Apr 23, 2012

Back Issue Ben: ROM: A Retrospective, Part 2

Back Issue Ben is a column written by Ben Smith for the Comics Cube! See his archives here.

ROM: SPACEKNIGHT: A Retrospective
Part Two: The Secret of the Ooze
by Ben Smith

Click here for part 1.

The madness continues. Once again, I valiantly attempt to read and provide shoddy reviews of every single issue of the classic 1980s Marvel comic series, ROM: SPACEKNIGHT. As we learned in part one, Rom is the gleaming hero of the alien planet Galador, charged with eradicating the universe of evil alien shapeshifters the Dire Wraiths, like an old man eradicating innocent youth from his lawn. Bill Mantlo and Sal Buscema are still on writing and art duties, as they have been for every single issue to this point. One part invasion of the body snatchers, one part Silver Surfer, and three parts awesome — this is Rom.

#11. Rom, in the clutches of the evil Dire Wraiths at Project Safeguard, is studied by Sister Rachel Sweet and her fellow Wraith scientist, Dr. Daedalus. They seek to discover the wonders of Galdorian science, and use that in their ages-old war against them. While examining the body we get a nice shot of Rom's insides, showing that he has "human organs and cells genetically grafted to Spaceknight steel." The Most High One, however, enters the room with different plans. He orders the two to kill both Rom and Archie Stryker/Firefall, who still remained in their custody.

Before Sweet and Daedalus can carry through the order, Firefall and Rom help each other to escape from their restraints. Daedalus is killed by Firefall during his escape. A battle is begun, with further Project Safeguard personnel summoned to help, both human and Wraith. Outside, the commotion attracts the attention of star news reporter Ace O'Connor.

Rom's neutralizer, still held in a stasis field, can only be removed by expending the full energy of Rom's cybernetic suit. Firefall takes the plunge, and sacrifices himself so that the ultimate weapon against the Wraiths can be freed.

Rom, grieving the death of newly gained and lost ally Firefall, recovers his neutralizer. Before he can take revenge upon Sister Sweet, the second wave of Project Safeguard troops burst in through the outside wall, accompanied by the reporter O'Connor. Rom wavers, knowing full well that if he banishes Sister Sweet to Limbo, the humans will perceive it as cold-blooded murder. Seeing the body of Firefall, who sacrificed himself to aid him in his mission, Rom banishes Sister Sweet to limbo.

My brain thoughts: Despite the action, this issue was scripted in a very distracting and clunky manner. Much effort was made by Mantlo to "catch the reader up" through recaps while in the middle of action scenes. The idea that the stasis field can only be opened by expending all the energy one of the Spaceknight suits uses comes out of nowhere. However, Sister Sweet and Dr. Daedalus kick ass as villain names. Overall, a bit of a disappointing issue that could have been so much better with competent scripting.

#12. Rom, having just banished Sister Sweet to limbo, is under attack by the forces at Project Safeguard. He analyzes and neutralizes the remaining Wraiths in disguise of the attacking forces, causing questions to form in the mind of news reporter Ace O'Connor.

Meanwhile, nearby, Marvel superhero Jack of Hearts tests his abilities against a government training course. When notified of the alien menace, Jack speeds off to handle the situation. He arrives at the scene and a battle between him and Rom is begun. Rom, once again, tries to convince everyone of his innocence and mission. As the battle continues, Rom has absorbed too much energy from Jack of Hearts, and must expend it or risk another shutdown. He flies into space with Jack in hot pursuit, and is able to release the energy in a powerful blast. Jack, thinking that Rom has been destroyed, returns to Project Safeguard for congratulation and drinks (I'm assuming). Rom's unconscious body falls to Earth, burning as it enters Earth's orbit.

Brandy and Steve, still in hiding, discuss their worries over Rom and the threat of the Dire Wraiths. Only this is not Steve at all, but a Wraith in disguise. I will from now on refer to him as Steve Wraith. Steve Wraith proposes marriage to Brandy as she sees the falling body of Rom streak across the sky. Mistaking this for a falling star, and some sort of sign, she agrees to marry Steve Wraith.

My brain thoughts: This issue was a little better, with some good Marvel superheroic action taking place (even though it is just Jack of Hearts). It's getting a little old by this point that everyone continues to ignore Rom's constant explanations for what is happening. Especially considering that aliens should not be that big of a deal within the framework of the established Marvel universe. I also love that every time Jack of Hearts shows someone his "credentials", that it's actually just a jack of hearts from a playing card deck.

#13. Just when you thought it was safe to read Rom again. This issue begins with a still inactive Rom, washed up on the beach near a lighthouse. The daughter of the lighthouse discovers Rom just as he is waking up, but only to discover that he doesn't know who he is. Rom has amnesia! She leads him into a cave off the sea to hide until she can visit him later.

Next we check in on magazine reporter Ace O'Connor, as she works on developing the photos she took of the battle at Project Safeguard. To her surprise and delight, the picture she took of Rom firing his neutralizer upon Sister Rachel Sweet, actually provides solid photographic evidence that she was an alien, and that the Dire Wraiths are real.

The rest of the issue focuses on a battle between Rom, and a little known Fantastic Four villain named the Plunderer, who has been kidnapping local boaters and stealing their vessels. In the midst of the battle Rom regains his memory, and the issue ends with an errant blast from the Plunderer's weapon igniting the boat, seemingly killing them both.

A new backup feature entitled Saga of the Spaceknights focuses on a flashback of the day the Spaceknights successfully drove the Dire Wraiths away from Galador. Gathering together for a funeral to honor the Spaceknights that had fallen in battle, Rom is happy to know that he will regain his humanity soon, but the Prime Director has other plans. He ask that Rom volunteers again, this time to track the Wraiths across the galaxy and end their reign of terror permanently. With the support of his scantily clad hottie Ray-Na, he agrees to the mission.

My brain thoughts: The pirate storyline here bored me to tears. The amnesia development would be laughable if it weren't so short and apparently unnecessary. The best part of this issue was the backup feature of the Spaceknights, and the creator credits on the first page listing Jim Shooter as "Dire Wraith" instead of "Editor in Chief". It is nice to see that they continue to draw from the vast array of Marvel villains to throw against Rom, just try to do better than the Plunderer.

#14. In this issue, the Mad Thinker has taken in an interest in our silver skinned hero. He launches this story with a boisterous 4 page monologue about how awesome he is, before heading off to Clairton with his Awesome Android. They find Rom, just laid back on the side of a rock watching the sky. Apparently he had no problem surviving the cliffhanger explosion from the past issue. I had to check the numbering to make sure I didn't miss an issue.

Meanwhile, Brandy is trying on her dress in preparations for her upcoming wedding to Steve Wraith. Unsure of her feelings for Rom, and suspecting that something is different about Steve, you would think she would be a little bit more suspicious since she knows that shapeshifting aliens are everywhere.
As the battle between the Awesome Android and Rom begins, we shift gears to check in on Ace O'Connor, as she show the photographs to her her editor Barry. Barry, predictably enough, is a Dire Wraith in disguise and has O'Connor taken away, before burning the damning photographs.

A prolonged battle between Rom and the Awesome Android ends with the Android defeated. The Mad Thinker, convinced that he can reprogram Rom to work for him, approaches our cyborg defender of the innocent. After the Thinker presents his plan of Rom joining him, Rom responds with probably my favorite line of the series so far, "You engineered this senseless struggle just so you could ask me that?"
The Mad Thinker, realizing he erred in thinking that Rom was just an emotionless robot, is dragged off by his Awesome Android.

In the backup Saga of the Spaceknights story, two previously unseen Spaceknights are introduced. A female named Starshine, with her deadly light eyes, and the Terminator, who utilizes deadly black light eyebeams. The story depicts a battle between the Spaceknights and the evil Dire Wraiths on the planet of Agricon. Apparently this is the home planet of Rom's woman Ray-Na, as the Wraiths are holding her captive. Before Rom can save her, she receives a deadly blast in the back, and shockingly, dies in the arms of her beloved Rom.

My brain thoughts: Big revelations happened, as it is revealed that Ray-Na apparently died in the deadly struggle against the Dire Wraiths. Once again, the backup is the best part here, even with the laughably bad design of the new Spaceknight characters. I had to pause and think about how Brandy is walking around freely after being arrested and breaking out of jail. Not to worry Marvel, I will explain it for you in hopes of getting a 32 year old "No-Prize" way after the fact. The Dire Wraiths were in control of the police and the precinct, and having successfully replaced Steve, ended the manhunt against Brandy. Bam! I want my empty letter Marvel.

#15. The wedding of Steve Wraith and Brandy is set to begin. Still uneasy about Steve, Brandy contemplates if she is doing the right thing, even thinking to herself at one point, "Why do I feel like a calf on its way to the slaughter?"

Rom, searching for Brandy, arrives at the home of her parents, finding nobody there.

Meanwhile, Clairton coroner Silas Lane is still researching the birth dates of the believed dead people that were really Dire Wraiths in disguise. No matter the apparent age of the deceased, they all had the same birth dates.

Next we find Ace O'Connor, now trapped in an all-white sensory-deprivation room with the real Steve Jackson. While sharing notes about the Dire Wraiths, two of the aliens enter the room intending to kill Steve. Ace grabs her camera and takes a picture, with the flash blinding the two evil beasts, giving Steve the opportunity to escape.

Having learned of Brandy's wedding in progress, Rom storms toward the nearby church. Steve, free of the Wraiths (and for some reason not followed), heads to the church as well. Rom bursts into the church with the immortal words, "Brandy, do not do this thing!"

The attendees react in typical horror and accusations, with Rom finally sick of their bullhead behavior. Casting humans aside at will, Rom approaches the couple, and suspecting that Steve is not who he says he is, confirms it with his analyzer. Seeking to banish it, Brandy leaps in the way, assuming that Rom is trying to kill Steve in jealous anger.

Just at the conflict reaches its fevered peak, a shot hits the chest of the Steve Wraith. The real Steve stands in the doorway of the church holding a smoking gun. As the body of the Wraith deteriorates, the truth of the aliens is revealed to all in attendance. Apologies are made to Rom, and the issue ends with Brandy and Steve reaffirming their love for one another, while Rom looks on.

My brain thoughts: Finally we get some real progression in this issue. I was about as sick as Rom was of humans constantly refusing to believe his story. Hopefully this marks the beginning of less of that happening. Most of the town of Clairton appears to be onboard the Rom train now. Brandy choosing Steve (for now) was a bit of a surprise, but probably better in the long run for maintaining the triangle. I'm still giggling about the splash page of Rom bursting into the church screaming "Brandy, do not do this thing!"

#16. Mack Killburn, colleague of reporter Ace O'Connor, has travelled to Clairton to investigate the Rom story. Everywhere he goes, the people deny the existence of Rom as a hoax. After being turned away by Brandy Clark and her father at the Clark residence, we look inside to see Rom hanging out on the couch. Almost the entire town knows the truth about Rom now, and the others were convinced it was all a newspaper hoax.

A couple of kids playing in the woods stumble upon a cavern containing a giant robot that will come to be revealed as a Watchwraith. Accidentally activating it as they flee, most of the rest of the issue will involve it battling Rom, with Rom prevailing in the end. Killburn witnesses the entire fight, and he swears to report the truth, with the townspeople steadfastly refusing to budge from their newfound loyalty to Rom.

The Saga of the Spaceknights backup feature a fairly grisly tale in a hospital spacecraft. Those that are not drifting lifelessly in the zero gravity, have been infected with the Wraith plague. Terminator ignites the power core of the ship, causing it to explode and kill everyone onboard. He explains how he was infected with the Wraith plague, but was saved by being transformed into a Spaceknight. So unlike all the others, he is the only one that will never regain his humanity.

My brain thoughts: Unlike most of the previous instances, I liked the design of the Watchwraith here. The backup was another chilling tale that was surprisingly harsh for the time period. At one point Steve displays a analyzer he and some friends were able to build on their own out of x-ray machine parts, which is simply ridiculous.

#17. It wouldn't be a 1980s Marvel comic book if the X-Men didn't make a guest appearance. This one features a cover drawn by rising star Frank Miller. This issue opens with the X-Men and Professor X, as he discovers a new mutant on his Cerebro machine. The X-Men are sent off to investigate.

The Silas Lane subplot appears to wrap up here, as he arrives at the Clarks to find Rom in attendance. They share notes about the existence of the Dire Wraiths, and how they must have all forged their birth certificates upon arriving on Earth on November 9, 1945. Only Jacob Marks had yet to be identified as a Wraith.

Jacob Marks was the first Wraith to arrive on Earth by crash landing, well before the invasion party began. Not knowing what to do, he hid among the populace, eventually falling in love with a human woman. They had a child together, a half-human and half-Wraith child. When the invasion crew of Wraiths arrived and learned of the child, they began to corrupt and twist it. When Rom arrives to investigate, he encounters the boy, now going by the name Hybrid.

Hybrid sucks the living energy out of living beings, leaving them old and shrivelled. He also appears to have telekinetic and telepathic powers. Having already sucked the life energy out of his mother, Hybrid impales his father against the wall with a pitchfork, killing him. In a spectacularly drawn page, the body of his father turns back to Wraith, and then dust as it falls to the floor.

Rom and Hybrid battle until the arrival of the X-Men, who only see a giant robot menacing a young human child.

My brain thoughts: This was the issue I was excitedly waiting to get to, as it featured the first crossover with substantial Marvel characters. Though the X-Men don't appear much in this issue, I was pleasantly surprised by the Hybrid character, who I had only recently discovered for the first time in the pages of Avengers Academy. Characters from the Rom series have been popping up all over the Marvel universe as of late, with the Wraiths themselves making an appearance in Uncanny X-Men #9. It's great to see that even though we may not get the return of Rom ever again, that the rest of the series can still live on in some fashion.

#18. This is basically an all-out battle between the X-Men and Rom, with Hybrid using his powers to aid in the confusion. Using his telekinesis while also manipulating the weather controlling powers of Storm, Hybrid creates a vicious blizzard of wind. With no one able to see or communicate with each other, Hybrid attempts to pick them all off one by one.

Kitty Pryde is able to discover the truth about Hybrid, and is ultimately the one that is able to grab Rom's neutralizer and banish him to limbo. Unfortunately for Rom, he was caught in the blast as well, and the issue ends with Rom banished to limbo. The only weapon that can save him, his neutralizer, left un-noticed in the West Virginia snow.

My brain thoughts: A fun battle issue with plenty of great moments between Rom and the X-Men. Rom backhands Colossus off his feet at one point, bringing me great joy. Hybrid was the best villain of the series so far. The next issue promises to be a good one, with Rom banished to the very place that he has sent all his previous victims.

#19. Brandy and Steve arrive at the farm to find Rom's abandoned neutralizer. Rom is welcomed to limbo by two Dire Wraiths. Marvel villain the Space Phantom watches from afar. It seems the Space Phantom has been spending time with Karas, who was formerly the Spaceknight Firefall. Taking the shape of Karas, the Space Phantom intends to manipulate Rom into freeing him from limbo.
Rom comes upon a group of Wraiths, led by the former Sister Rachel Sweet. They attack him, while Sister Sweet shows him images of a ravaged Galador using her Wraith sorcery.

The Karas Space Phantom arrives to aid Rom, but is defeated by the arrival of the real Karas before he can accomplish his goals. Karas uses his power over the living flame to send Rom back to Earth, while saying "return to Galador and see for yourself Rom, for Galador no longer…" before he is cut off. Rom is left to wonder what Karas meant by his words.

Saga of the Spaceknights sees Terminator angrily slay innocent beings in his frustration for unknowingly harbor Wraiths. The story ends with the promise of a trial.

My brain thoughts: A dumb but entertaining issue altogether, but I have been described the same way before, so it's okay. It seems awfully convenient that Karas has the power to free people from limbo.

#20. Back at the Clark residence, Steve has the brilliant idea to fire his homemade analyzer on Rom's neutralizer, to see if that will give them any clues to his whereabouts. The feedback causes his machine to explode, but in the smoke Rom suddenly appears. Before Steve can pat himself too hard on the back though, Rom explains, "No, Steve Jackson, I entered the rear door whilst the living room was filled with smoke. I wondered what had happened." Man this series has some unintentionally (or intentionally?) hilarious lines.

Later, Rom discusses with Brandy and Steve his desire to see if his home planet of Galador is still safe. Brandy, still denying her feelings for Rom, worries about him leaving.

The Most High One and two Wraith witches scheme on ways to defeat Rom. Suddenly a being named Mentus arrives on the scene, with the look of a Spaceknight. Mentus strikes a bargain to work with The Most High One to defeat Rom, by further convincing him to return to Galador. Mentus transforms the two witches into Starshine and Terminator and sends them after Rom.

Mack Killburn is shifting through the files at the Washington Weekly, trying to find Ace O'Connor's previous notes on the Rom story. He is interrupted by Barry Dunston, Wraith editor in disguise, and another Wraith disguised as Ace O'Connor. They attempt to convince him that the story was never real, and he storms off in defiance. "We shall have to eliminate him, as we did the real Ace O'Connor" the Barry Wraith says.

Rom, besieged by what he believed to be his former allies, is aided by Brandy in discerning the truth. He banishes the two Wraith witches to limbo. As he carries Brandy back to the house, they both fight back the feelings they feel for each other.

The Spaceknight backup sees the trial of the Terminator, for executing innocent beings in the previous instalment. Starshine argues against Terminator, while Rom argues for leniency. The Prime Director finds him guilty, but offers him to choose his own punishment, death or banishment. With two simple and powerful words, Terminator responds "kill me". The Prime Director bathes him in living fire, seemingly incinerating him. But instead, Terminator has been teleported to another location, by Mentus. The story ends with Rom's departure from Galador, eventually heading toward Earth.

My brain thoughts: Mentus is yet another in a long line of laughable character designs. Where was John Romita or Dave Cockrum when they needed them? I guess it was just a toy book and not worth that much attention. The main story was good, and it gave me another great hilarious line, but the real meat here was in the backup.

My final brain thoughts: Twenty issues in and the series has definitely had its up and downs. Mantlo continues to be the master of great enthusiasm and wonderful ideas marred behind some pretty pedestrian writing skills. He is especially horrible at the in-story recaps that were so prevalent in comic books of that era. Sal Buscema continues to prove that he is an excellent storyteller, but horrible character designer. Only the Terminator is decently generic enough not to elicit laughter. Rom is becoming more and more engrained into the Marvel universe, with him meeting a hero or villain from that world in almost every single issue. The ideas and world building in this series was excellent, as evidenced by its continued use in comic books to this day. As much as I loved most of the books that Mantlo worked on in his career, I still would like to see what a more polished writer could do with Rom.

Made it past ten issues, I guess I proved my wife wrong!

Go to part 3!

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