By Scott Tipton
Previously, in COMICS 101: We've been looking at the comic-book career of one Rom, Spaceknight, and his plastic and silicon origins as an early electronic action figure from Parker Brothers. When we left off, writer Bill Mantlo and artist Sal Buscema had gotten the series off to a very promising start with its first issue, establishing Rom as coming to Earth to vanquish the threat of the disguised alien Dire Wraiths, and branding him as a murderer in the eyes of humanity, with the exception of one Brandy Clark, the only woman on Earth who believes in Rom's quest to eradicate the Dire Wraiths. Where to go from there? Let's find out:
This encounter also earned Rom a new foe, a small-time crook named Archie Stryker who swears to destroy Rom for his perceived crimes against humanity.
Taking advantage of Stryker's hatred of Rom is a government agency named Project Safeguard (again, secretly run by the Dire Wraiths), who implant him in the cybernetic armor of another Spaceknight they'd discovered (naturally that of Karas, a childhhod friend of Rom), one who had fallen in battle, and soon Stryker is battling Rom as the insane cyborg killer known as Firefall.
Firefall gives Rom a run for his money, partially because of Rom's oath never to take a life in battle. By the issue's end, though, Firefall is defeated as much by himself as by Rom, when he realizes that he's become that which he sought to destroy: an inhuman, alien cyborg unable to regain his humanity.
Rom had his first encounter with the Marvel Universe proper in issue #5, in which Rom and his human friends Brandy and her fiancé Steve Jackson encounter, of all things, a haunted house, in which Rom, in a sort of cybernetic dream state, crosses paths, even if only briefly, with the Sorcerer Supreme himself, Dr, Strange.
The issue is also notable for two other firsts: the first flashback to Rom's romantic past back on Galador...
And the first inkling of the seemingly doomed relationship between Rom and Brandy.
Soon, Rom had some more assistance in defending humanity from the Dire Wraiths. On the human side of the equation, there was Brock Jones, a.k.a. the Torpedo, an ex-professional football player and perennial second-string superhero, who had previously appeared in issues of DAREDEVIL, MARVEL PREMIERE and DEFENDERS.
The Torpedo, who wore a specially designed battlesuit with turbines at the wrists and ankles that granted him superhuman strength and the ability to fly, learned of the Dire Wraith threat after moving his family to Clairton, West Virginia (and after the obligatory "misunderstanding" fight with Rom). Rom even modified the visor of the Torpedo's mask with his own Energy Analyzer technology to allow him to see the Dire Wraiths in their true form. Eventually, Rom left the town of Clairton, which had once been a hotbed of Wraith activity, under the Torpedo's watch while he continued his global search for more Dire Wraiths.
Starshine's tenure as Rom's partner was short-lived, as after only three issues as Rom's full-time partner, she sacrificed her life to save Rom, diving in the path of several Wraith weapons, and confessing her love for him in her dying moments.
Naturally, Rom led Galactus to the Dark Nebula, the homeworld of the Dire Wraiths, However, the Dire Wraiths were able to use their sorcerous might to drive away Galactus, who was unable to feed. Galactus still lived up to his word and spared Galador, but he had the final laugh by using his cosmic power to move the planet to an unknown location in the universe, forcing Rom and the other Spaceknights to have to search endless regions of space to find their homeworld. And so Rom returned to Earth, seemingly deprived forever of both his humanity and his home. Undoubtedly, people have had better business trips...
Things got darker again starting in issue #36, when Brandy Clark, visiting the grave of the fallen Spaceknight Starshine, receives a vision from the spirit of Starshine, telling her she was passing along her power to Brandy so she could fight alongside Rom.
So encouraged, Brandy exhumed Starshine's body in order to get ahold of her cybernetic armor. Yeesh. That's pretty hardcore. Turns out it was all the work of a Dire Wraith warlock named Doctor Dredd, whose plan was to turn Brandy into a Spaceknight so as to use her to destroy Rom. Eventually, Brandy breaks free of Dredd's control, although she too, like Rom, is now trapped in the cyborg body of a Spaceknight, and the two freely confess their love for another, from behind metallic, unfeeling shells.
Together, Rom and Starshine (who in her Spaceknight body kind of looks like she has a domino for a head, I've gotta say) continue to scour the Earth for Dire Wraiths. Just after Rom has a brief crisis of conscience about his role as a Spaceknight, the story takes an even darker turn starting in issue #48, in which a power struggle between the female sorcerous faction of the Dire Wraiths and the male science-and-rechnology-based faction leads to a new regime taking over: the female sorceror's clan, who renounce science and whose first move is to enact revenge on their hated enemy Rom by destroying the town he'd called home since arriving on Earth--Clairton, West Virginia.
When next Rom and Starshine return to Clairton, all seems well. Starshine visits her parents and her ex-fiance Steve, while a meeting with the Torpedo reveals that all has been quiet in town, with his visor revealing no Wraiths anywhere to be found.
When Rom and Starshine attend a family reunion welcoming Brandy back to Clairton, the light from her armor reveals Wraith shadows on the walls. All of Brandy's family and friends, as well as most of the population of Clairton -- dead, replaced by Dire Wraiths. Before Rom and Starshine can react, Wraith sorcery banishes them to a distant dimension.
The Torpedo is next to fall, learning that Wraith sorcery had prevented his mind from recognizing their alien images from appearing in his visor. He puts up a valiant fight, but he too is killed in what will soon be called "the Clairton massacre."
The Wraiths begin their plans to extend their hold on Earth outward from Clairton, but are soon met with surprising resistance, the alien race known as Skrulls, who like Rom have come to Earth in order to eradicate the Dire Wraiths. Soon Clairton is a war zone, as the two alien armies assault each other.
The only difference being that Starshine, now obsessed with revenge, coldbloodedly slaughters the Wraiths, while Rom still struggles to follow his Galadorian code and banish them to Limbo.
The once-gentle Starshine even strikes out at Rom for attempting to stop her from killing their foes.
The Wraiths defeated, the Skrulls depart, leaving behind only a few survivors of Clairton, and a concerned Rom, fearing that his onetime love had truly lost her humanity forever.
At the 50-issue mark, ROM had truly become the book that no one expected back in its debut some four years earlier. Not only in its surprising emphasis on philosophical matters and unexpected romance angle, but also in its willingness to go for the jugular with brutal plot twists that permanently change the book's status quo. Where does it go from here? Where else, but bigger, darker and ultimately, a very satisfying crescendo. Come on back next week and see.