Is Rocket Raccoon poised to become Marvel's Mickey Mouse?

As Marvel prepares for the August premiere of its biggest movie gamble to date, Guardians of the Galaxy, we've seen its publishing division reposition what once was an oddball, third-tier concept as a first-rate, if still oddball, franchise, first with the flagship title written by Brian Michael Bendis and next with Rocket Raccoon by Skottie Young.

As interesting as that transformation may be, I'm utterly fascinated by how Marvel's parent company Disney has gone all in on merchandising an adaptation of a comic that, this time last year, no one outside fan circles had ever heard of. Granted, with the production budget for Guardians of the Galaxy in the neighborhood of $150 million (and probably nearly that much for marketing), the studio can't afford to be timid.

Still, Disney Consumer Products has lined up more than 50 licensees, from Hasbro and LEGO to Mad Engine and Freeze, for what it views as Marvel's Next Big Thing, at least as far as merchandise is concerned.

"It is always exciting to launch something new in consumer products, as we did with Iron Man in 2008," Paul Gitter, senior vice president of licensing for Marvel at Disney Consumer Products, said in a statement. "By showcasing what is unique about this amazing new film we are able to develop a third Marvel franchise that can be at retail alongside our powerhouse franchises of The Avengers and Spider-Man. Continuing to diversify the Marvel offerings for consumers is a key strategy of ours."

OK, that quote may be a little much, but if you scrape away the gushing PR talk, you're left with Disney anticipating what had been a fringe property, even among comics readers, to take its place alongside its merchandising heavy-hitters.

Some scoffed in August 2009, when Disney trumpeted its acquisition of Marvel and "its portfolio of over 5,000 characters" (a tally that's grown to more than 8,000, thanks to the diligence of Disney interns), insisting that only a relative handful of the publisher's superheroes not already licensed by other studios were viable for film. But two months before Guardians of the Galaxy arrives in theaters, the entertainment giant already sees its claim bearing fruit.

And a certain space-faring, kid-friendly critter who's solo title launches in July -- just as the studio's marketing push kicks into high gear -- could become the standard-bearer. "Rocket Raccoon is poised to distinguish himself as a true breakout character," the Disney press release states, "and licensees have risen to the expected demand with a range of Rocket inspired products."

Directed by James Gunn, Guardians of the Galaxy opens Aug. 1.

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