For Those Who Came In Late: For the last several weeks, we’ve been exploring the history of the action-figure turned Marvel character ROM, SPACEKNIGHT a series that very soon transcended its beginnings as a mere promotional vehicle for toys, becoming Marvel’s top space-opera series and an integral part of the Marvel Universe, under the pen of writer Bill Mantlo, who imbued the series with a lot more drama, pathos and heart than anyone could have expected. When we left off, most of the population of Clairton, West Virginia had been murdered by the alien Dire Wraiths, and in response to what has become known as the “Clairton Massacre,” former Clairton resident Brandy Clark, now transformed into the Spaceknight known as Starshine, has become obsessed with revenge, swearing to murder every Dire Wraith she can find rather than merely banishing them to Limbo as is the Spaceknight way, a turn of events that her fellow Spaceknight Rom finds very troubling. All caught up? Then let us continue…
The Clairton Massacre was a turning point for the series, as would become very apparent in the very next issue, ROM #51, entitled “Gloves Off!” As Clairton buries its dead, the news media shows up to try to get some answers about what happened to the now devastated small town, its buildings in shamble and so many of its people missing (and as Rom, Starshine and its residents know, destroyed by the Dire Wraiths. When the reporters ask why the empty coffins are being carried to the town’s cemetery, the Clairtonians instruct the press to follow and see for themselves, where they see for the first time Rom and Starshine, who tell the TV cameras, and through them the entire country, the origins of the Spaceknights and the threat the Dire Wraiths pose to Earth.
The country is told of Rom’s arrival on Earth, and the sacrifices he and his friends have made to protect it. Rom also announces that he has given up on mercy, and in the upcoming war with the Wraiths, he too will be fighting to kill. Finally, ROM calls upon the country to rise up and fight alongside him to save the planet.
Soon Rom and Starshine are fighting alongside U.S. Army troops, sweeping from town to town attempting to wipe out the Wraiths hidden within the populations. The magnitude of the problem is made clear at a military command base, where Rom uses his Energy Analyzer to illustrate on a globe just how many Wraith strongholds exist, and in the process reveals Wraiths hidden within their own ranks.
After a bloody battle, the Wraiths are destroyed, and General Locklin is now even more convinced of the Spaceknights’ veracity and the Wraith threat.
After a Wraith assault on the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier, S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury is also convinced of the Wraiths’ assault on Earth, and soon Fury, Rom and Starshine are standing in the Oval Office explaining the situation to President Reagan. In response, the President addresses Congresses, informing them of an unprecedented mutual defense treaty signed by nearly every nation on Earth (betcha it was those damned French who opted out), agreeing to set aside their differences and unite to drive away the Dire Wraiths. Complicating matters is the disappearance of most of the planet’s superhuman community (at the time all kidnapped to deep space in Marvel’s SECRET WARS miniseries), leaving the world relying primarily on their new Spaceknight allies (although the rest of the world’s heroes would get drawn into the fray in time).
With the world now on watch for the Dire Wraiths’ machinations, the aliens begin putting into place more subtle and unseen actions against humanity, which Rom, Starshine and the Army have to ferret out. One such assault leads Rom to Atlanta, Georgia, where the Dire Wraiths have mystically contaminated the blood supply of Mercy Hospital, which will transform the innocent people into whom it’s transfused into hideously mutated monsters. Coincidentally, undergoing treatment at Mercy Hospital at the time is perennial Marvel Comics sidekick Rick Jones, who had in a recent issue of INCREDIBLE HULK intentionally exposed himself to Gamma rays in the hopes of helping his friend Bruce Banner.
Unluckily for Rick, unlike previous folks who got extra muscles or extra brains from a massive dose of radiation, he got what most people would get: cancer.
Rick winds up helping Rom and Starshine destroy the monsters created at the hospital and wipe out all the tainted blood, and following the cleanup at the hospital, he stays on with General Locklin’s Wraithunter Ranger battalion, I guess because of all his valuable sidekicking experience.
Rom and Starshine next team up with Canada’s superhero team Alpha Flight in, of all places, Beaver Falls, Ontario, where the Dire Wraiths take advantage of humanity’s own pollution to convert an entire lake into a virulent contaminant that alters all it touches, making it more poisonous than any toxin ever discovered or created by man. Even worse, the Wraiths then blow up the dam holding the mystically tainted waters of Beaver Lake, sending the cascade of death toward the nearby town.
Despite the best efforts of Alpha Flight and the Spaceknights, the town is destroyed, and hundreds of lives are lost, highlighting another way the series was different than most other comics of the time — Rom didn’t win every battle, Some of them he lost, and lost big, reinforcing just how dangerous the Dire Wraiths were.
Even worse, the poisons from Beaver Lake had now seeped into the soil, threatening all life in Canada. Luckily, Rick Jones uses his Avengers connections to call in the services of an expert: Ant-Man, who’s able to shrink Rom and Starshine to microscopic size in order to Neutralize the Wraith taint at the molecular level.
Just as the Wraith poisons are beginning to affect all of Canada’s animals, with the Wraith-Hunter Rangers fighting off bloodthirsty insects and birds, Rom uses his Neutralizer to create anti-Wraith anti-bodies, which swiftly spreads from a single infected ant to all of the mutated Canadian animals, returning them to normal and preventing future Wraith infections.
The issue in question, ROM #59, was also notable for another reason: it marked the departure of longtime ROM artist Sal Buscema, and the arrival of a surprising replacement: none other than Marvel Founding Father Steve Ditko. Ditko fit on the series like hand in glove and immediately gave the book an all-new and distinctive style.
Under Ditko’s pencil, Rom became much more fluid and flexible, moving with an almost gymnastic grace that he hadn’t exhibited previously. Also, as Ditko got more comfortable with the character, he began to give Rom much more emotional expression than had previously been thought capable with such a featureless character, making Rom’s glowing electronic eyes swell or contract to indicate mood, much as he earlier did with the eyelets on Spider-Man’s mask. Ditko’s arrival on ROM also prompted an avalanche of new inkers coming to the book, as everyone from P. Craig Russell to John Byrne wanted the opportunity to ink Ditko pencils.
Mantlo continued to ratchet up the tension with his “Total War” storyline, as Rom and an increasingly bloodthirsty Starshine encounter a little girl named Cindy Evans, who was about to be duplicated and murdered by a Dire Wraith, but was saved at the last minute by her mother’s assault on the alien. As a result of the interrupted process, young Cindy finds herself with the Wraith’s mind and memories inside her own.
Through her link with the Wraith mind, Rom discovers the Dire Wraiths’ ultimate plan: to recreate their home planet here on Earth through a sorcerous spell called “Worldmerge,” which would summon Wraithworld and its black sun from far across the reaches of space and draw it to our own solar system, where it would merge with the earth and our own sun, plunging it into darkness and making the Earth unfit for humanity. The Wraiths’ plot now revealed, Rom and company set themselves to finding a way to stop it.
By the way, it must be noted that these stories didn’t take place in a vacuum. This truly was the Golden Age of Marvel Continuity. As the Wraith War grew more and more dire, if you’ll pardon the expression, it began showing up all over the Marvel Universe, with Captain America and the Avengers battling the Wraiths in AVENGERS #244.
It was even more incorporated into the storyline over in UNCANNY X-MEN, where longtime government stooge Henry Peter Gyrich enlisted a new character named Forge, a mutant genius/inventor, to create a version of Rom’s Neutralizer, ostensibly for use against the Wraiths. Instead, the blindly anti-mutant Gyrich stole the Neutralizer (which can’t send Wraiths to Limbo like Rom’s but can negate their magic and prevent them from shapechanging for use against the X-Man Rogue, in the process blasting Storm with it, removing her mutant powers (a development for the character that would stick for a number of years). Forge took back the Neutralizer and took Storm back to his home to recover, where the two were attacked by a pack of Dire Wraiths who had learned of Forge’s work for the government. The interesting thing was stuff like this wasn’t heavily promoted with advertisements back then, and there was no Internet to get the word out about all of these “Rom crossovers.” It was just done to make for a more exciting, consistent and organic Marvel Universe, and because it wasn’t overly hucksterized, it felt all the more natural, and real.
With the Wraith War at its height, Rom lost an ally in ROM ANNUAL #3, when the Hybrid returns, an old enemy of Rom’s from way back in ROM #16. The product of crossbreeding between a Wraith father and a human mother, the Hybrid was possessed of great sorcerous powers, which allowed him to repeatedly reassemble himself after being vaporized by Rom’s Neutralizer. In order to gain revenge on Rom, the Hybrid banished him to Limbo with his own Neutralizer. The Hybrid then uses his sorcery to reverse the Wraith spells that transformed Brandy Clark to Starshine, returning her to human that she might become his bride.
Luckily, Professor Xavier and his young students the New Mutants happened to be in the Kentucky neighborhood where all this was going down, and Illyana Rasputin (Colossus’ sister, for those of you keeping score at home) used her mutant ability to teleport to Limbo to rescue Rom, and he returns to once more face the Hybrid. Although the Hybrid is still too much for him, the now-human Brandy is able to wield Rom’s Neutralizer (with a little psychic help from Professor X), and the Hybrid is once again dispatched to Limbo. Brandy can no longer fight at Rom’s side, but Rom doesn’t seem too broken up about it, since she’s gotten back what they had both thought lost forever: her humanity.
Meanwhile, a small black spot on the sun grows ever larger with each passing day, marking the progress in the Wraiths’ attempt at Worldmerge, and the government is helpless to enlist the one man who might have the knowhow to stop it, thanks to Gyrich’s betrayal of Forge in the pages of X-MEN. Rom decides to try to convince the alienated genius himself. However, Forge still refuses, still incensed at Gyrich’s use of the device on Storm and fearful it might be used against all of Earth’s superhumans, mutant and otherwise. However, a new wave of Wraiths slaughtering innocent people outside Forge’s headquarters, in an attempt to draw Forge and Rom out, finally convinces Forge to join Rom and put his genius to work finding a way to destroy the Wraiths once and for all.
So what’s the plan? Forge, Rom and the nations of the world unite and pool their resource to create a colossal orbiting platform upon which Forge can build his Neo-Neutralizer, a gigantic version of the Neutralizer that will allow Rom to train his Neutralizer on the entire planet at once, banishing all Wraiths on earth to Limbo. And to prevent Gyrich from using it to Neutralize the powers of all of earth’s mutants and superheroes, the Neo-Neutralizer can only be powered by Rom’s original Neutralizer, which only he can fire, a fact that has the mutant-hating Henry Gyrich foaming at the mouth.
While the Worldmerge process begins, and the Earth is wracked with everything from storms to volcanos, Rom does what he can for the population while Forge finishes the NeoNeutralizer, and Rom’s surrogate family of Brandy, Rick Jones and Cindy Adams look to each other for comfort. Amid the devastation, Rom is lulled by what appears to be a prayer service in a ruined church — actually, it’s a trap intended to prevent Rom from returning to orbit and activating Forge’s device, as a pack of Wraiths use their sorcery to immobilize the Spaceknight.
Soon every Dire Wraith on Earth has arrived to taunt Rom in his moment of greatest failure, and Rom begins to despair wondering why the Earth’s own champions didn’t rise up to defend their world. Luckily for Rom, he didn’t have to wonder for long.
With the arrival of the Avengers, the Defenders, the X-Men, the Soviet Super-Soldiers (everyone but Spider-Man, come to think of it. Coincidence?) and General Locklin’s Wraith-Hunter Rangers, the Wraith sorcery is weakened, and in an admittedly maudlin fairy-tale moment, Brandy frees Rom with a kiss, reuniting him with his “family.”
Freed, Rom mops up the battlefield with his Neutralizer, sending Wraiths to Limbo left and right. Rom then hurries back to Earth orbit to meet Forge at the now-completed NeoNeutralizer, just after Forge fends off another attempt from the rabid anti-mutant Gyrich to seize control of the device.
With Gyrich secured, Rom and Forge take to the matter at hand, turning the NeoNeutralizer not on the Earth as expected, but instead on the now-nearly-arrived Wraithworld, eliminating the source of the Wraiths’ power (and the entire Wraith planet at the same time) and rendering them virtually harmless.
The war won, Rom spent some time on Earth mopping up, first banishing all the remaining earthbound Wraiths to Limbo…
… then basking in the gratitude of Earth’s heroes for a moment…
…and finally, saying goodbye to his Earth family of Brandy Jones, Rick Jones and Cindy Adams. What does Rom plan to do next? In a moment that gave me chills the first time I read it, we see through Rom’s eyes, as he looks around at the world he fought so long and hard to save, looks down at his own cold metal hands, and takes one last look at the woman he loves, whom he can never really touch.
It seems like it would be hokey, looking through those round red eyes, but it’s actually a heartbreaking moment, once again, in a series from which you’d never expect it.
A kiss goodbye from Brandy, and Rom is off, never to return to Earth and in search of a new destiny in deep space.
As Rom wandered the stars, he encountered more of his fellow Spaceknights, unaware that the Wraith War had ended, and began to gather them in the hopes of returning to Galador and regaining their lost humanity (all that is, except for Rom, whose humanity had been lost early on in the series, if you’ll recall).
Meanwhile, back on Earth, in perhaps the most blatant example of deus ex machina ever utilized in a comic, Marvel’s omnipotent Beyonder character, at the time traipsing through every comic Marvel published in conjunction with his SECRET WARS II crossover series (maybe the least satisfying sequel of all time, by the way), showed up at the cabin where Brandy, Rick Jones and Cindy Evans were staying, and grants all their wishes, resurrecting Cindy’s murdered parents, curing Rick’s cancer, and sending Brandy off to deep space to be with Rom, setting the stage for Rom and Brandy’s reunion on Galador in the series’ final storyline.
So how did Rom’s return home go? Well, it wouldn’t be a ROM story if it wasn’t a whole lot darker than you’d expect. As it turns out, following Galador’s near-destruction at the hands of Galactus, its people decided to create a second generation of Spaceknights to protect their planet. However, the Spaceknights 2.0 gave up even more of their humanity than the first ones, and as a result were far more powerful and far more bloodthirsty, and before long, they had seized control of the planet and nearly eradicated Galador’s human population, with just a small pocket of resistance remaining. When Rom and his fellow Spaceknights Seeker, Scanner and Trapper arrive, Brandy and the Galadorian freedom fighters are facing off against the second-generation Spaceknights in the Hall of Science, where Brandy is threatening to destroy the cryogenic modules which hold their remaining human organs, unless they surrender.
They call her bluff, slaughtering Galador’s last remaining humans and destroying the cryogenic chambers themselves, forever giving up their humanity in exchange for power.
Little did the second-generation Spaceknights know that their leader, Lord Dominor, had hidden away his own humanity, and in secret he offers Rom a choice: he and his fellow Spaceknights, as well as his planet, will be spared destruction, in exchange for turning over Brandy so that the two of them can create a new master race on Galador. Naturally, Rom refuses, and the two battle in a duel of honor, buying time for Rom’s fellow original Spaceknights Trapper and Scanner to use the Galadorian communications center to summon the remainder of their companions. They succeed, but not without a cost:
Meanwhile, Brandy has made a startling discovery: a duplicate of Rom’s cyborg body, hidden away in a crypt.
As Rom’s battle with the much more powerful Dominor continues, he finally gets the upper hand as he decides that the ultimate steps must be taken, drawing his Neutralizer and training it on Dominor. The duel won, the evil Spaceknights offer Rom a chance to join them, although they already know his answer, as seen in this heartbreaking panel:
The second-generation Spaceknights create their “Ring of Power” in order to destroy Galador, not realizing that the maneuver was actually Dominor’s failsafe, a way to do away with all who might threaten his power.
Dominor’s plans of a master race fall to naught when he learns that his own humanity was destroyed in the blast that killed his evil brethren, and, devastated, he wrests the Neutralizer from Rom’s grasp and turns it on himself.
Man. I mean, they showed a Spaceknight killing himself on-panel. That’s kinda rough.
Rom is then met by Brandy and the remainder of the original Spaceknights, who had just arrived to Galador in response to the signal. Brandy also has another surprise for Rom: his lost humanity, not destroyed as Rom had believed, but hidden away with the body of Terminator, who had impersonated Rom and ruled Galador in his place way back in ROM #26 when Galactus had attacked. With the approval of his fellow Spaceknights, Rom reaches out and takes back what he’d thought lost forever: humanity and love.
Rom and Brandy Clark remain on Galador to rebuild and repopulate the world, while the Spaceknights stand watch from space.
After 75 issues of near-unrelenting darkness and suffering, Rom gets a happy ending. How about that.
Due to ownership issues between Parker Brothers/Hasbro and Marvel, any collections of ROM, SPACEKNIGHT, probably Bill Mantlo’s most personal and emotional work (and definitely his most satisfying), will most likely never see the light of day, so start looking in your local comic shops and conventions now for a full run of back issues. There’s a lot more good stuff here that I never discussed, and when you consider that this nearly 1,700-page epic is the work of a single creative vision and only two illustrators — well, that’s a pretty rare thing in comics, and it’s worth seeking out.
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