Back in 1979, Marvel, like every other entertainment producer, was still feeling the effects of STAR WARS’ massive success. Science fiction was hot in a big way, and everybody wanted a piece of it. Marvel themselves was already producing a monthly STAR WARS comic, but that wasn’t enough. For new ideas, new Marvel head honcho Jim Shooter turned to a then-unusual source: toy companies. In short order, 1979 saw three new monthly Marvel series based on new action-figure lines. The first, SHOGUN WARRIORS, based on Mattel’s amalgamation of a half-dozen or so different “giant-robot” series into a single toyline, didn’t quite pan out, only lasting 20 issues or so under the pen of writer Doug Moench. However, the other two were much bigger successes both creatively and financially, and were so well received that the characters and their backstories became fairly well entrenched in the fabric of the Marvel Universe. It’s probably no coincidence that the two successful comics in question, MICRONAUTS, based on Mego’s popular translation of the Japanese MICROMAN toyline to American shores (and the subject of a future column), and ROM, SPACEKNIGHT, based on Parker Brothers’s electronic robot toy, were both adapted to comics and written for the majority of their runs by the same man: writer Bill Mantlo.
The ROM toy itself was the brainchild of inventor Lawrence “Bing” McCoy, who patented his notion for an electronic action figure (then dubbed “Cobol” by McCoy, named after the programming language) and brought it to Parker Brothers, who bought the concept, redesigned the look of the toy and changed his name to “Rom.” According to an interview with McCoy at the “Rom Spaceknight Revisited” Web site, McCoy first pitched his electronic action figure as an Egyptian mystic type, and retooled it as a cyborg when no toy companies showed any interest. The toy bucked the trends of action figures at the time, which had all gone to a much smaller 3 ¾” scale after the mad success of Kenner’s STAR WARS figures. ROM towered over everything else at around 13 inches tall. Rom’s big selling point was all of his electronic features.
With the flip of a switch at his shoulderblades, Rom’s eyes would come to life, two red LED lights in his helmet’s visor. Located at the top of his rocket pack were two toggle switches, which when actuated in different combinations would activate all of Rom’s electronic features. A single push of one of the switches would activate Rom’s rocket pack, sparking red LED lights at the “jet exhaust” of the rocket pack and creating an “engine noise” emanating from the speakers in Rom’s torso. Pushing the same button would activate Rom’s respirator, essentially just creating a Darth Vader-style heavy breathing sound.
Rom also came with three handheld devices, which would plug into his side so as to also be controlled by the toggle switches on his back. First off was the Translator, a large two-handed device that Rom would ostensibly use to communicate with alien cultures. Push the button on his back three times, and the Translator would make with more flashing red LED lights and a large stream of chirpy boops and beeps, not unlike, say, R2-D2. Next was Rom’s weapon of choice, the Neutralizer. Push the button four times when the Neutralizer was plugged in, and the weapon would go off with a sinister-sounding crackle amid a background of static. But how would Rom know who he should be Neutralizing? Ah, that’s where his third and final piece of equipment comes in: the Energy Analyzer. Plug in this bad boy and hit that button — you guessed it — five times, and wait for the Energy Analyzer to deliver its verdict with a series of “GONG!”s, one for good, and two for evil.
Now, for all you kids today with your iPods and your DVDs and your Nintendo DSses, I’m sure this all sounds horribly primitive. But you’ve gotta realize that for 1978, this was pretty advanced stuff technologically. Rom was pretty much top of the line, sad as that sounds nowadays.
Parker Brothers then went to Marvel with pretty much just the toy, the name “Rom, Spaceknight,” and the notion of a villain of the piece having the name “Dire Wraith,” and proposed them making a comic-book series out of it.
Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter agreed, and handed the project off to journeyman writer Bill Mantlo and his frequent collaborator, artist Sal Buscema. Mantlo was never a superstar at Marvel, but he could probably be best described as the company’s utility infielder; throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Mantlo worked on just about every comic Marvel produced, with lengthy or notable runs on books like MARVEL TEAM-UP, SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN (where he created the characters Cloak & Dagger), INCREDIBLE HULK and ALPHA FLIGHT. However, Mantlo’s best work was on the two series which he for all intents and purposes created, MICRONAUTS and ROM. MICRONAUTS allowed Mantlo to engage in some large-scale storytelling, creating all the worlds and races of the Microverse amid an epic, mythological-tinged storyline, while ROM, at least at the start, was more of a 1950s style “aliens invading Earth pastiche, with the added twist that the invading alien turned out to be the hero, while the humans he slaughtered were secretly the disguised alien threat. Back to that in a bit. Mantlo continued his comic-book career until the late ’80s, when he gave it up to begin his career as a public defender, having used his comics career to put himself through law school. Tragically, Mantlo was struck by a car while rollerblading in 1992, and suffered incurable brain injuries as a result. He continues to suffer from cognitive problems and memory loss to this day, although he has managed to recover physically. For those of you who are, like me, fans of Mantlo’s work, at last word from his brother (Bill’s primary caretaker), despite his challenges, Bill still loves and appreciates fan mail, and you can drop him a line at:
C/O The Mantlo Family
1995 Miller Place
Merrick, NY 11566
To get back on track, the first issue of ROM SPACEKNIGHT hit stands in December 1979, with an offering from Mantlo and Buscema entitled “Arrival!”
The story opens with a bang, with Rom crash-landing from deep space in the hills of West Virginia, just outside the small town of Clairton.
Within minutes of his arrival, Rom is met by the first Earthling to lay eyes upon him, Clairton resident Brandy Clark, who in her shock and panic nearly wraps her car around him. Rom saves her from driving her car off a cliff in fright, then summons his Energy Analyzer from “subspace” (a handy way for him to have his weapons whenever he needs them without having to toe them around all the time) and scans Brandy, and when he learns that she is in fact human, he departs.
Rom next surfaces in the middle of Clairton’s town square, where he again scans the populace with his Energy Analyzer, this time discovering two Clairtonians who aren’t what they appear to be. Before the eyes of a horrified crowd, Rom summons his Neutralizer and blasts at the two men, seemingly disintegrating them in cold blood. In actuality, Rom’s neutralizer doesn’t kill the Wraiths, but merely banishes them to the phantom-dimension of Limbo.
Also watching the attack was Brandy Clark, curious why Rom would save her life, only to murder two of her fellow townspeople. Looking for information about the planet himself, Rom takes Brandy to the outskirts of town, and uses his Translator to learn English, after which he tells Brandy that the men he neutralized were not humans, but actually shapechanging aliens known as Dire Wraiths, an evil race he’d been seeking and hunting down for centuries.
Rom tells Brandy about his homeworld, Galador, a peace-loving technologically advanced paradise that spread prosperity to other worlds and expected nothing in return. However, the Galadorian Armada of space ships (its crew seen here in their stylin’ V-neck pirate shirts and big poufy hair) made the mistake of entering the Dark Nebula, a mysterious unknown sector of space where dwelled the Dire Wraiths.
After attacks on the armada by the Dire Wraiths’ ships proved futile, the Wraiths’ sorcerers summoned the all-consuming Deathwing, a dark creature which destroyed the armada and subjected the Galadorians on board to a numbing darkness that “stripped the flesh from their bones.” Yikes. Already ROM was a little more serious than much of Marvel’s line at the time, and certainly a much darker book than you’d expect from a toy tie-in.
News of the Armada’s slaughter gets back to Galador, and its leader, the Prime Director, is also informed that the Dire Wraiths’s spacefleet is headed straight for them, with evil intent. The Prime Director makes a decision of last resort, asking those who would sacrifice humanity to save their planet to come forward. Naturally, the call was answered:
Of the millions who volunteered, only a few were chosen, as their bodies were dissected and grafted onto robotic bodies. Rom’s monologue tells more:
“It was cold under the laser-knives of the surgeons. We lay on the slabs meant for healing and watched our humanity grafted bit by bit onto unfeeling suits of armor!”
Brrr. Pretty creepy for a book ostensibly meant to sell toys. This was always Mantlo’s strength as a writer — on books like this and Micronauts, and even later drek like TEAM AMERICA, Mantlo would always put aside the commercial realities of the project, focus on what was strongest about the concept, and keep that as the emphasis of the series; in this case, the notion that Rom was a cyborg, and his plight as being somehow less than human, in service of an all-too-human oath he’d sworn years before. Rom’s struggle to retain his humanity would remain the central issue throughout the run, as it is revealed not long after the first issue that the remainder of Rom’s human body (along with that of his fellow spaceknights) was retained in cryogenic freeze on Galador, for the day when the Dire Wraiths are defeated and there was no longer a need for the Spaceknights.
Anyway, the newly created Spaceknights flew out into the void to meet the Dire Wraiths in battle, where they, along with their sorcerous creation the Deathwing were defeated Rom and his fellow cyborgs. After that, the Spaceknights split up across the galaxy to track down and destroy the last of the Wraiths — only then would they reclaim their humanity. (And not for nothing, but man, do these Galadorians hold a grudge…)
As Rom and Brandy talk, Rom realizes that his Energy Analyzer only reveals the Wraiths to his cyborg eyes, but to everyone else, they still look like humans as always. Before they can discuss anything else, Rom is attacked by the West Virginia National Guard, which just happens to have a few Dire Wraiths in their ranks. Although Rom is able to shrug off the troops’ conventional weaponry, when one of the Wraiths pulls an alien weapon, they begin to do some damage, and would have gotten the drop on Rom without a warning from Brandy, who now believes Rom’s story and saves him from the Wraiths’ attack.
Another Neutralizing blast from Rom and the Wraiths in the area are banished to Limbo, and Rom is on his way, leaving behind him one very confused young woman and a squadron of troops convinced that Rom is an alien menace bent on slaughtering humans. It’s an ingenious way to begin the series, setting up all the backstory while creating built-in tension in Rom being believed to be a menace by the very people he’s trying to save. Mantlo’s prose, while admittedly a bit purple by today’s standards, is nonetheless satisfying and well-written, and Sal Buscema’s art was excellent as well, beginning a long run of making Rom’s inherently somewhat stiff and clunky Parker Brothers-created design seem at once sleek, flexible and powerful.