A Brief History of ‘ROM: Spaceknight’ in Marvel Comics
Last week, in the pages of Annihilators #1, Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning and Tan Eng Huat did something that I've been waiting for since the resurgence of Marvel's cosmic titles that began five years ago: They began a story that draws on the events of ROM: Spaceknight.
I'd always figured it was only a matter of time before something like this happened. Abnett and Lanning have briefly shown the Spaceknights before in their tenure on the cosmic titles, and with almost 80 issues of space-faring adventure, there's an awful lot there that's begging to be brought back in new ways. Abnett and Lanning are good enough writers that they're able to catch you up on the high points as the story goes on but the history of ROM -- a character originally based on an unimpressive Parker Brothers toy -- is well worth reading.But there was, of course, a huge catch involving the rights to the character. It's a mess that's not only kept ROM from appearing in comics for 25 years, which also means that unlike most every other story told in the era of the trade paperback, the background for what's going on in Annihilators isn't something you can walk into a store and find out by grabbing everything you need to know about the character in a handful of volumes that look nice on a bookshelf.
Originally released in 1979, ROM has the distinction of being, along with Micronauts, one of the first in Marvel's highly successful line of comics based on toys, but with one huge difference that set it apart from the others. Unlike the better-known G.I. Joe and Transformers, which came complete with good guys, bad guys and a story designed to give kids an excuse to bang pieces of plastic into each other in simulations of worldwide and/or galactic conflict, ROM came from a line of exactly one toy: A blocky, barely articulated robot produced by Parker Brothers.
No villains, no backstory, just a robot that looked like an extremely militant toaster with a trio of accessories.
To be fair, ROM did represent a pretty major turning point for toys as one of the first -- if not the first -- action figure to use electronics. Specifically, the toy featured lights and sounds, with LEDs that gave him the glowing red eyes that would carry over into one of the comic book version's most distinctive characteristics.
That aspect of the toy even landed the toy version of ROM on the cover of Time Magazine, peeking out from the corner above the Shah of Iran:
Despite the prominence, though, the article was quite possibly the least flattering action figure review in Time Magazine history:
"Rom is a spaceman doll whose computer memory gives it a disappointingly narrow range of behavior. It breathes heavily (one of its better effects), buzzes, twitters and flashes its lighted eyes, and sounds ominous gongs, one for good and two for evil. The trouble with this Parker Bros. homunculus is that it looks as if it should be able to use its arms and legs like a true robot, and it can't. Rom will end up among the dust balls under the playroom sofa."
You have to admit, though: It's pretty impressive that ROM was Twittering back in 1979.
Even with Time's completely accurate prediction of failure for the toy, the publicity was apparently enough to get Marvel interested in licensing the toy for a comic, which was in turn given to long-time Hulk writer Bill Mantlo to script.
Looking back, it seems like Mantlo was often Marvel's go-to guy for completely insane licenses. In addition to long runs on mainstream titles like Hulk and Spider-Man, Mantlo had also been tapped two years earlier to write The Human Fly, which was billed as being about "The Wildest Super-Hero Ever -- Because He's REAL!"
And he was: During the heyday of Evel Knievel, A real-life Canadian stuntman named Rick Rojatt had created a super-heroic identity for himself, and even went so far as to meet with the people from Marvel while claiming to be the Human Fly's mechanic before excusing himself to go into another room and change into his costume. Someone obviously liked the idea, and thus, The Human Fly ran at Marvel for 19 issues, each one featuring photographs of Rojatt in costume, without ever revealing his identity.
To my knowledge, however, the real-life Human Fly never actually teamed up with Spider-Man.
Once you've done that, then a comic about a robot spaceman based on a toy starts seems like a pretty logical choice to star in a comic book. So Marvel signed on, and in 1979, ads promoting both the toy and the comic began to appear in comics:
I absolutely love this ad for a number of reasons -- not the least of which being that it features ROM's translator, which is about the size of an engine block -- but my favorite part has got to be the stilted instructions beneath each of his accessories that explain what you can pretend they do. Thanks for the help there, guys. I was having trouble with that whole "pretending" process; it really is better if you tell me what the limits are beforehand.
Still, this points to a pretty interesting aspect of the character: When it was handed to Mantlo, there was only the vaguest idea of what he was meant to do. Pretending was all you had when you got a toy that came with a gun with nobody to shoot, which I'm sure led countless ROM toys to end up as bad guys who felt the sting of GI Joe's kung-fu grip. So Mantlo had to create virtually everything about ROM from scratch, using only "comes from space," "analyzes energy to determine whether creatures are good or evil" and "sends bad guys to the shadow zone" as his only guidelines.
While books like G.I. Joe -- which had actually been created as a Nick Fury pitch -- would more or less stick to their own continuity, Mantlo went with a simple solution and rather than creating everything from scratch, sent ROM on "a dread mission of cosmic vengeance" right smack dab in the middle of the Marvel Universe.
It gave his stories a ready-made setting that the comics readers of the time would be familiar with, and ROM fit right into the mold of the soliloquizing, misunderstood hero who was bummed out about his circumstances but determined to use his power to fight for good, blending elements of the Hulk, the X-Men and the Silver Surfer.
Mantlo's ROM was a cyborg -- not a robot, as the toy had been billed -- who came to earth from the planet Galador. Two hundred years ago, Galador had been attacked by the Dire Wraiths, a wholly evil shapeshifting race of sorcerors from the Dark Nebula, who gained their magic powers from a black sun and were later revealed to be a deviant offshoot of Marvel's longstanding alien menaces, the Skrulls.
I just want to go through that one more time real quick: ROM fights shapeshifting witches from outer space. And that is rad.
Anyway, in order to defend Galador, ROM -- who is referred to quite often as being a prime example of the "flower of Galador's youth" -- gives up his humanity to become the first of the armored Spaceknights, which makes him a sort of interstellar version of Captain America. Also, the fact that ROM was a prototype gave Mantlo and artist Sal Buscema a convenient excuse for him to look blocky and have to lug his translator around; when other Spaceknights are introduced later, they have theirs built in and don't look quite like kitchen appliances.
The Spaceknights ended up ousting the Dire Wraiths from Galador, but ROM then spent the next two centuries battling them across the galaxy, only to discover that they had made plans to take over -- you guessed it --the planet Earth. The catch was that rather than doing a full-scale military invasion, the shape-shifting race had completely infiltrated all levels of Earth society, passing themselves off as human while secretly engaging in outer-space witchcraft, decades before that same setup was revisited in the Marvel crossover Secret Invasion.
The hook, though, was that ROM was so weary from 200 years of constant warfare that he didn't bother to explain any of this to humans. He just showed up, checked people out with his Analyzer (the device that allowed ROM to "see if creatures are good or evil" in the toy ad). If they were actually Dire Wraiths in disguise, he'd then use his Neutralizer to send them to limbo, a Comics Code-approved solution that was basically riffing on the old Superman standby of dropping crooks into the Phantom Zone. Unfortunately for ROM, this was a process that looked an awful lot like an alien robot came out of the sky and started vaporizing random citizens with laser beams.
Those are some pretty shocking visuals even when they throw in the "not really dead" excuse, and it led to one of my favorite moments in the character's history. In Power Man and Iron Fist #73 -- sadly excised from The Essential Power Man & Iron Fist for copyright reasons -- ROM goes to New York to try to steal a ship from the Fantastic Four so that he can go home, and takes a few moments to blast a Dire Wraith hooker on the way:
This, of course, leads her distraught pimp to hire Power Man and Iron Fist to fight ROM. With Karate. It's pretty close to being the greatest comic bok of all time.
And it ends with ROM getting exactly what he wants: He does get to borrow one of the Fantastic Four's spaceships, and he does get to go back to Galador, and I'm not joking or exaggerating at all when I say that this is where ROM: Spaceknight gets downright revolutionary in terms of super-hero comics.
The return to Galador in ROM #25 is especially interesting. Despite hearing from the Dire Wraiths that his homeworld was destroyed, ROM goes back to find that it's not only still there, but that it's completely at peace, and what's more, he's the unquestioned ruler despite not having been there for 200 years.
This is another idea that would come up again later; Alan Moore's run on Wildcats involves a very similar plot of alien warriors who have been fighting on Earth for centuries returning to their homeworld to find that the war's been over for quite a while, but nobody bothered to tell them since they were so far away.
In ROM, though, there was the added problem of the imposter he encounters, a fellow Spaceknight called Terminator who raids ROM's human body for parts after his own is destroyed, robbing ROM of his chance to ever leave his cyborg armor. It's a surprisingly elegant metaphor for both ROM's desire to put the horrors of war behind him and regain his "humanity" by going back to a life that isn't constant combat in a place far from his peaceful home, as well as a discussion of what exactly it is that "humanity" means, and whether ROM truly gave it up when he lost his body.
Interestingly enough, ROM forgives Terminator for taking away his only chance of ever becoming "human" again, seemingly embracing the ideal of humanity over the physical aspects...
...but then almost immediately afterwards shows himself to be willing to commit genocide against his enemies on a planetary scale by leading Galactus to the Dire Wraith homeworld:
It's a clear riff on the Silver Surfer -- the cover for the next issue even plays on that by referring to ROM as a "silver rider of the spaceways" leading Galactus to sustenance -- but while the Surfer was a pacifist who acted to save his world and became caught up in an amoral force of nature, ROM is a soldier who is actively using Galactus as a weapon to strike at his foes. It's a more complex and subtle look at the nature of war and how it changes someone than readers expected.
Of course, it wasn't all quite that heavy. There were plenty of stories that were crafted from the same pure fun of overblown comic book melodrama that fueled the X-Men. Heck, those guys even made several appearances in issues that involved a half-Dire Wraith mutant named Hybrid, who is unquestionably the most hideous villain ever designed:
Those slimy leg-stumps alone are among the grossest things I've ever seen in a comic.
And of course, there's also the fact that ROM did what all aliens who come to Earth do in Science Fiction, which of course is fall in love with a human woman. In ROM's case, it was Brandy Clark, who was briefly a Spaceknight herself, and whose wedding ROM once interrupted in the most hilarious way possible.
But for the purposes of Annihilators, it's the cosmic stuff that matters most now.
With the end of ROM: Spaceknight, the rights to the character left Marvel, and while that means that we never got to see what amazing horrors a ROM book circa 1991 would've looked like, it also means that they can't be reprinted.
But since Mantlo had been given such a blank slate on which to create at the beginning, everything else stayed. The Spaceknights, the Dire Wraiths, Galador, even the hippy-looking version of ROM's human form...
...those were all things that were created by Mantlo at Marvel, for Marvel, and they're a part of the greater universe, as evidenced by 2000's five-issue Spaceknights miniseries and appearances by ROM in his human form in Earth X and at Rick Jones's wedding in the pages of Incredible Hulk #418.
And really, if there was any doubt that ROM was a Marvel character through and through, the fact that Rick Jones was his sidekick for a while should clear those up toute suite.
So while they can't use ROM himself -- at least until someone clears up the rights that aren't making anyone any money right now -- Abnett and Lanning have an awful lot to work with, and to that end, it looks like they've done their best to give us the next best thing: a new Spaceknight named Ikon...
... who is, for all intents and purposes, a gender-swapped verison of ROM. She even talks about him, though in typical legal-troubles fashion, his namedrop is just as Galador's "greatest warrior" rather than his name.
But they've gone further than just including a Spaceknight in the story, the entire plot is heavy with references to ROM: Galador keeping watch over the Dark Nebula to ward off the threat of the Dire Wraiths, the return of the Black Sun from limbo where ROM banished it way back in 1985.
I've got high hopes for it. In short, it looks like it's going to do what Abnett and Lanning have done so well with so many of the characters they've featured, from Starlord to Jack Flag and even Nova: Plucking them from obscurity and building on what came before to tell incredible new stories. ROM -- and Mantlo -- deserve nothing less.