Thursday, March 25, 2010

Rom # 1 — “Arrival”

There’s not much about Rom that’s not a product of its time. On a purely tactile level it’s a relic of the days when comics were still published on newsprint and local businesses could still afford to advertise in a nationally distributed comic book. From the cover design (structured to maximize visibility on news racks) to the limited color palettes of the interior art, comics today no longer look, feel or even smell the way they used to.

Rom's story, too, comes from the days when toy companies were anxious to bypass federal laws affecting children’s television (laws that were later changed, opening the floodgates for toyetic shows as G.I. Joe, Transformers, etc.)
Comic books had no such regulations so nothing stood between Parker Bros. and Marvel from conspiring to bring extended ads for the Rom toy to print. 
As a toy, Rom was a thin premise by anyone’s measure. He had no supporting cast, no villains and no real personality. If the 12” Star Wars line of toys couldn’t find success on the market in the late 1970s, then what kind of chance did the oversized Rom toy stand?

The toy wasn’t in production very long, but the comic was a different story. Launched in late 1979, Rom: Spaceknight ran for 75 issues and was in print for seven years. The license for the toy probably made Parker Bros. more money than the actual toy ever did.
Back in 1979, though, writer Bill Mantlo and artist Sal Buscema were left with a problem of endowing a lifeless plastic toy with some kind of character and direction. Mantlo lifted from a variety of sources, from It Came from Outer Space to Marvel’s own Silver Surfer. While it falls into the traditional Stan Lee mold of heroic outsider, there’s a sense of paranoia to this story not seen in other Marvel titles. In many ways the shape-changing villains found in the Dire Wraiths lay the groundwork for the recent Secret Invasion storyline, which grafted the Skrulls onto the Dire Wraiths “conspiracy” subplot of Rom. (You might also argue that the give and take between Rom and the Fantastic Four extends to stealing the idea of the Dire Wraiths from the Skrulls.)

The first issues covers a lot of ground in just a few pages. An alien from the planet Galador, Rom sacrifices his humanity to bond with an almost magical suit of space armor in order to protect his people from the menace of the Dire Wraiths. Rom pursues the shape changing baddies to Earth and, thanks to his rotten communication skills, finds himself fighting the wraiths, the military and pretty much everyone else he comes into contact with.
In his arsenal is a gun that zaps his enemies into a Phantom Zone-like dimension, as well as a lamp that reveals who is human and who is not. And that’s pretty much all he thinks he needs, I guess. He doesn’t have a clue about how Earth operates, has done no research and has no strategy.
If it sounds like a lame plan, you’re right. What’s interesting is that, amid all the ideas stolen wholesale from Lee and Kirby, there’s a strange effort to cast Rom as a character with an infantile psychology. On the surface it’s just another “stranger in a strange land” story that Marvel so loves, but Rom clearly has no understanding that his actions have consequences. He leaps into one situation after another without ever realizing that something bad might happen. He’s a child who has to learn (and re-learn) that the burner on the stove is hot. If you can’t tell, I’m trying really, really hard not to call him a moron.
Both the story and art are wildly uneven. The art is the easiest element of a comic book to evaluate because problems with line work, layouts, lettering and the rest can be easily spotted within a matter of seconds. Holding the pencil at the beginning of Rom is Sal Buscema, an artist with a dubious track record.
I don’t think Buscema is a terrible artist. He’s a solid, if unspectacular, creator who was usually good enough for whatever book he was assigned. The first issue of Rom is a typical example of Buscema’s linework and layouts. It ranges from the genuinely great opening page (which was recycled by Marvel as a house ad for the series) to the embarrassing space opera designs seen in the flashback sequence. In between the art is serviceable.

I’m not sure that Buscema gave much thought to Mantlo’s script. If you ignore the art, you’ll find a story that has more in common with 1950s sci-fi paranoia thrillers like It Came from Outer Space, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Them! While it’s not perfect, the Ray Bradbury influences of the story certainly make the concepts stand out from the rest of the books Marvel was publishing at the time. The downside is that everything Mantlo and Buscema knew about small town life came from watching The Andy Griffith Show, so the West Virginia “locals” seen in this issue are the broadest kinds of stereotypes.

Superficially, Rom is a product of its time, which isn’t a bad thing. Calling something “dated” is a polite way of saying it’s irrelevant, but that’s not the same as being uninteresting. Whatever Rom's flaws,  the book was far from uninteresting.

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