ROM - The Story of ROM the Spaceknight and His Unlikely Success Story.

By: Karl Stern (@dragonkingkarl, @wiwcool, karl@whenitwascool.com)

The real world story of ROM is almost more interesting than his fictional one and, make no mistake about it, his fictional story is pretty great.  ROM is a cyborg (originally just a robot but that all changed) from a far away planet called Galador that is in a long running war against an alien race called the Dire Wraiths.  The Dire Wraiths are, themselves, pretty interesting as they are shape changing and magic wielding warriors who have infiltrated many planets including Earth.  ROM gave up his humanity to become a weapon of war and chase the Dire Wraiths around the Universe and ends up on Earth fighting them.  That's a pretty solid sci-fi story.  His real story is almost as complex.

ROM comic book ad circa 1979.  Support When It Was Cool.

ROM comic book ad circa 1979.  Support When It Was Cool.

ROM began as a very bad toy.

ROM was originally a toy action figure released by Parker Brothers in 1979.  Now, context is everything so let's jump in our time machine and travel back to 1979 for a moment.  The action figure world of 1979 was this- G.I. Joe had ended it's run as a twelve inch figure not long before this.  As the original G.I. Joe line neared it's end around 1976, it transitioned away from a fighting military man into more science fiction related concepts like Bulletman and Atomic Man.  The Six Million Dollar Man action figures had been a big hit a few years prior as well in a similar scale to the original G.I. Joes.  The big power players on the toy shelves in 1979, however, were the five inch scale Mego action figures and the revolutionary 3.75 inch Star Wars action figures.  

Along comes ROM which is neither fish nor foul in the action figure world.  He has very limited articulation (his legs were stationary for no apparent good reason) but he had a gimmick!  ROM featured lights and sounds!  He beeped and booped and came with plug-in interchangeable weapons and accessories that made different noises and lit up.  Aside from the problem of virtually no articulated limbs (a vast contrast from the highly articulated G.I. Joe, Mego, and Six Million Dollar Man figures) he also lacked any associated toy friends or enemies.  While the original ads spoke of his enemy the Dire Wraiths, no such toy existed.  ROM was all on his own.

Time magazine even put ROM on it's cover in 1979 (although only a tiny picture in the corner) but inside the magazine eviscerated the toy writing-

"Rom is a spaceman doll whose computer memory gives it a disappointingly narrow range of behavior. It breathes heavily (one of its better effects), buzzes, twitters and flashes its lighted eyes, and sounds ominous gongs, one for good and two for evil. The trouble with this Parker Bros. homunculus is that it looks as if it should be able to use its arms and legs like a true robot, and it can’t. Rom will end up among the dust balls under the playroom sofa.

Nothing like Time completely raining on your toy parade.  However, in prophetic fashion that is exactly what happened.  ROM ended up among the dust balls under the playroom sofa for almost forty years.

But... Bill Mantlo turned cyborg lemons into cyborg lemonade.

Had the story of ROM only been that Parker Brothers introduced a poor, and quickly forgotten, toy design then we would not still be talking about him in 2017.  Enter: Bill Mantlo.  Parker Brothers, originally at least, thought about highly promoting their lump of beeping plastic since they struck a deal with comic book giant Marvel Comics to produce a comic book series about ROM.  I suppose the only elements that Parker Brothers wanted in the licensed property were ROM himself and his enemies the Dire Wraiths which had been mentioned in the television advertisement for the toy.  The story and elements there-of were given to writer Bill Mantlo who hit a home run with the story.

Right out of the starting gate Bill Mantlo ditched the robot concept and, instead, envisioned ROM as an alien humanoid who gave up his humanity in a grand sacrifice to become a living weapon to battle the mortal enemies of his home planet Galador.  He was also a war weary veteran who had battled the Dire Wraiths for a couple centuries prior to our first exposure to him in the pages of Marvel Comics ROM issue 1.  This introduces another conflict into the story.  

ROM shows up on just another planet infested with Dire Wraiths who have shape changed to look like the local inhabitants (in this case Earth humans) and begins vaporizing them with his neutralizer.  Of course, if you were  just the average Joe on the street it would appear that a seven foot tall space robot just showed up and started killing your neighbors.  The people of Earth fear ROM and the Dire Wraiths use this to their advantage.  Like every good sci-fi trope, of course, the alien ROM also falls in love with an Earth woman, further complicating things.

Unlike many other licensed comic book properties, Marvel wisely (or foolishly depending on your perspective) decided to make ROM a part of the wider Marvel Universe interacting with the other superheroes and villains.  ROM crossed over with several Marvel Heroes including Power Man & Iron Fist, The Thing, and an entire story arch was dedicated to ROM and Galactus.

This obviously complicated matters once the license to the ROM property ran out in 1986 but Marvel Comics got a good seven years and 75 issues out of an already long forgotten failed toy.

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Parker Brothers is purchased by Hasbro.

Parker Brothers was ultimately bought in 1991 by Hasbro bringing numerous toy property licenses of the 1970s and 1980s under one umbrella.  For years fans wondered why the seemingly worthless rights to the ROM property were being held hostage by Hasbro and Parker Brothers while fans clamored to see ROM in the pages of Marvel Comics especially as the Marvel cosmic corner of the the Marvel Universe saw a renaissance under authors Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning.  Several work-arounds to including ROM were used during these years including a generically referenced human character who was essentially "The Artist former known as ROM" showing up from time to time and a revived Space Knights limited series.

Apparently, what fans did not know was that Hasbro was planning a giant multi-platform revival.  Spurred on by the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Cinematic Universe, Hasbro decided to lump all their properties together and attempt to tie them together in an all encompassing universe as well.  Hasbro has some heavy hitters which have had various degrees of cinematic success such as The Transformers and G.I. Joe and it looks as if ROM stands to join them at some point.

The Hasbro Universe unfolds in the pages of IDW Comics. 

At this point, fans of ROM have much to rejoice about right?  A beloved comic book character is revived after around thirty years in mothballs.  Not only is there a real possibly that ROM will be on the big screen but a new comic book series is announced, only, not with Marvel Comics but instead with IDW who also holds the G.I. Joe and Transformers licenses.  But whoa... hold on.

The G.I. Joe mythos under IDW has been a mess.  The property started out strong with some critical success for G.I. Joe - Cobra, a series with a more serious spy thriller approach but that was years ago now and G.I. Joe has been anything but a stable property since then.  G.I. Joe has been rebooted multiple times, the stories and characters have had no consistency and the property seems to be in turmoil.  What could this company do with ROM?

Fortunately, ROM seems to have been handled a little better but there is the unsolvable problem of the ROM mythos that Bill Mantlo created being owned by Marvel so IDW had to create a new continuity for ROM and his Dire Wraith foes.  The story, thus far, has been pretty good but for those who were looking to continue to the story of ROM from his old comics they are out of luck.

Even Guardians of the Galaxy movie director James Gunn recognized the problem with ROM when asked what he thought about the character by Screen Rant,  “I don’t, because this is the problem.  ROM, the story, is owned by Marvel Comics. So the Dire Wraiths, you know, all that story is owned by Marvel Comics. The character and the toys are owned by Paramount, so you can’t have both. Now you can’t have the Spaceknight, at Marvel, and you can’t have the Spaceknights without the story. What always interested me was more the story of the Spaceknights. People who gave up their humanity to save their planet was always very interesting to me, so there may be something to do with that, but it won’t be with ROM.

Obvious problems aside, we want to give Hasbro and IDW a fair chance to see how this all inclusive universe with some really cool toy properties might unfold.  Unfortunately, the results were anything but a home run with the IDW story Revolution which was a total mess of a story.  Revolution was a mish-mash of obscure properties lumped together with a confusing story and a G.I. Joe team made up of absolute morons.  At the end of the series only The Transformers and, thankfully, ROM came out of it looking anything close to redeemable.  If this is the premise of the upcoming Hasbro Universe movies then this is a disaster waiting to happen.

But on the brights side- TOYS!

To say Hasbro dropped a bombshell on fans at the 2017 San Diego Comic-Con would be an understatement.  As a SDCC exclusive, Hasbro released a box set containing a Transformer, a much hoped for G.I. Joe Roadblock figure, among others, and a brand new 3.75 inch newly sculpted ROM action figure, as well as, his enemy the Dire Wraith!  After almost 40 years there is a new ROM action figure and it looks amazing but will it ultimately find it's way to mass retail?

The new ROM 3.75 inch action figure.

The new ROM 3.75 inch action figure.

For the last several years Toys 'R Us has had the exclusive retailer distribution for G.I. Joe which has dribbled out only a few figures in box sets every year for the past few years.  Needless to say, this is not the ideal distribution solution for a giant return for these Hasbro properties but just exactly what Hasbro has in mind for toys in the future remains uncertain.  Still, the new ROM at SDCC is a huge step in the right direction giving hope to ROM fans everywhere.

A few ROM related pages to check out:

ROM Wikipedia Page

ROM Facebook Page

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