I recently got my hands on a run of Rom comics from 7-24 plus a smattering of other issues. I can add these to my copies of #40-60 plus a few others that I already had.
So far, I’ve read up to the end of issue 18, which went a little bit like this:
As I suspected they would be, these are enjoyable, well-made comics. In some ways they are quite masterful. The aliens-amongst-us paranoia storyline is given a fresh twist by having the hero also be an alien, whose intentions are easily misunderstood when he seemingly blasts normal everyday folk to ash in front of terrified witnesses.
Anyone who has read my Micronauts thread will know that I hold Mantlo in very high regard. He did the same spadework with Rom to ensure that the ongoing story would have plenty of legs. However, if you look at the following advertisement for the toy from 1979, Parker Bros did make up a lot of the backstory for Rom that Mantlo brings to life in the comics.
The ad is quite detailed on many aspects of the mythology that Mantlo would use: Rom being the greatest of the Spaceknights, having defeated the Dire Wraiths, and now arriving on Earth to hunt them down.
Introducing the 8 foot tall, gleaming Spaceknight to small-town America, and giving him a small-town supporting cast is probably the main thing that Mantlo brought to the mix. Rom and Micronauts both appear to be very early precursors a kind of comics series that became very popular in the 90’s: The 60-70 issue mega-story with a beginning, middle and end. It's one of the reasons they deserve a lot of respect.
In this light, Mantlo puts a lot into the early issues to bring small-town Clairton to life. We walk its streets and meet its modest citizens. Clairton makes for the realistic setting that most good science-fiction needs to ground it.
The main thing that Mantlo added to the mythos was that the Neutraliser gun doesn’t ‘disorganise any moleculer structure’ as in the ad. That probably sounds a bit too much like ‘kill’, so instead Rom’s neutraliser opens a gateway to Limbo and sends the disembodied Wraiths through it, to leave their physical forms as ash. Comics being still ‘for kids’ in 1980, I can see why he did this!
I won’t be commenting in too much depth on these comics, but I am impressed and wanted to say a bit about them in any case. Have to keep an eye out for the first 6 issues now!
Rom 17-18: The Hybrid
Under their excellent Frank Miller covers, issues 17 and 18 probably constitute the strongest arc so far of those we’ve looked at. In fact, I’d posit that it’s not just a great Rom story, but a great example of how comicbook superhero tales can be used to explore difficult issues as well as any movie or novel. The Hybrid storyline explores important timeless themes in a manner very similar to how Alan Moore examined issues like women’s rights, racism and gun-related violence during the American Gothic storyline of Swamp Thing.
Whereas Moore used classic horror tropes like vampires, werewolves and hauntings, Mantlo here uses very familiar sci-fi tropes to talk about something more than just alien invasions. In fact the instalment of Moore’s American Gothic involving the aquatic vampires is a direct continuation of the particular theme Mantlo dwells on in The Hybrid.
In Rom issues 17 and 18, Mantlo uses his paranoid aliens-amongst-us set-up to explore a fundamentally human relationship – that between parents and children. Just as Moore deserves respect for how he looked at parenthood through the prism of his hoaky aquatic vampires, I think Mantlo doesn’t get enough props for exploring the same territory as Moore, a good half-decade before him. Mantlo uses different but similarly disdained pop-culture metaphors, and when we allow for the age of his readership and the publishing context, Mantlo’s little tale is just as powerful as Moore’s.
Moore’s strength was in using already established properties as thematic devices in his stories, and Mantlo’s use of the X-Men ties into his subject matter well. Although this two-parter starring the chart-topping X-Men might seem like another sales-boosting superhero slugfest, Mantlo even manages to weave aspects of the X-mythos into his study of the perils and pains of parenthood.
Here's our favourite Galadorian to fill you in on the background to the story:
The reader isn’t told this straight away, as Mantlo does a fantastic job of introducing the Hybrid in the language of a true horror story. The freezing snowbound West Virginia Winter, as depicted by Sal Buscema, is a wonderful setting, and the small-town neighbourliness makes the horror, gradually revealed, all the more chilling.
This kind of thing:
Luke has said elsewhere that even if Mantlo didn’t blaze a new language of comic storytelling, he uses already tried and tested styles and approaches to great effect, and that’s very apparent here.
We learn that Jacob Marks, the father of the Hybrid, was a Wraith pilot who crash-landed on Earth and decided to give up the war and settle down as a human. He fell in love with and married a human woman and agreed to have a child with her.
Once little Jimmy reaches ‘that awkward age’ the other Wraiths in Clairton make contact with Jacob’s family and begin to tutor the child on his evil Wraith heritage. This brings out the worst in the boy and he turns into a monster – quite literally! Once Rom has eradicated all the Wraiths in town, Jimmy is dismayed when the visits from his Wraith teachers stop and he becomes progressively more cruel and evil.
Reading Rom as an adult today, a lot of the styles and conventions of its day bring it down. It is probably too wordy and over-explanatory. The omniscient narrator in the “Meanwhile...” boxes has long fallen out of fashion. That each comic has to be structured around a slugfest with a ‘monster of the month’ also adds to the level of plain dumb that the reader has to put up with. One of the facts that couldn’t be side-stepped was that superhero comics in Rom’s time were written largely for 10-12 year olds. Thus things may be over-explained, and pitched at an overly obvious level.
Still, considering this is a comic for such young readers, Mantlo doesn’t pull any punches. Nothing in the situation Rom faces is made simple or can be solved with any pat solutions. The horrors that the hybrid embodies are a symbolic representation of fears and worries that many of these young readers would have to grapple with as they got older, especially if or when they became parents themselves.
And the situation presented here is very bleak. In this horror story, it counts for nothing that ‘Jacob’ is the first Wraith we’ve met who has put aside his evil ways. The love he shared with his unsuspecting young wife counts for nothing. The unconditional love they both initially felt towards their young son counts for nothing, certainly not in Jummy’s estimation.
Like all parents, producing a child was a leap into the dark for them and they have little influence on how it will eventually turn out. The rejection that all parents fear is embodied in their remorselessly cruel son. Even the hope in the back of every parent's mind that their child might be a comfort to them in their old age is mocked by how the Hybrid prematurely ages his mother into an old woman on the verge of death.
The Hybrid also symbolises the negative feelings that psycho-analysts tell us we feel towards the next generation. The fear that they will be more powerful and capable than us. Worries that they will turn on us.
Wider issues of what goes on in parenthood are also examined. The term hybrid comes from evolutionary biology. Science tells us that sexual reproduction, where the genes of two separate beings are mixed to produce a whole new organism, was the great leap forward for life on Earth, allowing mutants and adaptation to occur. In this story however, two very different beings have jointly produced a horror. Parents might secretly wish that a child has more traits from one side of the family or the other, but in this scenario, the two sides have produced a monster, something markedly different to either branch of the family. Or perhaps something that owes more to the secret corners of one partner’s family tree... Mantlo’s story explicitly states that Jacob sees his marriage destroyed by the 'family' secrets he has kept.
In the context of the wider human family too, Marvel’s mutants fulfil the role precisely of the unwanted ‘black sheep’, like the mutant hybrid here. So the X-Men fit beautifully into this little sci-fi fable, rather than being shoe-horned in for sales purposes.
Further, in Professor X’s anxious waiting as his ‘children’ carry out their mission, we see the worries and pain that plague even parents of children they are intensively proud of. It must be hard to sit apart while your children go off and fight their own battles.
Issue 17 is where all the juicy thematic parenthood stuff is most directly addressed. Issue 18 is a prolonged three-way battle during a snowstorm between Rom, the Hybrid and the X-Men. The X-Men have turned up because Prof X’s Cerebro has identified Jimmy as a mutant, and when they come to investigate, they find a giant Cyborg about to blast a 15-year-old boy to smithereens.
Although this little fable seems a bleak one, focusing on the horrors and worries of parenthood, one of the things that makes Rom a hero is that he continues to find reasons to fight the good fight. He is able to pick out the one positive of his encounter with the Hybrid and that is that 'Jacob' was able to put aside his Wraith conditioning and become a loving, responsible human being. This is a big breakthrough for Rom, and after all, what would an exploration of the trials of parenthood be without the old 'nature versus nurture' debate. Here's our Silver Spaceknight again:
Compared to issue 17 and its deftly drawn community of characters, issue 18 is just a simplistic slugfest, but the setting in the blizzard, and Sal’s deft handling of the action makes it an exciting read. That it reads so well despite being one long punch-up is a tribute to the craftsmanship that the creators put into it.
Mantlo has an issue he chooses to deal with here, bleak as his approach is, and the artistry with which he keeps the focus on it, and how deftly he handles Marvel (and Parker Bros) properties in the outworking of his theme deserves some praise.
For these two issues, at least, we’ve strayed very far from Marvel comics as ‘simple-minded schlock’, if indeed Rom ever deserved that label.