[Noel’s Knoll] Rom: Spaceknight, issue 1 – “Arrival”

Run and hide, little ones. Somebody allowed Noel to write for yet another blog. *evil laugh*

Welcome to Noel’s Knoll, where I’m going to revisit and/or complete shows, comics, etc., that left a strong impression on me in the past. I’m starting with the Marvel comic series Rom: Spaceknight, which ran for 75 issues from 1979 to 1986. I’ve read the first 40 or so of those issues in the past, but held off completion until I could amass the entire collection and loop back for a full read-through. Serendipity called as Made of Fail debuted this site just after I got my hands on that final stray issue.

Why am I choosing Rom? Because I hold it up as the pinnacle of what a licensed tie-in comic can be. They took a bland, forgettable action figure that had no backstory and no real draw beyond its Ikea design and ability to light up tools you put in its hand, and gave it a rich, mythical backstory that turned him into a cosmic hero whose exploits formed such a strong cult following that the comic carried on for years after the unsurprisingly short-lived action figure quickly vanished.

And why did it work? Bill Mantlo. Often an overlooked writer during the 70s and 80s, mainly because of his purple dialogue and wild plotlines, Mantlo was a dedicated craftsman who leapt on anything the editors handed him with speed and inventiveness and never delivered anything short of his sincere best. Whether he was working on The Incredible Hulk or The Human Fly, he always brought his A-game and penned scripts that, while not always going in the most likely of directions or being the most polished in terms of execution, were always rich, always entertaining, and always surprisingly thoughtful.

Sadly, Mantlo then suffered a tragedy. In the early 90s, he was struck by a car and suffered a severe brain trauma, the full consequences of which have only just recently been chronicled. I won’t lie, a large part of my attachment towards the man comes as a result of how closely his situation mirrors that of my sister, but that doesn’t color my genuine appreciation of his work as that of overlooked quality.

So with that introduction out of the way, let’s dive into the first issue of Rom: Spaceknight!

A small comet crashes into the earth. What emerges from the crater is a tall, gleaming metallic form with glowing red eyes. When the figure wanders onto a road, a shocked young woman named Brandy Clark swerves her car to avoid hitting him and is all set to fly over a cliff when the alien grabs her car and yanks it to a stop. She cowers in terror when he produces a device and aims it in her direction, but all he does is scan her before activating his jetpack and taking off.

Brandy arrives at her humble hometown of Clairton, West Virginia, only to find the alien in the middle of the town square, scanning the frightened yet curious crowd with the same device. Two men in the crowd seem to recognize the creature, but before they can do anything, it swaps out the analyzing device for a weapon and zaps them both into piles of ash. People scream and flee in a panic. Brandy approaches the creature, trying to communicate with it, but it grabs her and again takes off into the air. The Mayor tries calling in help, but the Governor thinks he’s drunk. The operator, the sheriff, and several other citizens, who also recognize the creature, secretly meet and place a call to a contact in the National Guard.

Brandy and the creature land in a field where it produces a translating device so as to speak with her. Responding to her fearful questions, he claims the men he “neutralized” were not humans, they were Dire Wraiths. He tells her of a technological utopia known as Galador, which formed an armada of ships that sailed the cosmos, bringing knowledge and wisdom to every inhabited world they encountered. When they passed through a region known as the Dark Nebula, they were set upon by the Dire Wraiths, vile, paranoid beings who, after a violent battle, crushed the armada with Deathwing, a giant creature of pure darkness.

Word of the Armada’s destruction reached Galador, alongside warnings that the Dire Wraiths were amassing for an invasion. Volunteers were called for, young men willing to sacrifice their humanity by surgically grafting cybernetics into their bodies and permanently sealing themselves in suits of armor. A brave few stepped forward and the Spaceknights were born. The battle with the Dire Wraiths wass brutal and many lives were lost, but the tide turned when one knight, Rom, finally delivered the killing blow to Deathwing.

The Dire Wraiths scattered into the cosmos and Rom set out in pursuit, hunting them as they changed their shapes to blend into alien populaces, ferreting them out with his Analyzer and using his Neutralizer to teleport them to Limbo, a phantom dimension that acts as their final, permanent prison. Such was the fate of the two men, in reality Dire Wraiths, Rom apparently zapped into ash.

Bullets suddenly ping off Rom’s armor. Brandy and he turn to see the national guard moving in with tanks and dozens of soldiers. Most are human, but several are secretly Dire Wraiths who spook the other soldiers into thinking Rom’s Analyzer is a death ray. Everyone opens fire, but none of it does much damage to Rom, who tries to take out the weapons as best he can without hurting any innocents. A Dire Wraith soldier produces an alien weapon that has more of an effect on Rom, but he’s quickly Neutralized, bursting into a pile of ash which only further convinces the real soldiers that Rom is a killer threat.

Brandy tries to get her hands on the now abandoned alien weapon, hoping to use it as proof to call off the attack against Rom, but the secret group of the town Operator, sheriff, and two others – all Dire Wraiths – grab her and dispose of the device. When she cries for help, Rom neutralizes three before using his jetpack to flee the scene. Brandy looks down at the piles of ash, wondering what she’s gotten herself into, while the last Dire Wraith, the unseen town operator, slips away. The operator places a call to a shadowy government figure, passing on the warning that Rom is after their kind. Then she turns into a bird and flies away into the night sky.

It’s really important to stress here just how little Bill Mantlo had to work with when he was handed the license. The Rom action figure had absolutely no backstory and the only real clues to his purpose were his devices, labelled Analyzer, Neutralizer, and Translator, all of which are promptly and cleverly established and explained here in the first issue. By dropping him onto a new planet, you give him a reason to use the Translator. By giving him an enemy, he has things to shoot with his Neutralizer. By hiding the enemy in plain sight, disguised as the native populace, he constantly has to test people first with the Analyzer. This is simple storytelling 101, but Mantlo really breaks it down well, then pushes it further by having the enemy be long established members of society that people grew up with and trust, and when he uses his weapon, he knows it teleports the villains to a prison dimension, but all the natives see are the disguise layers of their friends and neighbors screaming as they violently incinerate into ash. Marvel Comics was the home of heroes who are disliked and misunderstood by society, and Rom fits that mold to a T as everything he does to help comes off as some giant robot zapping innocents with his death ray. And by having the Wraiths embedded in the population, they’re fully able to sew additional seeds of distrust and manipulation in their own favor.

The structure of this issue is meticulous, introducing the bizarre looking Rom as a total mystery when he crashes to the Earth, wanders onto a road, then encounters the people of Clairton. Many a villain has been established in this way, with a hero suddenly flying in to fight them, but I love how all the cards are stacked against Rom and it’s only through the eyes of Brandy that we notice something is off, something doesn’t add up, even as this curiosity she’s discovered vaporizes people she went to high school with. And then we have voices in the crowd, odd people out who know things they shouldn’t, who recognize this figure. As we become aware of more, we see that key citizens are a part of this secret cabal; the operator, the sheriff, a man who looks like he could be a doctor. Then, once the mysteries have been laid in to hook our interest, Mantlo dives into the backstory with his tale of Galador and the Spaceknights, a flashback that could have easily been a massive infodump had Mantlo and artist Sal Buscema not succeeded in making it a thoroughly engrossing tale of its own that unfolds like an ancient and epic myth that’s crossed the cosmos for us to hear. And once we know who Rom is and what these Dire Wraith things are, the enemy moves in for the attack, showing that they’re so thoroughly saturated into society that they can move and manipulate entire armies of unsuspecting human soldiers.

I know it sounds like I’m going into a fansquee gush with nothing but praise, but I genuinely do love this first issue. The hero is a fascinating enigma who takes on an air of the ultimate noble sacrifice when we learn his past. The villains seem like an easy Pod People knockoff at first, but as their presence unfolds, you really see how thoroughly their presence on Earth has been worked out. Brandy is a great everyman, totally freaked out by everything that’s going on, but finding discoveries to latch on to that lead her to make the brave choices when the cards come down. In the Marvel tradition, things hit a wonderful grey zone as society finds itself at odds with and lashing out at the misunderstood individual trying to protect it. It’s a damn solid book.

Now, is there anything I don’t like? A few little things, sure. The main issue is that there’s absolutely no motivation for the Dire Wraiths beyond being evil. They don’t attack the Galadoran armada to raid it of supplies or because of a perceived threat, they just do it because they want to. Okay, they’re evil. We get it. But that’s not enough. What is their ultimate goal now that they’re on Earth? If they’re so evil that they lash out at things that bear absolutely no threat to them, how are they able to live quiet, domestic lives alongside normal human beings? Obviously, getting their people into key positions and forming and underground network operating beneath all levels of society mush have some form of end game, so I’ll wait and see where things go from here.

My only other issues are that both the writing and the art, while really good and definitely above average, can be a little hammy at times. Mantlo was know for diving into the old school dialogue of long-winded embellishment shouted into an exclamation point, and we aren’t let down here, as Rom’s first glimpse of Earth reads:

He is here! But where is here? To his right he senses the surge of electrical power harnessed to give heat and light! This world, then, harbors intelligence! To his left he notes gentle mountains worn down by the ages! This world is neither old, as he knows time, nor young! Then the car approaches (he does not know to call it that, of course) along the ribbon of rock across which he stands! The pale headlight beams (pale to one who has seen into the hearts of stars) illuminate his armor! He watches them advance, standing his ground! And he starts to speak, but it is then that he senses the fear, the horror in the mind of the being guiding the vehicle!

You have to remember that this was still a part of the era where art couldn’t be left to tell the story on its own, and every panel had to be elaborately narrated in a way struggling to make things sound as dramatic as they could possible sound. Mantlo’s wording isn’t awful and it most certainly does have vivid moments and more than gets the job done, but it is a little clunky and overdrawn at times. The same is true of the art of Sal Buscema, which is dynamic and flowing and consistent and never distracts from events, but has a “rough-around-the-edges” quality to it that never managed to hold up to the immaculate work of his brother John.

Now, I hesitate to call that a complaint as, to be honest, I actually like the slight hamminess of the art and writing as it gives it more spunk and personality and a tasty pulp feel to chew on. It isn’t precise, it isn’t polished, but the roughness actually makes the strength of the storytelling, both written and artistic, stand out even more clearly as these two creators signed on to a licensed property most people would have turned down or hacked out, and gave it all the dedication and skill they could muster.

We’ve got a wild road ahead of us, but we’re off to one hell of a start.

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