May 14, 2012

Back Issue Ben: ROM: A Retrospective, Part 4

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

ROM: SPACEKNIGHT: A Retrospective
Part Four: The Quest for Peace

 by Ben Smith

Click here for part 1.
Click here for part 2. 
Click here for part 3.  

There comes a time in every man's life when he feels like he has to accomplish something of substance, of worth. To do something for which he will be remembered in the annals of time. For me, I've decided to read a comic book series from the 1980s that stars a failed toy robot (aim low, that's my motto!). Yet again, for those that came in late (and where have you been so far?), I am attempting to read and review every single issue of the classic 1980s Marvel comic series, ROM: SPACEKNIGHT. As we learned in the first three parts, Rom is the hero of the alien planet Galador, charged with ridding the universe of evil alien shape-shifters the Dire Wraiths. Bill Mantlo and Sal Buscema keep on keeping on, as they write and draw this series into the hearts and minds of fans that surely approach a number almost in the triple digits. Last time, Rom had gained an ally, lost a world, and witnessed the death of a triangle-headed comrade. Obscure Hulk villains were proliferate. Let's continue on, shall we?

#31. We open with the Torpedo's patrol taking him to the abandoned Marks Farm, just in time to see the return of Hybrid, that unholy product of Wraith and human loving. A short battle resumes, with Torpedo having minimal effect against Hybrid's amazing mind powers.

Changing scenes, a prison-work crew clears the path for a high-tech armored transport. Inside are four members of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (Blob, Destiny, Pyro, and Avalanche). The caption box reveals this tale follows up after the legendary AVENGERS ANNUAL #10, which features the first appearance of X-Men favorite Rogue.

SIDE NOTE: AVENGERS ANNUAL #10 is one of the greatest comics of all time. If you do not have it, immediately finish reading this column, and then go out and purchase one. (Read Ben's retrospective of it here!)

Rom happens upon the transport, and saves it from skidding backward in the slick snow and crushing some of the prisoners on work detail. The carriage of the truck (designed by Tony Stark) blasts off into the sky, as the guards believe Rom to be attempting to free the Brotherhood. Left on their own, the prisoners left behind are able to convince Rom that they are human slaves. Rom frees the criminals and flies off to free the others from their jailers.

Rom arrives at the jail after the transport has safely arrived and moved the prisoners inside. Mystique and Rogue had infiltrated the prison and succeeded in freeing their comrades from their shackles. Rom, quickly learning the error of his ways, learns that they are prisoners not slaves, and stands alone against the Brotherhood. The battle ensues, with Rom eventually proving victorious over the Blob, Avalanche, and Pyro, while Rogue, Mystique and Destiny escape. As they fly off, Rom thinks to himself, "The one called Mystique, so like the X-Man Nightcrawler! Can it be…?"

Rogue, Mystique, and Destiny come upon an abandoned home nearby where they decide to rest. Upon entering, they come face to face with the grisly form of Hybrid!

My brain thoughts: A great issue that hits me in that soft spot of mutant love I so enjoyed as a rowdy youth in the streets of Illinois. The caption boxes make reference to this story occurring after AVENGERS ANNUAL #10, so I wonder if this is actually the second ever appearance of Rogue. The art is outstanding here, with Joe Sinnott inking over Buscema's pencils. There's a great panel during the action scene of Rom laying out Blob with a massive punch. The reference made to Mystique and Nightcrawler's similar appearances is one of the more overt references I can remember to that eventual reveal. Marvel had a lot of these unspoken and assumed little continuity nuggets that were always hinted at, but never outright confirmed until much later on. High action and high fun in this issue, what's not to love here?

#32. We pick up here right where we left off, with Mystique, Rogue, and Destiny coming face to face with Wraith lovechild Hybrid. After a short battle, they eventually come to realize and agree that they should combine their forces against their mutual enemy in Rom.

Meanwhile, back at the Clark residence, a battered Torpedo recounts his brush with Hybrid to a recently arrived Rom. Disgraced news reporter Mack Killburn appears for no discernible reason. Rom prepares to depart to combat the menace of Hybrid, with Brandy asking him, "M-must you do everything alone…Rom?" Rom responds, "I am beginning to accept solitude as my natural state, Brandy Clark." "It doesn't have to be Rom," she replies.

Coincidentally enough, the escaped convicts from last issue decide the Marks Farm looks like a great place to lay low at. Their reward is Hybrid capturing them, and twirling them around and around with his mental powers until all that remained is their bone-white skeletons.

Rom arrives at the farm, and is ambushed by the evil mutants. Rogue attacks first, inspiring this line from Rom, "Why do you do this, child? Unlike Mystique, I sense no evil in you". Rogue responds by hitting on him sexually and physically, eventually planting one of her patented kisses on him. Instead of absorbing any of his abilities, it merges his mind with hers, overwhelming her with his decency.

Destiny, her powers clouded by Hybrid's powers up to this point, is finally able to clearly see Hybrid's intentions for them all. "Mutant females-good or evil-shall be forced, because of their enhanced abilities, to serve as breeders whom Hybrid will use to bring forth a race super-powered Hybrid beings like himself." Now sufficiently convinced, the evil mutants change sides again, and agree to help Rom defeat Hybrid.

Through the combined efforts of Rogue's power-stealing abilities, and Rom's neutralizer, they are able to defeat Hybrid. The issue ends with them agreeing to go their separate ways, and Rogue and Rom expressing unsaid feelings for each other.

My brain thoughts: The ladies love cool Rom. Yet another female character is enthralled by the smooth steel-skinned operator from the stars. Rogue is added to the list that already includes Brandy Clark, who was pretty obvious in front of her current boyfriend Steve Jackson that Rom can have her at any time. Rom expressing the decency he sees in Rogue has got to be one of the first hints at Rogue's future heroic career. Another solid action issue featuring the best villain of the series so far, Hybrid, the sordid offspring of wretched Wraith and human baby-making. It's starting to become apparent that the quality of the guest-star( s) from issue to issue is having a big impact on my enjoyment so far in this series.

#33. I will call this the "Scottie Pippen" issue, for no other reason than his jersey number was thirty-three. Otherwise, the story opens with thirteen year old blind girl Sybil standing wistfully on the cliff edge in front of her appropriately creepy dark mansion home. She tells her Aunt Mara that she is merely waiting for the return of her long missing parents, when in reality she waits for the silver skinned warrior Rom that she sees in her mind's eye.

Meanwhile, Rom leaves Clairton, presumably for good this time. A particularly distraught Brandy reveals her love for Rom to Steve, and walks away promising to be reunited with him somehow.

Back at the creepy mansion, Sybil accidentally eavesdrops on Aunt Mara having a Wraith meeting. Apparently Aunt Mara is a Wraith sorcerer, and they killed Sybil's parents to give them free reign to use their arcane arts to transform her in the same way they transform dogs into their evil Hell Hounds.

Sybil runs off as noisily as possible, prompting the Wraiths to send their Hell Hound after her. Rom arrives just in time to battle the Hell Hound, and then Aunt Mara herself. The remaining Wraiths chase Sybil into the swamp.

Rom is able to successfully banish Mara to limbo, and finds Sybil safefully hiding by a tree, while the Wraiths sink slowly into the unforgiving marsh.

My brain thoughts: The letters page promises the return of Starshine and her creepy diamond shaped head. Sybil could wind up being an interesting character, provided she survives knowing Rom for any significant period of time. Brandy seems to have finally decided between Steve and Rom, and made her feelings publicly known. When Steve tells her that Rom isn't even a man, Brandy responds with, "Then I'll have to find some way to not be a woman!" Usually that is the type of thing followed by expensive surgery, but I don't think that's the direction they're headed here.

#34. The cover promises Namor the Sub-Mariner and loads of sea monsters, so let's dive (ahem) in. The story opens with Rom and Sybil again standing on the cliff edge overlooking her palatial estate. Rom is able to detect and eliminate the Wraith sorcery causing Sybil's blindness.

Preparing to leave, Sybil begs Rom to take her with him. When Rom suggests she stay in her home, she protests that the Wraith stink permeating her home prevents her from ever returning there. Rom does the only sensible thing, which is to burn down the house and take the adolescent child with him on his quest to battle evil alien monsters.

Somewhere beneath the mighty ocean, Namor is warned of a dark peril threatening Atlantis. He swims off to investigate disturbances at Neptune's Cave. As Rom and Sybil fly overwater, a Wraith in the form of a sea beast attacks them. Sybil is rescued by Namor, while Rom plunges to the watery depths below. Rom arrives upon a spellcasting ceremony performed by Wraiths in various forms of splendid sea creature disguises, all centered around a dreaded black pearl.

Namor arrives to help Rom beat down the Wraith beasts, but not before the pearl awakens an ancient evil from it's imprisonment in Neptune's Cave.

The issue ends with the dark outline of a large beast emerging from the cave, while Rom and Namor wait on.

My brain thoughts: After several issues of Joe Sinnott on finishes, Akin and Garvey took over this issue and the difference is noticeable. The end result is still some quality artwork, but not up to the level of Sinnott's work on the books. I love the sea beasts here, but probably not for the same reasons in which the creators had hoped or intended.

#35. The monster stands revealed, and it is…the giant hair monster from Bugs Bunny? Apparently it is a monster that Namor had fought previously in an issue of TALES TO ASTONISH.

Sybil arrives safely in Atlantis within an air-filled bubble. Her Wraith detecting sixth sense proves to be her doom, as the Atlantean oracle's thought reveal it to be a Wraith in disguise. She is able to warn the Atlanteans of the danger, and the arrival of the giant hair monster.

The battle ensues, first with a full-page splash.

Then with what has become a standard of the Rom series, the skeletal remains of Atlanteans killed in action

Followed by another double-page splash of action, the first I can remember in this series.

Rom and Namor are able to successfully defeat Bugs Bunny's monster, and return to the temple for Sybil. They return too late however, as the Wraiths in disguise removed her from her bubble, leaving her to drown. Namor responds with a trident thrown into the torso of the Wraith, leaving it to disintegrate against the wall.

Namor rushes to save Sybil's life, transforming her into a water-breather in the process. Her life saved, she will now spend the rest of her days as a member of Atlantis' undersea kingdom.

My brain thoughts: I was surprised that Sybil was revived by the end of the issue. Knowing Rom hasn't been a good sign for a long life so far in this series. The rest of the issue was pretty much all action. I was pleased that they managed to avoid the obligatory fight with Namor first, before they team up to save the day. That's real progress.

#36. Rom leaves Sybil behind, in the care of Namor and Atlantis. Feeling a bit melancholy, Rom's spirits are lifted by the creatures of the sea, as he takes in the beauty of the ocean and it's species.

Brandy finds herself at the gravesite of fallen Spaceknight Starshine, lamenting the loss of Rom. As she professes her love for Rom on his comrade's grave, the image of Starshine appears before her, granting her the power of Starshine. The reader is only left to wonder just what that will mean for Brandy.

Rom departs the ocean, eventually coming upon England, and a boy tied up like a scarecrow in field. Rom discovers that the boy has been offered as a regular sacrifice from the nearby village, to appease Dire Wraith oppressors that attacked them long ago. Rom battles the Wraith when they arrive, but not before a few of them escape with the child into a portal. Rom accidentally kills one of the remaining Wraiths during their fight. Before he can lament his mistake, and with his oath broken, Rom wastes no more time in killing a few more, before banishing the rest to limbo.

My brain thoughts: With Starshine's return teased in the letters page of a previous issue, it looks like we could be in for a Brandy transformation into a Spaceknight warrior. I wonder if Rom's brutality will be followed up on in the issues to come. It does bring up a question I've been thinking lately, in that Rom waits an awfully long time in these battles before pulling out his neutralizer to banish the Wraiths. Seems like it would be easier for him if he just did that right off the bat, but hey, it's comics.

#37. Rom chastises the people of the village who offered up their children to the Wraiths to save themselves. He scans them to be sure before taking off to save the captured children.

Steve searches for Brandy, worried that she may be slipping from his grasp. Brandy is still at the gravesite of Starshine, digging up the lifeless armor of the fallen Spaceknight, determined to find some way to be with the man she loves.

Rom travels to a nearby castle, where he defeats several Wraith warriors and more High Witches, before saving the children and saving the day.

My brain thoughts: Brandy digging up the body of Starshine is the big moment here. The rest is a standard action issue, with Rom battling some Wraiths and saving the children.

#38. This story begins with Shang-Chi spying on mysterious individuals in robes, entering a foggy crypt in an old Victorian churchyard. He watches as they use their dark magics to bring the skeletal remains of a small girl back to life. Shang-Chi puts the whooping on the Wraiths, all while the creepy skeleton of a young girl stands in the melee. Shang-Chi takes out the High Witch with a lantern of fire, and the skeleton is once again lifeless.

Rom has found himself in Shepton Mallet near Gloucester, wondering about the recent events of Wraiths preying upon human children. He watches as a man named Carruthers comes to inspect the orphanage Rom has tracked Wraith activity to. He is surprised to see High Witch Mara, a Wraith he had previously banished in a prior issue.

When Carruthers goes to check on the children, he finds himself surrounded by Wraiths in disguise. Rom busts in to save him, learning that this is not the same Mara he had fought before, but a "sister" Mara.

While Rom wrecks shop up top, Carruthers follows a Witch down to the basement, where it is using its dark powers to transform human children into monsters. He grabs a lantern of fire and throws it at the Witch, before Rom comes in and finishes it off.

Back in Shang-Chi headquarters, Shang-Chi and his allies are reading an article in the newspaper with the headline, "Mummy of Egyptian Child Princess brought to British museum." Leaving Shang-Chi to wonder what's happening, and to head off to London to find out.

The issue concludes with Brandy reflecting on what she has done, stealing the body of Starshine. A colourfully dressed man by the name of Doctor Dredd enters, declaring that he is going to help her become a Spaceknight.

My brain thoughts: The revelation that there are more Maras, that they are a class unto themselves, sounds like something that could be expanded upon later. Also, more mentions in this story of a cosmic alignment that the Wraith Witches have been preparing for, where the Earth will be aligned with the Dark Nebula, and Wraith magic will be at its peak. The art team did a fabulous-looking Shang-Chi in this book. I don't know that I would trust a man named Doctor Dredd to help me out with anything.

#39. Shang-Chi and his associates stand and admire the mummy's coffin on display in the museum. Sir Denis Nayland Smith recounts a tale the the rest of them, about a spaceship arriving in Egypt in the time of the Pharoahs. The creature that appeared took on the forms of ancient Egyptian dieties, before settling into the shape of a young Egyptian girl named Kaaris'a. Her use of the dark magics made her many enemies, and one day they bound her in wrappings and buried her alive.

As the museum closes, a group of Wraith Witches in long robes arrive with a group of human children, and bewitch the guard into letting them pass. Shang-Chi, having stayed behind to investigate the coffin, runs into Rom, who had tracked Wraith activity to the museum. The Witches begin their spell with the children to raise Kaaris'a from her slumber.

Steve Jackson, still searching for Brandy, spies a light on at her workplace late at night. He barges in to find Doctor Dredd using his arcane powers to bind Brandy Clark and the body of Starshine together.

Kaaris'a is reanimated fully before Shang-Chi and Rom can intervene. The Witches animate the surrounding displays of the museum, leaving the two heroes to battle lifeless opponents as the Witches finish their task. With the arrival and help of Shang-Chi's associates, they are able to defeat the fake army, and Rom banishes the Witches to limbo.

But it is too late, as the "Princess of Power" is risen. She attacks Rom with a force bolt, and Rom counters with a blast from his neutralizer, which has no effect on the witch-child. They surmise that she is drawing her power from the entranced human children. As Rom struggles to find a way to defeat her without harming the children, Shang-Chi finds some nearby throwing stars, and severs the witch-girl's head off at the neck in a brutal scene.

They rush to the children to find them alive and okay.

My brain thoughts: What a spectacular issue. The design and art on Kaaris'a was creepy and effective. Shang-Chi made for a great guest star over these two issues. It seems Brandy is close to becoming the Spaceknight companion she hopes to be for Rom, but at what price? A plot seems to continue to build involving the children of Earth, and the upcoming cosmic alignment. It will be interesting to see if this was the peak of that story, or if there is more to come. Once again, there was a surprising amount of graphic violence for a comic from 1983. I like it.

#40. Wraith witches stand upon a hillside, casting their final sinister spells as the Earth moves into cosmic alignment with the Dark Nebula.

Rom soars through the air, contemplating the events of his life, losing Ray-Na, meeting Brandy, and how he is trapped in his Spaceknight body forever. He comes upon a Piper, leading a large group of children up and onto the hillside. Arriving upon the top of the hill, he continues to play his song until it opens a portal into space, into the Dark Nebula.

Back in Clairton, Doctor Dredd keeps a shocked Steve at bay while he continues Brandy's mystic transformation into Starshine.

The Torpedo comes bursting in, revealing Dredd to be a Wraith Warlock in disguise. He is able to put Doctor Dredd down, but he is blasted from behind by Brandy now in Starshine's body.

Rom uses his energy analyzer to reveal the Piper as a Wraith in disguise. The Wraiths seek to summon the dreaded Dweller on the Thresh-hold from their home planet, the mystic embodiment of the Dark Nebula's black sun. Rom banishes the Piper, and flies off headfirst to intercept the Dweller before he can cross over into Earth's plane. The two locked in a death grip, they go spiralling into a realm beyond our own. The children awake, with no apparent damage having been done.

My brain thoughts: What a climax to the buildup of the cosmic alignment teases. The Piper didn't end up being as stupid as you might have thought from reading this. Brandy is finally turned into Starshine, but as a tool for the evil Dire Wraiths. Rom locked into a battle with an evil entity, spiralling off into who knows where. What a cliffhanger!

King-Size Annual #1: In a story by Bill Mantlo and Pat Broderick, Rom battles a cosmic energy vampire named Stardust. The Dire Wraiths reveal a machine that jams the capabilities of Rom's analyzer to reveal them, but he banishes them and destroys the device.

My final brain thoughts: Over halfway done. I might just finish this before my body finds its final resting place after all. They pulled out some big guns for this block of stories, the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, Hybrid, Namor, Shang-Chi. This was a spectacular run of notable and enjoyable guest-stars that definitely helped renew my motivation and resolve to read this entire series. It looks like we are moving closer to Brandy becoming a Spaceknight, if not reached that point altogether. It will be interesting to see how that plays out, despite her having a creepy diamond shaped head now. Buscema and Joe Sinnott started this run with some dynamic art, but after a good but not great start by Akin and Garvey on inks, I felt like the art got even better as these issues went along. Even Mantlo is showing some growth and improvement in his skills as a storyteller. I've always felt his enthusiasm and solid world-building skills more than made up for any shortcomings as a storyteller, but I did notice an overall improvement in these books. Another solid set of reading, inching me ever so steadily along on my goal to issue number seventy-five. Join me again, will you?

Go to part 5!


Gerry Alanguilan said...

There was a time Rom got a lot of buzz due to the return of Steve Ditko, and a whole barrage of awesome artists lined up to ink him. My favorites were the ones inked by P. Craig Russell.

Duy Tano said...

I think Ben gets to the Ditko issues soon; if not in the next installment (next Monday), then in the next one.

I was just telling him the other day that these retrospectives were saving me the trouble of reading Rom for myself, until we get to those Shang-Chi issues, because now I want to own those.

Unknown said...

I have lots of fond memories of ROM when I was a kid... I wish Marvel would settle all their legal issues with Parker Brothers so ROM can be collected in tradepaperbacks and be rebooted. You're at the halfway mark already and the best is still yet to come!

Unknown said...

I have lots of fond memories of ROM when I was a kid. I wish Marvel would work out their legal issues with Parker Brothers so the series can be collected in tradepaperback format and be rebooted again. You're at the halfway mark already and the best moments of the story are still yet to come!

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