Or – “Because Someone Demanded It!  (Though Since The Crash, I Don’t Recall Whom…)

One of the saddest stories in comics has to be that of Bill Mantlo, one of Marvel’s more prolific writers of the 1970’s and 80’s.  Responsible for many memorable tales (including turning the Micronauts and this title into long-running stories despite being essentially toy tie-in books), Bill has been in a coma since the mid-90’s, victim of a hit and run accident.  Bill’s body of work includes many excellent tales (I highly recommend tracking down Vision and The Scarlet Witch) but a recent unofficial Spoilerite poll indicated that Rom #43 made a huge impact on someone’s childhood psyche.  (The Great Internet LaRouche Toad-Frog Server Massacree of ’10 has erased the evidence of whom, but I’m quite certain he or she will step forward in short order.)  Without further ado, I give you “Rom: Space MAN!”

ROM #43
Written by Bill Mantlo
Pencils by Sal Buscema
Inks by Ian Akin & Brian Garvey
Letters by Janice Chiang
Colors by Ben Sean
Published by Marvel Comics

Previously on ROM:  Long, long ago on the distant planet Galador, an invasion fleet filled with shape-shifting evil blobs called Dire Wraiths threatened the entire planet with extinction.  The Prime Director of Galador came up with a last ditch plan to save his people by transforming certain Galadorians into cyborg Spaceknights to combat the alien hordes.  Galador was saved, but The Wraiths then fled across the universe, endangering dozens of other planets as well.  The leader of the Spaceknights, a man-machine named Rom, the greatest spaceknight of them all, swore that he would not rest until the plageue of the Dire Wraiths was once and for all erased from the universe.  His fellow Spaceknights split up throughout the various worlds, and ROM crashed on Earth, where he found the town of Clairton, WV overrun with murderous aliens.  A human girl named Brandy Clark has fallen in love with Rom, and he returns her feelings, even though he’s trapped in a cold metallic shell.

In the previous, the sentient computer Quasimodo (best known for fighting the Fantastic Four and Silver Surfer) created an unholy bargain that Rom couldn’t refuse:  In return for giving Quasi his armored form, Rom would recieve a cloned human body, allowing him to finally admit his love for Brandy and to once again feel the simple human pleasures…

 To be A MAN!  A slightly demented looking, freakishly smiling man who might kill you and eat your liver with fava beans and Chianti.  Seriously, though, he looks a little too happy in that final panel.  Rom’s joy reminds him of the woman he loves, and he continues to cavort through Quasimodo’s wilderness, thrilled to once again be alive, not knowing that he is being observed by his erstwhile new “friend” and his very real old foes.

I remember reading this book when I was younger, and being morbidly fascinated by the fact that Rom’s human remains were a pile of glorp and bones and such, trapped in that cube.  Kind of a creepy feeling, contemplating that, even now.  The Wraiths insist that Rom be punished for his hubris in daring to fight them, but Quasimodo is an experienced double-dealer, turning Rom’s weaponry on his allies and wiping THEM out as well.  As he laughs an evil laugh to celebrate his triumph, Quasi is unaware that someone is teleporting in behind him.  As for Rom, the real consequences of what he’s done has begun to sink in…

 

But, sadly for the trusting spaceknight, the metaphysical concerns of his new situation aren’t nearly as pressing as the physical ones.  As Quasimodo hinted earlier, his cloning process has a few limitations.  Notably, the complete dissolution of the body after a few hours…

Again, my 11-year-old self was horrified by this revelation and by the corpse-like state of the clones.  What’s even more interesting, from a historical perspective, is the fact that Marvel couldn’t portray zombies in their comics at this time (per the Comics Code Authority) but these dissipated zombie-like monsters were perfectly fine.  A horrified Rom runs away, finally falling to his knees in dispair as Quasimodo watches and enjoys the spaceknight’s pain.  Quasi is suddenly blind-sided by an attack by Wraith sorceror Dr. Dredd, who has animated the armored shell of the spaceknight Starshine.  In a fit of poetic justice, the villain thinks that Quasi IS Rom, and only the other Wraiths (whom Quasi annihilated) could prove his innocence.  Spaceknight headcracking ensues…

 

While the decomposing human Rom shambles back towards Quasimodo’s cave, Quasimodo is forced to flee Starshine’s assault.  Rom is horrified to see his own armor flying away, but is overcome with surprise to see Starshine (whom he thought dead) following it.  When Dr. Dredd exits the cave, Rom quickly reacts, recognizing Dredd as a Wraith.  Grabbing the warlock, Rom proceeds to strangle him, while Starshine catches the fleeing Quasimodo.  One blast later…

 

Speaking of poetic something-or-other, the mind inhabiting the Starshine armor belongs to BRANDY CLARK.  While Rom became human to get closer to her, she became a spaceknight and sold her haircombs to buy him a watchfob…  or something.  The two star-crossed lovers meet again for the first time…

We end with Rom and Brandy reunited, and ironically, further apart than ever…   Mantlo has crafted a multi-layered tale here, with multiple levels of enjoyment, multiple characters with different perspectives, and not one but TWO villains undone by their own perfidy.  Rodrigo’s usual 80’s Marvel complaint of wordiness and exposition are less critically damaging here, and the last panels wherein Rom’s life ebbs away in the arms of his now inhuman lady-love are still touching, even today.  Sal Buscema is one of those artists who doesn’t get a lot of recognition (kind of the art equivalent of Bill Mantlo, actually) but he does good work here, even if I’m not sure that Akin & Garvey are the best inkers for him.  Their combined art looks a bit like Michael Golden in some places, Mike Zeck in others.  Overall, though, this is still a pretty powerful issue for me, and now that I’ve dug out the Rom shortbox (it was under Alpha Flight, and above Black Lightning for no real reason) I want to finish up this tale and keep going, which is the sign of a successful issue.  ROM #43 (I don’t know why I capitalize the title of the book but not the character’s name, but it seems to work better that way) still plays, even 30 years down the road, and earns a very impressive 3.5 out of 5 stars overall, adjusted for inflation and varying degrees of decompression.    This series isn’t highly esteemed, but it’s fondly remembered by many, and this issue makes it clear why.

Rating: ★★★½☆

Faithful Spoilerite Question Of The Day:  Toy tie-in comics are pretty much a mixed bag, some excellent, some bloodless marketing tools…  Are there any other merchandising-related books you’d like to see given the Retro Review treatment?

 

The Author

Matthew Peterson

Matthew Peterson

Once upon a time, there was a young nerd from the Midwest, who loved Matter-Eater Lad and the McKenzie Brothers... If pop culture were a maze, Matthew would be the Minotaur at its center. Were it a mall, he'd be the Food Court. Were it a parking lot, he’d be the distant Cart Corral where the weird kids gather to smoke, but that’s not important right now... Matthew enjoys body surfing (so long as the bodies are fresh), writing in the third person, and dark-eyed women. Amongst his weaponry are such diverse elements as: Fear! Surprise! Ruthless efficiency! An almost fanatical devotion to pop culture!

And a nice red uniform.

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5 Comments

  1. Galador
    June 7, 2010 at 9:50 am — Reply

    Excellent review! I loved going down memory lane and reading a fresh take on my all time favorite comic. You reminded me of why ROM is so special, you really got close to his character and you wanted to know his story and all that was going to happen to him.

  2. Adam
    June 7, 2010 at 2:38 pm — Reply

    It was me! It was me!

    Thank you Matthew! That was one of the first comics I ever bought and I was stunned by the story. The parallels to “The Gift of the Magi” by O Henry (which I had recently read in 3rd grade) were both clear and powerful. Brandy gave up her humanity for Rom and Rom had given up his immortality for Brandy. The moment when she realizes what they have done is just heartbreaking. That final panel clearly reflects Michelangelo’s “Pieta” and has stayed with me to this day.

    This comic came into my life when I was just learning about Art and Literature. After reading a story that “spoke in the same language” as the “High Art” I was learning in school, I have always placed comics on the same pedestal.

    …and seeing the “hero” of a story turned into a rotting pile of fresh was both totally awesome and disgusting to my 8 year old brain! How could I not love it?

    Thank you for the memories,

    Adam

  3. Navarre
    June 7, 2010 at 3:12 pm — Reply

    ROM was my favorite comic for many years. I have nearly every issue.

    Most of his stories were based in West Virginia. As a lifelong resident, I was thrilled to see a Marvel character from somewhere other than New York City.

    I found ROM to be a very engaging comic that more than transcended its toy-based roots. Its combination of sci-fi, superheroics, horror, and romantic drama set it apart from the rest.

    If only one character could return to the Marvel Universe and be done right, I would wish to see the return of ROM: Space Knight. Thank you for the review, Matthew.

  4. J Michael T
    June 7, 2010 at 8:02 pm — Reply

    Dang. What happened next?

    Didn’t realize Rom was this good. Nice.

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