It was a comic that was weird, inspiring and human and one that when I first read it, compelled me to hide it behind a bookshelf in disgust. Rom came down from outer space to save us all, and in 1979 this strange silver cyborg transformed what could have been a cheap, forgettable marketing ploy into an enduring folk hero within comic’s history. It told a story about war and what it meant to serve in a way only possible through the pathos of superhero storytelling. Rom’s story begins as one of desperation—both on the page and in the real world. The Parker Brothers, known for their board games like Monopoly and Clue, wanted to break into the toy industry but they wanted to do this as cheaply as they possibly could.
They started by buying a patent for a toy named COBOL—a robot with new and inventive internal electronics that caused its eyes to glow an eerie green. They renamed this robot ROM, downgraded those green eyes to red and gave it only three points of articulation. ROM was an ugly, clunky gray monstrosity—a toy that was a preordained to fail and be forgotten within a year of its release by degrees of sheer mediocrity.
This prophecy would have gone to self-fulfilling if not one for one writer who saw something no one else did.
Bill Mantlo was no reader’s favorite writer at Marvel Comics, but that was okay. Mantlo was a workman’s writer, someone who flourished under deadlines and became known internally as “the Fill-in King.” He was the guy relied on to quickly create stories for series when their own writers fell behind schedule. He would deliver despite being given short notice, little development time, and even less recognition. In spite of all that work and success, Mantlo was never given a full series of his own.
That is until one Christmas morning. He was spending the day with his family. They had just opened presents and Mantlo watched his son play with these new action figures—these strange and colorful robots—it was in that moment he experienced something akin to that primal imagination we tap into as children playing with our toys. He looked at these plastic figures and suddenly he knew. He saw their histories, characters and saw a story in them needing to be told.
He rushed down to Jim Shooter, Marvel’s editor-in-chief, and convinced him that Marvel needed to license these products—they had to turn these into comics.
When Bill Mantlo started writing Rom Spaceknight, the original product had no backstory. There were no other characters in the line, not even any villains. Alone, Mantlo created a story about a man from the far-off utopian planet of Galador who sacrificed his life and humanity in order to combat the invading, tyrannical and shapeshifting force known as the Dire Wraiths. He created a story about a war between magic and science—about a war experience that encompassed two hundred years of an artificially extended life with that conflict now brought to Earth.
The comic series Rom Spaceknight was a fantastical, bombastic experience with stories that in part was driven by its pulp adventure elements—this was a world that might introduce an underground army of lizard guerilla soldiers, living houses and other dimensions. They pushed the boundaries of reality and reworked Marvel’s forgotten characters in new and more human ways. This cracked open the comic universe making it feel more expansive than people with accidental powers punching other people with accidental powers.
Mantlo accomplished this at least in part by tapping into this malleable sense of imagination that touches that experience we all have as kids coming up with stories in our crayon drawing and Lego buildings. Rom talks like a child’s idea of a hero through this grandiose and archaic speechifying. The Spaceknights, the Galadorian band of cybernetic warriors, look like they came from a drawing on the fridge. They each have designs based on basic shapes—some have square heads and bodies, others more hexagonal—with each defined with a primary color and a unique power that sounds something coming off a playground. Rom is really strong, another Spaceknight has fire powers, while another with light or dark powers. They’re vague but still simple. There are no proposed pseudoscience or outline limitations with these characters and they’re presented without a hint of self-awareness or pretentiousness.
These designs are driven by a type of visual purity and simplicity that, I think, invoke a mental space for us to enter: these stories were weird, the characters fantastical but at its core was why we came to superhero stories in the first place.
When I first encountered Rom it was forty years after his debut in 2009. I was a teenager still getting into comics but I’d never been to a comic book store. I’d read the hardcover and trades of Watchmen and Sandman but I’d never flipped through the leaf-thin pages of a single issue. This might sound insignificant but comics are nothing if built on tradition—characters have a legacy, writers and artists have legacies, and if the comics we love become our Bibles for understanding morals and empathy, then the comic book store is the church.
So one summer day my older cousin took us the forty minute drive to the nearest mall and into this small little boutique comic shop with barely enough space to walk. They didn’t carry trades; they didn’t even carry anything current—what they had instead were rows and rows of long boxes. These unmarked cardboard crates stacked on folding tables and filled with hundreds and hundreds of individual comics. Where, almost like a pew, you bent over and performed that sacred act of divination of finding the one issue you were meant to find. I went in looking for something by Alan Moore or maybe Grant Morrison but what I found instead was Rom Spaceknight #5.
I bought it as a joke—one of those teenage irony jokes. The cover said this was a Marvel comic but with a character I’d never seen before: this goofy silver robot with metal mitten hands spread apart by orange tentacles of smoke while household furniture smashed against his body and a couple cowered in the corner. There was a war of confusing aesthetics taking place. Was this science fiction? Was this a horror story? Was this Marvel's version of SummerSlam?
What was unknown to me at the time was how close my first impression captured a big part of what made Rom Spaceknight work—a thing appeared to be a goofy and a bad idea used this specific visual expectation to sneak in weighty realities.
A superhero comic isn’t bound by the visual limitations of a movie’s special effects budget and neither are they bound by the reader’s suspension of disbelief as with a book. What happens in here is limited only by what’s on the page and what’s on that page can be anything. They are a unique opportunity where the stories can mix genres, mix subject matters, tones, character archetypes and settings. A story can have an alien invasion battled off by a magical sorcerer living in Greenwich Village, men can fly, women can turn invisible and people came come back from the dead all within the same set of pages. The stories are fantastical, surreal and present a type of consistent, exciting strangeness that other mediums can never risk matching. Our brains buy into these stories because we can see it for ourselves across the page.
As much as this is a strength for the superhero story, it’s also their greatest weakness. The stories often stray too far from common sense logic and lean too heavily into a spectacle. They ultimately risk becoming inhuman but when they work, it’s almost always because they balance this flimsy unreality with very real-feeling characters and situations.
In that issue #5 of Rom Spaceknight I bought seven years ago, begins with Rom and his two human sidekicks hiding from the local police and military. These groups have been infiltrated by the Dire Wraiths and they lead these efforts using magic hounds without eyes to find them out. Rom and his friends take shelter in an abandoned home, only to discover the home itself is a living entity that has grown stronger by feasting on the Dire Wraiths and their magic.
The story is convoluted and frankly overwritten. Dialogue and caption boxes overcrowd on every page and the colors have already run together and faded. Yet there’s a moment between the strange, pulp movements of the superhero story that gives way to an absolute humanity. We get a flashback of Rom before the war and before he gave up his human body. He’s in an argument with his girlfriend, she just learned he’s volunteered to go to war, to enlist in the Spaceknight program and she’s afraid. She pleads with him not to go—that with so many people already volunteered why does he still have to do it? Why leave her? Rom is a man of values but he admits he’s scared too and that fear is exactly why he has to leave. He assures her, however, that he’ll return and that their love will outlast the war they’ve been drawn into.
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.