Apr 16, 2012

Back Issue Ben: ROM: A Retrospective

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

ROM: SPACEKNIGHT: A Retrospective

Part One: The Phantom Menace.
by Ben Smith

Rom: Spaceknight was an action figure toy developed by Parker Brothers in the late 1970s. Parker Brothers was known mostly for their board games, with Rom their first attempt at branching out into the action figure market. Rom was one of the first in the still-developing arena of electronic toys, and it was even featured on the cover of Time magazine at one point. Parker Brothers didn't do many things right in developing the toy, but one thing they did do was agree to license the character to Marvel Comics to develop a comic book series. This ended up being much more successful than the actual toy was, as the series ran for 75 issues over 7 years, introducing characters and concepts that are still being used at Marvel to this day.

I never read the ROM comic book series as a kid, probably dismissing it as nothing more than a stupid toy comic. After sporadically hearing (surprisingly) positive things about the series every so often throughout the journey of my life, I finally took a leap and picked up the first seven issues a while back. I remember being sufficiently impressed at that time, but never got around to finishing the series. A few months ago, after seeing the entire series for sale as a lot on eBay, I took the chance and bought it up.

For those that are interested in trying for themselves, it is very much an early '80s comic, with all the strengths and perceived weaknesses of that time period. I, for one, can't get enough of that era in Marvel history, as I continue to seek out back issue after back issue to enjoy. Rom was a fun action comic with a solid premise. The following will be my issue by issue breakdown of the entire series, as I get up to date on the awesome that is...ROM, SPACEKNIGHT!

Obviously, 32 year old SPOILERS follow...

#1. "He strikes from outer space...cleaving through the sky like a fiery sword of justice...hurtling Earthward on his dread mission of cosmic vengeance! And nothing can stop him!!"

These are the words that ran across the top of house ads featured in Marvel comic books at the beginning of the 1980s, heralding the arrival of Rom: Spaceknight to the Marvel Universe. In this first issue, Bill Mantlo and Sal Buscema take a robot toy with virtually no backstory or history and give him an amazingly engaging origin and mission. The story begins with Rom's arrival on Earth, in the made-up town of Clairton, Virginia. He almost immediately crosses paths with human Brandy Clark, who is destined to be his human ally and probable love interest. After witnessing Rom deal with a pair of villainous beings revealed as Dire Wraiths, he reveals his backstory and mission to her.

Several centuries ago, the peaceful people of the planet Galador explored the universe. One fateful day, one of their armadas was attacked and destroyed by a shapeshifting alien race called the Dire Wraiths. The ruler of Galador calls for volunteers to transform themselves into cyborg warriors called the Spaceknights, with Rom being one of the first to volunteer. In true Marvel manner, the volunteers are told their human bodies will be maintained and returned to them when the danger is over.

Rom utilizes a universal translator to speak with beings of all languages, an analyzer that reveals the true nature of Dire Wraiths in disguise, and a neutralizer that banishes the target to Limbo through a dimensional portal. Of course, only Rom's cyborg eyes can actually see the Dire Wraiths revealed when he uses his analyzer, so to the general human population he appears to be an alien robot randomly disintegrating innocent people.
The issue ends with the reveal that the Dire Wraiths are everywhere, at varying levels of importance all over the country.

My brain thoughts: Mantlo and Buscema took what at first glance would seem to be a worthless toy comic, and instilled it with real depth and excitement. They succeeded at taking a character that was a blank slate and giving him a great story, while also infusing him with the necessary Marvel pathos as the misunderstood hero fighting to regain his humanity. He is literally fighting for a planet full of people that hate and fear him. Eat your heart out X-Men.

#2. This issue begins with Rom intervening in the robbery of a bank. The analyzer reveals the hostage of the crooks to be a Dire Wraith, so Rom promptly neutralizes him. One of the crooks, Archie Stryker, is overly enraged by this act, as once again human beings do not see the Dire Wraiths revealed by the analyzer as Rom does. To him, Rom has killed an innocent human being for no reason, even though that human being happened to be his hostage at the time.

Meanwhile, Brandy Clark remains confused and conflicted about her interraction with Rom from the previous issue. Her parents and her boyfriend, Steve Jackson, try to convince her that she is crazy for believing in Rom. Requesting time alone, she walks the (apparently expansive) back yard of her parent's home. She comes across Rom, hiding in a gazebo. They talk, neither of them expressing the blossoming attraction that dominates their thought balloons.

Steve Jackson and the police burst in on the scene. The cops, led by a Dire Wraith in disguise as the police chief (and coincidentally enough Archie Stryker cuffed in the back seat of his car), attack Rom. Brandy's dog is shot and killed during the attack. (Animal cruelty, curse you Marvel!) Rom analyzes and neutralizes the Wraith in disguise, and flies away in disappointment and anger over the humans continued aggression towards him. The issue ends with Archie Stryker swearing revenge upon Rom. I smell a power enchancement in his future...

My brain thoughts: Archie Stryker is definitely going to become a problem for our hero in the future. The seeds of a romantic triangle between Rom, Brandy, and Steve are planted here. Altogether a solid issue that builds the world of Rom a little bit further. One downside, I wish Rom had fingers. He looks like a kid forced to always wear his mittens.

#3. This issue begins with a room of people being briefed by a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent on the threat of Rom. One of the people in attendance is Archie Stryker, the crook from the previous issue. The agent and the other individuals have all previously been identified as Wraiths in disguise. Their goal is to convince Stryker, revealed here to be a decorated Korean war vet, to volunteer for Project Safeguard, which promises to give him the power he desires to defeat Rom.

Next we look in upon Rom, and get the obligatory '80s recap of previous events. Hidden among this recap is a little gem of characterization as Rom flashes back to his transformation into his current cyborg form. Upon first awakening from the procedure that removed his humanity, he says, "I feel...power coursing through me! Tremendous power! B-but...my hands!!" The words and art may have been crafted with the typical level of 80s depth, but Mantlo made me feel the moment all the same. This is a man dedicated to his duty, yet tortured by what he has sacrificed all the same. (Pay no attention to his mitten-like hands)

Following this we check in on a still confused Brandy, as she arrives home to a wrecked apartment, and a pair of men in suits, flashing identification of some kind and demanding she tell them what she knows about Rom.

Back to Archie Stryker, now in the midst of running a training course which is testing his physical capabilities. Passing to the satisfaction of the Wraiths in disguise, they reveal to him the robot armor they want him to occupy. Sal Buscema fails horribly here at designing the look of this armor, as it is pretty generic and undynamic. This is not exactly setting the reader on fire with the potential of Rom's first supervillain opponent. I'm pretty sure if they had asked me to design this robot enemy when I was eight years old, I would have come up with a similar design. It's terrible.

Moving back to Rom, his analyzer leads him underground through a giant tunnel, where he discovers a group of Wraiths working on a giant interdimensional transporter. He makes quick work of the Wraiths, banishing them all to Limbo, with one even pleading with him, "No, Rom! Please! Give me death, if you must...but not eternal banishment!"

After the last Wraith is banished, Archie Stryker arrives wearing the armor given to him by Project Safeguard. He shoots Rom with a living fire, which encircles Rom in its flames. Rom himself reveals through an extensive monologue that the living fire is in fact one of the greatest sources of energy from his home planet of Galador, and that it was the weapon of a fellow Spaceknight named Karas. Rom continues, "but the Spaceknight armor cannot be separated from the human being to which it is grafted except by Galadorian science! The Wraiths could not have seized the armor...without slaying..the man!" Rom, still not sure if his attacker is his former friend or a new enemy, has his questions answered by the face of Archie Stryker, as he announces himself by the name, Firefall!

My brain thoughts: Another solid issue that features the debut of Rom's first super powered opponent. If only the design of that foe was a little bit better. Simply dreadful. The character moments stood out, and the suggestion that the Wraiths have killed a fellow Spaceknight and are now using his armored body as a weapon against Rom is pretty hardcore.

#4. The story begins as Rom and Firefall begin their battle in the sky above the hidden cavern from the last issue. Rom struggles with the sorrow over the apparent death of his friend, while also not wanting to harm an innocent pawn of the Dire Wraiths. He tries to convince Firefall of this, while also simultaneously warning him that the longer he wears the Galadorian armor, the more likely he will bond with it permanently.

The action cuts to Brandy Clark speeding down the highway in a car, surrounded by the mysterious lawmen she found in her apartment. She discovers them to be Dire Wraiths and struggles to get free. Meanwhile, her boyfriend Steve follows them in his car. Having caught up to their car, and seeing Brandy in trouble, Steve screams out for them to let her go. When one of them fires upon him using an un-Earthly weapon, Steve is convinced that Brandy's stories about Rom have to be true, and the Earth is in deadly danger from the threat of alien invaders.

Rom and Firefall's battle continues above, when Rom knocks Firefall to the Earth below, conveniently hitting the road in front of the Wraith's speeding car. What follows are some surprisingly violent scenes for a 80s Marvel comic, as a Wraith that fell from the speeding car as it swerved to avoid Firefall is run over by Steve, and the subsequent crash of the Wraith car leaves the driver with a broken neck, brazenly displayed ON PANEL. Pretty tame by today's standards to be sure, but somewhat shocking to see in a comic from that era. As Steve rushes to pull Brandy from the wrecked vehicle, the body of the driver crumbles into a blob of dust, confirming to both of them that the threat of the Dire Wraiths is real.

Rom confronts Firefall again, recounting his history with his friend Karas. Karas had once saved Rom from drowning, which according to Rom, "On Galador, to owe one's life to another is a sacred responsibility—linking two individuals as surely as marriage links lovers!" Rom goes on to remember how they were the first two volunteers to become Spaceknights, and how in the early days of duty, they lost track of each other in a giant space battle. Now fully enraged at the loss of his friend, Rom proceeds to brutally pummel Firefall into submission. The issue ends with Steve and Brandy by Rom's side, and Firefall confirming what Rom had warned him about earlier. "Th-the armor, it won't come off! I can't get it off!"

My brain thoughts: This issue featured some superb action, with the fight between the two robots in the sky, and the car chase on a darkened highway down below. Adding in the alien invaders in disguise, and coupled with their eventual violent deaths, really gave this issue a sci-fi B-movie kind of vibe that I really enjoyed. The writing and art may be typically 80s, but I feel like the material rises above the limits of its creators to tell an exciting and captivating story. I haven't been disappointed yet.

#5. Rom, Brandy, and Steve hide in the trees by the highway, as police patrol the area of the car crash. As Rom gazes upon Brandy, he thinks of Ray-Na, the woman he loved back on his home planet of Galador. Buscema does well here, as Ray-Na is pretty comic book hot.

 He recalls the conversation they had after he was selected to become a Spaceknight. How he vowed to return to her, and that "our love will never die!" But as you can see from this beautifully drawn panel, Rom doesn't seem so sure about that any more.

The Dire Wraiths arrive disguised as Federal agents and the previously seen S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, to collect the fallen Firefall. Out of the back of a truck are released two gigantic dogs with solid white eyes. Rom's thoughts reveal them to be Hellhounds of the Black Nebula, telepathic trackers bred by the Dire Wraiths! Their location revealed, Rom scoops up Brandy and Steve and flies off into the night, chased away by gun and laser fire. As Firefall is carted away in a vehicle, he listens to the Dire Wraiths as they brag about manipulating the humans. It is then that he realizes that he really has been tricked by alien beings, and "turned into a metal monster by the Dire Wraiths!"

Rom and friends come upon an abandoned house where they agree to rest for the night, and this is where the story swerves into the ridiculous. While Brandy and Steve sleep, Rom enters into an analysis mode that resembles human sleep. In his dream, the Marvel superhero Dr. Strange appears before him to warn him. This is where the rest of the story devolves into a haunted house tale featuring an obscure former Strange foe called the Dweller in Shadows. Rom defeats him, and they escape from the house unharmed.

My brain thoughts: This was the most uneven issue of the series so far. The introduction of former love Ray-Na, while clichéd, adds another interesting dynamic to the ongoing story. The burgeoning feelings between both Rom and Brandy are hinted at a little more. As much as I love the idea of telepathic Hellhounds, the rest of the issue suffers from the corny haunted house story. It is worth noting the appearance of Dr. Strange, as it establishes that this series is taking place within the larger Marvel universe. In short, a few important and solid moments that are dragged down by a silly second half demon story.

#6. Issue six begins with Steve and Brandy sneaking Rom into the garage of Steve's auto repair business. As Rom again enters into a rest mode, dreaming of his fomer love Ray-Na, Brandy and Steve depart to take Brandy to work. After a brief conversation with a passing police patrolman name Artie Parker, they depart.

Back at Project Safeguard, Firefall hangs motionless from the ceiling. A previously seen Dire Wraith disguised as a female is identified as a high ranking first-born named Sister Sweet. (I completely love the name Sister Sweet.) Sister Sweet and the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent enter a room where a meeting between the previously seen Dire Wraiths is taking place. At the head of the table sits a clearly alien being in shadow, referred to as the Most High One. Sister Sweet proceeds to accuse the agent of arousing unnecessary suspicion in the humans with his actions from the previous issue, and blames him for the failure of Firefall. He is sentenced to extermination at the hands of a sinister, sorcerous force named Deathwing.

The Hellhounds, still in pursuit of Rom, transform into humanoid forms after discovering his location. Buscema does a much better job of designing these characters here, giving them a clean, simple look. (I love a good hooded villain, or hero) A protracted battle occurs between Rom and the two Hellhounds, with the hounds successfully encasing Rom's neutralizer in a force-sphere. The battle spills outside where a returning Steve helps Rom to defeat and kill the two Hellhounds. The battle finished, Rom falls to the ground motionless, leaving Steve to wonder what to do next.

My brain thoughts: Lots of action happening in this issue. Buscema does a much better job of designing the villains here, the humanoid forms of the Hellhounds. After a brief misstep at the end of the previous issue, the series bounces back unfazed with another solid story.

#7. Police patrolmen Artie returns to his friend Steve's garage, only to see him standing over the unmoving body of the alien menace Rom. (Artie's last name appears to be Packer now, instead of Parker. Oh well, he's destined to be cannon fodder.) Steve is able to successfully convince his friend Artie of Rom's innocence, and they agree to take him to Brandy's pharmaceutical lab to try to determine how to wake him up.

After they depart, three more Hellhounds arrive at the garage, followed by a Dire Wraith in human disguise. They have come to successfully collect Rom's neutralizer. At Project Safeguard, Sister Sweet and the Most High One plot to send the deadly Thornoids after Rom and his friends.

At the lab, Brandy pleads with Steve to try and fix Rom. "I fix cars, not aliens! But I'll give it a shot," he replies. He does what he can, with no apparent results. This leads to an unexpected but revealing outburst from Brandy, as she screams at Steve, "And you're giving up? Rom doesn't really matter to you, does he? You've hated Rom ever since he arrived on Earth! Y-you can't stand the thought of me feeling something for the man trapped in the armor! You're willing to let Rom die to keep him from me!"

Before Steve can respond, the deadly Thornoids come bursting through the window. They try to fight them off, but poor Artie is grabbed and crushed by the deadly plant creatures. Just when it seems all hope is lost, Rom awakens to save the day.

The Thornoids successfully defeated, Steve mourns the loss of his friend Artie. "I guess every war has to have it's casualties...doesn't it?"

My brain thoughts: The death of Artie Packer succeeds at heightening the stakes and showing the reader that survival is not guaranteed. Right now it seems about as safe to be next to Rom as it did to be Jack Bauer's partner on 24. What appears to be most important for the future is Brandy's unexpected outburst, with serves to further deepen the burgeoning romance between Brandy and Rom.

#8. Steve, in his grief over the apparent death of his friend Artie, questions if Rom really is the hero he claims to be. In his mind, the Dire Wraiths had appeared to do no harm to the humans of Earth as they lived among them. In response, Rom tells them the story of the planet Angelica, which was destroyed by the evil of the Dire Wraiths. Rom reveals to Steve that his sensors detect that Artie is still alive, before departing in search of his neutralizer.

A Wraith is attacked by a mysterious shadowy figure in an alley. I wonder if this is going to have some significance in the near future...

A Wraith high priest presides over a faked funeral for the humans "killed" by the evil Rom up to this point. Rom shows up and battles the Wraiths, until the priest is able to use his black magic to summon the deadly Deathwing, last seen killing the Wraith S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. Uncontrollable, the Deathwing strikes at everyone. Rom, threatening to leave the Wraith priest to the same creature he himself had summoned, is able to interrogate the location of his neutralizer weapon as Project Safeguard out of the priest. After the Deathwing carries the priest off to his doom, Rom collapses (again!).

The shadowy figure from earlier in the story is revealed to be a humanoid dinosaur creature named Serpentyne.

My brain thoughts: Not a whole lot happening here in terms of advancing the overall storyline. The battle in the ceremony is intriguing enough, drawn completely in mood-enhancing rain. I do love a well-drawn comic book rain scene. The reveal of a potential ally against the Wraiths as dinosaur boy is once again marred by an almost laughable character design by Buscema. I know it's a toy comic, but couldn't they have put some effort into the design of the other characters?

#9. Brandy and Steve wait at the hospital for the status of patrolman Artie Packer. The doctor, a Dire Wraith in disguise, comes out to inform them all of the death of Artie. The police on the scene, refusing to believe Steve and Brandy's stories about Rom and his mission, arrest them both.

Meanwhile, Rom has come face to ridiculous face with Serpentyne, and learns his mind-numbing tale. It appears that an entire race of reptile creatures was born in the blast of an atomic bomb test. They formed a society, something about an appearance from Ms Marvel occurred (in her stunning black costume designed by the legendary Dave Cockrum), and the Dire Wraiths wiped out all of his species except for him, and....yawn, sigh. Telepathic hunting dogs couldn't save this story at this point. There is a fervent battle, ending with Serpentyne incompetently stabbing himself in the chest, putting both us and himself out of our misery.

My brain thoughts: While I was reading this chapter, I kind of found myself hoping that Serpentyne would get stabbed in the face, or at the very least, that I would get stabbed in the eyes. I'll settle for him stabbing himself in the chest like the bumbling mistake of a character that he is.

#10. Rom looks for and locates Steve and Brandy at the local Clairton jail. He promptly breaks in and frees them. Rom learned the location of his stolen neutralizer to be Project Safeguard in Washington, DC. Brandy points Rom in the direction of DC, with a stern warning that he is unlikely to be able to succeed with it being as well-guarded as it is. Leaving Steve and Brandy to hold each other on the side of a mountain, Rom takes to the skies.

We learn that Silas Lane, Clairton coroner, is traveling to DC to check the federal birth records of those slain by Rom in Virginia. According to his records, everyone that had been killed by Rom had the same exact birth date, and he wanted to verify the accuracy of those records. He shares this info with a lovely young blonde woman as they ride the train together, a woman by the name of A.C. "Ace" O'Connor, a reporter for the Washington Weekly News. Both of these characters are probably going to be of some significance at some point in the future.
Most of the rest of the issue involves Rom flying to DC, intercepted by fighter jets scrambled from Lackland AFB (from Texas? They probably meant Langley AFB in Virginia). After successfully destroying millions of dollars in government property, Rom is taken off-guard by a mysterious alien spaceship, and is taken prisoner by the sinister Sister Sweet.

The issue ends with Steve leaving Brandy on her own, to travel back to the jail he had escaped from. In a shocking revelation, we learn that the real Steve is still prisoner back at the jail, while the one on the loose with Rom and Brandy is a Wraith in disguise!

My brain thoughts: I should have known from the sinister grins and glances that this Steve was a dirty Wraith in disguise. Good show Mantlo and Buscema, good show.

My final brain thoughts: This rundown of the complete series of ROM, SPACEKNIGHT is probably going to take me the rest of my life to finish, but we'll end part one of our mutual journey through the realm of the fantastic here. Overall, the series has had a thoroughly entertaining and engaging story so far. Rom is a tortured and noble hero (you would be too without any fingers), alone against a vicious race of shape-shifting aliens, and a human populace that believes him to be the menace from above. Ray-Na, Steve, and Brandy have the potential of developing big love rectangles in the story to come. I can't wait to read more.

Plus, my wife told me she didn't think I would get past issue ten. Will she be right? Stay tuned...

Go on to Part 2!

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