by Adam Ford
“Dog Day Afternoon,” [in our July/August issue, on sale now], is a poem from a suite of 79 poems that I wrote in 2016 in response to a series of comic books published by Marvel Comics back in the 1980s. The series in question was Rom Spaceknight. It ran from late 1979 until 1986. It told the story of a cyborg from the planet Galador who had come to Earth to uncover a hidden race of shape-changing aliens who were intent on taking over our planet as part of a centuries-old scheme for galactic conquest.
The series was inspired by an electronic toy robot whose creators had commissioned Marvel Comics to write a comic about it, in the hopes that the publicity from the comic would translate into sales of the toy. As it turns out, the toy was spectacularly unsuccessful, disappearing from shelves within a year or so, but the comic went on to run for seven years, growing a dedicated fanbase whose love of and nostalgia for the comic would establish it as a cult classic with a legacy that would last long after the final issue was published.
The series was written in its entirety by veteran comic book author Bill Mantlo, and largely illustrated by two veteran comic book artists—Sal Buscema and Steve Ditko—throughout its run. This continuity of art and writing is somewhat unusual for the world of comic book publishing at the time. Its resultant consistency of vision may be one of the things that makes the series stand out even after all these years.
The story of Rom the Spaceknight borrows heavily from the tropes of science fiction B-movies, with elements in its early issues that map neatly onto source materials like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It also draws heavily upon tropes that were well-established at Marvel Comics by the late seventies, such as the hero vilified by the people they seek to protect, existential soul-searching about the personal cost of fantastic powers, and the comic’s protagonist frequently facing off against and/or pairing up with heroes and villains from other comic books published by the same company.
As a child, I was a fan of Rom Spaceknight. Back in the 1980s, I was buying secondhand copies from the few secondhand bookstores that sold comics in my home town. Those issues went the way of many of my tattered comic books when I moved out of home, but years later, in my thirties, I stumbled across a pile of Rom comics in a dusty book shop in Sydney and my interest in the series was reignited.
By the time of this discovery I had been enjoying retrospective articles about Rom Spaceknight that I had come across on the internet, reading along with various pundits’ reappraisals and re-readings. After re-reading my newfound Rom stash I was pleased to find that the series still read well, and allowed myself to kindle the flame of an idea about one day writing something on these comics: a series of reviews or maybe even a podcast.
By late 2015 I had finally turned my back on the novel that I had been struggling with for almost 10 years. In quitting that novel I allowed myself to return to my first love of writing, which was poetry. I dusted off a folder’s worth of poetry drafts and set myself the task of working up a manuscript to submit for an impending chapbook competition deadline. I found the process of working toward that deadline invigorating and inspiring. When it was over I thought about what other deadlines I might set myself in order to create new poetry, instead of simply editing and revising drafts.
Soon after that, I found myself on holiday with my family, my entire stash of Rom comics tucked into my suitcase for a good old holiday re-read. As I read through the comics over that week or so, the desire to write something about what made them special bubbled up again and somehow got entangled with the desire to set myself a poetical task and deadline. This soon crystallized into a statement of intent.
Why not write some poems about these comics? I thought. Why not write one poem in response to each? That might be fun. I had been writing more and more speculative poetry of late—a series of poems about the interior life of a comic book cyborg would match that style of poetry well.
Okay, so one poem for each comic in the series. That was 75 monthly issues plus the four special editions that were released as “annuals” (despite the fact that the series had run for more than four years). It all came to a grand total of 79 poems. I just needed a deadline to work toward.
I had been keeping up with the latest gossip that fans of Rom were sharing online (of course I had) and I knew that there were plans for the comic publisher IDW Comics to reboot the character and start publishing a new Rom comic series in July 2016, with a teaser issue to be released as part of the international Free Comic Book Day event on the first Saturday in May.
It was mid-January. There were roughly three and a half months, or approximately 120 days, until Free Comic Book Day. If I wrote one of these comic-inspired poems every day for the next 79 days, they would be finished and ready for revising well before the teaser comic’s release date, and then I could piggyback the completion of the collection onto the comic’s release and maybe some of these poems might catch the eye of diehard Rom fans like myself. Even if I didn’t manage to write one poem a day, there was about 40 days’ slack in that deadline. That was plenty of time to catch up if I fell behind.
To keep myself on track, I decided that I would announce the whole endeavor on my social media accounts, and publicly commit to publishing every poem online as soon as it was finished. The threat of public humiliation would help to spur me onward to completion any time that my passions were flagging.
It sounded like the most preposterous, arbitrary and foolhardy way to approach writing a poetry collection. If I pulled it off, though, I would have a 79-poem body of work about the angst and whimsy of the life of a comic book cyborg. I loved it. I told my wife, herself a writer, what I was planning. Naturally, the first question she asked was, “Why?” All I could tell her by way of justification was that the idea of creating my very own folly out of science fiction poetry was exciting.
I started work on the afternoon of my decision. I re-read issue #1 (“Arrival!”) and then began scratching out a poem in response, using a red pen and the spiral-bound notebook in which I had been composing my daily to-do lists. I used the title of each comic as the title of each poem, noting over the next few months how many times these titles attempted to confer import with the use of either a faux-literary tone of voice, a garbled quote, an exclamation mark, or all three. I had never written a poem with an exclamation mark in the title before. I liked it.
I set up a website to house each poem as I wrote it. I used my social media accounts to announce my intentions, document my process and link to each poem as I uploaded it. I soon drew the attention of a number of fellow Rom fans, including the writer and publisher of the forthcoming new Rom reboot comic series. I snagged a couple of mentions and one feature interview on a few comic book podcasts. I got written up on a comic news website. I dedicated a number of the poems to the people who were helping to spread the word and cheering me on.
“Why not write some poems about these comics? I thought. Why not write one poem in response to each? That might be fun. I had been writing more and more speculative poetry of late—a series of poems about the interior life of a comic book cyborg would match that style of poetry well.”
Every day I would carry an issue of the next comic in the series with me and try to find a snatch of time to read it. Every night, after coming home from work, feeding the kids and putting them to bed, I would try to sit down for an hour or so and bash out something resembling a poem that touched on scenes or themes from that comic. Some nights it would be too hard to find the time or energy, which meant that the next night I would need to write two poems, or sometimes even three, to stay ahead of the impending deadline.
I got good at bashing out something, anything, that might be poemlike enough to get me over the line, reasoning that this was the writing stage, and the editing stage would come later. I played with forms to keep myself interested and engaged. I wrote in fixed meter and free verse. I found that I could write a villanelle reasonably quickly once I’d established the repeating refrains, and that the repetition of the form was a good mimesis of the repetition of the fight scenes in superhero comics. I felt like I was gaining some insight into what it might be like to write a new story every month for six years, just as Bill Mantlo had done when creating these comics in the first place.
I wrote a monorhyme out of desperation one night and discovered that the form’s repetition was more evocative and functional than I had anticipated. I wrote a poem based on the instruction manual from a 1970s Xerox machine that I found online in a database of vintage copier manuals. I stole in its entirety the rhythmic structure—verse, chorus and middle eight—of a pop song that had been earworming around in my head the week prior. I did everything I could to keep the poems coming, diligently uploading them while the ink was still drying on the final stanza and announcing to anyone who cared to listen that I was one poem closer to completion.
Eventually I did manage to write 79 poems, although I didn’t get them done in time for Free Comic Book Day. To be honest I hadn’t been expecting to. In the back of my mind there was always the secondary deadline of the July release of the first issue of the new Rom comic from IDW, which I did managed to achieve with some time to spare. According to my drafts folder, the 79th poem in the series, written in response to issue #75’s aptly titled “The End,” was created on 14 June 2016, 155 days after “Arrival”’s timestamp of 13 January 2016. That works out to one poem every 1.962 days, or thereabouts.
Since then I have been reworking these poems, pleased to have a substantial body of work to play with. Some of the poems were pretty good, if I do say so myself, just needing a tweak here or there. Others have required more substantial revision, and still others I have abandoned as unsalvageable. In October 2016 I assembled my 10 favorite poems into a limited-edition chapbook and hosted a launch at a comic shop in Melbourne, reading all 10 in front of an artist’s easel on which were perched enlarged reproductions of the covers of the comics under poetic consideration.
Quite a few of these poems have seen publication in journals of both speculative and non-speculative poetry, including Going Down Swinging, FreezeRay Poetry, Strange Horizons, Star*Line and the pages of Asimov’s as well (hence this blog). I have also had the pleasure of recording “Arrival” for an online collection of Australian poetry performances, and of seeing another poem from this suite illustrated by the very talented illustrator Bren Luke. I was even able to use the payment from one of these publications to buy my very own little Rom action figure.
Each of these things has been extremely gratifying. It is always encouraging to find other people who like what you are doing artistically, especially when it feels as perversely idiosyncratic as this endeavor has often felt to me.
Most recently I have edited a selection of these poems into a 33-poem chapbook that I am currently seeking a publisher for. I have entered it into a chapbook competition that I am waiting to hear about, and am making plans to seek out other publishers if this particular one doesn’t end up being my cyborg poems’ final destination.
In the meantime I am trying to apply the lessons I learned from this project to new writing and new poems. I hope that I have found an approach to writing poetry that can help me to regularly produce a decent volume of work, however rough and ready, on a particular theme, which can then become the basis of something more substantial and well-crafted.
I know it’s cheesy to tell people to follow their bliss, but if you have something bubbling up inside you that feels as irrelevant and self-indulgent as a pseudo-verse-novel suite of ekphrastic poems about the interior life of a comic book cyborg, and you can’t stop thinking about it, I say just write it and see what happens.