Rom Revisited

Akin & Garvey

At the dawn of comics fandom, writers and pencilers quickly became stars. Inkers not so much.

The only inker in the Silver Age who had a name and a style that fans really recognized and universally admired was Joe Sinnott. Still, I wouldn’t characterize him as a star. It wasn’t until the late 70s/early 80s that Terry Austin became the industry’s first star inker. His name had star power and lent credibility to nearly any project in which he participated

Then in mid-1982, Ian Akin & Brian Garvey joined the Rom creative team and took the industry by storm. Fans totally flipped for their work. And with Sal Buscema carrying the storytelling load with his pencils, Rom became a true wonder to behold, at least visually.

Scenes from Rom #34, featuring the debut of Akin & Garvey on inks.
Scenes from Rom #34, featuring the debut of Akin & Garvey on inks.

Akin & Garvey’s inks had an exact precision to them, with perfectly-spotted blacks and hatching lines whose spacing seemed measured to the last picometer. Just look at the detail of Sybil’s hair in their very first issue—the lines are practically microscopic!

A full-page masterpiece from Rom #41, featuring Dr. Strange and the Living Tribunal.
A full-page masterpiece from Rom #41, featuring Dr. Strange and the Living Tribunal.

The team of Akin & Garvey began their inking stint with Rom #34 and continued on the title through its fiftieth issue. They also did a couple of annuals and one of the Ditko-penciled issues after Sal’s departure from the book. During this time, fans bore witness to gorgeous portrayals of guest stars such as the Sub-Mariner, the Master of Kung Fu, Doctor Strange, the Living Tribunal, and the Soviet Super-Soldiers.

Jumping the Shark

Unfortunately, just when the series was achieving new illustrative heights, it was becoming clear that its best days, writing-wise, were behind it. The first danger sign was the introduction of the Terminator character, who was very much in the Wolverine mold. This wasn’t a terrible development by itself, but it signaled the beginning of the title being affected by broader market trends.

Then came the cover of Rom #36.

The cover of Rom #36.

As noted earlier, Rom did not kill Wraiths; he banished them to limbo with his neutralizer. But the cover of this issue shows Rom killing a Wraith with his bare hands and declaring that he will now show his sworn enemies “no mercy!” Though Rom’s bloodlust only lasted this one issue, Mantlo was clearly jumping onto the grim & gritty bandwagon with both feet.

This same issue also marked the beginning of a storyline that would see Brandy Clark become a spaceknight herself by appropriating the Starshine armor. This was a misstep on Mantlo’s part. In the beginning of the strip, the impossible love between Rom and Brandy was one of the engines of the larger narrative and also contributed to the classic Marvel “feel” of the book, as so many of those early Stan Lee plots leaned on the “star-crossed lovers” trope. In fact the evolution of their relationship was very much like the one between Thor and Jane Foster, except where Lee turned right, Mantlo turned left.

The Thor-Foster romance was one that lasted for years during the original Lee-Kirby run, with Thor constantly fighting with his father Odin to approve of his relationship with the mortal woman. After wringing every last drop of drama from the conflict, Lee resolves things by having Thor take Jane to Asgard, where she was supposed to be transformed into a goddess by Odin’s power. But the mantle of godhood proves too much for Jane to bear and the relationship with Thor ends then and there. Mantlo, on the other hand, has Brandy actually succeed in her quest to become a spaceknight. As usual, Lee’s instincts proved impeccable—the breakup of Thor and Jane Foster (and not turning her into a goddess) was clearly the right call, while making Brandy into Starshine was the wrong one. (Mantlo himself conceded as much when he made Brandy human again after just two years in Rom Annual #3.)

Grimmer & Grittier

Then things got really dark. So dark that there was simply no turning back. In the build to Rom’s fiftieth issue, we got a story in issue #49 entitled “Massacre!” It’s a title that no one can ever call misleading.

A couple issues earlier, the Wraiths had a redesign (courtesy of Walt Simonson, iirc) and came out looking pretty badass—certainly more menacing than the original doughboy design by Buscema (though I find that design still has its charms). Along with the visual makeover, the Wraiths also became a whole lot more vicious and ruthless in practice, as proven by the wholesale slaughter inflicted on the town of Clairton in issue #49. This included the superhero known as the Torpedo, along with Steve Jackson and Brandy’s parents.

After overcoming their initial fear and mistrust of Rom (and wising up to the Wraith menace as a result), the innocent West Virginia town had thwarted the Wraiths numerous times over the course of the previous forty-eight issues. So in addition to the fact that this issue has mass murder in it (as if this wasn’t bad enough by itself), the events here also render all of the town’s previous victories hollow and meaningless. Steve Jackson, for all of his previous heroism, gets the merest scintilla of service here—managing to kill just one of his Wraith assailants before being summarily murdered. (Killing off Jackson like this was also a rather cheap way of permanently resolving the book’s love triangle.)

Naturally, the loss of her closest family and friends sends Brandy/Starshine over the deep end, turning her into an obsessed Wraith killer. Along with the change in attitude came a new armor design, which included losing the ponytail (one of the more unique and interesting aspects of Sal’s original model)—I guess it didn’t jibe with her new image as a cold-blooded, vengeful, merciless warrior. The kind-hearted girl from the earliest issues that Rom first fell in love with was now gone.

In addition to the grim atmosphere, the strip was starting to buckle creatively beneath the weight of the never-ending Wraith threat. Story titles such as “Total War” (issue 52) and “Blood Trail” (54) give a good sense of the mood. It seemed as though all the hope and joy had been ripped from the book.

The fiftieth issue also marked the end of Akin & Garvey’s regular tenure on the strip. Sal Buscema himself would follow them out the door shortly thereafter, with the fifty-eighth issue being his last.

End of the Wraith War

The art in Rom lost much of its heat with the departure of Akin & Garvey; then lost half its soul with the departure of Buscema. Still, giving the assignment to Steve Ditko proved to be a fun experiment. Many big names would sign on to finish his pencils during this run, including Bob Layton, Tom Palmer, Jackson Guice, Akin & Garvey, Brett Breeding, P. Craig Russell, Steve Leialoha, Kim DeMulder, Al Milgrom, Joe Sinnott, and John Byrne. Of all of them, Russell was his most frequent and successful collaborator, supplying finishes on six of seventeen regular issues (#’s 64, 65, 67, 69, 71, & 75).

Despite the addition of Ditko & friends on the art, and appearances by Rick Jones, Nick Fury, Ant-Man, Alpha Flight, and the Avengers, this portion of the series is a slog to have to read through. Finally, mercifully, the Wraith War came to an end with issue #65 and a new direction was launched.

With Brandy restored to human form, Rom leaves Earth alone to seek out his fellow spaceknights and find Galador (which had been hidden by Galactus way back in issue #27). So after being bogged down by one overarching narrative for so long (the Wraith War), Rom finally gets the chance to do some one-shot stories that feel far less burdensome to read.

There’s still too much grimness for my tastes, however. For example, as Rom tracks down the Spaceknight Squadron, we learn that one of its members has become corrupt (Raak the Breaker) while another has gone mad (Unam the Unseen), and all of them wind up losing their lives by the final issue, #75. But we did get a few fun stories inbetween and the Ditko art (with his collaborators) was always interesting to see. My favorite story during this run was probably Rom’s encounter with Ego the Living Planet in issue #69.

Rom battles Ego, the Living Planet in Rom #69. Pencils by Steve Ditko, finishes by P. Craig Russell.
Rom battles Ego, the Living Planet in Rom #69. Pencils by Steve Ditko, finishes by P. Craig Russell.

By the finale, Brandy has made her way to Galador (courtesy of the Beyonder) to be reunited with Rom, who has his full humanity miraculously restored. Thus the couple is left as a Galadorian Adam & Eve, free to build their own new paradise.

The Rom finale, from issue #75. Pencils by Steve Ditko, finishes by P. Craig Russell.
The Rom finale, from issue #75. Pencils by Steve Ditko, finishes by P. Craig Russell.

So despite some of the darkness that preceded it, Rom at least gets a happy ending with the woman he loves. (Sidebar: When you see Russell’s inks over Ditko, particularly on the last page of issue #75, and then go back and look at Russell’s other work, you can really see the Ditko influence on his style.) It was long road getting here, with plenty of bumps along the way, but it’s satisfying to see such a noble and heroic character end his journey on a note of triumph and joy.

Comtois & Mantlo

In his volumes on 70s and 80s Marvel, Comtois heaps a great deal of praise on the writing of Bill Mantlo. In the 70s book, he calls Mantlo “one of [Marvel’s] best writers” (p. 196). In the 80s book, Comtois declares Mantlo “the unsung hero of Marvel scripters in the late ‘70s and ‘80s” (p. 90) and laments that Mantlo “has never been given much of a spotlight in fan circles” and has been “even dismissed at times” (p. 23).

It should be noted that Comtois barely gives Sal Buscema any credit at all for his illustrative efforts on Rom, which, to me, was one of the best things about those early issues. In fact, he spends far more time in his 80s book on the later, Ditko issues of Rom than the Buscema ones—which I find particularly strange, since those earlier issues were far closer to the classic Silver Age formula he values so highly.

Now I feel compelled to mention (for those who don’t already know) that Bill Mantlo is currently in a very poor state of health and I don’t mean to kick a man when he’s down. But at the same time, I want to be honest and I certainly don’t want to whitewash history. To put it in the plainest terms, the reason Mantlo is often “dismissed” is because his comics-writing career has been spotty, at best. Sometimes he would give you some very good work (as noted above). But there were also many times he would write things that made me want to pull my hair out.

His work on the regular Marvel heroes was actually Mantlo’s weakest stuff, in my opinion. His Spider-Man, for example, was not good. Aside from a handful of entertaining tales, he offered a lot of bad Spidey stories with gross mischaracterizations, particularly in his last run on Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man. Mantlo’s Black Cat, for example, bore little resemblance to the character as we knew her from her earlier appearances in the pages of Amazing. Ditto Doc Ock; ditto the Punisher, whom Mantlo portrayed as a deluded madman. (Writer Steven Grant would thankfully dream up an explanation for this outlandish behavior in the Punisher miniseries he did with Mike Zeck a couple years later and get the character back on track.)

Mantlo’s Iron Man run was okay, if unremarkable. His Hulk run was good early, but then went off the rails. I’m guessing he stayed on the book too long and got burned out on it (his run here went from early 1980 to late ’85). Two years in, he changed the character so that Bruce Banner was in full control of the Hulk persona; four years in he was changed into a totally mindless, raging beast; then the character was shuffled off Earth entirely and was stuck in a weird “crossroads” dimension for an entire year’s worth of mostly forgettable stories to close out Mantlo’s run on the title.

Mantlo’s best work was on licensed and/or original properties that he wrote from issue one, such as Micronauts, Rom, Human Fly, Cloak and Dagger, and The Swords of the Swashbucklers. But even in these instances, his work tended to peak early and then inevitably deteriorate, usually rather abruptly.

There have also been some instances of plagiarism in Mantlo’s career. He once swiped a Harlan Ellison story wholesale (in Hulk #286, “Hero,” a story that Marvel quickly acknowledged was taken from Ellison’s short story “Soldier”). Barry Windsor-Smith has also accused Mantlo of using an old, unused Hulk proposal of his as the basis for Hulk #312 (“Monster”), a story that would become quite important in the later Hulk mythos.

Rocket Raccoon was also not exactly an original creation. When the character got its start in the B&W pages of Marvel Preview # 7, his name was “Rocky” Raccoon—an obvious homage (and I’m being charitable here) to the Beatles song by Paul McCartney. Even when his name was changed to “Rocket” upon his return in the pages of Incredible Hulk #271, both the story title (“Now Somewhere In the Black Holes of Sirius Major There Lived a Young Boy Named Rocket Raccoon”) and plot (which involved “Gideon’s Bible”) were callbacks to the Beatles song. So if you want to give proper credit for the creation of Rocket Raccoon, the name that should really be mentioned first is Paul McCartney.

The Little Book That Could?

At one point in the 80s book, Comtois describes Rom as “the little book that could” (p. 144), but is this characterization accurate?

I’ve talked before about the signs of bad sales back then and Rom showed none of them. A poor seller would usually be shifted to a bi-monthly pub schedule before it wound up cancelled; Rom remained monthly from beginning to end. Sometimes there would be a creative shake-up to boost sales; Rom maintained one writer (Mantlo) and two pencilers (Buscema and Ditko) for the entirety of its run. Poor sellers did not get giant-sized or annual issues; Rom had double-sized twenty-fifth and fiftieth anniversary issues and four annuals, the last of which was released mere months before the end of the series.

Less scientifically and more personally, nearly every comics geek I knew or met back then liked Rom. All of them had issues in their collection, even if they didn’t buy the book religiously. So I don’t believe Rom was a poor seller. It was no X-Men, certainly, but a poor seller doesn’t last six years with four annuals. In fact, I’ve seen it reported in several places (including this one) that the series was actually cancelled because Marvel’s rights to publish the character ran out; not because of poor sales.

As a licensed property for Marvel, the longevity of Rom was surpassed only by Star Wars and G.I. Joe. These latter properties, however, were buoyed by the overwhelming popularity of their namesake movie franchise and toy line, respectively. Rom the toy disappeared forever after mere months on store shelves, thus offering little to no marketing boost to Rom the comic book. Thus nearly all of the success of the Rom comic can be directly attributed to the quality of the comic itself.

It was a comic that, at its best, was very good. More significantly, Rom serves as a signpost in comics history. It was the last, classic-formula Marvel comic with a classically noble and honorable protagonist. Shortly after its inception, the trend toward “grim & gritty” would hijack the entire comics industry and we would never see the likes of Rom again.

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