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)
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
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--
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
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.
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.
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.