Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Marvel Universe according to ROM: Spaceknight!

Today we continue our look at Marvel's licensed books with an examination of what is without a doubt one of the more curious comics in Marvel’s long history -- Rom: Spaceknight. The history behind Rom is nearly as weird as the story in the comic itself. Created by two inventors as one of the first electronic action figures during the late 1970’s, Rom was purchased by Parker Brothers, who were so intrigued by the idea that they branched out of their usual board game niche to try taking a stab at the toy market. They managed to get Rom on the cover of Time Magazine, but it was soon clear that the toy was a flop and it was quickly discontinued.

Strangely enough, however, the comic book that Parker Brothers had licensed Marvel to create as part of their promotional push ended up being vastly more successful than the toy itself, one of the few times that a licensed comic managed to overshadow the item it was licensed from. This unprecedented success can be attributed to two sources: all 75 issues were written by the legendary Bill Mantlo, and Rom was the only licensed character to be fully integrated as part of the mainstream Marvel Universe.

During the first few issues of the series, while the toy was still being produced, there’s not a lot of overt references to Marvel. Other than a very brief cameo from Dr. Strange in Rom #5, for the most part Mantlo was content telling the story of Rom’s landing on Earth and his dealings with the human supporting cast that quickly glommed onto him. As the run continued, a few other characters from Marvel began sneaking into the book – such as an appearance in Rom #13 by garish douchebag Jack of Hearts and an attack by Fantastic Four villain The Mad Thinker – but the first 15 issues or so are a fairly self-contained arc, telling a nice if unspectacular science fiction story.

But then something interesting happened. By this point the toy was a failure, yet the comic was still selling well enough to keep going, assuming a new narrative impetus could be found. The basic premise – Rom hunting the shape shifting wraith who were infiltrating Earth to conquer it – could be sustained ad infinitum, but there had to be some hook to get new readers to check out the book in the first place now that the tie in from the toy was gone. Luckily, Mantlo stumbled upon just the thing: guest stars out the ass.

Power Man, Iron Fist and... the Hybrid!

Since Rom was already established as being in the Marvel Universe, after all, why not really blow the doors off? Since the wraith menace was supposedly big enough to endanger the entire planet, it only made sense that other heroes would be involved, so starting with #17 Rom became essentially the newest team up book in Marvel’s stable. That issue kicked off a two-part storyline featuring the X-Men (fresh off the loss of Jean Grey) helping Rom battle a mutant/wraith halfling called Hybrid and it opened the floodgate of Marvel characters to come.

The next issue brought the Space Phantom into the mix, which makes sense considering limbo featured prominently in Rom’s backstory, and in issue #21 Grade Z superhero Torpedo joined Rom’s regular cast as a sometime rival and sometime ally. By this point the crossovers were coming so fast that Rom couldn’t contain them all, and #23, featuring Power Man and Iron Fist, ended up crossing over into that title as well, leading to thousands of present day readers wondering why their Essential Power Man and Iron Fist skips an entire issue (answer: because Marvel no longer has the license to Rom, they can’t reprint any of his appearances).

It’s too bad, because this crossover is sweet. Since Rom is constantly blasting wraiths out of existence – and since they are shapeshifters who usually are in human form at the time – Rom is frequently mistaken for some sort of mass murderer by Earth authorities. In this story, J. Jonah Jameson helps spark a panic by publishing accounts of Rom killing people, which leads to a manhunt by a wide array of Marvel heroes including Spider-man, Daredevil, Moon Knight and Captain America. Power Man and Iron Fist end up helping Rom break into the Baxter Building in order to hijack a rocket so Rom can return to his home planet of Galador. Eventually, the Fantastic Four show up and give him his jet. Of course, this whole thing could have been avoided if superheroes knew how to use a telephone, but it’s still a pretty cool story.

It also leads right into the next epic, which features Nova and the New Champions and eventually a multi-issue confrontation with Galactus himself. Rom becomes Galactus’s new herald and leads him to the wraith homeworld, hoping to end the wraith menace once and for all – or at least get rid of Galactus. And indeed, Galactus is unable to consume the planet because of its dark magic energy, so he ends up turning tail and fleeing. Wow, that has to suck if you’re Galactus. So much for your oversized rep, big man.

Rom returns to Earth in #28 to help clean up the messes Torpedo has been making, but who cares about Torpedo, right? So I’m not going to recap that. Instead, we’ll jump ahead a couple issues to one of the more interesting chapters in Rom’s forgotten history – a battle with the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants in Rom #31-32 that features Rogue in one of her few appearances as a supervillain.

Rogue and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants

This is, in fact, Rogue’s second appearance. Sort of. I say sort of because this story came out the same month as Uncanny X-Men #158 and seems to take place at the same time and roughly the same place; one story is at the Pentagon and the other is at a prison that is also set in Virginia. If you read them both, it’s kind of hard to reconcile the stories as they seem to be mutually exclusive, so we’re going to use this bit of logic to solve the question: we’re going to ignore it. Who cares!

What’s interesting is that this story is extremely important to the development of Rogue. After Rogue and Mystique break the rest of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants out of jail, they run straight into Rom, who proceeds to pummel them hardcore. He quickly whacks Avalanche, Pyro and Blob, so the female members of the team come up with a new plan: run like hell. Unfortunately they run right into the lair of the disgusting mutant wraith known as Hybrid.

Hybrid and Mystique, though, soon realize they both hate the X-Men and Rom, so they agree to team up and Mystique and Rogue set a trap for Rom. This essentially has no effect, because Rom is pretty badass, but it does lead to a key exchange between Rom and Rogue. During Rogue’s attack, Rom questions her motives:

Rom: “Why do you do this, child? Unlike Mystique, I sense no evil in you.”

Rogue then kisses Rom in an attempt to steal the power from his human side. However, this fails completely because the only part of Rom that is human is his soul. Instead of draining his power, then, she ends up connecting directly to his soul, leaving both stunned and suddenly giving Rogue a new outlook on things, as shown by these captions:

“What is there Rogue can say? She attempted to absorb Rom’s power, only to discover that that portion of humanity grafted to the cold spaceknight armor possessed no power… but only a kind of decency which Rogue, in her young life, has never known.

“She finds that she likes it.”

At this point, Hybrid reappears and starts crushing Rom big time. Mystique decides this is a good time to run away, especially considering Destiny has realized that Hybrid’s plan is to enslave mutant women and use them as breeding slaves for his own pleasure (um… yeah). Rogue, however, refuses to abandon Rom and, ignoring Mystique’s commands, she jumps into the fight to help save Rom.

In the end, just as Hybrid is about to overpower and slay Rom, Rogue grabs Hybrid and drains some of his power at great cost to herself since he’s a disgusting alien sex convict. Rom is able to destroy Hybrid once again thanks to Rogue’s help. The Brotherhood then leaves, with both Rom and Rogue wondering if they will ever meet again, each secretly hoping they will, for they have sensed in each other a kindred spirit.

It’s interesting that this takes place at the same time as X-Men #158, where Rogue is still hardcore, trying to kill Carol Danvers again and thrashing the X-Men. My assumption is that Mantlo was aware of Claremont’s long term plans for Rogue and this influenced his depiction of her, but I’m not sure. Whatever was going on behind the scenes, though, this encounter seems to be a major turning point for Rogue as she begins to question Mystique and instead embrace her heroic side.

ROM: Endgame

Most of the crossovers that immediately followed, of course, didn’t have nearly as much impact on the Marvel Universe as that story, but they are still fun to read. Namor the Sub-Mariner makes an appearance in Rom #34-35, followed by one of the more unlikely team-ups you’re going to ever see in Rom #38-39 featuring Shang Chi, the Master of Kung Fu. And following that is a Dr. Strange appearance in Rom #41 that also features the Living Tribunal, The In-Betweener and some Lovecraft knock-off called The Dweller on the Threshold, all rendered in probably the best art Sal Buscema has ever done.

During this era, the guest stars are so numerous it’s hard to do more than list them without making this essay a 50 part series, but Ronan the Accuser shows up in #44, followed by the Soviet Super Solders (or whatever the hell they were called at the time) in #45-56, a return by Hybrid to fight the New Mutants in Rom Annual #3 and the long awaited throwdown between shapeshifting aholes: the Skrulls versus the Wraiths in Rom #50.

This story seemed to really kick the series into overdrive. The Wraith menace became revealed to the world at large, leading to cooperation between Rom and the government and an all-out war between humanity and wraithkind. As a result, the series had a brief period where the guest stars lessened as the stories became more focused, but this was offset by having one of Marvel’s oldest characters become a members of Rom’s regular supporting cast: Rick Jones.

Joining the cast in #54, Rick begins to pitch in with Rom’s efforts to end the wraithwar, and other Marvel stalwarts such as Dr. Strange and Nick Fury soon join the fight. Alpha Flight shows up For #56-57, followed by Ant-Man in #58-59. Throughout these issues, the war heats up and Henry Peter Gyrich begins appearing as a liaison, which leads to one of the other major contributions Rom made to Marvel continuity: the introduction of Forge and the subsequent loss of Storm’s powers.

This doesn’t take place in Rom itself, of course, happening in the pages of X-Men, but the story is that the government gets a hold of Rom’s neutralizer long enough to study it. The only person who can make sense of it is Forge, thanks to his mutant powers, so he quickly comes up with his own version – a version which strips mutant powers and ends up being used on Storm instead of Rogue. And that story leads into a major arc in X-Men which includes a two-part wraith attack in the pages of Uncanny X-Men itself, in #187-188.

This is part of the huge company-wide crossover that took place at the time with Rom as the epicenter. It’s interesting because this can be seen as one of Marvel’s earlier company-wide mega events, early enough that there’s no branding going on. Less than a year later, Secret Wars II would take place and the era of the mega-crossover would truly begin, with each comic involved getting its own blurb to tie things together from a commercial standpoint. But before this, Marvel experimented these prototype, unmarked crossovers, and this story in Rom is one of the first and biggest. As the wraithwar engulfed Earth, Wraiths began showing up in major storylines in many Marvel books, including Avengers #244-245 among others.

It’s no surprise, then, that the last issues of the wraithwar in Rom feature essentially the entire Marvel Universe. As the wraiths summon their homeworld in an attempt to merge it with Earth, Rom marshals of all Earth’s heroes to battle in a last ditch attempt. And I do mean all of them; the Avengers, the West Coast Avengers, the Defenders, the X-Men, Beta Ray Bill, the Soviet Super Soldiers, even all the random foreign heroes from Contest of Champions like Shamrock show up. And it's all presented by the truly unlikely art team of Steve Ditko on pencils and P. Craig Russell on inks.

With the menace of the Wraiths finally ended, Rom finished the series by returning to Galador in some great issues that tied up all the loose ends of the series, leaving Rom as one of those rarities in mainstream comics: a complete and finite story. But the guest appearances weren’t quite over; as part of the subplot clean up, Rom #72 featured probably the best Secret Wars II tie-in of them all, where Rick Jones temporarily becomes the Hulk in order to save his friends; and in Rom Annual #4, that purple punching bag Gladiator makes an appearance as well.

All in all, Rom ends up as more than an oddity in the annals of Marvel. Thanks to the fact that it tells one complete story over its 75 issue run, it’s probably the best team-up book ever published, because all of the stories take place in a larger context and structure that lends a greater meaning to the stories. Marvel Team-Up, Marvel Two-In-One, DC Comics Presents, Brave and the Bold – all of these seemed to rely mostly on random chance to set up meetings between unlikely characters. Rom used plot and narrative flow to do the same.

Not bad for a comic based on a failed toy and a character who, while not even owned by the publisher, had a greater impact on Marvel Comics than most of the titles they developed themselves.

Tomorrow: We take a look at some of the other random crossovers between licensed characters and Marvel superheroes. It’s not always pretty, but it’s always interesting. See you then.

Bookmark and Share


Not sure when this article was posted, but well done! Currently collected and reading the ROM series and it is a blast! Found this article because I was reading along and it said "to be continued in Iron Fist #73" and thought "Oh crap, I have to get that issue before I can continue!" So wanted to see what other non-ROM comics I needed to read this ROM story.

But good to know ROM continues through so many comics like it does.

Doctor Clu

Terrific article, strung together by the idea that ROM was the best team-up book ever with its overarching story line and purpose. I've acquired a couple dozen of these again recently and find they still have stories satisfying enough to take your mind off everything else!
The Akin/ Garvey inking team was particularly apt; Sinnott's turn makes those third-year issues very much feel like ersatz Fantastic Four (especially my first one, #24).

I now appreciate the magnificent Ditko issues...and around 61 or so is a black-costumed Spidey cameo, which may be the only post-classic Ditko Spidey in print!
C Lue

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.