Only that memory was two hundred years and staring at the couple he’s befriended (awkward wording), seeing them hold each other for comfort, he knows what he told her was a lie. War has guaranteed that their love could only have ever died.
For superhero stories, the baseline reality is a type of hyper-reality so when the writer taps into real human moments, human realities and situations, these pieces of writing stand out and stick with us. The unreality almost elevates the impact for when real and relatable things happen. This is the reason a kid from Queens is so many people’s favorite character despite constantly swinging between skyscrapers and dating super models. There’s a spark wherein we see ourselves and through that lens believe we ourselves can be so much better. It’s the dance of the relatable nestled inside the un-relatable—the idea that there’s something very real inside this insane situation and this is a big part of why Rom Spaceknight works.
After I first finished reading that issue, I was embarrassed at my own joke. I hid the comic somewhere in my bedroom bookshelf and for a long time pushed that story further away in my memory. I wasn’t an immediate fan of Rom and I wouldn’t even see him again until years later when I was in college. By then I’d gotten deep into retro comic book art—all the masterworks of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko—and following as many of these dedicated blogs I could find on Tumblr. That’s when they started posting covers of Rom Spaceknight.
There was a moment of instant recognition, that unearthing of old memories about a clunky robot that fought shapeshifting wizards from another world. When I started scrolling through them my roommate came in and immediately sounded off: “Holy shit is that Rom?”
When he was a kid his dad had a mountain of a comic collection. Stacks and stacks of single issues that spanned decades and companies and out of all of them he remembered this one issue of Rom Spaceknight in a sea of infinitely more survivable titles. His dad didn’t even remember the series, remember the character or even buying the issue but despite all that, the art and characters of Rom stuck with him.
We talked about what we remembered from the issues we’d read and how it was strange retro art and the contradictions in the character that stuck out most. Rom was a character, he described to me, who was very alien while having the personality of an orthodox superhero. A character whose internal monologs had all the emotions and motivations of a stand-up guy with powers but wasn’t a guy at all but a cybernetic war machine designed solely for xenocide.
That conversation launched me into seeking out and reading the entirety of Rom Spaceknight. It was here that I discovered Rom was a series built and succeeded by its contradictions.
Rom was a series licensed to sell a product but had little to do with that actual product. A series owned by a toy company but one Marvel fully incorporated into their world. Rom interacted with the X-Men, the Avengers, and the Fantastic Four. Marvel heroes became retconned into making more sense with Rom’s world and where Rom had meaningful interactions with Marvel’s superheroes (Rom is even responsible for Rogue becoming a good guy).
These stories are meant to go forever—to constantly be reinvented and rebooted with new #1s—but Rom Spaceknight ran for seventy-five issues and ended. A series that made the world feel big with limitless possibilities yet for so many issues was restrained to a small town in West Virginia.
What should have been a fluke, a cheap piece of merchandising became a story filled with imaginative situations balanced with intricately written characters and themes.
My roommate was right. Rom had the personality of a typical superhero. He believes in empathy, he believes in never killing even though his mission is to effectively snuff out an entire race. In theory, he was that contradictory image of Full Metal Jacket—the soldier helmet with a peace sign next to the words “Born to Kill.” Yet the further the series expands, the more the story grows and details are given a purpose. Rom sticks with his morals and compassion because they’re the only things that keep him human. It’s revealed that he’s seen other Spaceknights lose themselves in death and in turn lose whatever sense of humanity they had left. Rom lives with that fear and that reality where the longer he stays inside this body of a war machine, the closer he inches toward becoming solely that juggernaut of death.
The more I read the series, the more I’d tell my former roommate about the stories inside—about the Dire Wraith who deserted the war and started a human family, about when Rom tricked Galactus into eating the Dire Wraith home planets and how the final villain turned out not to be the Dire Wraiths but Spaceknights corrupted by their power of war.
There was never an issue that didn’t have an interesting story beat or fantastical turn inside yet while that makes every issue something to look at, Rom Spaceknight only works as a story taken by its whole—the development of character, the enrichment of themes and a finality for the series.
Rom was only ever a licensed product and when that license ran out, Marvel lost all rights to the character. Rom would never appear in another story. Marvel could never reprint the issues and sell a collection. The survival of Rom Spaceknight lives on only by the ability of those that remember and talk about Rom.
Over the past few years, especially since the relaunch of Rom at IDW Publishing, more and more writers have come out and talked the praises of Rom—praises for the character, setting and the series—and that’s brought questions of why? Rom was a clunky, dumb looking, generic science fiction story from the 80s, why should anyone care about him?
I think what it comes down to is that when a story gets told—that is the story. Yet when someone retells that story it becomes something different, something elevated by our opinions and our experience of first reading and engaging with that story.
We tweak the details we liked, represent the parts we found most interesting sometimes in spite of how they were originally laid out. Through that, I think the readers and fans of Rom Spaceknight have turned him into a comic book folk hero.
You can’t easily access these issues I’ve talked about and neither can you easily experience the totality of this series, but you can listen to me talk about it. I’ll tell you about the story of a man who sacrificed himself to protect his country and fought every day of his life to retain that humanity he could have so easily lost. A story about the often cyclic nature of violence but most important a story about a lone knight from a faraway land who came to save everyone.