March 5, 2013

Random Comic: ROM Spaceknight #29

For the purposes of this blog post I shall assume that, like me, you have heard of an old Marvel comic titled ROM but had never read it and didn't really know anything about it.

So all the way back in 1976 a preschool toy manufacturer named Kenner decided to branch out into action figures by purchasing the license to a new 20th Century Fox film titled Star Wars. We all know how that gamble paid off: not only did Kenner find themselves manufacturing the most popular toys of the 1980s, they stimulated an entire mini-industry of science fiction and fantasy-themed toys, all constructed in the sole hope that they'd give their makers the kind of sales kick Kenner experienced.

Parker Bros was at this point a very successful producer of board games, but seeing an opportunity they developed their first action figure. At one point they were going to call it COBOL after the programming language, but they ultimately settled on ROM. The big sales point of this plastic robot was that it had LED lights in the eyes. So convinced were Parker Bros executives that their toy would be a hit that they didn't even bother to give it articulated legs: ROM was effectively a metallic coloured statue with glowing eyes (red, because green LEDs cost too much).

To generate a backstory for the character, Parker Bros reached out to Marvel Comics - who published a tie-in comic book centred on ROM the Spaceknight who flies around the galaxy fighting Dire Wraiths. It was written by Bill Mantlo and illustrated by a range of artists staring with Sal Buscema. The toy was a commercial failure. The tie-in comic ran for 75 issues.
ROM Spaceknight #29 is dated April 1982. It was written by Bill Mantlo with art by Sal Buscema and Al Milgrom. Following the funeral of fellow Spaceknight Starshine, a grief-stricken ROM arrives in the American ghost town of Lucifer Falls. There he meets a family - the last left in the town - who are dying of radiation sickness. The cause, they tell him, is Dr Bruce Banner, who - as his alter-ego the Incredible Hulk - fought a recent battle with the Missing Link. Since they know Banner was irradiated with gamma radiation they assume he is the cause. ROM decides to explore the coal mine underneath the town in order to find the real reason.

This comic is a perfect example of what Marvel Comics is like. It guest stars the Missing Link, aka Lincoln, a Chinese mutant irradiated in an atomic bomb test and smuggled into the USA to kill Americans. His fight with the Hulk in Lucifer Falls happened in The Incredible Hulk #179, which might not seem too surprising. Comic books cross over like this all the time. The thing is - and this is typical of Marvel - The Incredible Hulk #179 was published in September 1974. ROM is picking up an eight year-old plot thread and acting like its audience is simply going to nod and think 'oh yes, I remember that'. So utterly Marvel.

I have to admit I do like ROM an awful lot though. He's a typically Marvel superhero, internally conflicted and tortured over his cyborg nature and loss of humanity. This issue also has a wonderfully old-fashioned vibe to it: largely self-contained, despite the Hulk tie-in, constructed with a beginning, middle and end, and very easy to read. I do question the end, however (SPOILER!), in which ROM deliberately lies to the Brickford family and tells them the Hulk was to blame for them nearly dying - just so that they won't hate Link. No wonder the Hulk is so angry all the time - other superheroes keep acting like dicks behind his back.

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