Review by STUART WEBB: To recap, in the late 80’s Marvel UK attempted to break out of their niche of media tie-in comics and American reprints with their own range of homegrown super heroes. After a somewhat tortuous path to his own comic, Death’s Head had become one of the first. By the end of the issues in the first collection [reviewed HERE] the format had been firmly established and the character and his world seemed settled for a lengthy run.
But Marvel’s great experiment was doomed to failure; there was little distribution for the comics in America and in the UK the smaller than usual size meant they got lost in the rack in Smith’s. The fact the comics were, for the most part awful didn’t help (remember The Sleeze Brothers? Didn’t think so). So the second volume of the collected Death’s Head sees the last three issues of his own title coming across as slightly desperate as they ram in guest stars from other titles and attempt to tweak the format to get more readers in.
This trade also collects the original Death’s Head graphic novel The Body in Question that wrapped up some of the lose ends from the cancelled comic, and also just about every cameo and guest appearance from the character in other Marvel titles. Then things are rounded off with the What If… issue where Furman performed a two fingered salute at the Death’s Head II character he had nothing to do with. Effectively this means that, bar some incredibly small one-page cameos the two books contain every appearance of the original Death’s Head.
The book opens with issue 8, Time Bomb! With Furman busy on other projects (writing Transformers and doing general editing at Marvel) Steve Parkhouse steps in to do a filler issue. Parkhouse had amongst other things, written the very first original British Transformers comic but is probably most famous for his lengthy run on Doctor Who Magazine, writing the entire 5th Doctor’s run as well as several stories either side. For his Death’s Head story he returns to familiar territory, bringing in not only the Doctor for a second face off with the character, but also the frog-like evil super businessman Josiah W. Dogbolter (basically Baron Greenback).
Dogbolter hires Death’s Head to both test his new time machine and hunt down and kill his old enemy the Doctor. Parkhouse’s writing usually contains a great deal of whimsy, and as the time machine repeatedly sends Death’s Head to the wrong time and place we get a couple of little comedy moments of him mucking up the timeline. We see his appearance in medieval times condemn a woman to death as a witch and then fighting a tank (“Mother?”) at the battle of the Somme.
When he does find the Doctor he’s performing in panto. This is again typical of Parkhouse who’d often have the Doctor spending lengthy amount of times living and interacting with humans between adventures. The resulting image of McCoy’s Doctor escaping from Death’s Head as the rear end of a pantomime horse is a highlight of the issue. However, Death’s Head soon corners him in the Tardis, though they are soon forced to team up when the Doctor realises the time machine strapped to Death’s Head’s back is also a massive bomb, Dogbolter having double crossed him.
This then leads to a slapstick sequence with Dogbolter running to his bomb shelter as the Tardis lands on his roof, whilst the Doctor and Death’s Head try desperately to remove the time machine. They succeed of course, destroying the Dogbolter building in the process (as an aside, Dogbolter is only seen again in Doctor Who Magazine as a computer ghost, so he could well have been killed here). Overall Parkhouse acquits himself very well, with some nice art by Witherell, even if his Sylvester McCoy likeness is a bit off. The story ends with a major sea change for the comic as Death’s Head is dumped by the Doctor on top of Four Freedoms Plaza in the present day.
This is hugely significant beyond the looming Fantastic Four crossover, because from now on, bar the odd framing sequence with Spratt and one story set prior to this, the world of 8162 is left behind for good. With Dragon’s Claws already ended Death’s Head was a little lonely in his far future so the decision seems to have been made to bring him closer to where he can interact with other Marvel heroes more easily. He won’t settle in the present, but he won’t be going so far ahead again either.
That’s getting ahead of ourselves though, for now issue 9, Clobberin’ Time is the first time a Marvel UK character interacts with some of their US counterparts. The story is the standard comic crossover one. First Death’s Head and the Fantastic Four fight, then they team up against a common foe, in this case the malfunctioning super computer building defence system. With Death’s Head's mechanoid nature meaning he doesn’t register on the computers heat sensors it’s up to him to rescue Mr Fantastic’s son Franklin and disable the system.
The obviousness of the plot doesn’t matter though, it’s just a excuse for Geoff Senior to strut his stunning stuff, the Thing and Death’s Head battering each other is some of the best art he ever did, and makes you wonder why he didn’t become a bigger superstar (though as he’s now rolling in big wads of cash from working in advertising I doubt it keeps him awake at night). The issue ends with a nice twist, as with everyone getting on famously and Reed Richards about to send Death’s Head back to his own time he’s shocked to hear Death’s Head mention that rather than being a super hero, he’s a merciless killer. This revelation causes Reed to stop the machine mid trip, leaving Death’s Head in 2020.
Though Death’s Head will spend most of his missions travelling through time from now, 2020 will remain his home base for virtually all of his remaining appearances. This date was chosen for a very specific reason. It’s still futuristic but it’s also a year where a couple of other Marvel heroes are already established. One, the Machine Man of 2020 would never get the chance to meet Death’s Head. But the other, Iron Man is the main guest star of the last issue, The Cast Iron Contract. The Machine Man limited series that had introduced both characters and their future world had been run successfully as a back up strip in Transformers, meaning most of the potential audience would already have a degree of familiarity with Aaron Stark, Tony’s mercenary for hire cousin.
As per the crossover norm Death’s Head and the new Iron Man fight only to team up. Things do go a little differently in that Iron Man manages to rip his opponents head off, but this does little to slow Death’s Head down. The plot involves a mysterious group of gamblers called the Dicemen who first hire Stark to defend a group of Arab visitors to America from evil terrorists, and then hire Death’s Head to kill them. When they realise their employer was one and the same, and that they’re being watched by a camera, the two unite to trace the signal but all they find is a corpse and their money.
It’s a decent enough story, and the returning Hitch does excellent art work once more, but as the third crossover issue on the trot to have basically the same plot it starts to wear a bit thin. The most interesting stuff is actually the brief glimpses of 8162 where a worried Spratt keeps getting phone calls from a woman claiming to be Death’s head’s wife.
This leads into the issue, and the titles, last two pages. A spoof of Rupert the Bear we get overtly cheerful captions accompanying panels of Death’s Head’s ship suddenly appearing in 2020 with Spratt, the vulture and bounty hunter Big Shot (last seen in #7) aboard, with the later out for revenge. Effectively the series ends on a cliffhanger.
Though there would be some resolution it wouldn't be immediate though as some of the Death’s Head guest spots printed later in the book actually came out first.Next both in the trade and chronologically comes the original graphic novel The Body in Question, which picks up from the end of issue 10 and goes into the origins of the character.
Things open with a new scene between the end of him meeting Iron Man and the last issue cliffhanger, which establishes who Death’s Head is and what he does in a scene with him hunting a bounty. This also introduces what will be the driving question of the story: Is Death’s Head really the professional businessman he pretends to be or does he enjoy the hunt and kill?If so how does that make him different to those he chases?
Intercut with this we get scenes set in 8162 of Spratt going to meet “Mrs” Death’s Head, only for Big Shot to intervene. With the discovery of Death’s Head not being in the present, the mysterious woman called Pyra creates a time portal that sends them all to 2020, which takes us back to where we came in.
Though Big Shot is unsurprisingly keen to kill Death’s Head he is stopped by Pyra who reveals she knows of his past. Before further explanations can be given though Death’s Head is zapped into an alternate dimension and confronted by his “father”, Ty Rejutka Lupex, a humanoid in armour that gives him a Death’s Headish look.
We then jump forward to a chase scene, with Death’s Head being pursued across the surreal landscape by Lupex, intercut with a scene of Lupex explaining his creation. Lupex has amazing powers, but they burn his body out quickly forcing him to steal new bodies of visitors and captives at a regular basis. Death’s Head was going to be a permanent form for him but his worthless aide Pyra stole it before he could enter the shell. As they fight, Death’s Head is forced to face his own nature and decide what sort of killer he is. Does he do what he does for good reasons and profit or is he a psychopath like his creator? Eventually he’s able to work out the rules of the world well enough to overpower and kill Lupex, which returns him to 2020.
Pyra explains that the reason she betrayed Lupex was that when he found she had a lover he deliberately picked him to be his next body. She reprogrammed Death’s Head to be a professional killer to spite him but did not steal the body, leaving one mystery remaining for the future. Spratt is surprised to see Death’s Head let her go, but he’s decided that it would be bad business, plus he rather admires his Mother.
The plot is to a certain extent slight, but the origin of Death’s Head is fascinating (even if it does contradict a couple of throwaway lines in the first issue) and the fully painted art is a career best for Senior, every page is stunning. If everything that comes afterwards is treated as an epilogue this is a perfect send off for the character.
The next few stories are basically odds and sods. First up is a comedy She-Hulk story, Priceless (from issue 24) written by Furman and drawn by Hitch that has the two of them fighting over a priceless vase. There’s some good comedy (mostly the rubbish super villains, Plant Man can’t fight She-Hulk because there are no plants for him to control in the middle of the New York street), but the stories main legacy is introducing the Time Variance Authority, who’ll be responsible for his next few jaunts through time.
Writer/artist Walt Simonson had taken something of a liking to the character (drawing the covers to both issue 9 and The Body in Question), and decided to include him as a guest star in issue 338 of The Fantastic Four, Kangs For the Memories!! Or: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner! Why he did this when he only shows up for a handful of pages in the middle of a time warp is unclear though. The issue is in the middle of an arc and as such means it makes little sense by itself, it has Kang working for Galactus to create a future time warp that the Fantastic Four, Iron Man and Thor are all trying to stop...or something. Outside of context it’s basically gibberish. Death’s Head himself doesn’t sound right either; the language is more broken and fractured than usual, coming over as more Transformers cartoon Grimlock than anything else. Effectively this is here for completist’s sake.
The Deadliest Game from Marvel Comics Presents #76 is a short bit of fluff involving Death’s Head tracking a big game hunter, most noticeable for Bryan Hitch’s last work on the character.It’s also the last showing for 8162 and most importantly of all the last standalone solo adventure for the original version of the character. Despite all that it’s fairly forgettable despite a fun punchline where the hunter is crushed to death by an elephant like alien.
Party Animals from Doctor Who Magazine #173 is equally throwaway. Celebrating thirty years of Doctor Who it’s actually the last strip in this collection to have been published, and as such the last speaking role the original Death’s Head had for more than a decade. However, he’s only in about three pages and has a grand total of two lines so it’s not the grand farewell he deserved. He’s just one of numerous characters who’ve been in the strip over the years (though there’s a lot of non Who TV and comic characters in there as well, including Sapphire and Steel, Worf and Robot Archie) who turn up for a wild drunken party that winds up turning into a drunken fight when Beep the Meep drunkenly tries to kill the Doctor.
The reason for the out of order printing is to allow the collection to end on a high. Despite the failure of their initial effort in 1992 Marvel would again try to launch their own range of US style titles with Death’s Head at the forefront. Though Furman and Senior did some work towards this project (with Furman claiming Senior’s designs were typically stunning) a change in editors resulted in them coming off the book. Instead writer Dan Abnett and artist Liam Sharp would create Death’s Head II.
The back story is complicated, but basically in 2020 secret group A.I.M. create Minion, a machine capable of absorbing minds, to destroy a threat they’ve predicted heading their way called Charnal. Minion eventually absorbs and then kills Death’s Head, but his personality is too strong and (with the help of Reed Richards) he takes over the body, before destroying Charnal, a mad baron who possessed the corpse of Death’s Head. As is Marvel’s wont at the time there’s also lots and lots of other super hero’s from the present knocking about for a big fight. Death’s Head II initially did hugely well for Marvel UK and unwisely convinced them to launch lots and lots of titles at once. By 1994, and 16 issues, Death’s Head II was finished and Marvel UK were effectively destroyed by overreaching at a point when the UK comics industry was shrinking.
Furman was, unsurprisingly, annoyed at being taken off his character and unimpressed with the resultant reworking, and in late 1993 would get the chance to have some revenge via one of his other jobs as occasional writer of the What if… alternate timelines comic. Issue #74, What if… Death’s Head I Had Lived? Is a last arse-kicking hurrah for the character, and has a supremely simple premise. Instead of being killed and absorbed Death’s Head teleported away at the last second, making Minion move onto his next target, Reed Richards. Death’s Head gets repaired and redesigned (again), but has no interest in revenge until A.I.M. offer to pay him to take out Minion, who’s now been possessed by Charnal.
One of the standards of the What if…comics are the writer taking an almost orgasmic glee in killing off characters that would normally be untouchable (at least in a permanent sense) in regular continuity. This is no exception so of course Death’s Head’s plan involves a time machine to go and collect Earth’s greatest heroes circa 1993, which are the now Fantastic 3, Namor, Captain America and War Machine. There’s a wonderful bit of business with Death’s Head convincing them he’s part of the 2020 Avengers (explaining Spratt with “As you can plainly see we’re down to rock bottom as far as membership goes!”) out to stop Minion/Charnal for purely altruistic reasons.
Death’s Head’s plan is pure cold-blooded genius as he has all the other heroes fight Minion so by the time he’s killed them he’ll be worn down. Geoff Senior excels at every death scene and as Minion’s gimmick is to turn people’s powers against them we get some great variety. He makes a force field in Sue Storms brain, has the Human Torch feel the heat of his flames, out techs Machine Man by sticking two ejecting blades into his eyes, and out fights The Thing and Luke Cage. Furman obviously couldn’t think of anything specific for Namor so he just gets decapitated by Captain America’s shield (Cap himself is the victim of the page count and gets beaten off screen).
This then leaves the path clear for Death’s Head, who tricks Minion into accessing Reed Richards memories for the technical knowledge to beat him. Once Reed is reawakened he’s so shocked at what he sees he overpowers Minion’s mind and kills himself. The issue, and our last glimpse of Death’s Head, ends with him musing on the stupidity of the hero type, and he hopes it isn’t catching. It’s a fantastic send off for the character that ensures the collection ends well.
That was pretty much it for Death’s Head. He’s made the odd unspeaking cameo here and there (usually in comics drawn by Simon Williams) but most recently managed a line (“Surprise appearance, yes?”) in the last issue of Captain Britain and MI13 along with a bunch of other Marvel UK characters. Marvel did let Furman do a four part Death’s Head 3.0 in Amazing Fantasy issues #16-20 but despite Furman’s claims that if given the chance he’ll prove this is the original Death’s Head it was so far removed from the original character to be effectively all new.There’s the vague hint this robot might become the basis for Minion come 2020 but that’s it. The fact he looks rubbish- like a Predator going to a fancy dress party as the “Are you my Mummy?” gas mask zombie from Doctor Who- and that the story was about the worst thing Furman has ever written makes treating him separately a very easy thing to do.
There’s still some life in the old dog yet though, Liam Sharp recently tried to pitch an Ultimate Death’s Head mini series that was rejected (based on the test art probably thankfully, it’s effectively Death’s Head II), and the original himself will be making some sort of appearance in an issue of the forthcoming S.W.O.R.D comic. However, unless something drastic happens these two collections will likely remain pretty much definitive for a long time.
As with the first book Panini’s restoration job is superb. There’s also a Furman introduction, which talks of the original comics end and his frustration with some of what came after. We also get the second one page advertising comic done for the character, this time drawn by Lee Sullivan (which rather cheekily gets his name on the cover). Despite the odd flaws this remains a must buy for British comic fans, for if nothing else Death’s Head represents that briefest of moments when it looked as if Marvel UK would be the next best thing.
[NB: For anyone who wants the complete collection, Death’s Head's adventures with the Transformers had previously been collected in trade form by Titan books, as Fallen Angel and The Legacy of Unicron respectively. Both are out of print now but easy enough to find on the secondary market.]
The Seventh Doctor would meet Death's Head II in the framing sequence for the Incomplete Death's Head reprint comic. This is, to date, the only time the Doctor has appeared in a proper official crossover in somebody else's comic, which is probably a sign of how little the BBC cared about Who at the time. The colour version of Part Animals comes from the same source, the original black and white not having been collected yet at the time of writing.
The early 90's would effectively see Furman move away from comic writing as a side effect of every title he worked on getting cancelled. He moved into editing (including for Titan books) and wouldn't get behind a pen on a regular basis again until the 80's nostalgia boom of the early Noughties resulted in a return of Western Transformers comics.