Tuesday, April 5, 2016

1979 - Looking back at ROM #1

ROM #1 – “Arrival!”
December 1979
Writer: Bill Mantlo / Artist: Sal Buscema 

The greatest of the spaceknights was originally introduced as an action figure earlier in 1979 by Parker Brothers. To promote their new electronic action toy, Parker Brothers teamed up with Marvel Comics to produce a ROM comic book. The action figure didn’t sell well and faded into obscurity, but the comic book survived well into the 1980s.

Veteran Marvel writer, Bill Mantlo, was called upon to chronicle ROM's adventures on Earth. He was no stranger to adapting action figures to comic books with the Micronauts still selling well. On ROM, Mantlo’s long-time partner on the Incredible Hulk, Sal Buscema, one of Marvel’s most consistent and reliable artists, joined him as penciler and inker.

The scope of the first issue is impressive. Mantlo had very little to build the story upon as the ROM action figure was a standalone item, no teammates, no villains, no flavor text, just an armful of weapons and gadgets – the Energy Analyzer, the Neutralizer, and the Translator (9-Volt Battery Not Included!).

“Rom is a spaceman doll whose computer memory gives it a disappointingly narrow range of behavior. It breathes heavily (one of its better effects), buzzes, twitters and flashes its lighted eyes, and sounds ominous gongs, one for good and two for evil. The trouble with this Parker Bros. homunculus is that it looks as if it should be able to use its arms and legs like a true robot, and it can’t. Rom will end up among the dust balls under the playroom sofa.”
       - Time magazine
ROM crashlands into the Marvel Universe and makes his way in the heart of a small American city that has been conveniently infiltrated by his shape-shifting nemeses, the Dire Wraiths. Mantlo doesn’t waste any time having the spaceknight leverage his toys to neutralize the Dire Wraiths. However, this neutralization appears like he’s disintegrated human beings and the city goes into a panic. The Dire Wraiths have wormed their way into the city and the country’s power structure and send in the National Guard to deal with this alien threat.

Meanwhile, ROM has befriended a human woman, Brandy Clark, using another one of his toys, the Translator, and tells her his origin in an attempt to persuade her to his cause. Mantlo and Buscema interject a 5-page flashback “The Legend of the Spaceknights!” that introduces the golden age of Galador, the destruction of the Galadorian Armada by the Dire Wraiths, the drastic creation of the spaceknight program, and the climactic battle that routed the Dire Wraiths.

ROM proves to be more than the National Guard can stop, even supplemented by Dire Wraiths technology. However, the battle does nothing for ROM’s reputation and allows the Dire Wraiths to warn their brethren that ROM is on Earth and hunting them down.

Mantlo humanized ROM by changing him from a robot to a human cyborg. The process to transform them into a spaceknight tragically trapped them with their metallic armour. In creating the Dire Wraiths, Mantlo created a worthy adversary that contrasted our protagonist; vicious, sinister, devious, and masters of a dark magic.  I really liked the concept of magic vs technology, but that theme wasn't really used or developed in this issue.


  1. But it wouldn't be too long before the sorcerous and sciencey Dire Wraiths came into conflict, with the philosophies of Rachel Sweet and the Most High clashing. This is the series I started my collection with. I long for the days of an omnibus. I have the whole series, but I'd love it on my bookshelf. I sort of tuned out when the Dire Wraith war flooded over into the whole Marvel Universe after issue 50, but up to that point it was - and remains - among my favorite comic series.

    1. Hey Geoff, thanks for stopping by. Looking forward to reading more! I'm still hoping that IDW can work out some kind of ROM omnibus.

  2. Excellent summary! Just so you know, Jim Shooter actually came up with the basic premise, besides what Parker Brothers dictated, to help give Mantlo a start (http://www.jimshooter.com/2011/06/coming-of-rom-knights-tale.html).

  3. I bought the entire run of ROM a few years ago and enjoy the series. Mantlo really did make something memorable from almost nothing but a robot visual. I only had issue #42 as a kid but regret not having followed the series regularly.

    As for the ROM toy, I vividly remember being eight years old and seeing that ever-present and tattered ROM box on a high shelf at my local K-Mart in late 1979/early 1980. ROM was perpetually on clearance. I would always wonder if I should have just bought the thing but ROM never would have fit in with my multitude of much-smaller Star Wars action figures.

    1. Hey C.K., thanks for dropping by and sharing that story.



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