Once upon a time, Parker Brothers – best known for producing some of the most classic board and table games in history (Monopoly, Risk, Trivial Pursuit, etc.), decided it was time to branch out into the heady world of action figures; taking a cue from the recent surge of popularity in SF and fantasy (this was in 1979-1980), they decided to blend both and create a space-travelling knight in modern armor – a cyborg-robot kind of thing which they called COBOL, after the programming language; after some debate, the name was revised to ROM, and he was called a Space Knight. To give themselves some promotion, they offered a license to Marvel Comics to produce a comic-book based on the toy.
The ROM toy itself was a failure; it was poorly produced, minimally articulated, and relatively uninteresting as a toy, as it came with very little indication of what ROM was, and thus no clear idea of what type of play a child might expect to get out of it.
Not so the comic series.
Bill Mantlo and Sal Buscema, well-known talents at Marvel, were given the opportunity to take this tie-in and do whatever they wanted with it, and they grabbed the chance and ran with it, creating a deep character background from whole cloth that gave the comic a central, driving, powerful theme that undoubtedly contributed greatly to its successful seven-year run.
I was fortunate enough to read most of ROM as it came out, as it began shortly before I graduated from high school, and when I moved into my first "bachelor pad" with Steve Reed and Ed Lord, Ed was a comic collector, with ROM being one of the titles he collected.
The basic background for ROM:Spaceknight was that there had been an idyllic, near-utopian world called Galador, a place of super-science and peaceful progress very much like the vision of a Golden-Age SF future. But Galador was attacked by a monstrous race of shapeshifting creatures called "Dire Wraiths" who used not merely technology but sorcery, and Galador was almost entirely destroyed. To protect what remained, the best and brightest of Galador voluntarily gave up much of their humanity to be transformed into tremendously powerful cybernetic beings called "Spaceknights", given the most advanced and sophisticated weaponry, sensors, and defenses that Galador could devise. Each Spaceknight was unique – what they could best become as a Spaceknight was tied not just to the technology of Galador but to their basic essence as people.
Rom was considered their finest design, partly because he exhibited all of the best traits of humanity in a single person – rather like a Captain America of Galador. Because of this he was given the tremendously powerful "neutralizer" weapon, which could banish the Dire Wraiths to a dimension in which they were imprisoned and powerless (the Galadorian Spaceknights having sworn oaths to avoid killing at almost any cost) and could also neutralize virtually any form of energy or even supernatural powers; he also had an analyzer to penetrate the disguises of his opponents and a translator to allow him to speak with anyone.
The Spaceknights set off to oppose the Dire Wraiths wherever they might run, to any world they might threaten. And inevitably, one – Rom – followed them to the remote planet called Earth…
Rom's saga on Marvel-Earth was one of comics' finest. Not knowing Earth's people, nor the extent or organization of the Dire Wraith infestation on Earth, Rom was initially thought to be the bad guy; his Analyzer looked, to human eyes, like some kind of gun, and the Neutralizer, when banishing a Dire Wraith, caused the Wraith to leave behind the ashes of its false form – thus making it look, to human witnesses, like Rom had just disintegrated a human being. The Dire Wraiths, of course, exploited this confusion mercilessly, causing Rom to not only fall afoul of the general human authorities but, for quite some time, numerous superhuman adversaries as well.
Running throughout the comic was the theme of humanity and love and duty. Rom developed an affection, and eventually love, for a human woman, Brandy Clark, who was one of the few who recognized that the apparently robotic Rom was nothing of the sort, but a man in some sort of cybernetic armor. Brandy fell in love with him too, but for most of the run of the comic it seemed inevitable that they would remain separated – Rom could not reclaim his humanity until the war against the Wraiths was completed, and there were times when it appeared that even if that happened, there would be no way to restore him to humanity. This was eventually resolved, but only at the very end of Rom's run.
Rom's presence changed the face of the Marvel universe; the Dire Wraith conflict was not confined to the pages of ROM but eventually spread out to envelop the entirety of Marvel Earth, involving everyone from the X-Men to the Avengers, Spider-Man, Dazzler, and others. Characters invented originally in the pages of ROM grew, became established characters of their own (for example, Jack of Hearts) with their own books for a while. Even the greater Marvel universe was affected; for a short time, Rom served as a Herald of Galactus – and almost caused the World-Eater's demise in a fashion that tickled even Galactus' near-nonexistent sense of humor.
Unfortunately, once ROM concluded its initial run, the rights for the character reverted. This means that Marvel, despite having him as a major influence of the past, can no longer explicitly name ROM or use his distinctive likeness, at least not unless Parker Brothers decides to release the rights again; why they'd bother hanging onto them when the rights to the figure are themselves effectively worthless, I'm not sure.
While this post is titled "On My Shelves", technically it should say "Was Once On My Shelves". Like a number of my other comic-book possessions, my collection of ROM was destroyed by a basement flood. This is especially tragic for my nostalgia because – due to those rights issues – there has never been a re-issue of the comics in bound form, and thus if I wanted to re-acquire them I'd have to be purchasing the single copies, which appear to average something over $5 apiece or more these days (or, for the entire run, closing in on $400!)
Still, if you have interest in some of the best comics of Marvel's 1980s work and get a chance, grab up a copy or three of ROM: Spaceknight, and see how a rather cheap little toy managed to transform the Marvel universe!