Reading ROM Backwards: Jason Leivian on the Bill Mantlo Benefit

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In 1992, Marvel Comics writer Bill Mantlo was severely injured in a hit-and-run accident, and he’s required full-time care ever since. Three years ago, the Portland, Oregon comic book store Floating World Comics raised money to improve Mantlo’s quality of life by putting together a show of mainstream and indie cartoonists’s drawings of ROM, Spaceknight–the comic book, based on an unsuccessful toy, that Mantlo wrote from 1979 to 1986.

This week, they’re doing it again: a second “Spacenite” event is happening this Thursday, December 2, with artwork that will be auctioned to benefit Mantlo. We spoke with Floating World’s Jason Leivian about “Spacenite” and the enduring appeal of ROM.

TECHLAND: ROM has become something of a cult item, over twenty years after the series ended. What made it connect so deeply with you?

JASON LEIVIAN: ROM #60 was the first comic my Dad ever bought me, and I will always remember that. I wonder what made that particular comic jump off the racks? It has to be ROM’s design. I thought he was so cool-looking–a shiny silver robot with metal muscles, and yeah, something about the geometry of his boxy head with glowing red eyes. This would’ve been around 1986. So most kids had seen Star Wars by that point and I think we were all into robots in the ’80s because of that and Terminator, Battlestar Galactica, stuff like that.

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I read that issue so many times. It was horrific. Wraiths were drilling their tongues into people’s skulls and leaving them as dried-up husks. There was a little girl in that issue and she sees her parents get killed while she’s hiding from the Wraiths. Rick Jones has cancer. There’s lots of crying. It’s pretty intense. I also find it interesting that the first comic I ever read was drawn by Steve Ditko. I didn’t really like his art as a kid. I was more into John Byrne. I couldn’t believe people could draw so well.

So next time we go to the supermarket I get the next issue. Except I think I’ve already missed one somehow. I started reading the series right around ROM’s final battle on earth. Meaning he had been fighting the Dire Wraiths on Earth since issue one. And this battle reaches its epic conclusion in issue 66 which guest- starts almost every character in the Marvel universe. I must’ve thought ROM was the biggest deal in Marvel.

Since I missed an issue, I started looking up comic shops in the Yellow Pages. ROM was also the first series where I collected every single issue. I did it in sort of a weird way though. I worked backwards from 60. Every week or so I would get a new back issue. I remember looking at the covers of the first 10 or 20 issues so much, and they looked so good. I really couldn’t wait to see what happened in them. A lot of them had word balloons, so I’d get a glimpse of the story. On the cover of issue 7 someone is saying “I’m sorry, Brandy! There’s nothing I can do! ROM is dead!” It was torture slowly working my way back to those pivotal issues.

Marvel’s famously unable to reprint any of the original ROM series (or use any of the characters and concepts that belong to Hasbro), even though bits of the stories have ended up as Marvel continuity. Which issues of the original series are particularly worth digging up?

One of my favorites was this 2 or 3 part story from issues 42-44. A scientist tells ROM he can get his humanity back, but it’s a trick. The covers for these issues were really cool too. ROM’s new human body starts deteriorating and melting away kinda like a zombie. It was really gross. His flesh has almost completely rotted away by the time his girlfriend, Starshine, finds him. I think the bad guy has stolen ROM’s armor at this point, like he’s living in it. But somehow it all gets resolved and ROM becomes ROM again.

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I think the fact that ROM had these sci-fi horror elements is another reason this story stands out from other ’80s superhero comics. The beginning of the series is totally Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The Dire Wraiths steal human forms and impersonate the people they’ve killed. Like a secret invasion, but only ROM has the technology to spot the aliens in hiding. When he zaps them with his neutralizer he’s sending the Wraiths to limbo, but to everyone else it just looks like he’s murdering people with a laser ray. So the police and military think ROM is the bad guy. If you start at the beginning and read to about issue 15 or so, that’s a pretty good arc that introduces all the important supporting characters and subplots.

I remember liking issue 69 because that was the first time I had seen Ego the Living Planet. I thought that was a cool character.

Also there was a weird run between issues 35 and 40 that dealt with King Arthur, underwater ghosts, a Shang-Chi/mummy crossover, and a Pied Piper-type villain. I remember them all being pretty creepy and scary.

It’s worth noting that Bill Mantlo created everything about ROM’s world: the backstory of the Wraiths and the other Spaceknights on Galador, Brandy/Starshine as ROM’s love interest. All he was given was an action figure that had one character in its entire line. From that, he told a story that ran 75 issues plus 4 annuals. That series really covered a lot of ground and went a lot of places.

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