Written by: Simon Furman. Art by: Geoff Senior [DWM 135, DC 5], Bryan Hitch [DH 1-3, 7], Lee Sullivan [DH 4], John Higgins [DH 5], Liam Sharp [DH 6]. Originally Published: Doctor Who Magazine #135, Dragon’s Claws 5, Death’s Head #1-7.
Review by STUART WEBB: The late 1980’s were heady times for Marvel UK but thanks to licensed titles such as Transformers sales were high.The decision therefore was made to abandon traditional oversized weekly/fortnightly British comic formats and create a new line of American style monthly titles with a range of new characters. Though Dragon’s Claws (a dystopia 2000 AD style comic from Simon Furman and Geoff Senior) would be the first such title Death’s Head is the one people remember best, and he actually has roots that predate the desire to crack the American market.
Created as a one off supporting character by the ever busy team of Furman and Senior for Transformers #113 in mid 1987, he quickly became popular with readers, thanks to an excellent design, a nicely self aware bad ass attitude and some well realised fight scenes.
Death’s Head is a mechanoid “Freelance Peacekeeping Agent” (for which read Bounty Hunter, but just don’t call him that…) who attempted to hunt down and kill Decepticon leader Galvatron for a vast amount of money. Even before the first issue was published Furman was so convinced the character had legs he arranged for a one page solo Death’s Head strip to appear as a back up in several Marvel UK titles, thus ensuring he’d be unequivocally Marvel copyright rather than owned by Transformers toy makers Hasbro. This was a decision that paid dividends in the long run, but getting Death’s Head into his own title would be a convoluted process.
The first step was a return appearance in Transformers, in the classic Legacy of Unicron (#146-151) storyline. Whilst he’d been very much a villain in his initial showings (even killing Bumblebee!) this bout sets him up as more of an anti-hero. Still very much in it for the money he has a very strict personal code of honour and despite being mind controlled by demi-god Unicron he eventually came down on the side of the angels. He’s also front and centre in the action, being the character that learns Unicron’s secret origin and having a more antagonistic relationship with the villain than even lead character Rodimus Prime has. Despite the story in theory being a celebration of 150 issues of Transformers it is very much what the TV industry would call a back door pilot. The story ends with Death’s Head being blown through Unicron’s time portal (it’s a long story…) lost in history and ready to take the reins of his own comic. But first there was still a small issue of scale to deal with, which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the first issue in this trade.
Death’s Head was a Transformer sized character, so in order for him to interact with humans in his own comic some serious shrinkage needed to be done. As Furman could vaguely remember the Master in Doctor Who having a gun that shrunk things, and as the new Doctor Who Magazine comic editor Richard Starkins was keen to create crossovers with the wider Marvel Universe, a hasty meet up between the Time Lord and the mechanoid was arranged. Unfortunately the result in issue #135 of the Magazine, Crossroads of Time (presented here as the colour version from The Incomplete Death’s Head), is extremely disappointing. Rather than have Death’s Head just run into the Master, the story hinges on the Doctor himself carrying his arch foes most lethal weapon in his pocket and being happy to use it with intent to kill.
This act of attempted mechicide is the result of the Tardis and Death’s Head colliding in the space time vortex and the annoyed Death’s Head trying to hunt the Doctor down. The short page count means the hunt is almost over before it begins, and the Doctor pulling what’s basically a space gun out of his pocket is highly dubious, even if all it ultimately does is make Death’s Head human sized. It’s fair to say that, despite having written several strips for the Magazine at this point Furman never really got a handle on Doctor Who, so it’s somewhat of a relief when, the stories main function achieved, the Doctor just teleports Death’s Head to Earth in the year 8162.The only redeeming feature of the whole story is some typically wonderful Senior art.
8162 leads us to Dragon’s Claws, already five issues old at this point the launch title in the Marvel UK home grown range would be the last stepping stone on the way to Death’s Head. Despite the American style format the set up is much closer to home, a world where ex sports teams turn to either law enforcement or crime is so 2000 AD you expect the might Tharg to turn up at any second. Unlike with the Doctor Who strip a full 22 pages gives Death’s Head the chance to strut his stuff. Materialising in the Pool region and attacked by one group of ex players in the Game- which was basically The Running Man- who mistake him for a member of the Evil Dead (the main villains, KISS rejects) we get a wonderfully drawn fight scene from Senior. This leads the Evil Dead themselves to hire Death’s Head to take out the Jones Boys gang as they try to steal some weaponry the Evil Dead have themselves stolen.
As Dragon’s Claws, another ex team who now work for the world government, have also been sent to stop the weapons theft this sets the stage for a top confrontation. Whilst Dragon himself is a bit dull his square jawed heroism plays nicely off Death’s Head’s world weary cynicism and business sense. Unusually for crossover comics, which usually try hard not to make one party look weaker than the other, Death’s Head is decisively beaten when the Dragon’s blow up the building he’s in, leading to a nice Terminator homage with his battered body clawing its way out the wreckage before yet more heavy masonry falls on him (as the man himself says, “Repairs will cost me an arm and a leg, yes?”). This issue is a bit too steeped in the various ongoing Dragon’s Claws plots to be entirely satisfying out of context, but provides a enjoyable set up, at last, for the main Death’s Head comic, and also allows the characters new regular artist Bryan Hitch to perform a redesign on the character.
Ah yes, Bryan Hitch. Now a world renowned and loved superstar here he was the new kid on the block who’d done a bit of Transformers and, most importantly, been the guy in the office when they needed someone to quickly knock out the copyright grabbing one page Death’s Head story. These days he tends to be fairly scathing of his early inexperienced work, but it’s easy to see why a newcomer was entrusted with the character. There’s lots of detailed, dynamic art that burst with energy, though very little of it plays to what would probably be considered his strengths nowadays. It’s not the great big widescreen movie art of The Ultimates but it’s still a wonder to behold. Sadly Hitch is also fairly notorious for being a slow worker, so he’ll only wind up drawing half of the ten issues. As a random aside, such is Hitch’s current fame when Marvel later attempted Death’s Head 3.0 they would rather cheekily claim he co-created the character in the publicity.
The first issue, Death’s Head Revisited, is a series of flashbacks linked by a framing device of the newly rebuilt and dormant Death’s Head recalling incidents from his past, basically the same gimmick Furman used for the 1986 TransformersAnnual story Victory! It’s a good all round introduction to the character, his personal code and the sort of black humour the comic will take. A typical example sees him hired by some rebels to kill an evil King then upon getting to the palace he finds the thing was a ruse to lure him into a trap before the real rebels could hire him. He deals with the waiting guards easily, and when the King desperately tries to cancel the contract he took out on his own life Death’s Head rather gleefully sees it through. The issue ends with Death’s Head awakening before his mysterious rebuilders (the main change basically being the green in his costume is now blue) and declaring himself open for business.
The problem with it as an opening issue is that it establishes the lead and the style of story but very little else about the format. We do meet his future sidekick Spratt for the first time, but as his amazing technical abilities (being able to rebuild a almost completely destroyed mysterious robot and improve on it) are never mentioned again it’s easy to forget it’s supposed to be the same character.
Issue 2, Contractual Obligations is yet more set up for the actual format of the comic. We learn Death’s Head has been rebuilt by a group of convicts whose prison collapsed in an earthquake years ago. Through the trauma of that and being subsequently trapped underground they’d all become extreme victims of agoraphobia, except for new inmate Scavenger, who as a result became the guy sent out to get them food and supplies. One day he didn’t come back, so in payment for his repairs Death’s Head agrees to work for them for a set time, and to return him from his new home in Dragon’s Claws. Yep, it’s another crossover, which Marvel love.
This is more typical of two different comics meeting, with both sides coming away just about equals. Though Death’s Head gets Scavenger and comes close to besting Dragon he ultimately decides his employers are so irritating and his respect for the one man to ever beat him so high he fudges the time his period of employment ends by claiming his chronometer must be out by a minute instead of delivering the killing blow. We then get a nice pay off to the agoraphobia plot with the lead convict getting shoved outside for the first time in years and suffering a nervous breakdown. This leave Spratt free to declare himself Death’s Head’s partner and follow him, much to the mechanoids chagrin.
There are a couple of major plot holes as it’s never explained how the agoraphobes were able to leave their sunken prison to grab Death’s Head’s body, nor why Spratt doesn’t suffer from the condition. But it’s still a well drawn fight issue that firmly established Death’s Head’s personal sense of honour.
The third issue (finally) gets us to the main location of the series, the Los Angeles Resettlement (which is effectively Mega City 1). High Stakes is basically about Spratt proving to both Death’s Head and us that he’s a worthwhile sidekick, first by foiling a terrorist highjack on the plane journey to America (which is played as a homage to the original Taking of Pelham 123 with colour named villains) and then distracting a Miami Vice escapee at the point he seems likely to kill Death’s Head. Spratt may convince Death’s Head of his worth, but it’s hard not to feel he’s just that little bit too dull for the comic, and tellingly he isn’t nearly as well remembered as his boss.
This is also the first issue to show up the main problem the title would have, because whilst Death’s Head himself is a funny, witty and larger than life character the bulk of his villains aren’t. The main bounty for this issue has a mullet, so it’s impossible to take him seriously as a threat. Finding people for Death’s Head to face off against is going to be a reoccurring problem, and for the most part he works best as a guest star in more firmly established heroes books because they already have strong and distinctive personas of their own.
Issue 4, Plague Dog has a split narrative. One half follows Spratt as he fends off a hungry monster that lives in their new office, whilst the second has Death’s Head taking on henchmen of the crime boss the Undertaker in order to draw out his main target, the Undertakers enforcer (self same hungry monster). As high farce it’s excellent, especially Death’s Head crashing a party with an exploding cake. This is the first issue without Hitch art, but luckily Lee Sullivan is more than up to the challenge, with some arresting images such as Death’s Head disguised as a waiter complete with curly blond wig. It also sets up what will be a slow burning arc plot with the Undertaker hiring deeply silly looking bounty hunter Big Shot to kill Death’s Head.
Issue 5, Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling!, sees a crossover with Doctor Who Magazine, but rather than the Doctor himself, Keepsake, a minor character from issue #140, comes to LA looking for the buried gold he double crossed his wife for. She’s a classic Chandleresque femme fatale who hires Death’s Head to get the gold, in exchange for half of it. This leads to some lovely double and triple crossing with Keepsake offering him half the gold as well to push her out a helicopter, resulting in a “That’s the half you promised me, and that’s the half your wife promised me, yes?” pay off gag. To rub salt in his wounds Keepsake’s pet vulture abandons him as well, following Death’s Head and meaning that, five issues in, the books format has reached its final form. And it has to be said the Eagle is more memorable than Spratt.
The sixth issue, Sudden Impact, is easily the most forgettable, a routine story of Death’s Head trying to protect a vital witness in a political court case from an insane super platoon of soldiers. They’re all dull and look stupid, but there is a nice twist at the end where Death’s Head fails to keep the witness alive and as such won’t kill the villain as he’s not going to get his fee anyway. The most noticeable thing about the issue is the last page, which sets up the next piece in the Big Shot storyline with Dead Cert (the crime lord who hired Death’s Head to kill the Plague Dog in the first place) getting bounty hunter Short Fuse to kill Death’s Head, as a way of thwarting the Undertaker’s plans.
This plays right into the seventh and final issue in this collection, Shot by Both Sides. This is a complete farce, with Death’s Head trying to capture Photofit, a shape shifting villain, whilst being confused at the way things keep exploding around him as the assassination attempts of the two bounty hunters cancel each other out repeatedly. Unfortunately for Photofit he decides to take the form of Death’s Head just as Short Fuse turns up with a bomb. Unfortunately for Short Fuse he’s a bit crap and winds up blowing himself up as well as the target, which also badly buggers up Big Shot who’s left limping off swearing revenge, with Death’s Head and Spratt none the wiser.
Though John Higgins and Liam Sharp did good work on #5 and 6 respectively it’s good to see Hitch back to round off the collection, and the scenes of Death’s Head’s booby trapped ship crashing through future Los Angeles gives him a chance to come close to the big visuals he’s now associated with.
As usual with their trades of classic material Panini (who for those that don’t know are the successors to Marvel UK and still reprint all the material from the House of Ideas in this country) have done a bang up job, everything’s been nicely restored and looks gorgeous. There’s also a two page introduction from Furman charting the origins of the character and the convoluted path to his own comic, and the High Noon Tex! one page story done to ensure Marvel had the copyright.
Despite some structural flaws in his own series and the odd less than perfect issue this is still a collection well worth purchasing for anyone who does enjoy the 2000AD style. No matter what's going on around him Death's Head remains a great creation, and the art is rarely less than breathtaking. Buy it, enjoy it, and come back for the second volume... yes?
When naming the character Furman just picked something that sounded cool, he was unaware it was historically the name of a Nazi squadron as well.
The born in 1970 Hitch was still a teenager when he drew these the first issue.