I’LL TAKE YOU TO LIMBO, BUT WE HAVE TO GO WAY BACK (or How Am I Supposed to Make Toast When Batteries Aren’t Included?)
Since the dawn of comics, licensed merchandise has been a part of this world of fantasy. It was inevitable that comics would adapt other media and create new stories on the printed page, ranging from Bob Hope to Captain Action to Welcome Back, Kotter. “ROM has come…Evil is on the run!” is how Parker Brothers introduced Rom the Spaceknight, a new toy which boasted to be among the first with L.E.D. lights and electronic sounds. ROM, or “Read-Only Memory”, referred to the chip inside the toy which allowed it to perform simple electronic tasks. The 13-inch plastic figure had very limited movement of its limbs, but came with three accessories which Rom could wield and would glow bright red. These were his Energy Analyzer, a Translator device and the mightiest of high-tech weaponry, Rom’s Neutralizer! Each of these contraptions made strange noises while Rom’s eyes and rocket pods flashed red and his respirator made realistic breathing sounds, all courtesy of a 9-volt battery. “You can pretend he has come from a galaxy far away to share heroic adventures with you!” Well, in 1979, “the mighty champion of justice and truth, the greatest of all Spaceknights” arrived in the hands of Marvel Comics readers to bring them face-to-face with his war against evil. And so began the saga of Rom!
In the wake of a very popular film of the day named Star Wars, Parker Brothers prepared a promotional video (Betamax) giving Bill Mantlo and Jim Shooter a chance to see a silvery spacefarer who made one heck of an impression. “The robot looked stupid as hell”, recalled writer Mantlo, “but then I saw John Romita’s preliminary sketches for him”. This was followed by a three-page pitch by Mantlo and artist Sal Buscema and subsequent license approval and a green light by Marvel to start off a new series. Unfortunately, Bill’s first draft involved mysticism and witchcraft as the title character crash-landed over in jolly old England, and it was less than impressive to Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter (“This stinks”, he said), so a re-write was put together. TIME Magazine and most others gave the toy a negative review, but the comic book itself was a whole other story. A fiery “comet” comes crashing to Earth and from the crater crawls an armored giant with glowing red eyes, unharmed by the white-hot inferno from which he emerges! When an unsuspecting woman veers off the road to avoid hitting this strange being, he displays incredible strength by catching her car before it careens off the bridge, thus saving Brandy Clark’s young life. Only… what is he? Why does he glare at her so? And what is this weapon that suddenly materializes in his hand, aimed directly at her??!
CNC25Bill rolled his eyes at Shooter’s plot revisions, thinking “This turkey’s going to die” due to a strong parallel to the Silver Surfer’s origin story. However, Rom grew in popularity among Marvel readers, selling approximately 350,000 copies per month in its first year. Rom’s origin is similar to that of the Silver Surfer in that he is a man who gave up his humanity to save his people from an otherworldly threat. But that (and their silvery casing) is where the similarities end. The title would evolve to incorporate science fiction, fantasy and super-hero fare into an epic which lasted for 75 monthly issues and four annuals, along with guest appearances in such books as Incredible Hulk and Marvel Team-Up. That was a run which surpassed many well-known titles such as Dr. Strange, Ghost Rider and Tomb of Dracula. And it all began with an unsuccessful toy. In his comic book tale, Rom activates his strange devices and his enemies reel in terror. However, Brandy Clark’s fears are abated when it turns out to be simply his Energy Analyzer. Rom determines that she is not one of the enemies-in-hiding he has sought across the stars. His rocket thrusters carry him to the nearby town of Clairton, West Virginia (Brandy’s home), where Rom scans the local populace and finds his shape-shifting quarry. Two men among dozens in the streets are blasted to smithereens in front of the townsfolk, and the people of Clairton run in terror lest the “robot” (his metallic casing giving them reason to assume he is a mechanical being) disintegrate them all!
As Mantlo and Buscema were creating a cast of characters within a distinct corner of the Marvel Universe (far away from the usual location of New York City, Clairton of West Virginia was Shooter’s idea), other characters started appearing in the pages of Rom, Spaceknight. These included Stegron, Jack of Hearts, Space Phantom, Power Man & Iron Fist, Namor and the X-Men (at a time when X-Men guest appearances in other titles were not a monthly occurrence). Rom became a well-known character in the Marvel Universe, even earning his own nickname, “Toaster-head” (á la Iron Man’s “Shellhead” nickname). Eventually, characters such as Torpedo would find a permanent home in Rom’s pages while the universe got a little smaller with the inclusion of other Spaceknights, such as Firefall, Starshine and Terminator. The enemy of all Spaceknights, the evil Dire Wraiths, captured the imagination and apprehension of readers of all sorts. Unfortunately, the only being on Earth who could see them without their shape-changing disguise was Rom, thus making him a murdering mechanical menace to all the people he met! While the mayor of Clairton calls for help, Rom takes Brandy to a secluded area outside of town so he can tell her “the Legend of the Spaceknights” (thanks to his newly revealed Translator device). Rom’s world, populated by humans much like Earth, was attacked by Dire Wraiths from the Dark Nebula two centuries ago. Rom was the first of his Galadorian brethren to volunteer to be transformed via technology into a graft of man and machine, a highly advanced cyborg who would travel unaided through space to fight back against the Dire Wraith threat!
The title continued to gain momentum, yet Bill was surprised at its reception by the fans and Marvel’s editorial staff. Sal, however, was running on all cylinders. Mantlo would often receive telephone calls from his penciler to say “I like this story, let’s do more like this” and plot stories in tandem like the legendary Marvel Bullpen was reminisced to do. Bill attributed the book’s success partially to editor Jo Duffy. He appreciated her encouragement and creative contributions, ascribing her “instinctive plot grasp that really kept me on Rom, even when it looked grimmest.” In once instance, Rom’s fan letters featured comments referring to the X-Men’s guest appearance as inspiring them to try reading Uncanny X-Men. That’s right, new X-Men readers were being created because of their appearance in Rom. In another case, Bill and Sal pitched an idea to their new editor, Al Milgrom, which would have Rom face the cosmic threat of Galactus, a Fantastic Four character. They were concerned it would interfere with John Byrne, who was producing that title at the time and had become a bona fide superstar. Milgrom simply replied “Do it! ….So what if Byrne’s writing Fantastic Four now? This book’s just as important.” Outside of Clairton, Rom continues to tell Brandy his story in which the Spaceknights of Galador emerged victorious and routed the Dire Wraith forces toward retreat. It became imperative, however, to eradicate their threat once and for all – to pursue them across the galaxy and banish them to Limbo lest they destroy other worlds with their vile corruption. Brandy knows not whether to believe his story or to think him a murderer, which makes it clear to Rom that his Analyzer “reveals the truth to my cyborg eyes alone” and that is “why the humans fled in terror”. Only HE can see the Dire Wraiths for what they are; to humans, it appears as though he is slaughtering normal people!
Sal departed the title at issue #58 and Steve Ditko came aboard, a Marvel veteran who had helped give birth to Spider-Man 22 years earlier. Steve refused to work on “flawed characters” and believed that heroes should be inherently “noble”, which fit Rom to a T. Inkers “were lining up for a chance to ink [Steve’s pencils], even those who were tied up with other books” so they could work with such a legend. Rom fans were torn between excitement of such a well-known name joining the book and sorrow that Buscema had walked away after defining the look of Rom for so long. Ditko’s style was very different, most notably how Rom’s cyborg eyes no longer shone with blazing cybernetic wonder, but now rested on Rom’s face as two warm dots. Mantlo, however, relished the collaborative process with Ditko over the next two years, noting that Steve was “as involved with the creative part of the story as much as [me].” This marked the end of the years-long partnership between Bill and Sal which spanned Rom, The Incredible Hulk, Alpha Flight and other titles. They parted amicably, however, and Bill always said “The man is a pleasure to work with … he’s got the grandeur and sweep that Kirby had”, which is not a small compliment by any standard. Back in the comic story, the National Guard arrives to face the “man from Mars” who has invaded Clairton. Tanks and armed soldiers converge on Rom from the surrounding hills, yet Rom suspects that there are more than mere humans at work. When he summons his Energy Analyzer to scan the soldiers for the presence of Dire Wraiths, they open fire upon him and the bullets, mortar shells and flame-thrower fire all impact his Galadorian armor without effect. “I have flown near the stars, humans! Your pale, pitiful flame cannot harm me!”
The book made an incredible impact during its run, bringing tension, drama, romance, tragedy, triumph and horror together using inspiration from Them!, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Plan Nine from Outer Space and other 1950s influences. Upon its ending however, Rom, Spaceknight fell into a literal limbo of legal tangles which has kept the book from seeing reprints in trade paperback, hardcover, omnibus or digital formats. Its fans have remained undaunted, however, continually celebrating Rom artwork and other creations paying tribute to ol’ “toaster head” in forums such as Blog for Rom Fans Who Aren’t Dicks (recommended) and Rom Revisted. Some Marvel reprints still contain mentions or appearances of Rom, such as The Incredible Hulk, which is still being printed despite the licensing hangups. In addition, the Spaceknights of Galador weren’t created by Parker Brothers, so they are exempt from likeness infringement; same with the Dire Wraiths. Thus, they have made appearances in Marvel books, including Spaceknights, Darkstar & The Winter Guard, Annihilators, War of Kings and Marvel’s newest mega-crossover-event, Infinity (issue #1 on sale this Wednesday). Despite being denied their hero for decades, Rom fans are as loyal as ever, hoping against hope that the “Greatest of all Spaceknights” will once again fly across our pages, or even a Marvel Studios movie. “Still the humans persist in attacking me!” cries Rom as he hoists tanks over his head and crashes them into one another with soldiers spilling out in terror. One of the soldiers, however, is not what he seems as he reaches into his pack, saying to his fellow National Guardsman “He won’t shrug this off!”. “Hey!” shouts his pal, “I’ve never seen a gun like that before! Where did you…?” The Dire Wraith in human disguise simply replies “Shut Up” and blasts Rom with a bizarre Wraith-science weapon, causing our hero to cry out “Arrgh!” in mortal pain! The conclusion of this issue, true believer, is for you to discover. Copies of Rom, Spaceknight from issues #1 to #75, each annual and all guest appearances can be found in back issue bins everywhere (also online retailers). So, if you’d like to enjoy a title which has inspired the love and imaginations of generations of comic book readers, then I highly recommend chasing down as many of these as you possibly can. By the Gods of Galador, thank you for joining me these past 25 weeks, and Fare Thee Well!
Rom, Spaceknight #1 is written by Bill Mantlo (with contributions by Jim Shooter), penciled and inked by Sal Buscema, lettered by Tom Orzechowski, colored by Bob Sharen and edited by Jo Duffy, with a cover by Frank Miller and Joe Rubenstein. Thanks to David Holsey, Adam Besenyodi, Michael Mantlo, Chuck Huber, David Yurkovich, Jim Shooter, Gary M. Miller and others for material.
Rick “Smash” Hansen