Jun 4, 2012

Back Issue Ben: ROM: A Retrospective, Part 5

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

ROM: SPACEKNIGHT: A Retrospective
Part Five: Shrek Forever After

 by Ben Smith

Click here for part 1.
Click here for part 2. 
Click here for part 3.  
Click here for part 4.

You know the drill. For those that came in late, 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 four 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 soldier on, as the only writer and artist this series has ever known to this point (except for the occasional annual or so). Last time, Rom battled Wraith plots involving human children of Earth, and learned of an upcoming cosmic alignment between Earth and the Dark Nebula. Rom seemingly sacrificed himself to stop the evil Dweller on the Threshold from crossing over to our planet. Was he successful, and will he survive? Let’s find out!

#41. Dr. Strange is troubled. He senses a disturbance of dark magical forces, and uses his power to seek out the cause. He sees the noble Rom, battling the evil Dweller on the Threshold in a strange dimension.

As he goes to aid Rom in the battle, he is stopped by the Living Tribunal. The Tribunal has decreed that Strange’s sorcery has unfairly tipped the cosmic balance toward good, and summons the In-Betweener to balance the scales. Rom continues to battle the monster, but upon moving closer to the beast, is surprised to find an innocent-looking human child staring back.

Back on Earth, Steve and Torpedo flee from the Wraith-controlled Brandy as Starshine. She attacks the town of Clairton, before disappearing with the maniacal Doctor Dredd.

Rom, still under the spell of the Dweller, is convinced to follow him into the portal. Strange sees this and is able to send a spell of awakening just in time as Rom crosses through the veil. He arrives on Wraithworld, and now back in control of his senses, banishes the Dweller to limbo.

Rom returns to the strange dimension, where he tries to convince the Living Tribunal of how the Wraiths are balancing the scale towards evil on Earth, and he must be the one to fix it. The Tribunal is convinced, and Rom is left in the strange dimension with an unconscious Dr. Strange.

My brain thoughts: There was some solid artwork on display in this issue. I really like how Buscema, Akin, and Garvey rendered the dimension between Earth and the Dark Nebula. Strange was somewhat useless in this story. The developments with Brandy as Starshine are beginning to heat up, and I look forward to seeing more of where that is heading.

#42. Rom and Dr. Strange still remain in the dimension between two worlds. Strange doubts the existence of the Wraith enemy, but is convinced of their deadly danger by Rom.

Pinpointing areas of high Wraith activity across the globe, Strange sends Rom off to the Soviet Union, while he returns to his duties at the Sanctum Santorum.Rom arrives in a barren, charred-out husk of land, but through discovery finds a nearby Eden of sorts. People dance in the meadow, people that claim to be the dead. They tell Rom of the Giver of Life, located in a nearby cave.Rom enters the cave, and learns that the giver of life is in fact Quasimodo, a computer intelligence trapped in machines. There had been an atomic blast, and Quasimodo had saved the lives of the humans caught in it’s blast by cloning new bodies for them and transferring their minds into them. A deal is struck: Quasimodo will clone a new human body for Rom, and in exchange he will get the Spaceknight’s armor to call his own.

Rom lays unconscious as the procedure begins. Wraith soldiers reveal themselves, as Quasimodo had struck a deal with them to rid them of Rom once and for all. Rom awakens, back in a perfectly cloned version of his human body, and is overjoyed. As he runs out of the cave, he is watched by evil Dire Wraiths, and Quasimodo, encased in the Spaceknight armor of Rom.

My brain thoughts: Rom was quick to give up on his 200 year long mission, but I’ll cut him some slack for jumping at the chance to be human again. Buscema, Akin, and Garvey continue to produce some quality art.

#43. Rom is bursting with happiness. Back in a human body, he celebrates by smelling the plants and swimming in the pond. Little does he know Quasimodo has allied himself with his Wraith enemies, to gain the Rom’s Spaceknight armor. It is an alliance that is short-lived, as Quasimodo uses the neutralizer to banish the Wraith scum, for fear that they will betray him the first chance that they get.

Rom happens upon the people he met from the issue before, and is shocked to see them all in an advanced state of decay. It is here that he suddenly realizes that this bargain may not have been the best for him to make.

Rom Quasimodo is attacked by Doctor Dredd and Brandy Starshine. After a short battle, Quasimodo flees from the cave, with Brandy in hot pursuit. Rom, his human body decaying, sees Doctor Dredd following behind them, and forces him to explain what is happening. Brandy Starshine catches up with Quasimodo, and uses her light powers on him, causing his life essence to separate from the Spaceknight armor. Believing that she has killed Rom, she is broken free from the Wraith spell, and goes to exact revenge upon Doctor Dredd. She finds the decaying body of Rom strangling Dredd to death, and only realizes who he is right before he collapses himself.

My brain thoughts: Quasimodo has been an entertaining villain, and the struggle between being a Spaceknight and being a human is an intriguing one. Brandy gave up her humanity, while Rom wished for his back. More gruesome art from Buscema in this one, with decaying human bodies featured prominently throughout the book. This was another standout two-part story in this series.

#44. As Brandy kneels with the decaying human body of Rom in her arms, she is surrounded by Russian soldiers. She dispatches their weapons easily before escaping back into the cave and Quasimodo’s laboratory. Frantically searching for some way to save him, she receives the promise for help from a creature called The Gremlin.

Outside, a brute of a man named Devastator leads his team of Soviet Super-troopers into the cave.
The Gremlin recounts his tale of growing up in Soviet isolation and monitoring, and how he helped create Devastator and the Super-troopers to defeat the Hulk, which resulted in the blast that ravaged the area they are now in. Fleeing from his government, he has now agreed to use his super intelligence to restore Rom, so that he may defeat Devastator for him.

Starshine moves to delay the advancement of the Soviet warriors, as the Gremlin finishes his work. Using the life energy of the original Rom, contained in a stasis cube, the Gremlin is able to successfully restore Rom to his Spaceknight armor. Rom joins Brandy in defeating Devastator and his troopers.

They return to find the cloned body of Rom in his final death throes, begging them both to embrace the love they have, and not to squander the gift of life.

My brain thoughts: More Hulk characters prompts Rom to wonder for a second time when he will cross paths with the Jade Giant himself. Mantlo is either grasping at straws, or laying down the longest guest-star tease I can ever remember.

#45. Rom lays the body of his dead clone into a freshly dug grave. This is now the second time he has had to lay a human body of his to rest. Brandy expresses her condolences, and the two embrace in love, a moment only about forty-five issues in the making.

The Gremlin interrupts, believing the government that had become so twisted that he fled from it, was probably overrun by sinister Dire Wraiths.

In Moscow, a Commissar of State Security (really a Wraith in disguise) pleads with the Soviet Super-Soldiers Vanguard, Major Ursus, and Darkstar to take on the Spaceknights that had so easily dispatched Devastator. They reluctantly agree.

The three Soviet heroes find Rom and Starshine and engage them in battle. They think they are protecting a nearby Soviet base of great importance, but it is really a Wraith base. The two sides battle, as The Gremlin sneaks off to investigate the strange base. He is quickly followed by Major Ursus.

As the remaining heroes battle, before coming to the eventual conclusion that they are not each other’s enemies, a bloodied Major Ursus returns, confirming their suspicions about the nearby base. As he collapses in the snow, a pack of Albino Hellhounds springs loose from the base on their way to attack.

My brain thoughts: It’s really got to suck to not only lose your human body once, but to lose it again has got to really ruin a day. Thankfully, he has Brandy there for him, newly rechristened as the Golden Gladiatrix Starshine. Finally, they both express their love for each other, and seem to be on their way to fighting Wraith evil as a pair, providing a promising new dynamic for the series.

#46. Surrounded by Albino Hellhounds, Rom and Starshine spring into action. Vanguard and Darkstar are unsure of what to do, but Major Ursa is able to convince them to aid the Spaceknights in defeating the vile Wraith monsters.

After the Hellhounds are defeated, Ursa recounts how he had followed the Gremlin into the secret base. There he found the alien Wraiths, working around a giant cavern in the ice pumping out steam, and surrounded by strange machines.

Convinced that they are all on the same side, they enter the base to discover the secret of the giant cavern. What emerges from the cavern are prehistoric beasts, revived through dark Wraith science. The combined might of the heroes is tested to the fullest, before the Gremlin is able to intervene and shut down the machines reviving the long dead animals. They then set about banishing and or killing the remaining Wraiths.

We pause for this Bullpen Bulletin from John Byrne:

The Gremlin agrees to join the Soviet Super-Soldiers, as they set about fighting for their beloved mother Russia, free from intervention from the state.

My brain thoughts: A wonderful cover by the legendary Bill Sienkiewicz starts this issue off on the right foot, but this was a pretty standard issue in comparison to the high mark the series has been setting as of late.

The reveal of the dark horrors being worked on in the secret base was more than a little bit underwhelming, but there’s nothing wrong with wanting to draw a decaying dinosaur attacking a man in a robot suit. Boy, John Byrne sure was good at Marvel in the 80s…

#47. A young Dire Wraith beast stalks the woods of Clairton, West Virginia. He comes upon a broken down car, a woman, and my new favorite character from the entire series, Johnny Ross.

Smooth, isn’t he?

Anyway, their brains are quickly sucked dry, and their bodies replaced by Wraith monsters.

Rom and Starshine are flying somewhere over the China sea, when Rom begins to freak out about their unnatural love, and his continuing frustrations over losing his humanity. He streaks off towards a nearby island.

Unfortunately for them, but fortunately for us, this island is inhabited by the crazy cartoon-like character Brynocki, last scene battling Shang-Chi in Master of Kung-Fu #119. The rest of the issue involves Brynocki unleashing his wacky antics upon the two Spaceknights, until they finally give up and just leave.

My brain thoughts: It appears that the beginning of this story revealed how a Wraith is able to gain its shape-shifting powers for the first time as a youngster. They suck the brain dry of a victim, and then replace it. Altogether a pretty chilling scene, adding to the science fiction vibe this series has used to great effect from time to time. I remember Brynocki from reading him in Master of Kung-Fu, as the cartoon silliness was a standout for me in that series. It was great to see him used here as well. The end of the story actually made me feel a little bit sorry for the little guy.

Mmmm, Red Sonja ad.

#48. Late at night in the United Nations building, a meeting between two factions of Dire Wraiths takes place. One faction believes their dark sorcery to be the answer, while the other side prefers to use science.
Flashing back to their time on Wraithworld before the war, it is revealed that the Sci-Wraiths were able to convince their ruler to attack the nearby golden galaxy using their sinister science.

Back in the present, the Wraith-Witches blame the Sci-Wraiths for their eventual defeat, and their retreat across the universe from the deadly Spaceknights. A battle breaks out between the two factions, with the science loving Wraiths meeting their ultimate end.

Back to Rom and Starshine, Rom is still distraught over their lost humanity, and questions why Brandy would make that kind of choice. She tries to convince him that she did it to be with him, and that she wanted to help fight for the safety of her world. Rom pleads with her to join him in abandoning the mission, to find a way to restore their humanity, and find a world where they can live happily ever after. Starshine rejects leaving the Earth unprotected against the Wraith plague.

After they both stop some human muggers from preying on a poor woman walking alone down an alleyway, Starshine is able to successfully convince Rom not to quit, and renews his drive to complete their mission.

My brain thoughts: The establishment of two warring factions of Dire Wraiths could be an interesting one if it is explored further. The backstory of how the decision was made to invade Galador was an unexpected surprise. Hopefully Rom will get over this melancholy he has been mired in for the past few issues. I feel for the guy, having to bury the decaying body of his clone, the second time he has had to say goodbye to his body, but we need to move on from this already. I feel like maybe they were stalling for issue fifty at this point. Boy, does Brandy Starshine's face really creep me out.

#49. Swarms of pudgy Wraiths descend upon Clairton, West Virginia. They suck the brains dry of many of the peaceful residents, only to replace them. Even Steve Jackson and Brandy Clark’s parents appear to perish in the onslaught.

The next morning, Rom and Starshine return to Clairton. Rom is still troubled by the loss of his humanity, and what Brandy has sacrificed to join him. He again tries to warn her of the crushing weight of being a Spaceknight, and to convince her of the need to be emotionless in the war to come.

They reunite with the Torpedo, and the rest of their loved ones. Rom senses something odd with Brandy’s parents, but is prevented from scanning them by Brandy herself. She is letting her love and emotions cloud her judgement.

Rom and Starshine join everyone for a dinner party later that night, only to be ambushed by the Dire Wraiths in disguise. Before they can react, the Wraiths use their sorcerous might to cast them off into a distant dimension, a limbo of sorts. Trapped and surrounded by strange monsters in the shadows, Brandy comes to the realization that everyone she has ever loved is probably dead.

The last page reveals the arrival of Skrulls on Earth.

My brain thoughts: Brandy sure is an idiot. She was so determined to convince Rom that they can still have human emotions and feelings, that she ignored all common sense and didn’t let Rom scan her parents despite their strange behavior. Can it really be that we've seen the deaths of Steve Jackson and Brandy’s parents?

#50. This special double-sized fiftieth issue opens with the Skrulls having landed on Earth, on what appears to be a mission against the Dire Wraiths.

The Torpedo soars the Clairton skies, happy because he has decided to retire as the town’s protector now that Rom has returned. Unfortunately for him, he is ambushed by the Wraiths, and his head is sucked as dry as a toddler’s juice box.

In the strange dimension that has become their prison, Brandy Starshine has broken down in despair. As shadow monsters engulf Rom, he pleads with her to fight.

The Skrulls stalk the streets of Clairton. They find the home of the Torpedo, and slay the Wraith that had taken his place. Just for good measure, they torch the house as his widowed wife and kids run off.

Rom calls to Brandy again, trying to convince her to act, to prevent further loss of human life. The pleas work, as Brandy rises to help, and in so doing, transforms her outer shell into a new form of her own design.

Using her light powers, she is able to free them from their dimensional prison, and they arrive back in Clairton to see it in flames. Finding the Skrulls and the Wraiths, the battle begins. Starshine shows no mercy, killing every Wraith she can instead of banishing them. Rom fears that she has become too cold and cruel, and banishes the remaining Wraiths before she can kill them.

In her rage, she turns her eyes upon her childhood home, and sets is ablaze.

Post battle, Rom talks to the Skrulls about their mission on Earth. Apparently the Dire Wraiths were a deviant branch of Skrullkind prone to practicing dark magicks and arcane arts. As their kind grew, the Skrulls felt they were becoming a threat, and sought to exterminate them, but they fled to the Dark Nebula. Content to leave them there to rot, the Wraiths eventually returned to the universe after their failed attempt against Galador, so the Skrulls once again seek to eliminate their mistake.

My brain thoughts: Rom seems all over the place here. He spends two issues talking to Brandy about how they are no longer human with real emotions, and how they have to harden themselves for war, but he still mourns the death of Brandy’s humanity. It’s cool how they were able to tie the Wraiths into the Skrulls, as their shape-shifting gave them an obvious similarity. Once again, we witness the death of a long-time supporting character in the Torpedo. Finally, my prayers are answered and creepy diamond-headed Starshine is gone, replaced by a not-great but still less horrible new design. I liked the pinups and the Assistant Editors' Month joke page that finished out the comic.

Annual #2: A flashback story by Mantlo and Buscema sees Rom decimating a Wraith armada, on the way to his first look at Wraithworld in the dreaded Dark Nebula. As Rom sets about to banish them all, Wraith witches weave a spell to make him see enemies when they are not there, in the hopes of escaping in peace.
A squadron of Spaceknight warriors is dispatched to find the missing Rom, and they are able to successfully find and free Rom from the spell’s effects.

My brain thoughts: I hope I never have to read about these other Spaceknights again, but I suspect that I will.

My final brain thoughts: The mostly solid storytelling continues on this series, with a few excellent issues and moments sprinkled throughout. Highlights of this run include the Quasimodo issues with Rom’s clone, the creepy scenes of the Wraiths sucking human brains dry, and the heightened intensity of the war and its casualties by the fiftieth issue. So many long-time supporting characters met their end in this set of books. Nobody is safe in this series, and you can’t say that about many superhero comic books in the history of this medium. By my math, I am about two-thirds of the way finished with this series, and that fills me with both joy and sorrow. On one hand, it has been a great pleasure reading this cult classic of a series in full for the first time. On the other hand, that's still twenty-five more issues to read and write about, and that sounds almost like it might take some actual effort (despite what you all may think!).

The stakes have been raised, the bodies have piled up, what is next for our squabbling duo of Spaceknights in love? Join me (pretty pretty please?) for the next exciting installment of my ROM: SPACEKNIGHT retrospective!

Go to Part 6!

1 comment:

Shlomo Ben Hungstien said...

some fan art tie-in to ROM 50 i think you'll like https://www.deviantart.com/csuhsux/art/ROM-spaceknight-on-the-hunt-in-The-Skrull-Empire-801515020

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