The circumstances leading to this post are twofold. First there was Pierre Comtois’s Marvel Comics in the 1980s book (that I just recently read), in which the classic Rom series was given a whole lotta love. Then there was this recent article on io9 postulating that Rom might be “the best science fiction comic of all time.”
So how great (or not) was Rom? It’s an interesting question, made moreso by the fact that it was one of the great favorites of my later childhood. Not that he was ever going to replace Spider-Man as my all-time fave character/comic, but I did manage to never miss an issue (no mean feat back then, before the ascendance of specialty stores).
The author of the aforementioned io9 article quickly concedes that his “headline here may be slightly hyperbolic” and it is. By the strictest definition, Rom is not even a very sci-fi series; it’s more of a superhero series with sci-fi trappings. Clearly, the best true sci-fi comics were done by EC, either in Weird Fantasy or Incredible Science Fiction. The only other candidate you could even make a case for would be Adam Strange in the pages of DC’s Mystery in Space. What I would argue (particularly after going back and re-reading all the issues last weekend) is that Rom was the last, great, classic-formula Marvel comic book.
Origins of “Rom the Spaceknight”
Rom got his start as toy produced by Parker Brothers that was then licensed to Marvel as a comic property. The comic would last for over six years—a run consisting of seventy-five regular issues and four annuals. The toy, on the other hand, had the relative lifespan of the fruit fly, as Parker Brothers stopped producing it after just a few months, as I recall. Unfortunately, Parker Brothers (currently a wholly-owned subsidiary of Hasbro) still retain many rights to Rom—certainly the name and design, and possibly tiny bits as well. This means that unless a deal is somehow brokered between Disney and Hasbro, we’re never going to get reprints of the comic.
The toy came with three accessories: a neutralizer weapon, an energy analyzer, and a language translator. In addition, it had respirator/breathing sound effects and rocket sound effects (with accompanying lights) for Rom’s jetpack.
Fun Fact #1: I owned the toy. It was released shortly before the Christmas season of 1979 and I got it for the holiday that year. Here’s an old youtube video—it might be some kind of promo video for retailers, as it’s a minute and a half long and I don’t think television commercials could be more than a minute back then:
Note that the figure has green eyes here; they would later be changed to red. It also confuses the analyzer and translator. (They did get the neutralizer right, at least.)
Now here is an actual television commercial for the toy that ran on U.S. stations in late 1979 (this time they get the neutralizer and translator right, but appear to misidentify the analyzer as his “respirator”):
In hindsight, if they had made a Rom action figure line that was more Star Wars-sized, with no electronic bells and whistles, and had other spaceknight figures like Firefall, Starshine and Terminator, I think it could have been a huge success. But the size of the toy and all the gimmicks it included probably made it costly to manufacture; plus it was bucking the size trend for toy figures at the time.
Rom the Comic Book
As mentioned earlier, I bought all the issues of Rom when they first came out—at a time before I was fully aware of all of Marvel’s rich history, and certainly before I was able to recognize classic Stan Lee tropes of comics writing. Looking at these issues now, however, I can see those tropes, that formula, with crystal clarity.
Rom is a tremendously noble and heroic character, much like all the great heroes that kicked off the Marvel era. He comes from the planet Galador, where he gave up his humanity to become a kind of high-tech cyborg soldier in a war against the Dire Wraiths—an evil race of shape shifters intent on conquering the universe. In fact, Rom was the first Galadorian to volunteer to give up his humanity in this effort. After leading his people to victory, Rom decides to pursue the remaining Wraiths and eradicate their evil from the universe forever. This pursuit (after a couple of centuries) leads him to planet Earth as the first issue of the series opens.
Rom lands in West Virgina, in the fictional town of Clairton. The first human he meets is a woman named Brandy Clark, who will quickly become a series regular. Naturally, Rom’s initial appearance terrifies the town. It doesn’t help matters that he discovers Wraiths disguised as humans there and blasts them with his neutralizer. To the townspeople, it appears as if he just disintegrated their neighbors, but in truth the neutralizer does not kill the Wraiths, but banishes them to limbo. The ignorant humans naturally see Rom as a threat, which leads to Rom being confronted by police and even the U.S. army. The only human who recognizes his heroism early on is Brandy.
Longtime fans should have no trouble seeing the parallels to those original Marvel characters. Rom is a tragic figure, trapped in an inhuman form (a la Ben Grimm, the Thing). He’s also misunderstood by the general public and hunted by authorities (a la Spidey and the Hulk).
The art also adds to the classic feel of the series, as it’s illustrated by Sal “Our Pal” Buscema. And I do mean “illustrated,” as Sal not only inks his own pencils (a rarity in his Marvel career) in the premiere issue, but continues to do so for the first nineteen issues; after which he proceeded to do pencils through issue #58. (The legendary Steve Ditko then picked up the regular penciling assignment with issue #59 and finish off the series with issue #75.)
As a real-world, functioning toy, the character’s design was a bit clunky and not exactly up to comic book standards of the day. Sal took some creative license with his portrayal (shrinking the oversized head, particularly, and then thickening up the midsection and lower legs), which improved things, but Rom still looked bowling-shoe ugly compared the later, cooler-looking members of the spaceknight corps that Sal would design himself.
The covers were another great selling point early on. The very first issue has Frank Miller himself doing the honors, and he’ll return for an encore with issue #3. With issues 7-12, we get a half dozen breathtaking masterpieces in a row from Michael Golden. The cover of #12, featuring Jack of Hearts, is a particular favorite of mine.
Stan Lee Style
Mantlo does a great job dishing out the classic Lee-style melodrama in the early issues. First there’s the whole lone-misunderstood-hero-against-the-world thing. Then this is quickly followed up with romantic complications, as Rom and Brandy develop feelings for each other. Rom, in typical noble fashion very reminiscent of classic Marvel, feels he has no right to love Brandy as he is not truly human in his current state and longs to have his full humanity restored. Complicating the romantic situation further still is that Brandy already has a steady beau named Steve Jackson. It would have been easy to make Steve a jerk, thus simplifying the love triangle and making Brandy’s choice an easy one, but kudos to Mantlo for not going that route. Instead Steve is a great guy, just as heroic as Rom in his own way.
The only thing missing from the book was that classic Stan Lee comedic relief. If it had humor, it would REALLY be a complete Lee homage.
One of the better examples of Rom’s nobility comes in the second issue, when Brandy’s dog Tempest gets caught in some police crossfire and is killed. Rom’s grief over the loss of this innocent animal and his subsequent rage were palpable.
Fun Fact #2: My first dog, Ginger, was still alive when I first read Rom #2. She passed in early ‘82, after which the death of Tempest packed even more punch for me. I got a new pup in June of ’83 and originally wanted to name her Tempest, but the name just didn’t feel like a fit somehow. So I named her Brandy instead, after Brandy Clark. The first time I called her “Brandy” I knew instantly that this was what her name was always meant to be.
In the second issue, a crook named Archie Stryker, while in the midst of a heist, witnesses Rom “murder” an innocent civilian (in truth a disguised Wraith banished to limbo by Rom’s neutralizer). Gravely shaken by this, Stryker winds up an unwitting pawn of the Dire Wraiths. Now how many times have we seen a fellow superhero go after Spider-Man because they fall for that Daily Bugle propaganda about him being a criminal? It’s another Lee standard: The well-meaning character going after our hero based on false assumptions. And naturally our hero can’t fight back too vigorously because he doesn’t want to hurt the other guy, who means well but simply doesn’t know any better.
By the end of the third issue, Stryker shows up in the spaceknight armor of Firefall—a friend of Rom’s that was previously assumed to have died in the original Wraith war back on Galador centuries past. Again, it’s more Lee melodrama, as not only does Rom have to fight this innocent earthling dupe, he’s got to fight him while he’s wearing the armor of his lost friend. Plus there’s the mystery of how the Wraiths ended up in possession of the armor.
In the sixth issue, we begin a six-issue arc in which the Wraiths manage to snatch Rom’s neutralizer. Again, the storyline feels a whole lot like all those times Thor would get separated from his hammer back in those old Lee-Kirby classics of the Silver Age.
In issue #11, Rom finally catches up to the Wraiths and his neutralizer in Washington, D.C., only to find that the Wraiths have the weapon in a force sphere that can’t be penetrated without the expenditure of all his cyborg armor’s energies—in other words, breaking the sphere would kill him. But Archie Stryker/Firefall is present and at this point has been made wise to the Wraiths. So he decides to sacrifice his own life to release the neutralizer and free it from Wraith hands. With his dying breath, he declares to Rom: “Don’t grieve, Rom. I was just a cheap hood until I elected myself Earth’s defender…”
Stryker’s sacrifice is yet another example of a classic Lee trope: the former villain who redeems himself through selfless sacrifice. Previous examples include Frederick Foswell in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man #52, and the anonymous scientist who briefly stole the Thing’s identity in the all-time classic, “This Man… This Monster!” from Fantastic Four #51.
The Lee trend continues in issue #12, as Jack of Hearts shows up to tackle the “robot” that’s been “terrorizing” our nation’s capital. Meanwhile back in Clairton, the suspense is raised on the emotional side of the spectrum as Steve Jackson proposes to Brandy Clark. When Brandy sees what she thinks is a falling star, she takes it as an omen to say yes. What she doesn’t know is that the Steve she’s just agreed to marry is a Dire Wraith impostor and that the falling star is Rom, plummeting back to earth after his battle with Jack of Hearts.
This resolution of the action-side of the tale recalls “Just a Guy Named Joe!” from Amazing Spider-Man #38, wherein the guy who’s been punching our hero in the face all issue long ends up smelling like a rose while the hero himself is left to despair. In that issue of ASM, the titular “Joe” of the tale ends up mobbed by admirers while Spidey walks off alone, despondent over the loss of Betty Brant. Here, Jack of Hearts is similarly mobbed by a large group of people grateful for his having defeated the “killer robot” Rom, while Rom himself lies unconscious at the bottom of the ocean.
The following issue (#13) saw the beginning of the “Saga of the Space Knights” backup feature. Yet again, it’s very reminiscent of the old “Tales of Asgard” backup feature in Silver Age Thor comics. Here we are introduced to two of Rom’s fellow spaceknights, Starshine and Terminator.
At this point in time (mid-’81), homicidal, “Dirty Harry” type heroes like Wolverine (in X-Men) and Elektra (in Daredevil) were red hot. Mantlo’s Terminator was a dark character in this same vein. Plus he wore jet-black armor that looked super cool and his blacklight eyebeams dispatched Wraiths not to limbo, but straight to hell. The introduction of Terminator was the first sign of the “grim & gritty” trend creeping into the pages of Rom.
Serendipity in Fandom
Let me briefly backtrack to Rom #5. This issue had the rather zingy cover blurb, “The House that Haunted Spaceknights!” and featured a rather obscure, one-time Dr. Strange antagonist. As fate would have it, I just so happened to have purchased (on the cheap, in a back-issue bin somewhere) a copy of Marvel Collectors Item Classics #11 at almost precisely the same time this issue of Rom came out. How was this fate, you ask? Well that ish of MCIC featured a reprint of Strange Tales # 120, the tale in which the aforementioned antagonist made his one and only prior appearance. He’s called “The Dweller in the Shadows,” an extra-dimensional creature that takes the form of a (haunted) house on Earth.
I was just beginning to get into back issues at this time and, as a result, also just beginning to appreciate the scope and value of Marvel’s rich fictional history. When a writer connected the dots (as Mantlo did in this issue), and I had knowledge of the stories being connected (as I did here, with my concurrent purchase of that ish of MCIC), it made the story all the more of a joy to read.
In the 70s and 80s volumes of those Comtois books, Comtois expresses an appreciation for latter-day writers making use of the earlier, 60s work of Lee, Kirby & Ditko, and this is something Mantlo does well. (It’s one of the reasons Comtois is so fond of Mantlo, clearly.) In this instance, Mantlo connects the Dweller to the larger Rom storyline rather seamlessly, as the Dweller informs Rom (and us) that his “shadow world bordered on a realm you would call limbo! In attempting to liberate their banished comrades from that realm, the race called Dire Wraiths accidentally freed me!”
In the coming months, Mantlo would continue to integrate Rom into the larger Marvel Universe with guest appearances from classic characters such as the Plunderer (issue 13), the Mad Thinker & his Awesome Android (issue 14), the Space Phantom (19), Galactus (26), the Mole Man (28), the Missing Link (29), and the Metal Master (30).
This was balanced with the introduction of a number of fresh, original creations on the adversarial side, among them: Deathwing, the Hell Hounds of the Black Nebula, the Thornoids, the Watchwraith, and Hybrid—one of the ugliest, most disgusting-looking villains I’ve ever seen.
Hybrid takes his name from the fact that he was the product of a Wraith father and human mother. He was introduced in a two-part tale running from Rom #’s 17–18, featuring guest appearances by the red-hot X-men (with covers done by the hotter-still Frank Miller). Although seemingly taken out at the end of the storyline, Hybrid would return several times in the future to bedevil Rom, and was probably the closest thing to an archenemy that the spaceknight had.
Mantlo & Buscema also added a number of new good guys to the book (and to the larger Marvel Universe)—specifically in the form of spaceknights. In addition to Starshine and Terminator, we were introduced to several more once Rom made his dramatic return to Galador in the twenty-fifth issue. Among the newbies were Javelin, Rainbow, and Hammerhand—all of whom would do a number on Terrax, herald of Galactus, when big G came knockin’ on the door the following issue. (My only criticism: the female spaceknights, Starshine and Rainbow, have names that sound more like My Little Pony characters than spaceknights.)
This two-part Galactus arc from Rom #’s 26–27 just might be my favorite Rom storyline. Mantlo’s handling of Galactus was completely in line with Lee’s vision, and he also does a great job capturing what a conniving creep Terrax was. When Hammerhand finally punched him in the face and knocked him out, I may have literally jumped for joy.
I also really dug the new spaceknights, in case that wasn’t already obvious. In addition to those listed above, we would get still more of them in the second Rom annual in 1983. There were a half-dozen introduced therein (as the so-called “Spaceknight Squadron”), with cool names like Plor the Pulsar, Raak the Breaker, and Vola the Trapper. (Luckily they avoided the My Little Pony syndrome with the lady knights this go-round.)
These first few years were clearly the height of the Rom. The only real flaw in the series during this time was Mantlo’s mix of science and sorcery, as the Wraiths use both in their battles against Rom. The mix of sci-fi and fantasy tropes is one that rarely, if ever, works well. (This also serves as another point in the argument that Rom isn’t a very pure sci-fi series.)