This article originally appeared on the Comic Convesations site in May of 2015. Shortly after IDW revealed plans to launch a new Rom comic which I personally take credit for. The comic came out last month and is a massive disapointment, but please 80’s nostalgia fans calm down, no one has raped your childhood (unless you were taught at school by a Catholic Priest or appeared on a BBC kids tv show back in the day). Instead let’s look back with fondness at a character and comic that was far better than it had any right to be.
“When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.”
Unless you’re a comic fan, in which case you carefully store those childish things in mylar bags, stick em in a specially designed comic storage box and hide em away in a wardrobe. Years will pass, but rest assured a particularly rainy afternoon will come along or some Royal event that monopolises the media will need to be escaped from (I’ve got a setlist of movies and comics at the ready to fill several days for when the Queen dies), and you’ll be there swimming in those refreshing and sometimes deceiving waves of nostalgia.
Recently I blew the dust off my comic storage boxes while searching for copies of Alpha Flight for research while writing one of my first pieces for this site. In doing so I came across comics I hadn’t thought about in years, some I’d forgotten I had and some for the life of me that for the life of me I can’t remember ever buying (It was a real treat to discover I had the first two Sensational She Hulk issues). One little bundle of comics really stirred my sentimental side and in many ways took me back to where my obsession with Marvel started. Of all things it was Rom Spaceknight.
The first ever American format comic I ever owned was a copy of Rom, (issue 46) that my dad bought for me one Sunday morning, I’m guessing the golf was on and he wanted to keep me quiet. As a kid I loved it, as like a lot of boys my age I was heavily into Sci Fi at the time and enjoyed anything that featured a robot. Although the usual role for a robot would be as sidekick (normally with that insufferable comedy relief vibe ) here was one in the starring role and even had a robot girlfriend who in a funny way was kinda hot, although I would later learn Rom was more of a cyborg.
It was a couple of years before I had access to a regular supply of Marvel’s American output, but when I did I bought ROM regularly and it was mind blowing to me that Rom resided in the same story universe as Spiderman, Hulk and the X-men (the whole concept of a shared comic universe was pretty astounding to me at the time. Unbeknownst to me while the comic was at it’s creative peak when I began reading it was actually winding down in it’s final year and the character would soon disappear completely from the Marvel Universe.
Rom began life as a toy, originally made by Parker Brothers (the manufacturers of Monopoly, cludeo and trivial pursuit). The character was licensed to Marvel comics as a way to build interest in the Toy and give him a backstory and personality. As it happened the comic proved more popular than the toy it was meant to be promoting.
Rom as a toy was not a success and was poorly received. It’s a clunky looking design, devoid of any real charm and even at the time looks heavily dated compared to other depictions of robots in film and television (Star wars had been around for two years at the toys release). Marvel at least streamlined Rom’s appearance, giving him a more humanoid, muscular body and giving the head a much needed makeover. Despite the alterations Rom still presented difficulties as a lead character as artists had to adopt to showing Rom’s eyes glowing in different intensities in order to convey any expression in his face.
The direction of the comic for it’s entire seven year run was given to reliable hand Bill Mantlo who also steered another licensed property Micronaughts to cult success. The first issue rushes through Rom’s origin in true Marvel style at the time, where we learn Rom was originally a member of the humanoid race from the planet Galador and was amongst the many volunteers who became cyborg Spaceknights when their home was invaded by the alien race known as the shape shifting Dire Wraiths. The wraiths were defeated and scattered throughout the galaxy, while a large number fled to earth and used their shape shifting to hide and infiltrate the population. Rom arrives in the first issue and promptly hunts down wraiths using a “neutraliser” to banish them into a realm of Limbo. Naturally to witnesses it looks like Rom is indiscriminately disintegrating humans and so he ends up being hunted and feared by the people he is trying to protect, so yeah we have the whole misunderstood hero thing going on.
It’s a credit to Mantlo and original artist Sal Buscema that Rom was a lot better than it had any right to be. It’s neither classic or ground breaking, and the dialogue and melodramatic stories (Rom does lots of introspective on his lost humanity and remembering those close to him who have been hurt or killed by the Wraiths) are of their time. However for a comic designed with kids in mind it’s lively and entertaining. Rom exists within the regular Marvel Universe and guest appearances seemingly occur almost every issue. It could almost be called a Rom Team-Up series as he joins forces with pretty much everyone in Marvel at the time, though in true Marvel fashion normally after battling against them. X-men, Spiderman, Namor, Doctor Strange, Hulk and even some really obscure heroes such as Jack of Hearts and Torpedo make appearances. There’s even a story where Rom becomes a herald of Galactus and uses this position to try to set the planet devourer onto the wraith’s home planet to destroy the threat once and for all. Which is an ingenious move though slightly dickish for a hero to do, even Galactus seems appalled by the act.
What I find refreshing about Rom is that despite the overall story arc that became known as the Wraith Race, individual stories only tended to run for a few issues at most. This means that as a kid it was easy to sample issues now and again and still find them really accessible. This is something I think is missing in today’s comic and I do wonder if younger children and casual buyers as a whole are kind of forgotten in favour of the older more committed audience. Most comics I read for the first time as a kid I could get into fairly easy without knowing a thing about the characters and background. Can you really say the same of today’s comics? Next time you read a bunch of Marvel’s current output ask yourself if a brand new reader could get instantly into this.
When I picked up on Rom as a regular read the wraith war storyline that the comic was based on was heading towards it’s conclusion. In the early issues The wraith threat was more like a body snatchers style of threat, with them hidden amongst the populationdisguised as humans and their alien side an uninteresting ghostlike image. However later threat had escalated into a full fledged, open invasion,with the Wraiths totally revamped into a more overtly violent monster race ( these new wraiths were explained to be the more dominant females of the species who had grown impatient by the failures of the ghost like males) . By now Rom had a strong supporting cast, as well as girlfriend Brandi who for a time was also a spaceknight named Starshine. The comic regularly featured a cancer suffering Rick Jones and a government sanctioned military unit called the wraith hunters. The series also crossed over with the X-men as Forge became a key player when reluctantly adapting his mutant stripping power weapon into an anti wraith one.
The final battle guest stars a massive amount of Marvel heroes and it’s a satisfying end to a conflict that had built up successfully subtly impacted across the Marvel Universe as a background story. With the license to the comic expiring for the final ten issues Rom embarks on his return home, only to find the humanoid population of Galador has been killed by a new breed of spaceknights that have rejected their humanity. After defeating the spaceknights Rom finds that his is the only humanity that has been preserved and becomes human again and the final scene is of him and Brandi intending to repopulate Galador themselves. Which is a lovely idea for Rom and Brandi having the chance to begin their own family, but I do fear what Galador would be like after presumably a hundred years of inbreeding. As a man in Preacher once said “you can’t fuck your sister and expect much good to come from it”.
Rom as a comic was never a massive seller, however sales were never below cancellation numbers. It was a decent, enjoyable comic, of the pulpy 80’s sci fi variety. Modern readers may find it dated, but it’s remembered fondly and recalls warm, admittedly rose tinted feelings of nostalgia. There have been many calls for Rom to return and especially with the cosmic side of Marvel enjoying a resurgence in interest thanks to Guardians of the Galaxy, now would be perfect time for him to be battling alongside Rocket Racoon and co.
Sadly it can never happen. Marvel no longer have the rights to Rom. Not only can there be no new Rom stories, Marvel cannot reprint the original series into a collected graphic novel or include it on their on Marvel Unlimited. Even his guest appearances in other comics have become problematic, as collected editions on comics such as Incredible Hulk or Powerman & Ironfist are missing issues where Rom appears.
To me it’s a shame. If someone can make an awesome mini movie of the Power Rangers of all things, then think what someone could do with a reboot and updated version of Rom Spaceknight? (Note: The answer sadly is do a lazy rehash of the original series and rush it into their shared Universe with their other licensed properties Transformers, G.I Joe and no doubt MASK and Micronaughts)
Well maybe hope is not lost. At last year’s San Diego Comic Con hasbro released a limited edition 25th anniversary Rom version of those bobble head toy things that seem to be everywhere at the moment.
And just a few weeks ago I mentioned the sledgehammer to your eyeballs, piece of crap comic Dark Knight Strikes Again on this site and as bad luck would have it the unwanted third piece of the trilogy was announced shortly after. So maybe I’ll be able to jinx things in a positive way this time. (Note: God I was so naive, you fucking idiot 2015 Dazza)
I’m betting there are a few people my age who haven’t completely put away our childish things are hoping so. In fact the nostalgia bug has infected me so much in revisiting Rom for this piece that I’m embarking on a nerdy little mission and intending to track down and collect all 75 issues (and any guest appearances in other series, depending on cost). The trick being without resorting to ebay. (Note: I’ve so far got nowhere with this.)
So till next time, I’ll be the Bill Murray lookalike raiding the back issue stalls at your local comic fair.
Meanwhile some random Rom trivia:
Rom appeared on the cover of the December 10th 1979 edition of Time Magazine, well in the top corner. The article in the issue pretty much slammed the toy. But is anyone clambering for a comic on Iran’s deposed Shah?
Rom appeared on the cover of both the Avengers and West Coast Avengers when doing a “who will be the new members” theme. Spoiler he never joins either team.
The toy Rom was licensed as part of the UK’s Action Man franchise, which is the Britsh version of the GI Joe toyline.
An issue of Captain Marvel shows Rick Jones having a toaster in the shape of Rom’s head.
Rom is named after Read Only Memory, his original name was going to be Cobol after the computer language.
A 2000 Spaceknight mini series mentions that Rom (not by name) and Brandi had two sons together. Rom is believed killed in an off panel space battle. (not that Marvel are petty or anything)