IDW recently announced the return of not just one but two of the best toy-based, cult classic comics of all time. The first, ROM the Spaceknight, will return on Free Comic Book Day this May. IDW’s one-shot, Rom #0, brings back to print a character people major Marvel players like Brian Michael Bendis and Jonathan Hickman have been craving to write for years. It was such a crappy toy for folks to still be remembering it so fondly.
But people loved ROM—he even made the cover of Time Magazine! (In the interior article, they also said ROM was a shitty toy and said it was bound to “end up among the
dust balls under the playroom sofa.”
Micronauts, on the other hand, were terrific toys—probably my favorite when I was a kid. (My second favorite also happen to be the subject of a pretty good comic that made my list, below.) IDW has the rights to this one as well, and they’re investing in some name talent: Cullen Bunn is scripting, David Baldeón is doing the interior art, and Michael Golden—who was the artist on Marvel’s original book from the 1980s—is doing some alternate covers.
Which brings us to today’s feature…
BERKELEY PLACE’S TOP 5 TOY-BASED COMICS OF ALL TIME
This list is for comics that followed, not preceded, a line of toys. Let’s do it.
HONORABLE MENTION: THE INCREDIBLE CHANGE-BOTS (Top Shelf, 2007). Okay, I’m cheating here. Indie comic book creator Jeff Smith, who is best known for his books about Star Wars, is one of my favorite autobiographical creators. His stories about his early adult life and failed romances are amazing. In this comic, he basically creates a comic book love letter to The Transformers and the Go-Bots. It’s sweet, funny, and perfect for kids. But technically, there was never a Change-Bot toy, so this isn’t one of my top 5.
5. SHOGUN WARRIORS (Marvel, 1980)
I’ll admit that Doug Moench and Herb Trimpe’s Shogun Warriors wasn’t the best of the best, but it holds sentimental value for me. I think I read issue #20, where Combatra fights The Fantastic Four, at least a dozen times. And the heavy, solid metal toys were ones I would save up for for months.
Maybe the best thing about the comic was that it tied into Godzilla, and inspired Red Ronin—a character who actually fought The Avengers.
4. THE SUPER POWERS (DC, 1984)
Another cheat. DC really wanted to break a new line of toys that featured a wider variety of characters than just Batman, Superman, Flash, and Wonder Woman, so they teamed up with Kenner to produce a massive line of comics and toys. And every toy came with a minicomic—which was a great way to get more kids into the art form. We saw guys like Red Tornado, Darkseid, Hawkman, Dr. Fate, Kalibak, Martian Manhunter, Parademons, Mr. Miracle, and many others. Even a redesigned Cyborg joined the party.
The books had solid pedigree, with creators like Jack Kirby (who wrote and drew much of the Super Powers miniseries that launched the line), George Perez, Carmine Infantino, Dick Giordano, and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.
No, the comics weren’t great—but the synergy was excellent.
3. ROM THE SPACEKNIGHT (Marvel, 1979)
Unlike most toy tie-ins, ROM became a part of the Marvel Universe. ROM and his enemies, the Dire Wraiths, showed up in the pages of Power Man and Iron Fist, The Avengers, Hulk, and X-Men, and many heroes visited the pages of ROM’s own comic as well. In fact, ROM references continued to turn up–as recent as 2011.
Here’s what the modern day Spaceknights look like:
Marvel has never been able to negotiate the rights to reprint these old ROM books, so they can be pretty hard to find, and now that IDW has the rights I’d expect we’ll continue to be denied a bound volume.
Check out my extended article on the comic here.
2. G.I. JOE (G.I. JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO (Marvel, 1982) and G.I. JOE vs. THE TRANSFORMERS (IDW, 2014))
G.I. Joe comics are the longest-running toy-based comics of all time but most aren’t very good. There are a few exceptions.
Marvel’s take on GI Joe came after several others and before many more. It was titled, “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero,” and instead of being about an actual soldier named Joe, it featured a colorful fighting force full of men and women with code names like Snake Eyes, Scarlett, and Quick Kick, who fought a terrorist organization named Cobra, with characters like Storm Shadow and Destro.
The book was written by comic book veteran Larry Hama, who stayed with it all the way to the end in the early 1990s, which meant he had time for real character arcs, relationships, and experiments like the famous issue with no words and real character deaths. It also featured great and well-known artists like Herb Trimpe and Marshall Rogers. The book also had huge influences on the hit animated series of the same name, which happens to be one of the best cartoons from my childhood as well.
These are books that still stand up today—they’re just great comics.
Then there were the tie-in tie-ins, between the Joes and a gang of space robots that turn into cars. Back in the 1980s, Hasbro and Marvel produced a miniseries by Michael Higgins and Herb Trimpe that tied their two hugely popular toy franchises together. Unlike GI Joe, Transformers comics weren’t very good—and neither was this miniseries. A lot of people love the modern Transformers comics, and I have to confess I’ve never read them—otherwise maybe they’d be on this list. I just don’t have an interest.
But then, a few years ago, IDW figured out the nostalgia key and created a book designed to look like Silver Age comics—corny, old-fashioned dialog, wild and bizarre adventures, and somewhat crude (but brilliantly crude) art by Tom Scioli (who cowrites it with editor John Barber)—called Transformers vs. G.I. Joe. It’s been a huge hit, and deservedly so.
1. THE MICRONAUTS (Marvel, 1979)
One of several toy-based comics written by Bill Mantlo, Micronauts came to be when Mantlo bought his son some of the hit toy line’s products for Christmas, and was so inspired by them that he asked Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter to seek out a comic license.
The result was a comic that was always good and at times awesome. Recruiting incredible talents like Michael Golden (who co-created the early issues), Steve Ditko, Pat Broderick, Val Mayerik, Keith Giffen, Gil Kane, Luke McDonnel, and the first comics work by both Kelley Jones and Butch Guice, the book was a cult hit for fans and had a level of quality generally unheard of for comic-book tie-ins. It also was one of the three books Marvel moved to a higher priced, glossy, direct-sale only line in 1982 (the other two were Moon Knight and Ka Zar). The team was tied completely into the Marvel Universe—there was even a miniseries cowritten by Chris Claremont that crossed over with The X-Men.
In 1986, Marvel lost the rights and other companies got to try to recreate the magic. They couldn’t. In fact, Marvel itself couldn’t do it in 1984, when Bill Mantlo left the book and Marvel tried a reboot by Peter B. Gillis and Kelley Jones that just wasn’t very good.
The book expanded greatly on the toy universe, and some of Mantlo’s original characters have survived in the Marvel Universe since the licensing rights lapsed to other comic book companies (none of whom have created a comic that comes close to the original). Notably, Bug got his own miniseries and was part of Keith Giffen’s incredible revival of the Guardians of the Galaxy in 2008. It even made it into the Ant-Man movie! (Sort of—the film incorporated the Microverse, but it didn’t call it the Microverse.)
See my extended piece on Micronauts Volume One here.