ROM: Spaceknight was designed as a toy, and Marvel’s comic about it was supposed to be a throwaway marketing gimmick. But writer Bill Mantlo created a space opera about duty and sacrifice, made ROM fall in love with a human, took him on fantastic pulp adventures — and made something that far outlasted the crappy toy.
Parker Brothers put out electronic ROM toys in 1979, and licensed the character to Marvel to increase its popularity. The toy was basically garbage, and was quickly discontinued. The comic lasted until 1986, every issue written by Bill Mantlo. And OK, so my headline here may be slightly hyperbolic — especially since basically all superhero comics are science fiction. There are some pretty great pure science fiction comics too, like Judge Dredd and certain eras of the Star Wars comics. So let’s say ROM at least makes the top five. And here’s why.
ROM is a guy from the planet Galador, a utopia filled with beautiful people and high technology. They run afoul of the dire wraiths, a vile race of genocidal magic-wielding shapeshifters. Imagine the Skrulls if they weren’t bumbling idiots. To defend Galador from the wraiths, some of the planet’s citizens volunteer to become cyborg warriors called spaceknights. Undergoing this process means they must leave some portion of their human forms behind, held in stasis until the war is over and they can be restored to their full human forms.
They fend off the imminent wraith threat, but — inevitable betrayal — the planet’s leaders decide they can’t stop being spaceknights until they hunt down and kill every last dire wraith in the entire universe. The spaceknights immediately realize this is tantamount to an impossible mission, and they’ll never regain their human forms. Some of them, like ROM, feel duty-bound to protect Galador no matter the cost, and wistfully set out, saying goodbye to their loved ones. And some of them go kind of insane.
This creates a great set of story hooks, such as ROM’s gradually fading devotion to his duty to protect Galador, a powerful hatred of dire wraiths, the existence of villainous space knights with genuine motivations, and a years-long story arc that has ROM protecting Earth, but seeking to return home one day, only to find — not to put too fine a point on it — that you really can’t go home again.
Unlike other Marvel toy tie-ins like G.I. Joe and The Transformers, which did not interact with the Marvel universe (except on very rare occasions), ROM was fully integrated into the greater Marvel continuity. Although he was based in West Virginia — which was another strength of the series, allowing us to see people and locations outside Marvel’s NYC stronghold — ROM fought Marvel villains, teamed up with Marvel’s heroes, and had crossovers with other Marvel books. In fact, the dire wraiths became serious villains in a number of other Marvel titles in the 80s.
Mantlo took his ROM stories in all kinds of bizarre directions. The dire wraiths’ shapeshifting abilities created lots of creepy conspiracy stories, as little by little it was revealed how many corporations and government agencies had been infiltrated by aliens in human form. Since the dire wraiths also used magic powers, Mantlo could get really weird. Haunted houses, alien lizard creatures, humans wearing spaceknight armor, hybrid human/alien kids, Dr. Strange dream sequences — all fair game. And a solid chunk of the series was illustrated by Sal Buscema — to be honest, he phones it in on a few panels of each issue, but he could also draw up some incredible scenes of space energy, weird fire, or morphing aliens.
ROM was not the only spaceknight, of course. The other spaceknights appeared in the series from time to time, which is awesome because each one is totally unique in abilities, appearance, and name. Firefall, Heatwave, Breaker, Pulsar — plus Starshine, the spaceknight woman that ROM has a complicated relationship with, especially once his human love interest becomes the new Starshine.
Some issues had a backup story called Saga of the Spaceknights which told us what happened back on Galador around the time of the war against the dire wraiths (it had taken ROM 100 years to reach Earth, so this all happened in the fairly distant past). These backup stories are pure amazing pulp science-fantasy. You’ve got cyborg space warriors battling over their human remains on a utopian planet guarded by genetically modified angels. It’s as pulpy as a comic book can get.
Seriously, his grandiose way of speaking is one of ROM’s best qualities. It never gets annoying the way Thor’s Asgard-speak can, but it gives much of what ROM says a certain epic feel. He is, after all, on a seemingly hopeless quest to save the universe from the ultimate evil.
Marvel no longer holds the ROM license, which is why subsequent appearances by the character have been sparse and used a generic name. It also means reprints are not gonna happen. But the original issues are not hard to come by. I’ve been working on a full set of the ‘79-’86 run just by digging through the dollar boxes at small comic cons. Only the first four issues go for more, and not that much more. The only problem is, a lot of dealers don’t see much demand for ROM so they tend not to bring them to smaller cons. Sometimes you have to really dig through unsorted junk boxes to find them. But it’s really worth the effort.