Thursday, November 10, 2016

This & That: ROM, The Brave Giant Toaster Meets Hybrid

Martinex1:  Today Redartz and I are looking at the late Bronze Age experiment, ROM Spaceknight, particularly issues #17 and #18 of his eponymous book cover dated April and May of 1981.  I say "experiment" because ROM was the result of a marketing deal between Marvel and Parker Brothers based on the action figure.  The comic built a loyal following and ended up outlasting the toy by many years and running seventy-five monthly issues plus four annuals. For the vast majority of the run, Bill Mantlo handled the writing and Sal Buscema covered the interior art chores. Frank Miller supplied some covers including the covers for these issues (inked by Al Milgrom and Terry Austin respectively). Some of our faithful readers may not be familiar with ROM and his adventures, so buckle up as we bring you up to speed.  We are not starting right at the beginning (and may circle around to that someday if you enjoy this review), but decided to jump in mid-stream when ROM hosted some special guest stars, the Uncanny X-Men in the peak of their popularity.  If you are thinking it was a sales gimmick - you may be right but it also turned out to be one of ROM's most popular arcs.

Backstory:  For the uninitiated, let me back up and fill you in on ROM's storyline up to this point.   ROM arrived on Earth crashing into the small town of Clairton, West Virginia.   He is a cyborg from the planet Galador and had spent the last two centuries chasing and eliminating the threat of the Dire Wraiths.  ROM was once "human" but along with other Spaceknights sacrificed that humanity (and significant body parts and organs) to be melded with the Spaceknight armor so that he could battle the Wraiths.   The Dire Wraiths are evil shape-changing aliens who rely on sorcery and science to infiltrate and take over worlds.   They are similar to Skrulls in their means of mimicry, but much nastier in their reliance on dark magic which makes them particularly wicked and creepy. ROM is single-mindedly focused on his mission to dispel the subversive aliens so he can return home and regain his life..   The Spaceknight is troubled as he has seen some of his comrades go mad dealing with their lost humanity, and after 200 years of battle he is feeling increasingly worn out, lonely, and reflective about his choice.  ROM has two devices that he relies on: 1) his analyzer which basks all beings in its path in a pink glow so ROM can see if they are hidden Wraiths or not ( the truth is only visible to him and not to bystanders), and 2) his neutralizer which he uses to banish those Wraiths to Limbo.  When struck by this ray, the evil creatures' forms disintegrate leaving a heap of dusty residue while their spirits are swept away to the shadow dimension.   This of course is quite unsettling to any witnesses on Earth as they only see the destruction of their neighbors and friends.   ROM can use the neutralizer to kill, but he has sworn to not take a life insisting that banishment of his enemies allows him a certain superiority over them.   But ROM being rather stoic in his approach to his mission initially didn't bother to explain to the earthlings what he is up to.  So he is extremely feared at first as his actions seem callous. 








What the people of Clairton don't know is that the Wraiths  have been on Earth since WWII and are pretty well entrenched (this was really a Secret Invasion long before that modern storyline).  ROM through his adventures in Clairton has gained the trust of Brandy Clark and her fiancĂ© Steve.   Together they have gradually been able to convince some of the townfolk that there is more to ROM than meets the eye.  And that is where this story starts.

Redartz:  Thanks to Martinex1 for the synopsis. I'd never read any ROM stories before, and actually had been hesitant to do so. Thinking it simply 'another toy comic', it stayed off my radar in the era in which it was published. Upon reading it now, however, I was quickly struck by how meaty the story actually was. It definitely had the feel of an old alien - horror - science fiction movie. And the writing was quite good; I should have known.  I loved Bill Mantlo's work on Micronauts and on Spectacular Spider-Man. This was equally good reading.

Martinex1: What were your first impressions on the art?   The covers interest me, because both are by Frank Miller but the inking styles are so different.   I much prefer the cover to the second issue with Austin's work.   In fact, as a kid I bought that issue first but had to circle back for the previous book because the story was so intriguing.  This was actually my first ROM purchase and eventually I owned the whole run.


Redartz: Right off the bat, we see that Sal Buscema is inking his own pencils in issue 17. That's a good start; the art throughout the issue is clean and sharp. It is very attractive, some of Sal's nicer work. I did prefer that to the art in 18, which was still good but the inks seemed a bit rougher. As for the covers, I fully agree- the cover to the second issue is more striking. You can't go wrong with Terry Austin, after all.

Martinex1: Reading these again, it seems like Mantlo threw everything into it.  I find the storytelling reasonably complex.   It is interesting to me - and I'm not sure I can draw a good comparison to anything else - that the Dire Wraiths were essentially the only villains throughout the 75 issue run.   Sure there were some subplots and side-stories, but essentially it was always ROM vs the Dire Wraiths.  And here it seemed incredibly dense with characters, motivations, and hints of things to come.

Redartz:  Indeed, there was a lot of material in both these books for a 32 page comic (especially issue 17). This is even more evident when compared to today's 'decompressed' storytelling. This two-issue story would have taken up a full six-issue spread today, doubtlessly. And I'll have to bow to your reading experiences regarding the paucity of other villains; but that is interesting- it almost makes the whole series a kind of  novel.

Martinex1: The story touches on ROM's growing trust in the community and then segues into the tale of a Wraith who had entrenched himself on Earth in the mid 1940's and took on the identity of Jacob Marks, a farmer with simple goals in life.   He found himself to be happy living as a mere human and wanted to continue doing so.   That led him to love and the eventual marriage to Marjorie, and unfortunately to the birth of a child - a hybrid Wraith and Human child.  That doesn't turn out too well.  Fifteen years later when the little cretin is exposed to witchcraft and macabre teaching at the hands of Wraith elders, he reveals himself to be something quite evil. He tortures his mother and turns on his father.

Redartz:  Much of the story was pretty somber, with the dead livestock, Marjorie Mark's aging and the eventual fate of Jacob Marks. Jacob's death was grim to behold ( a brief flashback to the Green Goblin's death hit me), a striking three-panel sequence resulting with the only remains being a silhouette on the wall.



 Redartz: Sal's depiction of Hybrid was quite creepy, his attitude and personality equally so. The setting of the deserted farmhouse, encased in snow, added to the 'chilling' aspect of the tale. There was the occasional element of humor, though: the scene with Rom seated in the living room, with his “Greetings, Earthman” comment was great. Kind of like catching the Terminator indulging in an afternoon tea and cakes affair. As for the X-Men's appearance, it was well-handled. Mantlo had a good voice and characterization for each. I noticed that Chris Claremont was credited in both issues as a consultant; seems like he kept a close rein on the mutants at the time.

Martinex1:  I liked how the X-Men were dragged into the story rather organically.  Hybrid, as the malevolent offspring was called, registered as a mutant on Cerebro.  So the all new, all different crowd set out to check it out.   They stumbled into the melee between ROM and Hybrid and of course misidentified ROM as the threat because the baddie was using his shape-shifting abilities to appear as a young teenager.   The X-Men assumed a robot was hunting muties again.

Redartz: The battle that took up most of issue 18 was dramatic and suspenseful; the use of the blizzard to keep the combatants off-balance was noteworthy. Again, the artwork was effective at portraying the inherent confusion of the storm. I was also struck by the attention to Kitty Pryde's youth and inexperience at combat. This story appeared in early 1981, so Kitty's time with the team had been brief, maybe a year? The ending scene with her pain at having killed (or so she thought) ROM, and Storm's comforting words, were well done. Felt very true to the characters we knew and loved from the Claremont /Byrne classics.


 Martinex1:  I agree; this story really fit well with the characterizations we had been seeing in the team book.  In retrospect, there may have been some gaps in logic like how does Wolverine not smell the stench that Hybrid reeks.   Perhaps Wraiths can adjust their odors as well.   But I really enjoyed the story.  Many fans joke about ROM being a walking toaster, but it is really amazing how much emotion and pathos Mantlo and Buscema generate from an essentially featureless character.   Showing emotion from ROM has to be even more difficult than a masked Spider-Man; at least Spidey's eyes can be adjusted to demonstrate what he is feeling or thinking.  ROM had to be a challenge, but I find it interesting that Sal Buscema was quoted as saying, "I liked the character. And I liked what they did with it. I thought the concept was quite good. It was unique. It made it attractive to do. I almost hate to say this, but it was pretty easy to draw, too." 


Redartz: Cool to hear Sal's thoughts on the book. And by the way, I'd never heard ROM referred to as a "giant toaster" before now!
This being my introduction to ROM, I was impressed by his appearance and his nobility. It did whet my appetite to read more of his story. With all that was going on in these two issues, it would have been hard to add in much detail about ROM himself; and that was no doubt covered in earlier issues. I did find the term “Galador” reminiscent of Arthurian nomenclature; appropriate for a “Space Knight”. All told, a very enjoyable hour was spent reading this tale, and it has prodded me to seek out more.

Martinex1: I think there were a lot of influences for ROM, those legends you mention plus a bit of Frankenstein, Beauty and the Beast, Silver Surfer, and 1950's B-Movie invasions thrown in.   Many of the stories have a horror impact to it, and this captured much of that feel.

The story ends with ROM himself being sent to Limbo as Kitty used his own weapon against him.  There he is trapped without defense amongst his worst enemies and another Marvel universe denizen.   Later ROM would join Nova in a space war and even take on Galactus in a rather creative way.  But those are all stories for another time.

As far as this story goes though:

The Good:  A jam packed story with interesting characters and motivations, a truly creepy villain, and Sal Buscema art.

The Bad: I have to admit that I typically don't like when kids are monstrously evil in fiction, but here it was handled fairly well.  But I will say that often the character in its human guise did not always act as a fifteen year old.   He seemed much younger throughout and I wonder if the creators crossed some wires here.

The Ugly:  Hybrid sure is ugly....

But overwhelmingly I would recommend these issues.  I would also say that the first 25 or so books in the ROM catalog are quite entertaining.  Any last thoughts, Redartz?

Redartz:  Just a recommendation to anyone else who may have passed over this book on the basis of it's merchandising origins- give it a look. I'm glad I did, and I think you would be, too.







23 comments:

Humanbelly said...

I have to confess that I am indeed one of those folks who passed over this book (eschewed it roundly, in fact) because of its merchandising origins. But the comment I've always heard most often about it is that it's 'waaaay better than you'd ever expect it to be.

Marti's point about it seeming so isolated from the greater Marvel Universe may have also been a factor. I definitely remember how the efforts to connect the book into the MU with crossover events & annuals always felt forced, y'know? Sort of the way Power Pack did with their own personal world-conquering foes, the Zznarks. IIRC, once the book was cancelled his story was then wrapped up in the pages of the Incredible Hulk (Hulk's book was a fairly common vehicle for clean-up duty like that)-- Bill Sienkiewicz cover, pretty sure Sal was still happily on pencils. And. . . there was a girl ROM-? I'm remembering a fittingly sappy but undeniably sweet resolution. But it was rather jarring to come in at the tail end of that "movie" without having any sense of previous consequence or impact.

Marvel Universe Ethics note: So, wait-- the distinction that we're supposed to accept is that Rom doesn't "kill" the Dire Wraiths-- he simply destroys their corporeal form, and sends their "spirits" to a . . . spiritual realm of some sort? So. . .like a Heaven, or a Hell, or a Limbo, say? REALLY dicey ethical territory here if one scratches even a micronanometer below the kid-appropriate veneer, don'tcha think-? I mean, the crazy version of the Foolkiller could (and probably would) say just about the same thing. Heck, so could the Punisher, for that matter. Really, this is more of a throwback to Marvel's late Silver/early Bronze types of moral shortcuts. Remember how it was generally okay for heroes to kill sentient beings if they weren't technically "alive"? (Pre-Vision androids like the SuperAdaptoid, say,or any number of autonomous SHIELD LMD's-- who have always been uncomfortably sentient, or beings made of inorganic materials, and even robots like Mogul in Hulk #127) Possibly that's why they made the Dire Wraiths particularly vile-- to sort of justify the appearance of extreme prejudice, y'know?

ARg-- computer's trying to crash-- gotta get this off quick!

HB

Colin Bray said...

Thank you for the Rom-love guys!

These issues were really good and probably a key stepping on point for lots of other X-Men fans. It would be interesting to see the circulation fI guess before, during and after this arc.

Hybrid was as close to an arch-villain as Rom had with appearances in #30-#32 and Annual #3 too.

My first issue was #43 which is a very powerful story. Rom (temporarily) found his humanity and this 12-year old was affected enough to buy the rest of the series off the racks.

The transition from technological wraiths (males) to mystical wraiths (females) was very well done, an excellent sub-plot.

Having said all that, the series was beginning to flag by the end. So while I missed the series when it ended, was probably the right decision to close it out.

Colin Bray said...

HB - the girl Spaceknight was Starshine aka Brandy Clark. She came in during the last 25 issues. Her story is another interesting subplot.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed the issues of ROM that I read. The Dire Wraiths were genuinely evil - some of the best villains ever created by Marvel. As I recall, Rom sent the Dire Wraiths to Limbo because it was a "fate worse than death" but there was one story when Rom was so disgusted by their behavior that he actually killed them. That didn't make much sense to me because if Limbo was worse than death then killing the Dire Wraiths was a mercy !

Dr. O said...

As you all probably know, I LOVE LOVE LOVE ROM. I own every issue, plus his appearances (and those of the Dire Wraiths) in every other Marvel book in which they appeared. When I sold off the majority of my comics collection in the 90s they were the only comics I kept (except for most of my Spider-Man books, who at the time was my favorite favorite).

I think Hybrid's return and ROM's need to align with the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants to fight him in issues #32 and #33 are even better, esp. b/c it is one of the first places (if not the first) where we see Rogue struggling with being villain (and soon after she goes to Professor X for help and joins the X-Men, where she'd become one of my all-time favorite members).

There is another great 2-issue arc where ROM teams up with Shang-Chi to fight a mummy Dire Wraith.

Not sure where you are getting the information that ROM wrapped up in Hulk comics. He re-appeared there for Rick Jones's wedding (yes, at one point Rick Jones even played sidekick to ROM), but the story was completed with issue ROM #75.

There is a new ROM series by IDW, part of their weird 'Hasbro-verse" No Limbo in that one. He just kills them, and he shares a universe with G.I.Joe, Transformers, Micronauts and the other stuff IDW has the license for. It is not nearly as good as the original, but interesting nonetheless. I have been consider a ROM contra ROM series (like the one I did for Howard the Duck) comparing the new series to the old issue-by-issue.

Anyway, put me down for hoping to see more ROM-related posts on here in the future.

Oh and one last thing, I was once visiting grad school friends up in Syracuse, and the previous tenant had wallpapered the bathroom with pages from multiple copies of issues #17 and #18! I freaked out, because a) it looked cool, but b) these are the hardest to acquire and most expensive issues of ROM!

Martinex1 said...

Hi guys. Thanks for jumping in so enthusiastically on ROM opinions.

I may have misstated something in the post - and perhaps with the expertise of Dr. O and others - we can correct if needed. Thinking back about it - I don't think it was just the spirit of the Wraiths that went to the Limbo dimension. I think their whole body went through a portal and it just looked like disintegration. In the very next story ROM is corporeally in Limbo - correct? So he wasn't destroying them, he was truly banishing them to a sort of prison realm where their powers didn't work - is that correct?

Dr. O said...

That should read issues #31 and #32 in my post above. Rom-geek card revoked! :(

Edo Bosnar said...

I also like Rom quite a bit, and - like Master of Kung Fu - it's one of those series I'd love to read all the way through some day. I was actually on board for the first issue, and had most of the first dozen and but then for some reason I kind of dropped out and just randomly picked up issues here and there. I think it was mainly just financial reasons that kept me from being a regular reader, as I was getting so many other comics at the time, because otherwise I thought the stories and art were pretty top-notch. Mantlo in particular seemed to really treat this like a labor of love (as he did the Micronauts - he definitely had a knack for taking basically mediocre toy properties and turning them into incredibly enjoyable comics).
Anyway, hese two featuring the X-men were definitely among the issues I picked up. And you guys did a great team-up review, here. I enjoyed reading it, and it brought back some nice memories - and also now makes me *really* want to go back and read the whole series. Damn, I wish Marvel, or someone else, would work out a way to get the green-light to reprint these. Like Osvaldo, I'm looking forward to future installments of Rom reviews.

Edo Bosnar said...

Man, Osvaldo, what a mistake. And you call yourself a Rom fan?! I think you should hang your head in shame, and pack up your whole Rom collection into a nice sturdy box and ship it off to Croatia... :P

Humanbelly said...

Holy Cats-- thanks for gettin' me clarified, there, Osvaldo. Yep, I'm tangling my memory of Hulk #396 all up with. . . ROM #75(!?!), which it looks like I do also have ('cause that cover looks darned familiar). I may have bought the last few issues of the series, 'cause the cover of #72 "made me buy this book" way back when. Ahh, the ol' Encyclopedic Knowledge Power does start to fail as the Baby Boomer ages, it does. . .

HB

Colin Bray said...

Ah yes, the Shang Chi arc was excellent too. I once submitted a painted version of the cover to Rom #38 for a school art assignment. The only time I got an 'A'.

Redartz said...

To echo Martinex1- thanks everyone, terrific comments! Boy do I feel sheepish, skipping the book first time around...

Dr.O- Your HTD contra series has been great reading; I would follow your take on ROM in a heartbeat.

And to all- yes, this story really grabbed me, your enthusiasm for the book is understandable. So now I have to go haunt the dollar boxes at the flea markets for more of the stories...oh, such travail..... ;)

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, not much to say here. I always found ROM kinda boring. Strangely, one of the only two ROM comics I ever owned was #31, the follow-up to this story which Dr. O mentioned. (The other one I had was #65, where everybody teamed up to fight the Wraiths; I'm a sucker for those "mega team-up" stories.)

Mike Wilson

pfgavigan said...

Hiya,

The Rom book was an on/off thing for me. I'd take a look at the first issue of the story arc and, if it appealed, take it with me. If not it went back on the spinner.

More often than not it made it's way into my collection.

That said there were issues that I think were as good as anything else Marvel was publishing. And chief among these were the story arc where it was revealed that there were TWO species of Dire Wraiths and an evolutionary connection to the Skrulls. The destruction of Brandy's home town and the deaths of many of the supporting characters at the hands . . . or rather drill like tongues of the new magic using Wraiths was disturbing.

I pretty much stuck with the book to the end, which was nicely concluded, but really didn't mourn it's passing. A good entertaining read to be sure . . . but that was a time when good books were becoming more common and my budget couldn't expand to keep pace.

And for anyone who is interested I've included a link to Jim Shooter's page where he has a column concerning the behind the scenes efforts to bring the book to the stands. It wasn't an epic struggle, but it had it's bumps and knocks along the way.

http://jimshooter.com/2011/06/coming-of-rom-knights-tale.html/

Seeya,

pfgavigan

Martinex1 said...

Thanks for that link pfgavigan. That was some interesting background detail from Jim Shooter. The cover info was fascinating. It would be cool if those still existed somewhere.

pfgavigan said...

Hiya,

To Martinex1,

You're very welcome. I have actually seen the "Christ" cover that Mr. Shooter referred to and it looks just as if it was taken from those eight page comics that the Catholic Church used to hand out.

And the guy who drew it, Michael Netzer, has said that he has no idea what he was thinking about either.

Anyway, here's a link to his and the one actually used.

http://sanctumsanctorumcomix.blogspot.com/2011/09/he-strikes-from-circular-file-unused.html

Seeya,

pfg

ps, you taking submissions?

Martinex1 said...

Hi pfg,

Redartz and I are taking guest post submissions and suggestions at backinthebronzeage@gmail.com. We cannot do it alone.

Dr. O said...

Edo, It is my dream to find you cheap copies of the entire run and then ship the whole thing to Croatia. It would make me immensely happy. - O

The Prowler said...

My initial reaction echoes Mike Wilson's. Not much of a ROM fan, just never got into it when it was back in the day. I will admit, youse guys enthusiasm moves me more to Edo's camp. My main hindrance, no time, space or money!!! Dang real life...

I will enjoy them vicariously through the posts.

Question: If you sacrifice your humanity in the fight to save humanity, haven't you already lost?

Side comment: In the prequel series Caprica, where Zoe's "essence" gets placed in the first Cyclon, the interaction between the robot and Zoe's best friend is hilarious. Makes the series a great watch, until things get dark.....

Fun fact: As Marvel was winding down ROM, say issue 75, Nestle Quik had their Gobots. Action figures, Saturday morning cartoon and whatnot. I don't know if Marvel ever did a comic......

Looking forward to more posts on ROM.

(Well you followed me all around New York City
Tryin' to make people think I wanted you with me
I can only hope that they didn't believe you
I can't figure out why I got to deal with you

What are you doin' in my life?
What are you doin' in my life?
What are you doin' in my life?
I didn't ask for you

I don't know how you got my telephone number
Probably some jerk tryin' to put me under
Some friend of a friend of a friend of mine
Baby who you tryin' to fool when you tell those lies?

What are you doin' in my life?
What are you doin' in my life?
What are you doin' in my life?
I didn't ask for you

Well this is all a little too much to believe
You're puttin' my name all around in the street
Honey where did you think this was gonna lead?
Baby will you tell me why you wanna bug me?

Well this is all a little too much to believe
You're puttin' my name all around in the street
Honey where did you think this was gonna lead?
Baby will you tell me why you wanna bug me?

Well you're the last woman in the world that thrills me
Now you got my girlfriend tryin' to kill me
Honey my friends think that I've gone crazy
Can't you figure out that you ain't my baby

What are you doin' in my life?
What are you doin' in my life?
What are you doin' in my life?
I didn't ask for you).

PS: Today's moment in Robot living has been auto deleted to improve your day.....


Anonymous said...

Hmm I've only read a few issues of ROM and probably have only 2 early ones still in my possession, but even in these few copies you can clearly see that Mantlo loved writing this series, as my buddy Edo pointed out.

Yeah, it's really funny that a crappy toy happened to end up as a popular Marvel hero due to a licensing agreement. I remember when Godzilla was licensed to Marvel from Toho, and Marvel also had the rights to use Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu in the Shang Chi series. Oh, what memories!


- Mike 'needs to invent a new toy to send to Marvel' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Edo Bosnar said...

Aw, man, Osvaldo you know I'm kidding you - and if you really did that, I think I'd end up paying for airfare so you could make the delivery personally.

Luther Manning said...

Can't remember those bronze age days without Rom in there. For me it was that the stories were based in a small town. Reading them always felt like a Saturday matinee. They were a great break from the usually hero fare. So glad you fellas started this page up.

Redartz said...

Thank you Luther, glad to have you with us!

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