I’ve been a vocal critic of Disney buying up and owning so many other companies and properties over the last few decades, but, honestly, I’d love nothing more than to see them buy up complete ownership and all rights for ROM: the Space Knight.
Hasbro owns this property. It started out as a toy concept created by Scott Dankman, Richard C. Levy, and Bryan L. McCoy who then sold it in 1978 to Parker Brothers. The toy launch itself was rather lackluster. Parker Brothers produced an impressively sized figure with a built-in rocket pack, several fun accessories, and an assortment of sounds and lights. But, for what was primarily seen at launch as a boy’s “action figure” toy, it was also seen as lacking in many ways.
Compared to similar-sized 1970s toys like G.I. Joe, or even the smaller figures from the Micronauts line, ROM was an extremely limited figure when it came to the action department. It had a noticeably limited amount of articulation for a figure of that size, and the beginning, middle, and end of the ROM: the Space Knight toyline was the ROM: the Space Knight launch toy.
Sure, you could mix ROM in with other toys you already owned and many kids of that era- myself included -did just that. But the ROM figure and the potential toyline seemed rather lacking in many ways. A December 1979 Time Magazine article looking at “Those Beeping, Thinking Toys” noted that ROM: the Space Knight was most likely going to be a toy seeing itself “end up among the dust balls under the playroom sofa.“
For the most part, that critique found itself becoming true. ROM had a fairly short and unspectacular run as a toy- selling fewer than 400,000 figures in the US market -before disappearing from the toy shelves to make room for the coming boom of action, adventure, fantasy, and science fiction themed toys of the 1980s. ROM was a blip in the market that barely any child in its target demo even really knew about, and then it was gone. As toys go, ROM: the Space Knight was doomed to be a forgotten oddity- a footnote in articles covering the toys of the 1970s.
ROM the character, however, was just starting his journey towards becoming a huge cult classic character that would be remembered and returned to for decades.
Before Parker Brothers reached the point where they decided to call it quits on ROM as a toyline, they approached Marvel Comics to help create interest in the toyline. Marvel liked the basic concept of the toy enough to launch a series under the talents of writer Bill Mantlo and artist Sal Buscema. Rom: Spaceknight landed on the spinner racks in December 1979 and continued its monthly run through to February 1986. All in all, it had 75 issues of the monthly run under the Marvel banner as well as a few annual special issues. Bill Mantlo was onboard for the entire run. Sal Buscema drew a majority of the book’s run with Steve Ditko taking over for the last two years.
The fun thing about Rom: Spaceknight was that it wasn’t a licensed title limited in its in-universe usage like some other titles were. There were no books, TV shows, or movies tied to ROM: the Space Knight. There was no story connected to the character, nor were there any other characters in ROM’s universe as a toy. Mantlo and Buscema (along with Al Milgrom) were given a free run to create ROM’s world, his friends, his enemies, and his mission.
What they created was an incredible world of characters. ROM was originally a man who had sacrificed for a time his humanity to become a soldier in a war against a shapeshifting enemy possessed of mastery over both the sciences and dark magics. They were known as the Dire Wraiths. As the war raged on, the Dire Wraiths turned their eyes to Earth. ROM came to Earth to stop their infiltration and invasion of the planet, landing in West Virginia. It was there we met some of the most important human cast characters to fill ROM’s universe. It was also there we saw the earliest signs of the power of the Dire Wraiths.
The series was instantly engaging. The characters were enjoyable to follow and the threats always felt like the stakes around them mattered. But the scale and scope of the threats and the story started to grow beyond the confines of the small town in West Virginia. That’s when the story of ROM moved out into the larger world, and that larger world was the world of the Marvel Universe.
ROM was a part of the Marvel Universe, and he would encounter so many of the heroes and villains of that universe in both his own series and in other Marvel books and special events. Even the Dire Wraiths were tied into Marvel lore. Dire Wraiths are an evolutionary offshoot of the Skrulls, the result of interfering and engineering at the hands of the Celestials. In one story, we even see their homeworld and get to watch as Galactus learns it’s such a dark, poisoned place that even he cannot consume it. The world of ROM was the world of the Marvel Universe, and ROM’s adventures would introduce him and some readers to characters from every corner of it.
The popularity of the comic series continued to grow long after the toy was discontinued. Even after the comic stopped, ROM continued for some time to have appearances and references in the larger Marvel Universe. He even made it back to Earth in his retired from the war, human form to attend the wedding of Rick Jones.
This is the ROM that most people who love the character remember. ROM was a part of the MCU, woven into it for far longer than the run of the original series. The stories, the backstories, the characters, and the details of ROM and his universe that most people love is a product of the MCU.
ROM has returned to comics through IDW. He’s now part of a shared universe that includes other toylines Hasbro owns. There are aspects of this that have some appeal, but there’s also a large flaw with it as well. ROM, more so than some of the toyline characters he’s sharing this new universe with, had to be substantially rebooted. 99% of what ROM is in the minds of many fans was created by Marvel. The basics exist at IDW, but nothing more.
In the last few years, there’s been talk of Hasbro and Paramount bringing ROM to the big screen. Make no mistake, providing the world returns to normal in all ways after 2020, ROM has all the ingredients to be a hit if handled well. For most people, it will be totally new. Most people in the target audience for such a film probably never read the Marvel comic back in the day, and, based on sales figures in the industry these days, it’s pretty much a guarantee the vast majority of that audience hasn’t read the IDW books.
But, still, a ROM on the big or small screens divorced from the MCU and the things that fans grew to love in those Marvel books will never feel right. Even more so than some changes with regards to fan-favorite characters that fans have grumbled about with the big and small screen MCU of the last decade, it would feel like ROM in name only.
There’s also a consideration beyond just ROM’s future on the big or small screen. That consideration is ROM’s unfortunately problematic past. ROM was a creation of the Marvel Universe that spent years being a fully integrated part of it. But ROM never truly belonged to Marvel. Now, this impacts Marvel’s ability to easily create complete libraries of its past works- and I’m not just speaking of the actual ROM: Spaceknight series here.
In recent years, there have been collections of 1980s Marvel books that have had to face edits because of ROM. Some issues in collections have had panels or pages removed. Some have had entire issues dropped. This is because ROM as he appears in those books- his specific image and name -is owned by Hasbro, not Marvel. As such, it creates licensing and legal issues that no one probably thought much of in a time when trade paperbacks and collections like Masterworks being the huge part of the comic market they now are was not something most people in the industry foresaw.
But, for me? Mostly, I just want to see Rom as a part of the MCU. I want to see the Dire Wraiths as the deviant offshoot race of the Skrulls. I want to see the supporting cast I grew to love over 75 issues of ROM: Spaceknight on the screen and not rebooted, alternate world characters and backstories.
I want ROM: Spaceknight to actually be ROM: Spaceknight, not RINO.
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek who, while enjoying most everything fandom has to offer, finds himself most at home in the horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction genres. He has in the past contributed to websites like Needless Things, Nerdy Minds Magazine, Gruesome Magazine, and others while occasionally remembering to put up the odd musings on his own blog. He’s been a guest on several podcasts from the ESO Network, on Decades of Horror, and on the Nerdy Laser. He is also a regular co-host on The Assignment: Horror Podcast as well as the primary writer for its affiliated blog.