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To The Stars
In 1979, the character ROM, SPACEKNIGHT was introduced. It was a toy tie-in comic (something Marvel got heavily into at the time), and despite the toy failing rather quickly, it was excellent. No, seriously, it was a fun super-hero story, it was a reversal of the standard alien invasion cliche of the time, it was a meditation on the meaning of sacrifice, the essence of humanity, and the disconnect between war veterans and the peaceful society that requires soldiers to defend their way of life.

And it will probably never be reprinted, because Marvel doesn't hold the rights to the character. Oh, they hold the rights to the villains, the supporting characters, everyone else, but not the title character. Despite this, he's shown up a few times in "stealth cameo" form, never mentioned by name, and usually out of the sleek, iconic bodyshell he's normally depicted in, and there was a (rather disappointing) sequel to his series in the . . . last ten years or something. But it was, as I said, rather disappointing. Anyway, Parker Bros. supposedly still holds the rights, and the rights to his likeness (hence "stealth cameos"), and for whatever reason, they've never allowed Marvel to have 'em back (maybe the licensing fees are just too high? I don't know.) which is frustrating because the comic outlasted the toy by like 5 years, and PB haven't done a thing with ROM since their toy failed. It'd be different if they were trying to revive the toy, or something, but nope. They do nada.

Anyway, for a toy tie-in, of a failed toy, need I remind you, ROM SPACEKNIGHT lasted 75 issues, 4 annuals, several cameos (both stealth and non) and in the memories of fans all over. Here he comes.

(6 images and a cover under the cut)

rom arrival
rom 1 page 1
rom 1 page 2
The woman in the car freaking out is Brandy Clark, the most important supporting character in the series. Longest lasting, too. She is understandably shocked at the appearance of a giant silver man in the middle of the road. Due to page limits, and the compressed nature of storytelling of the time, I can't show everything, but ROM manages to not only stop the car from going off the road, but lift it off the ground, showcasing his first power, super strength. Brandy gets out of the car, still scared out of her mind, pleading with ROM to leave her alone, and he whips out a device and scans her with it, bathing her in reddish light. This is ROM's most important selling point feature, the Energy Analyzer, which he uses to determine if beings are threats or not. It's completely harmless, but use of it doesn't look harmless. This will be important later. He pegs Brandy as not-a-threat, name-drops who he's looking for (the "Dire Wraiths), turns, and showcases his next superpower: flight, using a jetpack built into his back. He jets off, leaving a very confused and terrified Brandy behind him.

He arrives at Clairton, Virginia, population 14,000 (unfortunately, this won't last). One of the main differences between ROM and most of the Marvel comics set on Earth at the time was that ROM didn't take place in New York City. It definitely would've had a different feel if it had, but I think the tragic Bill Mantlo wanted to play up the "alien invasion b-movie" similarities, and most alien invasion b-movies--from then and before--were set in rather rural areas. Also, it shows just how widespread a threat the Wraiths were, if they were willing to infiltrate a mostly unimportant town in Virginia. Anyway, we see a couple establishing shots of Clairton (including an old theater showing the fictitious film "The Creature From Space," and several people reacting to--
rom 1 page 5
rom 1 page 6
Coincidentally, Brandy is in the town when ROM does his thing, and he approaches her. The images, and her reaction, play up the ominousness, but the narration explains that ROM wants her to explain his actions and motivations. As he grabs for her, we cut to the mayor's office, where a police deputy says that ROM has flown off with Brandy, and the mayor tries to get through on the phone to the governor. Whoever's on the other end of the line just laughs and hangs up, and we cut again to the town switchboard, where the operator tries to get through to the Pentagon, and . . . manages to do it? A general in shadows says "there's no need to identify yourself" as only "we" know about this particular telephone exchange. He then asks if the operator is sure ROM is there, using his name, and sends a contingent of the National Guard. Suspicious.

Another cut, this time to a clearing in the woods, where ROM and Brandy begin talking. Brandy's confused about ROM's ability to speak English, but he explains that his translator--another selling point superpower--allows it. Brandy calls him out for disintegrating those townfolk, and ROM explains that he did nothing of the sort. The "townsfolk" were actually Dire Wraiths. Brandy doesn't believe it, claiming she grew up with them, but ROM insists that they were in disguise, and have lived among humanity for a long time. Further, he claims she will understand when he reveals--
rom 1 page 9
Turns out Starfleet the Galadorans stumbled on the Wraiths in the depths of space, accidentally led them back to their world, and realized they would have to mobilize an army to fight the creatures. But they had no standing army, and the Dire Wraiths were in space . . . so what they would have to do was take people and subject them to a dangerous process, "sacrificing their humanity" to become the ultimate defenders of Galador. The leaders outlined their plan to the populace . . . and Rom himself is the first to volunteer for the procedure (we get a more detailed explanation for his motivations later; there's only 18 story pages here, not enough time for introspection!). His act spurs others to join. Millions volunteer, few are chosen, and Rom is one of them. The defenders are dubbed Spaceknights, they go out to fight the Dire Wraiths, and they win, led by ROM.

ROM explains that the Dire Wraiths scattered throughout the universe, and for 200 years, the Spaceknights have sought them and fought them wherever they're found. But Dire Wraiths have an insidious shapeshifting ability, and can disguise themselves as anything. Using his Energy Analyzer reveals them, and his Neutralizer banishes them to Limbo.
rom 1 page 14
So ROM battles the National Guardsmen, tossing tanks into each other and one-punching their machinegun implacements. One of the guardsmen draws a sci-fi blaster and shoots ROM, who fights through the pain and sends the Wraith to Limbo. This unnerves the commander of the unit enough to sound retreat, and in the confusion, Brandy makes for the blaster . . . only to be grabbed by three Dire Wraiths in disguise. Brandy cries out a warning, and ROM fires his Neutralizer. The three Wraiths are banished, leaving only detritus behind, and Brandy wonders aloud if ROM was telling the truth about the banishment. Another disguised Wraith thinks that she did the right thing for her species, but that his own species will never forget that she sided with ROM, who flies off believing he's cleared the area of Wraiths. But the phone operator contacts the mysterious general at the Pentagon again and the issue ends . . .

ROM SPACEKNIGHT issue 1 gives us all of the pieces of the story that will span nearly 80 issues. It starts out like a 50s sci-fi monster movie, only the strange being from outer space is actually here to help humanity, but because of his foreboding appearance and the ambiguity of his actions (and the general suspiciousness of folk in the Marvel universe), he's believed to be a rampaging monster. Meanwhile, the enemy he has hunted for two centuries appears to be regular people, due to their shapeshifting abilities. An everyman human meets the "alien monster" and the beginning of a friendship is formed, and we learn the broad strokes of ROM's origin: a highly advanced culture, with little to no martial presence took a great chance on an untested and dangerous technology, leaving its defenders with diminished "humanity" that they will always pine for.

The sacrifice of humanity is interesting in this case because it's not a metaphysical concept to the Galadoran Spaceknights. They are actually unsettled by the fact that they will be willingly cutting up their own bodies, replacing organs and sealing what's left in a nearly unfeeling shell. Science fiction often uses the idea that cybernetics will mess with your head in some way, but here it doesn't explicitly go into much detail as to why. In Star Wars, particularly the classic trilogy, mention is made of the fact that Darth Vader is "more machine now than man," and how he felt trapped behind the mask and electronic virtualization of the outside world. That he wanted to die seeing his son with his own eyes. ROM and all the Spaceknights have a similar issue, that they may never be able to see "Shining Galador" or anything else with their own eyes, hear with their own ears, taste, touch, etc., but it goes even farther than that.

Imagine breathing. I'm sure most of you do it constantly. The average human breathes between 12-20 breaths a minute. It's automatic, a reflex, rarely a conscious thought. Now, imagine not breathing. You're still going through your life, but absent a fundamental process of that life. No more inhaling, no more exhaling. Now imagine over 200 years of that. The passage of time is something that most people take for granted, because we get tired, we get hungry, we cramp and need to move, we breath. But for the Spaceknights, they no longer have those cues from themselves. The world around you is seperate from you so profoundly, that it shrinks to essentially just you . . . but many of the elements that give you your own identity, your own self-awareness, no longer exist. Over the course of the series, ROM angsts and laments his lot, stuck in the Spaceknight shell, but it's always referred to as a "lack of humanity," and never overtly expressed beyond that. It's in practically every issue, and read all at once, it can get a bit tiring. But really, imagine how it would be! 200 years of a peripheral neuropathy so profound that even internal senses are dulled or completely cut off, replaced only with simulations that are never the same as the real thing. It would be hell.

Voluntary hell, to be sure, but maybe they didn't realize beforehand what they would be signing away. How could they? It's hard to imagine (during the course of my diagnosis and treatment for cancer, I suffered nerve damage that caused intense pain and numbness to my right calf--even with pain medicine, the numbness persisted for a long time; even with that as something of a frame of reference, I still have a hard time imagining what the Spaceknights went through). Over the course of the series, the Spaceknights hold a special reverence for their sacrificed humanity, even more than their too-rarely-seen homeworld. And it's no wonder. If they could regain their lost humanity, I imagine it would be like a blind man being able to see again, a deaf man being able to hear, a quadriplegic being able to move their body, all at once. It would be heaven.


For dial-up:
cover, 1 page 1, page 2, page 3, page 4, page 5, 1 page 6

Sadly, author Bill Mantlo is in institutional care, the victim of a hit and run accident in 1992. More information can be found here, although it hasn't been updated in a while.

Aaron "The Mad Whitaker" Bourque; funny what you think about at 3 in the morning.

Date: 2011-07-29 09:42 am (UTC)
q99: (Default)
From: [personal profile] q99
-Anyway, Parker Bros. supposedly still holds the rights, and the rights to his likeness (hence "stealth cameos"), and for whatever reason, they've never allowed Marvel to have 'em back (maybe the licensing fees are just too high? I don't know.)-

Yea, if I was them, I'd sell it to Marvel. Marvel's the only ones who'd do anything with it after all.

I liked that the Space Knights and Dire Wraiths showed up in Annihilators recently.

Date: 2011-07-29 12:07 pm (UTC)
thatnickguy: Oreo-lovin' Martian (Default)
From: [personal profile] thatnickguy
I wonder if Marvel has enough money/clout now that they're in bed with Disney to afford buying the rights back? Surely the money made on reprints alone would be worth it.

Date: 2011-07-29 12:07 pm (UTC)
an_idol_mind: (Default)
From: [personal profile] an_idol_mind
ROM is awesome. The book sold me the moment I opened it up and saw that Bill Mantlo and Sal Buscema were the guys behind the comic. Even then, no way would I have bet that a toy tie-in would be as awesome as this series turned out to be.

Date: 2011-07-29 12:38 pm (UTC)
nezchan: Navis at breakfast (Default)
From: [personal profile] nezchan
Interesting that his backstory is so similar to Beta Ray Bill's, eh? The whole sacrificing their humanity (or whatever race) to become a champion powerful enough to defend their people, and then having to come to terms with never being able to go back even if their mission is successful.

A good story hook, to be sure.

Date: 2011-07-29 01:15 pm (UTC)
icon_uk: (Default)
From: [personal profile] icon_uk
You Beta Ray Bill's is similar to ROM! :)

Date: 2011-07-29 01:14 pm (UTC)
icon_uk: (Default)
From: [personal profile] icon_uk
ROM was a terrific comic. (I have Annual #2 on my pile of "Issues to post from") so it's nice to see some love for it here!

Date: 2011-07-29 04:22 pm (UTC)
his_spiffynesss: (Default)
From: [personal profile] his_spiffynesss
What really needs to happen is that Marvel needs to negotiate with Hasbro about going in jointly on a ROM movie.

Hasbro is looking to all of their old properties for movie products, and they have a pretty good relationship with Marvel with their pre-existing toy deal, so why not? Marvel gets to reprint the old books and Hasbro gets another big budget action flick for the summer! Everybody wins and makes money on the deal.

Date: 2011-07-29 05:15 pm (UTC)
lieut_kettch: (Default)
From: [personal profile] lieut_kettch
Well, Parker Bros. was bought by Hasbro, which means IDW probably has the inside line to any ROM comics that might be made in the near future.

Hmm... ROM/Transformers. Imagine it... with your mind.

Date: 2011-07-29 05:31 pm (UTC)
queenrikki: (mistygirl)
From: [personal profile] queenrikki
I don't know. I mean, what I liked about Rom was the whole shebang and since Marvel owns the rest of it, I don't know if I'd enjoy seeing just Rom (okay, I actually I probably would). I guess they could reference it on the sly.

*sigh*

Date: 2011-07-29 05:38 pm (UTC)
lieut_kettch: (Default)
From: [personal profile] lieut_kettch
I can where that might be a problem. I guess if Dynamite was able to use Kulan Gath as their Red Sonja villain, some way might be found to incorporate the Marvel-created characters into an IDW ROM series.

Date: 2011-07-29 05:21 pm (UTC)
queenrikki: (grandsons)
From: [personal profile] queenrikki
I was a really huge fan of Rom. I only ever read random issues in the series (and the Marvel Handbook entries) but the whole story was so good that it didn't even matter.

I don't know, maybe Hasbro wants more money than anyone thinks it is worth (wouldn't be the first time). Maybe they just don't want Marvel to have it. It doesn't really matter, I just want reprints so I can actually read it in order.

Date: 2011-07-29 06:31 pm (UTC)
crinos: (Default)
From: [personal profile] crinos
You know, I also like Rom, but he's not really doing a lot to endear himself to people when he first comes to Earth.

I mean he walks into a town, without a word, pulls out a gun and apparently vaporizes two innocent people.

He couldn't take a minute to, y'know, explain what he was doing, or show his weapon is harmless to normal people? He just comes in and nukes two disguised dire Wraiths with no explanation. I mean he does realize how people will react to him, he's not an idiot.

Date: 2011-07-29 07:23 pm (UTC)
icon_uk: (Default)
From: [personal profile] icon_uk
1) How could he be sure the people were normal without scanning them first?

2) He was working on the basis that others could see the Scanners effects, by the time he realised they couldn't, it was too late.

3) Why should humans trust a nine foot tall alien robot from nowhere as opposed to Billy-Bob and Mike from down the road?

Date: 2011-07-30 05:12 am (UTC)
heckfire: (Default)
From: [personal profile] heckfire
The very first comic I EVER got was ROM #15 off the spinner rack (for not crying when I got a shot during a check-up, LOL). My decades-long love of the entire comic book form and experience can all be traced back to that issue.
Looking forward to the rest of this flashback!
(deleted comment)

Date: 2011-07-31 04:43 am (UTC)
jlroberson: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jlroberson
I remember a letter column where a kid thanked him for having the word "heinous" in a story because it made him curious to look it up, and then by chance it was on a test & he got it right. Mantlo seemed very happy to hear that.

A strange little factlet: for indie comics creators of a certain age(around mine, which is 42), this and MICRONAUTS quite often turn out to have been their favorite comics. Perhaps it's because someone who, say, didn't read superhero comics might have had the toys and came to it through that. I was one of these. If I'm honest, at the time Mantlo's comics were the ones I most loved.

In a weird way, poor Bill Mantlo was the bridge between mainstream and indie comics.

It was a weird couple of books in that they were licensed properties, toys--among the first of what became a normal and regular form of cross-marketing but relatively new at the time--that nevertheless were approached as highly idiosyncratic and almost personal products. More, they didn't seem designed for kids, or at least LITTLE kids. They were very dark, and detailed, and their stories were more complex than something like this usually was. It was some of the freakiest shit in mainstream till Alan Moore, in some ways setting up the audience he'd later have. Remember, when Marvel did the first direct-only mainstream comics, this was one of the three books they initially went with. (Another was Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz' MOON KNIGHT, I think, at the point his ink splatter style started coming to the fore)

And Bill was basically telling kids fables about GENOCIDE. (especially in MICRONAUTS) They even managed to make something horrifying and almost mature out of an X-Men crossover, for god's sake--remember the Hybrid story? STILL spooky as hell. And this is before we get to the other wraiths, the ones with the tongues that bore through your skull and suck out your brains for the info to change into you. Very THING. I hope you post some of those. Whatever happened to Akin & Garvey? Now that was a master class in the use of stark shadow, and added a whole new dimension to Sal.

But I also actually like Sal Buscema around this time--in some ways, though of course I understand that John might have been the better draftsman, but there's something rawer and more energetic in Sal, here and in his Hulk stories near this. It's like John was the better illustrator, Sal the better cartoonist. It's fast, loose, intense, and tense.

A while back, I wrote this about Mantlo, MICRONAUTS and ROM. You may like or not.

Pop Parables for Kids: Bill Mantlo

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