The Trouble With Rom


Rom is an irresistable gateway to sin, at least once you have any idea what Rom is.

During the Christmas of 1979, after 95 years of making nothing but board games, Parker Brothers tried enticing little boys everywhere to add a bold, mysterious new misshapen brick of plastic to their letters to Santa. His name was Rom the Spaceknight, and he had travelled from the far reaches of the galaxy to save parents everywhere from the forces of still having money. I have no idea why Parker Brothers chose this concept and this moment to dip a toe into the action figure boy-doll market — I was four years old and cannot be expected to retain that kind of information; let’s just go ahead and blame Star Wars for this too — but Rom’s arrival seems to have been the kind of flop that leaves a crater. Nobody begged Santa for this toy; rumor has it that he scribbled in the margins of his naughty list, “IDEA: to save on coal costs, consider Roms.” All I know for sure is that 1) Parker Brothers didn’t make a second boy-doll and 2) My friends and I were in the center of the bullseye for this product’s target market at age four, and I would swear to the God of Moses that I have never seen one in my life.

It’s not hard to see what the problem was: if they had cut any more corners, Rom would have been a ball. Mind you, Rom had upwards of six blinking red lights (they were supposed to be green, but red was cheaper) and his body could be moved in as many as three places. He is reported to have made a noise. That Christmas, though, Time magazine (which seriously did weigh in on Rom the Spaceknight once) said it best: “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.” Even the ads were filmed in a way that said, “Hey, kids! No need to get a really close look at this! $24.95. Make all checks payable to ‘cash.'”

Look at that thing. His real enemy is the push-up.

As an adult, I especially appreciate the angle that Rom’s foes “can assume any form,” which is a great way of saying “we’re not putting any other figures out.”

But the seventies and the rumpus room in my parents’ finished basement were littered with dozens of blinking gewgaws with portentous commercials. Why, among all of them, are people still talking about Rom?

People are still talking about Rom because right after buying the concept, the Parker Brothers people drove over to Marvel Comics, dropped off that chicken-armed Volvo impersonator and said, “His name is Rom. You guys can make up the rest.” With that, a comic was launched that would run 75 issues with four annuals, outliving the production of the toy it was based on by about six years. I’m not sure what value there is in producing a toy-promoting comic that promotes no extant toy, but clearly money was changing hands somewhere. The comic seems like it was probably even good; Bill Mantlo wrote every single issue, and Sal Buscema drew the majority of them. When Buscema quit, he was replaced by Steve “Freakin'” Ditko with assists by people like John Byrne. This is yet another one of those comics that’s so corporate it’s indie; how many books have the same creators for their entire seven year run? Preacher, Y: The Last Man, and Parker Brothers’ Rom?

More crucially, though, people are also still talking about Rom because he has the mystique of any celebrity who died young. Maybe people still mention Rom because it was a good comic, but mostly they mention it because it hasn’t been printed in 24 years whether it was genius or not. For those who read it, memory amplifies the good stuff and takes out the trash. Anyone younger than thirty has to take everyone else’s word for it. Meanwhile, Fantastic Four has had twenty stellar creative teams since 1986 and still can’t catch a break with a tuna net. You know how it is. Tupac died and is still cool; Dr. Dre lived and recently starred in a Dr. Pepper commercial. (Or is that gangsta? Is not caring how embarrassingly ungangsta you are actually the most gangsta thing of all? I was reading comic books in junior high. I never learned how being cool actually works.) If John Lennon were still with us today, he would be known primarily as Bill Maher’s most annoying guest and possibly for his Kmart clothing line. That doesn’t happen to you when you die like Rom.

And make no mistake: Rom is quite dead. Rom has been sent to his eternal reward by the truest, most permanent death a comic book character can ever have: murder by lawyer. Marvel doesn’t have the rights anymore. In the books they publish today, they can sometimes say “Spaceknights,” but they can’t say “Rom.” They can sometimes show Rom, but not in his armor, and only if he’s going by a nickname and wearing a spacebag on his head and nobody makes direct eye contact with him. I’m not really sure how it works; given my study and understanding of the complexities of intellectual property law, I believe the statute says that if anyone writes the word “Rom” into a comic a witch comes and locks Stan Lee in a tower. (I’m not some fancy big-city lawyer. I get most of my information about the way the comics industry works from message board posters.)

Reason #4,722 that the internet is hilarious to me, by the way: the apparently commonly held belief online that somewhere in an office park a Hasbro lawyer is cradling the rights to Rom the Spaceknight, greedily clutching them to his breast in an ergonomic chair, muttering, “If any one of those comic people come for you, my sweet, I swear that we will bleed them into jerky. You were whored out to make my employers money once, and I will be damned if I will allow that to happen to you again.”


To make things odder and sadder still, Mantlo and company bewilderingly decided to thrust Rom into the Marvel universe up to his unarticulated elbows. Unlike G.I. Joe or Transformers, Rom couldn’t go a month without running into a superhero guest star. (They never made any other figures! Rom needs a supporting cast, dammit!) The aliens at war with Rom were cousins of the Skrulls, for crying out loud. It was as if they consciously said, “How could we write this story so that, in the event of a divorce, every page of it would be completely radioactive to reprint?”

This is where the sin comes in.

Piracy is never more tempting than when it comes to Rom, at least for those of us who have taken a lingering look in the mirror and admitted that Miracleman just doesn’t sound like any fun. Even if every single secret wish you have for digital comics comes true and includes a coupon for a backrub from a leprechaun, you’re still not getting any Rom. “It’s a victimless crime,” we think. “I mean, I couldn’t buy this book if I wanted to, right? Even if comic shops around here still had boxes of comics from 1983, none of my money would ever make it back to the publishers or the creators. I mean, sure, I could theoretically get the entire run on eBay for $10 from a guy in Flagstaff, but that guy only has three pieces of feedback and completely robs you in shipping. Yet, if I killed him, I would be the one to go to jail.”

It’s a slippery slope. One minute, you’re just helping yourself to a little Rom. The next minute, you’re mainlining Micronauts at work, and before you know it you’re fencing diamonds and covering the lifeless bodies of eBay sellers in quicklime in your basement. It’s better to walk the straight and narrow, or at least that’s what I keep telling myself as my cursor hovers over the Google search bar.

There is always the chance that someone, someday, will be walking past Rom and smell money, and that those old Mantlo/Ditko comics will see a printing press again. You’ll all be immensely relieved to know that there is an internet petition in the works, so this could all be wrapped up by dinner. It has 79 signatures as of this writing; Rom is better as an abstract, example, or punchline than as an actual cult. That petition reads, in part, “Given that after the initial failed run of the Rom toyline, Hasbro has shown no interest in reviving the character and therefore has no monetary incentive of keeping the copyright, and that Rom has become a fan favorite of Marvel Comics readers, Hasbro should sell (or give) the copyright to Marvel….”

The emphasis is mine. They should take that to the office park and read it to that Gollum-lawyer, and see how far they get.


Jim Mroczkowski bought one issue of Rom, and it was the one immediately after the five-year war where everyone stands around mopping their brows. He’s always doing stuff like that.

Comments

  1. GREAT article.

    I had two issues of ROM, both with the Dire Wraiths. So as far as I know, ROM fought the Dire Wraiths in every issue., endlessly, constantly, and for no real compelling reason. But there are worse ways to spend 75 issues. They’ve reprinted the Uncanny X-Men issues where ROM guest-stars, though. I guess that’s okay with the lawyers.

  2. We need ROM back!!

    In this day and age where Star Trek, GI Joe, and Transformers are having a resurrection in pop culture; ROM can totally work in today’s age of comics. He’s a badass robot who takes no questions and has no problem kicking villain’s asses.

    Oh well….I guess Robot Chicken is the only way to see new material of ROM.

  3. Great article. As well, I would love to see Rom back in action. I randomly ended up with issues of the series a few years back. It’s not great, but it certainly is fun. Alas. One day this, the 1996 FOX Doctor Who TV movie and the 1960s Batman TV show will be available in non-piracy forms. It came true for the X-Men! A geek can dream!

    Oddly enough about a week or so ago, a comic book writer I follow on twitter posited exactly what you do: "Downloading, illegally, out of print material doesn’t feel bad. It’s not available commercially and most likely never will be."

  4. The Reason #4,722 paragraph made me lol.Quality writing as always Jim.

  5. I vaguely remember the ROM toy… never owned one, though. It was Star Wars and Micronauts for me at that age. And maybe some of the 70’s Mego super-heroes.

    But I did have a couple of issues of ROM here and there. I remember thinking the Dire Wraiths were cool. There was also something cool about his comic book form, much improved from the actual toy. I also remember the introduction of other Spaceknights. They all seemed WAY cooler than ROM, in the way that seldom-seen supporting characters (Boba Fett) always are.

  6. Rom was one of the few comics that my dad and I could enjoy together.  Great memories of this comic.  Recently bought a complete set on eBay dirt cheap.  Holds up better than most comics from that era.

    Two weeks in a row you have tugged on my nostalgia gland and now we are Spirit-Brothers.  And yes, that was intended to sound creepy. 

  7. We need someone to cover the Micronauts next. You know, continuing this trend for the over-30’s. 😀 Micronauts is probably the first comic I remember reading. Wasn’t that ALSO Bil Mantlo…?

  8. A year or so ago, a friend who was moving gave me 9 longboxes of comics so I could (theoretically) read them or (actually) sort through a few of them, give a few of them away, then give up and stack the rest up in my closet.  Ahem.  I’m pretty sure I saw some ROM in there, though I had no idea what it was at the time.  I should probably go open the closet door and pray the boxes don’t fall down on my head.  So if you never hear from me again, that’s probably what happened.  If my lawyers are reading this, it’s all Jimski’s fault, though he’ll probably try to blame Hasbro.

  9. Somewhere in a longbox I have move issues of ROM than I am comfortable with.

  10. I will pay anyone who would be willing to give their ROM issues away.

  11. @dacampo – Yes, also Bill Mantlo.  He was involved in a hit-and-run years ago and now requires around-the-clock care.  Very sad.

  12. I remember hearing that news. Very sad indeed. Dude was reponsible for many of the comics of my youth.

  13. Timmy Wood (@TimmyWood) says:

    Great article I found a back issue of ROM for fifty cents once and bought it. It wasn’t great but for fifty cents not too bad.

  14. @TNC : I see what you did there!

  15. For some weird reason I can’t remember ROM at all, but this article was awesome!

  16. Also, just to get off topic for one quick second.

    I’m going to be thinking this is called: "The Trouble with RON" for the whole week. So in my mind it’ll be like….Boy Paul and Jim really hate Ron Richards lol

  17. Wow.  Man, I’m old. Not only do I STILL have my ROM figure from back then ( I was 7 and still remember the commercial – I HAD to have that figure!), but I’ve got almost the entire run of comics!  I’ve got issues 1 – 50, lost interest, then bought the last few.  I even have the POWER-MAN/IRON FIST crossover comic!  I pulled out the old ROM comics recently, and honestly…they really aren’t bad AT ALL.  I remember sitting reading the first 15 or so and thinking, "So Sci-Fi (sorry – SYFY – dumb) comes up with all this crap like MANSQUITO and 17 different dragon movies, but sitting right here is actually a fleshed out story with interesting characters, great villains (WAAAYYY before the debacle that was "Secret Invasion", ROM was playing off the "Who can you trust?" paranoia quite well), and a truly tragic figure in ROM, who gave up his humanity to defend the universe from the Dire Wraiths, all the while in love with his human friend (sorry – I’m not THAT far into the dork chamber that I remember the girl sidekick’s name) – I mean, this is solid stuff.  I know Jim Starlin tried to test the waters with his SPACEKNIGHTS mini-series a few years back, referring to ROM without really mentioning him by name and using his son as the hero, but without ROM, it was just another space story with people in armor fighting aliens. 

    For my part, if they started the series up again (Warren Ellis & John Cassaday!), I’d be first in line, simply for the nostalgia factor.  And I’ll be buried with my ROM figure.

  18. The girl’s name is Brandy.

  19. I read my uncle’s old issues as a kid and I remember loving the hell out of them.  Haven’t read them in years and probably couldn’t find them if I wanted to.  I had absolutely no idea it was based on a toy.  Probably since it was a flop and I was -4 when it premiered.  

  20. Rom showed up as a human to Rick Jones’s wedding in "The Incredible Hulk" in the 1990s, as drawn by Gary Frank. Nice bit of copyright evasion there.

    What I remember was, towards the end, that the series was inked by long-forgotten Brit powerhouse duo Ian Akin and Brian Garvey.

  21. OK. So, I read just Rom #1. (Issues are pretty easy to come by if you know where to look) All I want to say to you Jimski is that you have done right human, for your race! But my people will not forget that you sided with Rom!

  22. That Power Man/Iron Fist cover up there proves my theory that there isn’t anyone in the Marvel U who hasn’t attacked the Baxter Building.

  23. This may be sacrilege to some but I thought the Ditko drawn final ten issues were an abomination.

  24. I think ROM somehow completely passed me by. I remember The Dire Wraiths turning up in an issue of Uncanny X-Men, and my going ‘Who the hell are these guys, exactly?’

    But yet ROM is constantly brought up on messageboards across the net, alongside discusions about Alan Moore’s Mitracleman or Marvel’s Transformers, Circuit Breaker or Death’s Head. He has survived.

    The Space Knights even turned up in Marvel’s Annihilation Conquest event. Sure, no ROM with them. But THEY were there.

    Got to say though that’s one ugly looking toy.

  25. I’ve never heard of this till today, but I’m I’m all interested to (even if it might be terrible.)

  26. Jim, great article.  Realize that doesn’t add much to the conversation, but worth saying.

  27. Three of my top ten comics of all time are Rom, Micronauts, and Miracleman.  I’m sure that 42% of it is because they don’t have trades currently in print.

  28. I am so thankful for this article.  So thankful.  I left comics for a long time.  I just assumed ROM passed away.. like the Dodo.  I loved ROM as a kid.  I used to read them in school because the guy |I sat next to always had a bunch of issues in his desk.  I actually think that as a young kid, I read more issues of ROM then any other single title.  hehe.  Perhaps that explains the slightly skewed tastes I have today! 

  29. I never played with my ROM much, too busy reconfiguring Micronaut spaceships that shot bright, round, rubber missles.  I think the last time I saw my ROM, he was being pummeled by Steve Austin and Raydeen.

    Alas, they are gone now.  What I would give to have my Battle Cruiser and Mobile Exploration Lab back.

  30. I was just thinking: what if I’d only written this because I had a run of Rom comics I was trying to unload?

    I don’t, but I just realized I could really be putting this column to work for me.

    "Man, I am never gonna ditch this box full of Spitfire and the Troubleshooters. There is no demand for this at allWaaaaait a second!…"

  31. Jeff Reid (@JeffRReid) says:

    @Jimski: Wanna do an article about the GAMMARAUDERS series?  No reason…

    And I must agree with Bedhead.  I do enjoy your writing, Jim.  Great stuff.

  32. @Wolfdog – I have about 6 iterations of Raydeen, including the 24 inch figure from the 70s.  When all the Sam Goody stores started closing down they put all the Palisades Micronaut reissues on clearance.  I snagged as many of them as I could.

    At my old LCS the owner had a Rom doll on display.  I asked him how much he wanted for it and he said it wasn’t for sale.  I wish I hadn’t pummeled mine with a hammer all those years ago.

  33. Just a question, but, did anyone else read this as "The Trouble With RON?"  I read it that way over multiple viewings before diving into the article, expecting it to be some rant against the X-Men or maybe an anti-sideburn diatribe. 

  34. I feel so educated!

    Can you do an article on Micronauts next?  Because that’s another one I’ve seen all over 25 cent bins and have been constantly perplexed by.

  35. I almost have a full run of ROM and I absolutely love the series. I love it as a kid, and I still do. When I complete my run (missing a couple of the annuals and about three issues), I’m gonna buy another run and get them bound.

    Three MASSIVE hardcovers.

  36. @Crippler – yes every time I loaded the homepage today, I did a doubletake

  37. Never got into ROM, the action figure or comic.  I am all in for a Silverhawks, M.A.S.K. or Centurians comic.

  38. Wow, other people who remember and played with the Micronauts…. This is what the internet is for, people! I love you all!

    @throughthebush – I "remember" the Micronauts series as being awesome! But, as to how it holds up? Probably similar to ROM… both written by Bill Mantlo. I suspect they read very much like the super-hero comics of the early 80’s. I do remember liking that Micronauts felt like Star Wars to me (discovering it as a kid)… this vast space opera with a rich history…

  39. Baron Karza > Darth Vader

    The damn hands on my Baron Karza will NOT stay on.  Stupid spring-loaded fists…

    Marvel tried to bring the Micronauts back in ’97 and even had three issues pencilled by Cary Nord that will never see the light of day.  Too bad they forgot to secure the license first. 

  40. @Crippler: I still see this as ‘RON’ instead of ‘ROM’. I cant wait for Jimski to say ‘RICHARDS!!!’ 🙂

  41. @daccampo….Acroyear was tha SHIT!!! he had a sword I believe and a badass helmet w/body armor in the comics!!

    @ ultimatehoratio I effin loved ROM the comic book especially issue #43 which started my collecting the title..can you find me a link as to WHAT DID ROM LOOK LIKE OUT OF HIS ARMOR??

  42. @ultimatehoratio. I loved my Baron Karza. Way cooler than Darth Vader. And you could disconnect his legs and attach the horse’s body to turn him into a centaur. With Missiles on the side of the horse body! Missiles! Let’s see Vader do THAT!

  43. Rom > Transformers

    OH!

    (nice article)

    ((My issues of Rom mysteriously disappeared in 1995 when my long boxes were stolen and then returned. Someone out there has a guilty conscience))

  44. @Jess1125 – Here’s a pic of Rom in human form drawn by Steve Ditko:

    http://www.marveldirectory.com/individuals/r/rom.htm

  45. the petition is up to 102 now…

  46. That’s great. My influence is worth 23 “signatures”. Fear me!

  47. @ultimatehoratio-Space MULLET, figures thanks!

     

  48. i have a couple old issues. thought they were good

  49. Great article. I just wish more people valued the search for back issues. I haven’t checked, but I bet the old issues are as dirt cheap as you say. I hate the recent attitude that storylines can only be read if recently collected. Rom should be a great example of why back issues should be valued again.

  50. @WonderManFan – Not only am I fan of Rom but also of Wonder Man.

    WonderManFan am ulitmatehoratio’s mommy?*

    * Bastardized JLU quote. 

  51. I loved ROM, Spaceknight.  ROM was hardcore before grim and gritty became the norm in superhero comics.

    Just look at these covers!

    http://image2.milehighcomics.com/istore/images/fullsize/70058905482.15.GIF

    http://image2.milehighcomics.com/istore/images/fullsize/70058905482.36.GIF