Rocko’s Modern Life: Still Punching My Guts

A detail of a variant cover for "Rocko's Modern Life" No. 1 by Nick Pitarra

Existing is kind of gross. It’s also unreasonably hard sometimes. And because I like things I consume to reflect the realities of my life, I want my art to be nasty, brutish, and short. I like to prod the beach rubble, you see. So, as a young person I was drawn to Rocko’s Modern Life, but with the recent release of the Rocko’s comic books the question became: does it hold up?

Let me take you back to the millennial’s favorite patch of nostalgia: the 90s. It was art deco and pattern clashing and sincerity laced with irony. It was cartoon heaven. Rocko’s Modern Life was an American cartoon created for Nickelodeon by Joe Murray, later known for his show Camp Lazlo. Rocko’s centers on the day-to-day of Rocko, an anthropomorphic Australian-immigrant wallaby in O-Town, and his friends: Filburt (a very nervous turtle), Heffer (an appropriately named male cow), and Rocko’s absurd dog Spunky. What made it so chewy, so real to me was that it was like a lot of shows I wasn’t allowed to watch like Beavis and Butthead, but smarter. It was crass, it was crude— the show’s KFC rip-off was named “Chokey Chicken,” for Heck’s sake (that’s a euphemism for masturbation for those of you not in the pervy know).

This was the snarky, cool Nickelodeon of the early 90s. I soaked it all in. All of its commentary on adult friendship, failure, loneliness, unhappiness, job dissastifaction, the hollowness of appearance. These were the things that were already keeping me awake late into the night, though still mostly nameless to my little brain.

After just four seasons, Rocko’s Modern Life was cancelled. I’d say I was heartbroken, but in the way of the 90s, I didn’t really know it was cancelled for months. I thought it had maybe moved time slots, or was on a break. Google was not yet my pal. So, time passed and it became a memory; a point of nostalgia, like my slap bracelets and starving Neopets.

Then, in December of last year, Rocko’s Modern Life was resurrected as a comic book by BOOM! Studios’ KaBOOM! imprint and Nickelodeon. Now, this isn’t really a new idea. In fact, Murray had originally drawn the show as part of an unpublished comic in the 80s and Marvel released a seven issue run of Rocko comics in 1994. The constant resurgence of things from my childhood also isn’t a new idea, but, as a complete and utter sucker for nostalgia, you won’t hear me complaining.

Or so I hope as I receive the first two issues of the new comic.

cover of issue one of rocko's modern life, rocko is fleeing from an angry dog as his brain trails behind himAs we wade into the waters of giving stories second (third, fourth, hundredth) lives, I ask the question over and over to the abyss: can a childhood be relived? Can I dig up whatever bits of myself were good and pure and hungry for weird ass content and interact/interrogate these characters in a way that is both true to myself now and to the ageless static of a fictional character?

It’s not a difficult question to answer, or ignore, when the content being created seems to cater to your needs even more than it had before. The O-Town of now has been hit hard by an economic recession and everyone needs work. Rocko’s no longer unhappily employed at a comic shop, but sells his soul to Peaches (the ruler of Heck). It is rough and exhausting and (quite literally) soul-crushing.

I don’t know when you start believing you’re an adult. At 14, working and attending school, I felt really adult. Now, an inconceivable amount of time later, as I feel the constant strain of not knowing what’s next, and the strain of learning to accept that, I’m not sure what feeling like an adult means. I do the adult moves, but I’m just following the choreography. There’s no spirit to my dance.

Filburt the turtle tells Rocko “My home is my shell. Anything else is but superfluous material that only serves to define us in the eyes of an ever scrutinizing society. Your job, how much money you have, a peanut butter waterslide … It’s all meaningless in the grand scheme of the cosmos.”

Is this the lesson we’re meant to learn from the stories of our childhood? Everything is cyclical, home is what shelters you, nothing else matters? Rocko’s response to Filburt is, “Life is what you make it. As long as there’s time left, you can use it to build a place to call home.”

Though the sugary sweet moral wrap-up of an animated sitcom, I will accept Rocko’s assessment in the context of these comics. O-Town is a fictional place, populated by fictional characters, living out our real fears and frustrations. It’s just the mixture of fantasy and reality that successfully digs up a 90s corpse and finds a gem in its place. Rock on, Rocko.

Al Rosenberg

Al Rosenberg

Gay weirdo. Talk to them about tiny games, big books, trash, and all things illness.