly anti-psychiatry film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, although the verses originated in a popular children’s poem.

The patients remain stable, but the comic book tells us that “As the ages passed the robots exceeded their original programming-perhaps caused by radiation from a nova, affecting their inner workings. Anyhow, they developed an artificial intelligence. . . and yet they still faithfully looked after the generations of loonies who, if not congenitally insane as their ancestors had been . . . were born into and affected by parents’ insane environment. Here, insanity was normal.”

“But the robots-supremely logical-began to chafe at the illogic of the humans in their care. They sought a way out . . and found one.” The robots “played around with genetics and enhanced the intelligence of the animals, enabled them to talk, gave them prosthetics that mimicked human movement . . . and set [Rocky Raccoon’s] ancestors to the task of tending to the Loonies’ needs.”3(p115) At this point, comics readers and film viewers have an “Ah ha” moment as they recall Rocket’s offhanded reference to “unethical experiments” performed on animals.

While listening intently to his elders, Rocky Raccoon learns that “. . . the robots retreated to their own industrial side of Halfworld. . .” “. . . where they have manufactured machines for us and toys for the Loonies, while they have labored on their huge humanoid Starship ever since.” Rocky is shocked by his origin story and responds, “T-then we animals started out as . . . as pets for mentally deranged humans?!?” After the elder confirms, Rocky retorts, “B-but that means that I’ve spent my whole life searching for sanity in a universe established to house the insane!” The comics do not quote R.D. Laing directly, but parallels to Laingian ideas6 (and Rosenhan’s Stanford psychology experiments7) about being sane in an insane place are striking.

Rocky learns that the sentient robots performed genetic experiments on the pet animals left behind by the shrinks, much like benevolent versions of evil Dr. Moreau, who also tried to humanize animals through experiments conducted on his isolated island.

Rocky and fellow animals regard their work with the Loonies as a mission, just as doctors were trained to do in the past (and sometimes in the present). A villain suggests, “if the Loonies want their laughs, they’re going to have to buy them from me!” Rocket objects and says, “Buy? It’s every animal’s duty to entertain the incarcerates of Cuckoo’s Nest-free of charge!”

Besides building toys for the patients, the robots also made weapons and machines for the animals. When animals request cybernetic enhancements to their bodies, the robots oblige. Rocket Raccoon acquires a jetpack that allows him to soar through the sky like a superhero. Yet all is not perfect on this planet. Toy production for the Loonies eventually led to the Toy Wars, which turns into a complete story arc in the comic books.

During the Toy Wars, the Loonies’ Bible (the logbook of the departed shrinks) falls into the wrong hands. Rocket retrieves it and gives it to the robots, hoping for their help.

This Bible instructs the robots to make a “Wonder Toy”: a helmet that cures the Loonies. Even the animals benefit from “Wonder Toy” because “it works on imbeciles [sic] as well as on those who are just plain looney!” Low IQ animals become as intelligent as humans.

Optimism abounds. Someone announces, “Soon, they’ll [Loonies] be as normal as the ancient shrinks who left them on Halfworld eons ago!” “Soon they’ll become productive people instead of passive patients-and they’ll no longer have the need to be entertained by . . . toys.3(p137) “The Toy Wars end and animals elect former Loonies to refashion their world. At that point, Rocket chooses to accompany robots that leave the planet via Starship. Freed from his caretaking responsibilities, Rocket can seek adventure, as seen in Guardians of the Galaxy.

This story demands exegesis. Comic book creators specialize in far-fetched fantasy and non-spiritual supernaturalism, yet even they found this story extreme. In the preface to “Rocket Raccoon in ‘The Masque of the Red Breath,’” Carl Potts writes, “All right . . . Who’s responsible for all this?!” “This book you hold in your hands is a bit . . . unusual, eh?”

Completed in 1985, when the tides were turning and when biological psychiatry was advancing, the cartoon comments on the deinstitutionalization movement that began decades earlier. It proposes alternatives and prophesizes about a time when technological advances may make human-human interactions obsolete. It predicts dramatic revisions in “scope of practice” policies, so that sentient animals provide care and companionship to persons with SPMI, while robots research psychosis and create cures. It even connects this shift to reimbursement issues!

The Rocky Raccoon comics represent a counterpoint to the anti-psychiatry movement that started in the 1960s. They present the possibility of compassionate chronic care that is polar opposite of the moral and medical affronts in Milos Forman’s filmic interpretation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Some problem points remain: the patients’ deification of long-departed psychiatrists is preposterous and not just “positive transference.” Their psychiatric care has become their religion (as critics who deride the “Cult of St. Sigmund” have long claimed). Importantly, is segregation in a safe place preferable to living on the streets-or the current climate of criminalization of the mentally ill? A good question.

The comics foretell non-invasive, technology-inspired treatments in the future. Maybe they know something we don’t-or maybe advances in neuromodulation7 will move faster than expected. As Freud implied, artists and poets perceive truths sooner than psychologists do. “Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me.”

References:

1. Subers R. Weekend report: “Guardians: holds top spot on slowest weekend in six years. Box Office Mojo. September 7, 2014. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/news/?id=3902&p=.htm. Accessed October 23, 2014.
2. Barnes B. Disney pins hopes on ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ show. New York Times. October 10, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/11/business/media/guardians-of-the-galaxy-tv-show-is-latest-hope-for-disney-xd-channel.html. Accessed October 23, 2014.
3. Mignola N, Stewart D, Young S. (Editor-in-Chief Alex Alonso); Series Editor Mark D. Beazley. Rocket Raccoon and Groot. Salem, Va: R.R. Donnelly, Inc.; 2013.
4. Gamwell L, Tomes N. Madness in America: Cultural and Medical Perceptions of Mental Illness Before 1914. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press; 1995.
5. Laing RD. The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin; 1960.
6. Rosenhan DL. On being sane in insane places. Science. 1973;179:250-258. doi:10.1126/science.179.4070.250, PMID 4683124. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/179/4070/250.abstract. Accessed October 23, 2014.
7. George MS, Nahas ZH, Borckardt JJ, et al. Nonpharmacological somatic treatments. In: Hales RE, Yudofsky SC, Gabbard GO (Eds). American Psychiatric Publishing Textbook of Psychiatry, Fifth Edition. Arlington, Va: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2008.