Tales From The Long Box #2: Japer Revisits ROM #17

Every Friday, we’ll be bringing you reviews of meaningful comics found in the collections of our writers. “Long Box” refers to the lengthy, white cardboard boxes most comics find themselves stored within – bagged, alphabetized and numerically ordered.

These reviews, then, are the tales of those collections: illuminating characters, artists, writers – even eras – in addition to the personalities of the very owners of those fine collections.

ROM # 17
Writer: Bill Mantlo
Artist: Sal Buscema
Marvel Comics

The recent and already legendary episode of South Park, entitled “Imaginationland,” contains nearly every character from our collective youth. The Lolly-Pop King strides alongside Kyle while Count Chocula stands, fangs bared, behind Butters. Popeye squints beside Stan and Snarf, of course, cowers in a corner.

Among these crowds of fictional, half forgotten characters, stands a white-armoured knight with a rectangular head and glowing red eyes, curiously appearing lost and forlorn in the background.

A synapse fires. A memory twigs. And suddenly, a childhood joy is remembered.

ROM originated as a Parker Brothers toy. In an attempt to market the space-robot-doll, the company joined forces with Marvel Comics, first publishing ROM Spaceknight in 1979. The comic, it was felt, would provide ROM, the doll, with an interesting back-story, a supporting cast of characters and new enemies which would work towards furthering the toy line for Parker Bros.

That toy line never happened. The space-robot-doll would collect dust on store shelves, quickly fading into obscurity. Marvel, however, never gave up on the character. The series lasted for 75 monthly issues.

ROM Spaceknight found a change of pace in issue # 17. In an attempt to breathe new life into the series and ground the character of ROM firmly in the Marvel Universe, writer Bill Mantlo had, arguably the company’s most popular characters in the X-Men, guest star. (There would be later appearances by Nova, Galactus and Dr. Strange among others to advance this idea.) Wolverine, Storm, Nightcrawler and Colossus all find themselves prominently displayed on the front cover, attacking a seemingly crazed ROM, as he holds a frightened child by the scruff of the neck.

It’s interesting to note that although the X-Men only found themselves on three pages, long time writer of those characters, and then-current “Writer-King,” Chris Claremont, received a consultant credit on the issue.

The story itself finds ROM searching for his arch-nemesis, the villainous Dire Wraith, concealed in human form, so that he can banish the evil being to limbo via his so-not-from-the-future “neutralizer” ray-gun.

Where Mantlo’s story is simple, his script in dense. Captions appear on every panel describing in words the various actions Buscema, the artist, draws. In one such case, five of the X-Men surround their leader Professor X. The caption reads: “The five mutants (for that is what they are) each possesses a power beyond that of mere homo sapiens…gather ‘round their wheelchair-bound mentor, Professor X, he whose incredible mind makes him one of the mightiest mutants of them all!” The issue is rife with this type of double explanation to the reader – words that portray the same visualization as the art itself – a style inherent in the comics of the generation. Still, today’s readers can’t help but feel as if they are being treated as simpletons.

Mantlo writes each character in the story with ample dialogue as well. Often times, words take up more room on a panel than art, making the pages feel stifled and claustrophobic. Rarely is a climactic fight scene so full of useless, meandering discourse! On occasion, footnotes from the editor are written at the bottom of panels which seek to shed light on or remind readers of past storylines. Also, thought-balloons appear, giving the reader an insight as to the inner workings of a character’s mind. These too, are devices of the day, something rarely found in current, more sophisticated comics. Indeed, with such an impenetrable script, it takes much effort to finish reading the issue.

Buscema, something of a legendary artist in the comic’s field today, finds his ROM art hurried, scratchy and flat in appearance with little to no attention given to backgrounds. This has an effect of making the scenes seem shallow and thin.

Still, ROM, for some reason, is remembered fondly by many fans.

A failed toy line, a comic book series of questionable quality and a resignation to relative obscurity, ROM has defied extinction, managing to remain relevant within a special niche in the comic book zeitgeist. The comics themselves have made appearances in no less than four feature films including Explorers (1985), The Lost Boys (1987), Robocop (1987) and Unbreakable (2000). Remarkably, the character has also been referenced in the Wu-Tang Clan song, Forever. Most recently, ROM has been seen in television episodes of My Name is Earl and Robot Chicken, as well as famously (or infamously – depending upon your point of view) in the aforementioned South Park episode.

So, will there be a renaissance for ROM Spaceknight?

Probably not. Still, in this strange, far-away corner of the comic universe where opinion masks as fact, it’s fun to see the expression on the faces of friends when told that the cover of ROM # 1 was illustrated by an uncredited and then unknown Frank Miller

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