Jun 18, 2012

Back Issue Ben: ROM: A Retrospective, Part 6

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

ROM: SPACEKNIGHT: A Retrospective
Part Six: The Curse of Michael Myers

by Ben Smith

Click here for part 1.
Click here for part 2. 
Click here for part 3.  
Click here for part 4.
Click here for part 5.

I'm running out of different ways to write this opening, as I am lost in a sea of regret over my remedial writing abilities. Anyway, blah blah blah, for those that came in late, blah blah, 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 five parts, Rom is the hero of the alien planet Galador, charged with ridding the universe of evil alien shapeshifters the Dire Wraiths. Bill Mantlo and Sal Buscema have written and drawn every single panel up to this point (excluding the occasional annual and backup). Last time, Rom was joined in his quest by the human woman he loves, Brandy, as she sacrificed her humanity to merge with the Spaceknight body of Starshine.

Things did not exactly work out well for the duo, as Rom struggled to reconcile his affairs of the heart with his mission. The body count rose, and the people of Clairton suffered the consequences, leaving Brandy Starshine cold and ruthless. What could possibly happen from here? Join me and find out, won't you? Reading is fun!

#51. Brandy Starshine is still on a rampage, tracking down the Wraith enemy and brutally dispatching them. Rom attempts to plead with her, temper her vengeance, but in the end can only offer her comfort.
Clairton, West Virginia prepares a mass funeral for their fallen townsfolk. A news crew is on the scene to record the strange events, as empty caskets are carried through the streets, eventually arriving at the local cemetery, where Rom and Starshine await.

It is there that Rom and Starshine recount the events of the series to that point to the news crew, and eventually live to the entire country. Rom pleads with the human populace, to stand up and fight against the alien enemy with him, and that he will no longer be banishing Wraiths to limbo. From now on he intends to slay them all.

The Wraith menace has been outed to the public at large, and as the issue closes, the Wraiths prepare to respond in full force.

My brain thoughts: I thought I recognized the cover artist on this one, and of course I should have, as it was penciled by the legendary and brilliant Mike Zeck. As for the story itself, the stakes are raised, as the series appears to be taking a new direction. Mantlo and Busceme used a news broadcast as a way to recap the entire story up to that point, and it marks the possibility of a startling turning point in the Rom saga. The Wraiths don't look like they're going to take this lying down, and the headline for the next issue promises "Total War."

#52. The Wraiths are furious at Rom's live declarations to the people of Earth, and respond in full force. A two-page spread gives a glimpse of a furious battle between the evil alien shapeshifters and human beings.

The story picks up with Rom and Starshine surveying the chaotic remains of a giant Wraith attack on an unnamed city on the eastern seaboard. The Army believes Rom now, and takes measures to join forces with him against the threat.

Working with a General Locklin, the Army develops Project Wraithwatch, to find and neutralize the aliens. Using his neutralizer, Rom seeks to aid them in locating areas around the globe of Wraith activity, starting right there in their own facility.

A battle takes place between the soldiers and the revealed aliens, with many human casualties. General Locklin is now convinced more than ever, that the Earth is at total war.

My brain thoughts: The entire time I read this, with the widening panic and the expanded scope of the Wraith attack, I started to wonder if this wasn't some extended dream sequence. It's just been such a massive shift in the series, it almost doesn't seem "real." General Locklin seems like he could be an important new character for this new direction going forward.

#53. Nick Fury and the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier are under attack by the Dire Wraiths. Fury, Dum Dum Dugan, and the rest are eventually able to repel the attack, with many casualties.

Fury brings Rom and Starshine to meet with the President. They try to convince the President that the country and the world are already in a state of war, and that they all need to fight back to combat the menace.

The President addresses members of Congress and the military, to confirm the Wraith threat, and to announce that he has signed treaties with almost every nation on Earth, to work together with Rom and Starshine to defeat the alien invaders once and for all.

My brain thoughts: They cleverly used the Secret Wars miniseries to explain the absence of many of Earth's mightiest superheroes in the war against the Wraiths. I wonder if that will continue to be the backdrop for the rest of the series as the war intensifies. Sienkiewicz is credited with inking some of the pages of this issue, and the obvious ones he worked on look great. This foreshadowed his later partnership with Buscema during the Spider-Man Clone Saga years (shudder).

#54. Down in the sewers of Atlanta, a battle takes place between Rom and his allies against a group of Wraiths. After the battle is over, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents discover that the human victims in those sewers, had been completely drained of their blood.

Above ground, at Mercy Hospital, long-time Marvel sidekick and general hanger-on Rick Jones checks in for treatment. Lately he has been feeling very sick. Meanwhile, in the ESP division of S.H.I.E.L.D., Dr. Strange arrives to mystically give the psychics a boost in detecting Wraith activity. They are able to pinpoint the activity back to Atlanta, Georgia, and specifically Mercy Hospital.

Wraith shadows stalk the halls of the hospital, making their way to the blood bank. Once inside, the evil Wraiths set about margining their mystically tainted human blood with the supply on-hand at the hospital.
Rick Jones receives his diagnosis from the doctor attending him, that his recent exposure with gamma radiation has left his body to weak to survive. Only periodic blood transfusions can hope to extend his life further. As they close in on Rick with the tainted blood, Rom and a team of agents descend upon the hospital.

My brain thoughts: Not only do they go about introducing the least interesting character in Marvel history in Rick Jones, they seem to have scaled back to independent Wraith schemes instead of the full-on war hinted at in the previous issues. This whole book felt very much like a filler issue, stretching out this war storyline. A little bit early in the new status quo to already be dragging things out.

#55. Rom and his team arrive at the hospital, only to find horrible monsters wreaking havoc with the place. Rom uses his neutralizer to determine that the monsters were once human in nature. After defeating the monsters, they head out in search of answers to this mystery.

Happening upon Rick Jones, he recounts the tale of his almost transfusion, but an accidental prick of his own finger turns the medical technician into a monster, with that monster killing Rick's doctor.

Deducing that the Wraiths have tainted the hospital blood supply, they head for the storage room. Defeating monsters along the way, they then located and neutralize the tainted blood.

My brain thoughts: It either took them a really long time to arrive, or those people turned into monsters really quick. Sorry, I know it's comics, but that little point stuck out to me there. What else is here, oh, Rick Jones is here. Sigh.

#56. Before I begin, this issue is of some importance, as it appears to be the first full issue of the regular Rom series not to be penciled by Sal Buscema. Mark Bright takes over on pencils for this issue, and I am left to wonder if we've seen the last of Buscema's work on this series.

Rom and Starshine find themselves at a small coal-mining town in northern Ontario. Rom again tries to reach the ever hardening Brandy, to remind her of the humanity buried deep within.

Marrina of Alpha Flight dives deep into the black polluted waters of the lake near this Ontario town. At the bottom, she finds salmon eggs mysteriously glowing in the dark water. Bringing them back to the surface, and her colleagues Sasquatch and Shaman, alerts the Wraiths watching their experiment from afar.

Unleashing their dread plot upon the populace, the eggs hatch and produce large black skinned monsters which attack the town.

Joined by teammate Snowbird, the four Alpha Flight-ers battle back the attack, eventually joined by Rom and Starshine. Using his magic powers, Shaman cleanses the lake of it's pollution, effectively turning the monsters back into normal fish, but killing every last one of them.

(I always loved this ad for POWER MAN AND IRON FIST.)

The Wraiths, sore losers that they are, unleash more of their mystical spawned fish creatures on the dam overlooking the town, destroying it and sending black waters flowing down on the population and the heroes.

My brain thoughts: More standard Wraith plots instead of the global conflict that was teased at the beginning of this block of stories. Not even Snowbird can save this story from mediocrity. I know that Mark Bright would eventually go on to do quality work on some books that I really loved, but this must have been a point early in his career, and the results would reflect that.

#57. This ad makes me want both comic books and Cookie Crisp cereal. Plus it looks like there was an issue of the Hulk where he and Rom finally met, as teased fifty seven times by Mantlo. Glad to see it happened in this series Marvel!

When I was a kid, I always wanted action figures of all my favorite super-heroes. Actually, I would have been happy just to get a Spider-Man. This ad reminds me of how I had just missed the Secret Wars toy line as a kid, since at this point in my life I was heavily into Transformers.

Oh yeah, Rom and the others futilely try to stop the flood, but don't.

My brain thoughts: Kids today are so spoiled with their Spider-Man toy lines and their Marvel Legends. Me, I just wanted one Spider-Man toy. Oh well, I've more than made up for it by buying everything since. I mean, seriously, I would have never dreamed of having a toy of Iron Fist in my youth. Sal Buscema returned this issue, blowing a hole in that theory of mine about him leaving the series forever.

#58. Ant-Man shows up on the scene at Beaver Lake in Canada. Rom, Brandy, and the members of Alpha Flight recover from their bungling of the flood ordeal, and Ant-Man is caught up to speed on the situation. They called Ant-Man in to help them shrink down into the soil, where the Wraith-tainted waters penetrated, and ascertain the effects of the vile liquid.

Shrinking down Rom and Starshine, Ant-Man leads the two Spaceknights into the ant tunnels. There they find mutated monster ants much like the mutated humans they found in Atlanta. The Wraith plan appears to have been to change the ants, and as they are fed upon by animals in the food chain, the Wraith plague will quickly engulf the Earth.

Seeking to combat the menace at the molecular level, Rom and Starshine shrink down even further, while Ant-Man is sent for help. As Ant-Man returns to the surface, it is already too late, as swarms of infected insects attack the human beings there.

My brain thoughts: The point of this whole ridiculous plot is finally revealed. Somehow I think they're trying to trick me into learning things here, about nature and the food chain. Ecological balance, stop trying to learn me stuff Mantlo! I was looking forward to this issue because I thought this might be Hank Pym (my wife's favorite character), but it's just his substitute Scott Lang.

#59. This issue sees the long-awaited, by me, debut of the legendary Steve Ditko as penciler. I've known for a long time that he worked on this series towards the end of its run, but I've been purposefully not looking ahead to see exactly when it was. Well, here it is, it's happened.

As Ant-Man and the Army battle the mutated monsters on the surface, Rom and Starshine continue to shrink down inside the body of one of the mutated ants.

As both factions meet and defeat various menaces, Rom and Starshine finally are able to locate the Wraith taint at the molecular level inside the infected ant.

Starshine wants to obliterate the innocent ant, while Rom wants to find another way. Using his neutralizer to combat the taint while simultaneously boosting the ant's natural antibodies, the taint is overcome and defeated. The cure then spreads to the other ants, and presumably, to the rest of the animal population infected by the plague as well. The issue ends with Brandy Starshine wondering what has happened to her, how Rom could be fighting this war for over two hundred years, and still be more in touch with his humanity than her.

My brain thoughts: There has been controversy over the level of effort Steve Ditko put into his penciled pages upon his return to Marvel in the 1980s. Some reports have said he did little more than rough layouts, leaving the inkers to do all the heavy lifting. Bob Layton did the finishing on the art in this issue, and there are definitely some pages that look far more like his work than Ditko's, but there are some pages that look the reverse as well. It's an interesting mix between the two, and even if Ditko only did layouts, you could certainly do worse than have an all-time great doing that for you.

#60. Rick Jones (yes, he's still around) is having a nightmare about an Earth that has lost its war against the Wraiths, a burned out world of darkness and horrors. Rom tries to comfort a struggling Brandy, unsure about her fading humanity. A train stuck in the snow on a mountain pass is attacked by a Dire Wraith hoard.
Later on, Rom and his crew arrive at the train to find all the human beings there slaughtered. Inspecting the carnage, Rick Jones comes upon a young girl hiding in the storage car. Seeing the wound of a Wraith tongue upon the child's head, Brandy attacks immediately, only to see her attack blocked by Rick Jones. Scanning the child, Rom confirms the girl is what she appears to be.

The girl recounts to Rom of how her father was killed by the alien beasts, but her mother was able to sever and kill the alien after it had latched on to the both of them. With the process interrupted, instead of taking her mind and replacing it, she gained all the memories and knowledge of the Wraith itself, while also keeping her own thoughts and memories.

My brain thoughts: Starshine's quick attack on the innocent youth further highlights her descent into blood-craved madness. The development of the girl that possibly knows all the Wraith's plots could be an interesting one. Tom Palmer inked the mighty Ditko here, perhaps lending some validation to the theory that many of the inkers refused to work with Ditko at this point in his career.

Annual #3: This oversized story begins with Rom and Starshine saving a kindergarten full of kids from those evil shapeshifting bad guys. Starshine handles the situation with her now usual amount of restraint, which means very little, traumatizing the children as much as possible in the process.

A preacher is baptizing a young girl, when a young boy appears out of nowhere out of the water. That's never a good thing…

Professor X and the New Mutants make a guest-appearance, helping to suppress a forest fire they come upon in their car. Once the situation is taken care of, they continue on their quest to visit Cannonball's family in the nearby town.

Rom and Starshine pinpoint Wraith activity near the home of the preacher and where the fire took place. When they go to investigate, they find the preacher artificially aged, and that Hybrid has returned. Still intent on mating with human females to create a race of his horrible offspring, Hybrid uses his powers to separate Brandy from the Starshine armor, and to sink the church deep into the ground.

Investigating the disappearance of the church, the New Mutants follow an old mining tunnel down under the surface and find the church in a hollowed out cavern below. Hybrid arrives and battles the group, making clear his intention to impregnate every female there. Aggressive little bugger. 

Under the power of Hybrid, only Illyana and Rom remain to battle the evil product of Wraith and human lovemaking. Rom in pain is able to successfully break Brandy out of his spell. She grabs his neutralizer and blasts Hybrid away, despite the danger it will do to herself. 

The issue ends with Rom glad that Brandy is no longer a Spaceknight, and with Brandy comatose in a hospital.

My brain thoughts: Turns out I guessed at the exact right time to read this annual. Big happenings here, as Brandy is once again a human being, separated from Starshine's armor. Good timing to, as the vengeance of Brandy was starting to wear thin. Mantlo wasn't particularly skilled enough to handle that kind of character development without just hammering the same points home over and over, making it more than a little bit tedious for this reader.

My final brain thoughts: The first half of these ten books started out well enough, with a new status quo and a new approach to the series. The promise of that turn of events quickly soured into more standard evil plots by the Dire Wraiths though, and culminated in the horrible ecological terror plot that lasted for four issues. Not even the arrival of the mercurial Steve Ditko could save the ho-hum plots of the latter issues. Issue sixty and the annual did show some promise towards the future, and may indicate one of those classic Rom turnarounds I've gotten so accustomed to. Every time I think this series has lost it, it has come back better and stronger. Ditko on pencils at least promises to provide a renewed level of excitement for me in the artwork. I look forward to seeing more examples of his style blending with the skills of the inkers that worked with him throughout his run. Getting so very close to the end of this series, Mantlo needs to step his game up and end it on a high note. I eagerly await the final verdict, and hopefully you will join me as I discover it for myself for the first time. Only fifteen more to go!

Go to Part 7!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I loved this series! In a way it's one of the first successful self-contained comic book series: ROM has a clear mission, carries it out, regains his humanity, the end. Instead of dragging on, it just reached its natural conclusion. Quite ahead of its time, I think.

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