Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Coming of ROM: A Knight’s Tale

By Jim Shooter from his blog.
Sometime early in 1979, Marvel Comics President Jim Galton called me to his office to discuss an opportunity to license a toy property—ROM, the Spaceknight.  We’d had some success with the Micronauts, which the legendary licensing/toy genius Stan Weston had pitched to me, and I had licensed, so Galton was immediately interested in a new Parker Brothers toy that he had somehow become aware of.  Galton knew nothing about comics, and couldn’t care less about them—but he was very interested in making money.  If one toy property worked, why wouldn’t another?

The name “ROM,” by the way, comes from Read-Only Memory.  It was one of the first toys with a chip inside that allowed it to do simple tricks like making sounds and flashing lights.  

Galton and I flew up to Boston on the Eastern Airlines Shuttle—remember that?—and drove out to wherever Parker Brothers offices were—in a beautiful, wooded setting, as I recall—and met with their brass and licensing people.  We worked out a deal.  I’m certain we had a pretty standard licensing deal, except that the creator of ROM, Bing McCoy, had a significant participation.  After Parker Brothers was out of the mix, I suppose we paid only Bing McCoy’s portion of the royalties.  

I created the basic premise for the comic book series—the fundamental backstory (beyond what Bing and Parker Brothers had graven in stone).  Bill Mantlo and whoever the editor was fleshed it out.  For instance, Brandy Clark was definitely Bill’s creation, or at least he named her.  On the other hand, Clairton (a small town in the Pittsburgh area, near where I grew up, transplanted for story purposes to West Virginia) and Galador are names I provided.

Getting the first cover done was a nightmare.  The concept was simple—an apparently menacing robot terrifying the people of a small town—but, it took four tries, I think, to get an acceptable penciled cover.  I don’t remember who did the first couple of tries…Sal Buscema…?  Al Milgrom…?  Not sure.  But they weren’t impactful enough.  Then, as we were coming down to the wire, I had another artist, name withheld for reasons that will become obvious take a shot.  What he did, overnight, was completely wrong.  I told him we wanted a Day the Earth Stood Still, eerie, terrifying tableau.  What he did, described in his own words, thus, was: “…the townspeople admiring the magnificent robot,” in a picturesque, tranquil setting.  He also drew himself, as Jesus Christ, complete with halo, Neal Adams as Moses, complete with halo, and Neal’s family prominently among the “townspeople.”  Prominently featured in the background was a church.  Those were strange days for him.  Later, he got better.  He did some work for me at DEFIANT, as I recall.  Brilliant artist, good man.

So, I asked Frank Miller to do me a favor—and, in a tremendous hurry, he did the cover that was actually used.  I think it was inked in the office—by Milgrom?  Not sure—because it had to go out in a rush.

In those days, it was difficult to get top-tier creators to work on licensed-property books.  Most creators wanted to do mainstream Marvel Universe books, because they were fans and because the likelihood of better sales/higher royalties seemed greater (with a few exceptions—Conan, for instance).  Bill Mantlo, always hungry for work, would take anything.  Sal Buscema, likewise, wasn’t too picky.  Getting “names” to do covers was relatively easy because covers paid more and the artists were able to sell the originals for more money than one could get for interior pages.

After our initial meetings with Parker Brothers, we didn’t have much contact with them.  They quickly lost interest in ROM and all to do with it when the toy didn’t do well, I think.  I did meet once with Bing, though.  I think he just dropped by Marvel’s offices and found his way to Galton’s office.  I was called there quickly—largely because Galton had no idea what to say to the guy and had never so much as opened a ROM (or any other) comic book.  I remember that Bing was dressed sort of like Kit Carson and had with him his toddler son, who proceeded to tear up Galton’s office.  This was probably in early 1980, because Marvel was still at 575 Madison, before the move to 387 Park Avenue South.

When Steve Ditko came around looking for work, I made it a priority to find him something—after all, he was a founding father, and though I couldn’t set right all the injustices of the past, I could make sure he had work if he wanted it.  ROM seemed like a natural.  Sal had plenty to do, so no worries there.  The reason ROM was right for Steve is that Steve refused to work on “flawed” heroes!  No feet of clay permitted.  His philosophy was (and probably still is) that heroes should be noble.  Period.  I asked him about Spider-Man, some of whose flaws were Steve’s ideas.  He explained that when he drew Spider-Man, Spider-Man was still a kid, still learning, and therefore, allowed some foibles.  Fine, then.  ROM, the noble Knight it was.  Steve did some good work on ROM. 

Sales of ROM were never great.  For years it hung in there, in the lowest tier, but above the cut-line. 

I thought ROM was one of Bill Mantlo’s better series.  Bill was generally a writer of last resort for most editors.  When no one else was interested, Bill would take the job.  Or, editors used him because they knew that he’d be on time, at least, and that meant one fewer deadline crunch a month; or if they were stuck for a script overnight—literally—they knew Bill would deliver.  If it came down to words on paper, no matter what, Bill was the no-matter-what.  The value of his speed was mitigated by the fact that, often, many changes/corrections were required to bring a script up to publishable quality.  Bill was cooperative and willing to make changes/corrections if required—but, sometimes, there wasn’t time.  Some editors would defend Bill because he had frequently saved their butts, but I hated to see a sub-standard script slip by.  

Another good point about Bill, however, was that he was very free with ideas and created new villains and characters easily and often.  That was another thing that endeared him to editors who were sick of stories about the thousandth return of Doctor Octopus or whomever.  Anyway, I think Bill liked writing ROM and gave it a special effort.  That was a big part of why it lasted so long, I think.  

Because of the rights issues, I doubt that Marvel (or anyone) will be publishing a collection of the ROM Spaceknight series soon.  Too bad.

 More "Corruption" to come on Monday.
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