So, it’s happening. I’m already four issues into ROM: Spaceknight, otherwise known as the longest comic book series based on a toy. That’s right, this baddie, a metallic figurine from space with no other backstory, ended up headlining an ongoing series that ran for 75 issues (79 including annuals and specials).

What’s more, they’re actually good comics! Written by efficient fill-in/mildly insane (in a good way) workhorse Bill Mantlo, these are without a doubt some of the man’s finest work. The sheer brilliant invasion of his creativity on the blank slate of ROM astounds me each issue: the silver sheen on the action figure becomes tragically removed humanity, and the ability to harbor emotions become the reward for ending his war against the Dire Wraiths. On the plus side, he gets to look pretty badass in the meantime:

Without any sort of villain for ROM to fight (seriously, they didn’t even make that silver goober in different colors – more on the different colors later!!), Mantlo decided that Rom fought the Dire Wraiths, a greedy conquering alien race that shapeshifted to whatever native race inhabited a planet they want. So the problem of not having any sort of villain was answered.

Which, actually, might have hurt the idea of the action figure. Kids need other characters to have intersecting backstories, y’all! No wonder the toy went out of production after a year on the market, whereas this comic lasted longer than Ghost Rider’s first ongoing series. In an early attempt to give the toy manufacturers an easy out, Bill Mantlo devised a red equivalent of ROM, set up in similar design to the main man himself.

Although they would not heed his advice, we still got a great Kirby pose on ROM right there. Absolutely no one except a cowering ape would don that pose, and yet it perfectly frames our eyes onto that red monstrosity. Which is actually a moment of small genius of this licensee comic writer comes in: the red spaceknight acts as a relevant and defining foil to our hero in the seventeen pages he appears in. It’s the kind of daunting concision that Homer could sing in an afternoon, or modern storytellers conveniently stretch across eighteen issue epics. Here’s the skinny: Instead of being a Galadorian who sacrificed his humanity to quest against the invading Dire Wraiths, Archie Stryker, the human mind behind FireFall, sees ROM kill shapeshifted Dire Wraiths and assumes that he’s temporarily suspending his humanity to protect humanity against the Spaceknight invasion. What a fool. The Spaceknights, especially Firefall, whose armor the Dire Wraiths now possess, knew that he was sacrificing something to become inhuman.

Unfortunately, the man has little more than a single moment of narrative circumstance tying them together. He became a robot out of a reckless ignorance to kill. ROM chose his path out of considered concern for his people, as well as the tragic knowledge that he was one of the most physically fit members of his planet. It seems that not getting the toy’s origin right becomes the most tragic mistake of all.

I want to stress how much mileage Mantlo got out of the “same hero, different color” concept. In the page above, his robotic counterpart hurls the same insult of losing his humanity that ROM desperately fears. As he spends more time as disconnected organs allowing a machine the power of sensory information, he forgets what it is to act as a human intaking it. But, here, his counterpart throws the same insults, revealing the startling transformation of the human to the objective.

Of course, they slug it out.

ROM never becomes someone who became a robot to become more powerful. He became more powerful as a human knowing he was one of the few most fit to save the world.

He even refrains from killing those whose motivations are based on false truths and misrepresentations. All he does is defeat his villain in battle, and allow the truth to reveal itself later, which it will, and which will have dire repercussions for the Dire Wraiths.

Much mores than the variance of color, one of the essential elements of a toy’s success is its imaginary backstory, and that hidden mythology becomes a central element of ROM’s plot, as well as Buzz Lightyear in “Toy Story”. In an effort to mirror the stigma delivered to kids obsessing over their toy’s fantasy origin story, the one human who most completely understands his origin story and wants to tell everyone about it suffers alienation and disbelief.

Look at how crazy that woman who’s telling his origin story! They treat her like she has post-partem depression.

It seems that only the cool kids can tell the origin story of the action figure to each other safely, without reality getting in the way. I’m at issue 9, where the lover of Brandy and his cop friend have become truly aware, and even then the cop died soon after the discovery, and Brandy’s lover doesn’t have a single reason to trust the truth of ROM! It’s all about an imaginary conflict existing right beneath your toes. You just need to buy ROM to help sort out your problems, kids!

There’s more to this comic than clever meta ideas, though. There is also some of the best work of Sa Buscema’s (incredibly inconsistent) career. The energetic young brother to fantasy comic athlete John Buscema, Sal would prefer to remain an inker, but a surplus of penciling work forced him to put graphite (and eraser) to pages. They would often come out with much louder storytelling than other artist’s at the time, an inkling of the power the fledgeling Image artists (Todd Macfarlane/Erik Larsen/Jim Lee) would ascribe to the splash page. On these comics, though, Sal was cautiously pushing the envelope with the splash page, and still cared plenty about the individual panels, giving individual figures the muscle and might of Kirby, but still comfortable to become an abstract cubist recalling Steve Ditko’s Dr. Strange for a panel.

Seriously, ROM stops a car dumb enough to run into him, flips it up, shoots the flying dire wraith mid air, and then throws the car back to destroy an important piece of equipment. That is what happens when you fight ROM! Your corpse will kill something you cherish.

The pages showing the banishment of dire wraiths to other dimensions are early marvels of manipulating the coloring process.

I imagine Frank Santoro giddily looking at these hazy and demented sci-fi dreams as a kid, and starting to imagine.

Besides Sal Buscema’s excellent work (as far as I can tell, only his run on The Incredible Hulk with Bill Mantlo really comes close to the control and creativity guiding these pages from our pal sal, although his later work on the Galactus mini-series comes close), the series also recalls the forefathers of the superheros in another way. Namely, the sheer terror ROM inspires in humanity resembles Superman’s early appearances, when he was a mighty and silent monolith instead of a sleek and noble man.

he literally does just vaporize innocent bystanders in front of other humans, without remorse. I’d be terrified.

Like our old pal Superman, he even leaves his women just out of the danger zone, offering no special attention. He even grabs a car like nobody’s business, like that first Superman cover.

Thankfully, he also has some pretty badass lines. “I HAVE HEARD THE CALL OF PASSING COMETS!, FLOWN THROUGH THE MUSIC OF THE SPHERES! WHAT IS YOUR SONIC SHATTERER COMPARED TO THAT?!” and that right there may be the greatest, and at least most persistent, joy of the series. Bill Mantlo tempering his insanity into brilliant comic captions, or, as Denny O’Neil likes to call those little boxes, “Newspaper headlines written by poets”.

You know the poetry’s gonna continue. Until next time!