[Noel’s Knoll] Rom: Spaceknight, issue 5 – “A House is Not a Home”

“I am no sorcerer, Dweller! But the elders of my world saw fit to arm me with Galador’s greatest weapon – the Neutralizer! A weapon which can shatter! And which can sear with seething flames! Thus, I answer fire with fire!”

It’s still night on that road just outside of Clairton, West Virginia. Brand, Steve, and Rom huddle in the woods while police comb through the wreckage from last issue’s battle. Rom isn’t sure if these people are human or Dire Wraith, but he can’t risk using his Neutralizer without giving away his position and endangering Brandy and Steve. As he looks to Brandy wrapped in Steve’s arms, Rom thinks back to the day he volunteered to become a Spaceknight, when his girlfriend Ray-Na confronted him over the choice to give up his humanity and their love.

Back on the road, it’s revealed the cops are humans when the real Wraiths show up in the form of S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Kraller, Dr. Sweet, and some other goons with badges. The cops recognize the unconscious figure in mangled armor as Archie Stryker, a wanted man, but the Wraith Agents throw around “national security” and cart him into an ambulance. Thinking Stryker is still out, Kraller and Sweet discuss his fate, never realizing he’s awake and aware that the claims Rom made are actually true.

A Wraith agent comes out of a truck with a pair of massive, snarling dog with blind white eyes. Rom recognizes them as Hellhounds of the Dark Nebula, who detect their prey telepathically. Sure enough, they instantly latch onto Rom’s location and he takes off into the air with Brandy and Steve under each arm. The cops recognize the two kids from Clairton and balk when the Agents tell them to forget everything they saw this night.

Rom lands in front of a seemingly abandoned house so his human friends can have shelter for the night. They quickly fall asleep and even Rom drifts into an “analysis mode” as strange mists start to drift around them. Rom has a vision of Doctor Strange entering the home and shouting “Dweller in the shadows, hear me! I know your secret!”

Rom awakens as the mist turns solid, binding him and attempting to carry Brandy and Steve off in the form of hands. Rom breaks free and his friend wake up while he fights off the solid mist forms that attack from every angle. Using first his Analyzer, then his Translator, Rom discovers the entire house is actually a single alien entity that once fought Doctor Strange before it was banished to the realm of Limbo, where it escaped thanks to some Dire Wraiths that tapped into the realm to liberate their banished comrades.

The creature is a being of pure hate, and while Rom recognizes its actions against the Dire Wraiths who freed it (they died screaming), he also sees its murderous intentions against humankind. After a battle, Rom manages to free his human friends and use his Neutralizer to once again banish the creature to Limbo.

I might as well go ahead and call it: this is our first lemon of an issue. At least for the second half.

The idea of a Lovecraftian alien force that takes the shape of an abandoned house and has its way with whatever wanders into its walls is an interesting one, and I have no doubt the Doctor Strange issue in which it debuted was a fitting setting for its tale, but it’s out of place here. In the fifth issue of this “brand new” series, did we really need to have a random sequel to a one-off Doctor Strange story published fifteen years before this? Really? It’s dropped in there with pomp and circumstance and a Doctor Strange flashback cameo as though we’d all recognize it and cheer its victorious return. We don’t. I fact, I’d be curious to learn how many contemporary readers were left scratching their heads, too.

There are some interesting ideas as Mantlo tries tying Dweller in Shadows to Limbo, but it’s not enough to make it essential. There’s no reason for it to be there and it robs things of dramatic tension. Since issue #3, they’ve laid in the threat that the Wraiths are trying to free their forces from Limbo, which is great as the actions of Rom and the other Spaceknights have only swelled those ranks further and further, and suddenly pouring them onto Earth would be disastrous. Instead, there’s now a creature floating in that realm that not only makes escapes trickier, but has likely been thinning what’s supposed to be an overwhelming force. Given what we’ve seen of the creature, I’d doubt there’s many, if any, Wraiths left in limbo, it would mow through them so quick. I’m not spoiling things much by pointing out that this angle is never again mentioned in the series. I’m not usually a fan of sweeping things under the rug, but it looks like they recognized this odd little crossover didn’t work, so they washed their hands of it.

And, I’m sorry, but you just don’t follow up your first epic game-changing battle with a jaunt in a “haunted house”. Buscema’s art nails the Dweller in Shadows with its eerie mist-shaped forms and glaring, malevolent eyes, but this comes completely out of nowhere and disappears with little more than a “Well that happened.”

More interesting is the first half of the issue, which is chock full of goodies. Our first issue gave us a glimpse of Rom back before he was encased in armor, when he was still just an eager young man, and the book has been slow to fill in detail of his life. I don’t mind this as they let Rom’s current state fully settle in so that we truly accept who he is before learning about who he was. So far, we’ve glimpsed his friendship with the now fallen Karas, then the moment he first looked down on his mechanized hands. Now, we learn about Ray-Na, the love left behind when he sacrificed his humanity to protect his people. Her brief scene is pretty cliched, with her swooning into “Don’t leave!”s and “Will you remember me?”s, but it gives us what we need to again fully appreciate the sacrifice that is becoming a Spaceknight. It’s not just a choice, it’s a calling, and it’s not something one can turn away from in a moment of doubt.

And then we have Archie Stryker, the man full of rage. I expressed in issue #3 how surprised I was that they put him in the Firefall armor so early, so color me equally surprised that they hit him with a heel turn just two issues later. Our two big human doubters against Rom have now comes around to reason, Archie in this issue, Steve in the last, which is a little surprising because you think you’d want to use both to represent opposite reactions humanity as a whole is having about Rom. Now, I’m not going so far as to call this a complaint because none of it has been poorly executed, but I am eager to see how it plays out.

Other thoughts:

  • Steve and Brandy play very small parts in this tale, existing mainly to be dragged around and protected by Rom. At least Steve isn’t still a grade A-hole.
  • Rom gets his ass kicked by a table.
  • Love the bit where the Wraith Agents whip out high-tech laser pistols right in front of the human cops, dismissing questions with “Special government issue.”
  • Hellhounds of the Dark Nebula! Seriously, how can you go wrong with something that awesome?

This is a fumble of an issue. It starts off strong, picking up the pieces of the massive fight from the previous chapter, but then steps into a fat pile of turkey droppings that it tries and fails to dress up and impress us with.

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