‘Rascal Raccoon’s Raging Revenge!’ Asks: What if Wile E. Coyote Killed the Roadrunner?
Pity the poor Coyote. For more than six decades, he has been trapped inside our television screens, condemned to the Sisyphean task of attempting to murder the Roadrunner. But what if Wile E. Coyote finally finished off the Roadrunner for good? That's the premise behind Brendan Hay and Justin Wagner's latest book from Oni, Rascal Raccoon's Raging Revenge! Meanie Rascal Raccoon is the sworn enemy of the beloved Jumpin' Jackalope, and his failure to destroy the clever cartoon critter is ruining his life. That is, until the day Jumpin' makes his final leap into the afterlife. At first, Rascal is overjoyed that his nemesis is finally dead, but what does a Meanie toon do once his Merrie rival is no more? Rascal soon realizes that the only way to return meaning to his life is to bring Jumpin' back from the dead, even if it means traveling to the real world to do it.Rascal Raccoon pays homage to the great rivalries of Warner Bros. cartoons: Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, Sylvester and Tweety Bird, and, of course, Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner. Toonie Terrace is a cartoon universe where characters are divided into two categories: the sweet, fun-loving Merries and the Meanies who want them dead. Merries and Meanies are locked in an eternal, inescapable struggle, with the Meanies forever failing to kill their Merrie prey.
Some Meanies suffer more under this status quo than others, and perhaps none so much as Rascal Raccoon. Perhaps it's because he has the rotten luck of chasing down Toonie Terrace's flagship character, bu t Rascal's life has started to crumble beneath the weight of his failure. His body is shattered thanks to the constant backfire of his schemes. His girlfriend, Squirelle, has left him, and still he can't shake his compulsion to murder that obnoxious jackalope. (In fairness, I can't say I blame him; Jumpin' is an even more saccharine parody of his self-satisfied inspirations.)
One day, though, it happens. It's not thanks to Rascal own ingenuity, or even his rage, but it happens, and Jumpin' finally, actually dies. At first, Rascal couldn't be more thrilled. He stomps through Toonie Terrace, crowing about his victory. He's the toast of the Meanies, the first one ever to score a kill. Even the local Jessica Rabbit throws him a waggle of her ample hips. But then the ennui sets in. After all, what's a Meanie without his Merrie? And, while Rascal is loath to admit it, he kind of misses Jumpin'. It becomes clear that the only way to restore balance to Rascal's life is to bring Jumpin' back to life, and the only person who can do that is the godlike Pen Man, the animator who brought them all to life. The problem is, in order to do that, he'll have to team up with the one person who wants Jumpin' back more than he does: Jumpin's wife Janey Jackalope, who's not exactly feeling the warm fuzzes toward Rascal.
Hay has written for a number of sharp comedy shows, including The Simpsons, Robot Chicken and The Daily Show, and there are moments in Rascal Raccoon that we get that incisive humor. Hay devises some real standout jokes, such as when a character explains the story of the Pen Man to Rascal, who responds, "Any halfway-educated toonie knows we evolved from silent, black & white animals!" It's at moments like that we get a sense of the universe these characters inhabit, a uniquely cartoon universe with its own history.
The issue, however, is that the book's world-building isn't fully fleshed out. We get a few rules about the Toonie universe: Merries get magic pens that bring anything they draw to life; any time a jackalope digs she ends up exactly where she needs to be. But those original Looney Tunes were all about playing within certain strictures. Chuck Jones had very specific rules governing how his characters could move, what they could say, under what circumstances they could be harmed. Even in parody and homage, these rules are important. Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, for instance, had the 50-year-old toon who still looks like an infant, the sexual implications of patty-cake and toons' imperviousness to anything but the Dip. The Venture Bros. has a whole handbook of rules governing the behavior of heroes and villains, with real consequences for anyone who dares to break them. These offer us a sense of how these fictional worlds work in contrast to our real one, and asks us to reflect on the conventions they lampoon. Although there are some stellar moments where we get peeks into the peculiarities of the Rascal Raccoon universe, we never get a complete sense of the world.
Hay's larger themes also get a bit lost in the story. We're to understand that Rascal wants Jumpin' back not only because he's lost his purpose in life, but also because Jumpin' is at once his arch-nemesis and his best friend. But Rascal spends most of the comic with Janey, his unrequited crush. The two have that romantic comedy sniping that makes me suspect that, if Janey were to return Rascal's affections, he'd quickly dump the quest to resurrect Jumpin'. (Again, I think rightly so.)
It's clear, though, that Hay wants to explore the fragile division in the hero/villain relationship. In filmstrip flashbacks, we can see that while Jumpin' is antagonistic, there's a weird kind of affection in his antagonism (though it borders on being emotionally abusive). Rascal, for his part, wonders if there isn't something to Jumpin's resourcefulness that he could harness himself. When he has the opportunity to play the hero, he reaches immediately for Jumpin's bag of protagonist tricks. There's also the question of whether Meanie tactics work better in the human world than Merrie ones do, which I would have loved to have seen more of, and whether Rascal can break out of the Merrie/Meanie dichotomy and find a third way, which is in there, but feels far too rushed.
The other major theme, which pops up in the second half of the book, is how tastes in animation have changed. Rascal didn't kill Jumpin', but indifference to classic animation and the rise of cartoon surfboarding robots may have. I love the idea of a cartoon world falling apart at the seams because it no longer holds relevance, but it's a shame that those beach-bots didn't figure into the final showdown.
There are a lot of great ideas running through Rascal Raccoon's Raging Revenge!, but the story could have used a firmer editorial hand to tie those themes together and bring out the comic's full potential. As it is, it's a light but enjoyable bit of slapstick that pays tribute to classic cartoon logic. Wagner does a nice job of visually referencing familiar cartoon characters without delving into obvious parody, and he neatly separates the character looks between the cartoon world and the human world.
Plus, he has a great handle on the visual language of animation. I'd also like to note that this is one of the most exquisitely designed mass-produced books I've seen in a long time, thanks to Oni's art director Keith Wood. The hardcover is a painted background and the dustjacket is transparent with the characters and title painted on, much like an animation cel. Plus, the interior covers feature diagrams of the characters, which I'm always a sucker for.
Rascal Raccoon's Raging Revenge! is currently available from Oni.