Death’s Head had it easy. All attempts to launch him as a solo star might have failed and faded into obscurity, but he had one great advantage many of the other Marvel UK characters didn’t, and that’s the amount of excessive crossoverage he took part in. Obviously he’s well remembered by Transformers fans, but anyone with a serious interest in The Fantastic Four, She-Hulk or Doctor Who comics will be at least vaguely aware of the character, giving him a minor cult following that the subject of this review could never hope for despite their comic lasting as many issues as Death’s Head did.
Dragon’s Claws was the launch title for Marvel UK’s attempts to crack the US market, and as such had a lot ridding on it. With Simon Furman the regular writer on Marvel UK’s most successful title, Transformers, and Geoff Senior as the highest regarded artist on that book they were a natural choice for a creative team that would bring something of a following with them.
Despite the American style format, the comic Furman would create would ignore the superhero genre and instead become a cross between 2000 AD, Rollerball, Bladerunner… pretty much all the things anyone creating a future world in 80’s Britain would have used for reference.
The set up is fairly straightforward. In the 82nd century Earth is in dire straits, over population and global warming have taken their toll. In order to create entertainment for the masses the World Development Council set up The Game, a decidedly vague mass combat/chase contest between different teams, with Dragon’s Claws the best and most successful of the lot. When the game became too violent (mainly thanks to the Evil Dead, a decidedly nasty bunch of players) it was shut down with a disillusioned Dragon (Yes, that is his real name) becoming a farmer whilst other teams became outlaws and crooks.
That’s the situation that opens the first issue, The Game! The year is now 8162 and Dragon should be contented with his new life with wife Tanya and son Michael, but is constantly drawn to watching videos of his old games. This archive footage is the only appearance of the other Dragon’s (Digit; the smart one, Scavenger; the odd one; Mercy; the girl one and Steel the other one), though each get to strut their stuff with a commentary that shows irritating sports commentators are as much a problem in the future as now.
Despite the lack of the regulars this is an excellent opening issue with a good moral dilemma at its heart for Dragon. His wife hates his past, but when Deller (a highly trained soldier with a chip on his shoulder) visits with an offer from N.U.R.S.E- National Union of Retired Sports Experts- to reactivate Dragon’s Claws as law enforcement officers to deal with the problem of Ex-Game players, he finds it hard to resist. He does initially manage to say no, but a near lethal run-in with a crazy team called the Wild Cats that destroys a large chunk of his farm convinces him a fighter is who he is and he goes off to accept the offer.
Despite the high octane fight scenes it’s actually a fairly melancholy and reflective opening with much musing on lost glories. It’s also hard not to feel Dragon suiting up is a rather sad, instead of heroic, moment.
With the main lead firmly established issue #2, Dead Reckoning! gives us the rest of the team, plus main villains The Evil Dead. The later get a hugely impressive introduction, breaking into a secure weapons vault and stealing all the arms. The team includes leader Slaughterhouse; just in from the KISS tribute band, Death Nell; the terribly punned girl; Hex; the Ainsely Hariot look-alike from Live and Let Die, Feral; a big beast-man-thing and Kronos; a big scythe wielding skull headed thing. All get to show off their special skills by killing guards (and it’s here you’re hit by how insanely gonzo violent this title is going to be. No Comics Code here) in a highly memorable way. By issues end you’ll be a bit puzzled as to why Furman spends so much time setting them up when all bar the first two are going to die, but it’s still a well-executed sequence.
We then cut to a brief scene in N.U.R.S.E headquarters where we see the other Dragon’s in the present for the first time and learn they’ve all basically screwed up their lives since the game ended. We also get, after a brief showing in the first issue, a longer look at Mr. Stenson, the odious middleman running things for N.U.R.S.E. With Dragon off trying to reconcile with his wife, Deller seizes the chance to lead the Claws into the desolate [Liver]Pool region to take on the Evil Dead, convinced he’ll prove to them and Stenson he should replace Dragon permanently.
It all goes pear shaped of course, but luckily Scavenger (who’s rapidly becoming the most interesting character with his skewed take on life, as he doesn’t just kill Feral, he eats him) had the sense to sneak off and bring Dragon. Though this is supposed to make Deller look useless it has the unfortunate side effect of making the Claws themselves seem rubbish. If they’re as good as painted they should be able to work effectively without him, but instead they get easily captured whilst once he turns up all bar Slaughterhouse and Death Nell are sliced and diced rapidly.
Despite the plot flaws the fights are imaginatively staged by Senior, and when Dragon and Slaughterhouse face off we get some interesting insight into their relationship and character. There’s also some set up for the various ongoing plots put into place, Deller now firmly hates Dragon and wants him dead, and N.U.R.S.E themselves are clearly not to be trusted. Oh, and Steel almost does something interesting when we find out he used to be Death Nell’s bitch.
The third issue, Heroes’ Welcome! sees the first appearance of the Claws big green airship the Pig. They use it to travel down to the South coast where they’ve been told the religious nut the High Father is using ex-teams to keep the population trapped in Channel City. When they get there the Claws instead find that the locals are extremely pro High Father and do their best to stop the Pig getting fat into his territory. When they do finally catch him it turns out the High Father is so revered because he has masses of stolen livestock with which he’s been feeding the population. There’s a final revelation when he admits to having been originally stealing the food for N.U.R.S.E before going solo.
This keeps the political machinations sub plot ticking along, but even though the High Father will get a couple of mentions down the line (as in “When this mission is over we really need to ask Stenson about that High Father thing” style musings) this particular bit of set up won’t be dealt with before the comic ends. A more relevant development is when Fury, the brother of one of the Wild Cats killed in issue 1, finds out his brother was hired to attack Dragon by Deller, the whole thing being a plot to bring him out of retirement.
There’s yet another bittersweet ending when Dragon realises that by returning the food to the proper authorities it’s guaranteed never to reach the people who need it most. Oh, and in possibly the most significant event in the series, Scavenger gets a dog.
Issue 4 sees the Claws go off to France to be Wild in the Country! This issue is notable as the only story where Steel gets to do anything of interest. By series end all the others will either have had their background explored or (as in the case of Digit and Scavenger) it purposefully made something of a mystery. Steel however is just this big muscular slightly silly looking ninja guy throughout. Here his getting to bang on about honourable fighting as two land baron armies duke it out in a small village, ably shows why his lack of presence is probably a good thing, he’s a little dull.
The main plot itself sees Dragon having to escort two terrorist prisoners to a rendezvous in order to exchange them for a valuable hostage, the WDC Ambassador to Greater Britain, Mr. Golding. France at this time is divided into territories run by warring barons with the terrorists trying to fight the oppression. The chief Lt. of the group holding Golding however is an out and out crook, and the two prisoners can expose him to their boss, leading to a forest chase as Dragon tries to protect his charges from being killed by their own side. Ultimately he trusts them to get to the meeting place and release Golding whilst he holds off the pursuit, a trust that pays off.
This upbeat ending is something of a rarity for the title, and Golding will go onto become a useful ally. The issue itself ends with one of those Lost in Space style cliffhangers (putting the start of the next story at the end of the last) with a space-time distortion depositing Death’s Head in the Pool.
A more in-depth review of issue 5, Here’s Death’s Head! Can be found as part of the review of the first trade of his own stories [HERE] . In terms specific to Dragon’s Claws we see Golding’s backing has given them a massive cash injection allowing them to build their own base, the Dragon’s Nest. We also find out N.U.R.S.E have been running a ex-team extortion racket and have used Dragon’s Claws as their official executioners, to a certain extent the Evil Dead are actually the good guys for opposing them. With N.U.R.S.E unaware Dragon has been told this, they decide his wife and son have become too much of a distraction and the mysterious shadowy Matron orders Stenson to have them killed.
Dragon's Claws #5
Issues 6 and 7 (Craven Idols! and The Quality of Mercy!) form a two-part story. The Claws are sent to Canada to deal with a vigilante killer. Once there Mercy discovers the killer is a copycat of her old methods, hunting down and killing people who’ve brought their way out of criminal convictions. However, her latest victim was innocent much like Mercy’s last was as well. The story then develops into a tense cat and mouse game between Mercy and her mirror image who calls herself Scourge (between that and Scavenger you can tell Furman had been working on Transformers a long time by this point). Ultimately of course Mercy wins and saves the life of Scourge’s latest victim, but the fact she shoots to kill rather than wound her opponent gives her food for thought that perhaps she hasn’t changed so much after all.
Back at the farm Stenson uses the Claws being out of the country to send Deller to kill Tanya and Michael. Despite being disgusted by it Deller does come very close to doing it. Luckily for the Dragon’s though he’s been followed by Fury’s men, a sort of wacked out religious cult called Shrine who think he’s going home to his own family. So when they attack the farm to get their revenge on Deller he’s forced to defend the very people he’s been trying to kill. Ultimately though he realises it’s a loosing fight and runs for it, leaving Shrine thinking they hold his nearest and dearest loved ones as hostages, so they run off with Tanya, Michael and Tanya’s old country bumpkin father. Deller does eventually make it back to Dragon’s Nest, and manages to embarrass Stenson by showing up in the middle of a tour for Golding. The two parter ends with the Evil Dead, now with new members Hack, Rend and Slash (all forgettable), capturing an ambulance and killing the crew.
Though the stage is now set for an epic show down between the Dragon’s, the Evil Dead and N.U.R.S.E we have one last side step to deal with. Death’s Head issue 2, Contractual Obligations can again be read about in greater detail in the review of his own trade. We learn something of Scavanger’s secret origin (though most of his past is still a mystery) but for the most part this is a standalone tale, the calm before the storm.
The storm arrives in a two parter across issues 8 and 9, The Evil Dead Too! (guess what film was doing the video rental rounds?) and Treatment! Respectively. The Evil Dead use their ambulance to pose as Doctors and infiltrate N.U.R.S.E, which results in a wonderful little comedy scene as Slaughterhouse walks into the building like he owns it ordering everyone else around. The rest of the issue is fairly bleak however; as Dragon goes to his farmhouse to find his family’s fate the other Claws are despondent and worried. The attack on N.U.R.S.E almost comes as a relief to them as it gives them the chance to go hit something.
Meanwhile Dragon himself is ready to rip Deller apart, but is somewhat sated when it’s explained that Matron is behind it all. Even though he doesn’t trust Deller or Stenson he agrees to go with them and Golding to sort out N.U.R.S.E once and for all.
At this point we have three plot strands. The first sees the Evil Dead, sans Slaughterhouse, fighting the Claws whilst Death Nell tries to convince Steel (oh look, he’s almost doing something interesting again. Shame this plotline has been forgotten about for six issues). The second finds Matron killing the other members of the N.U.R.S.E board and preparing to move on and the third has Dragon’s team arrive at the top floor via the executive lift, only for them to get separated when Stenson betrays them. Deller and Golding wind up in a room that’s slowly super heating and Dragon is by himself. Stenson doesn’t get the chance to gloat however as Slaughterhouse runs him through with a sword- the single most graphic “Blimey, how’d they get away with that?” moment in the run- before the killer is clobbered by something larger himself.
We meet the something larger face to face when she confronts Dragon. Matron is the most obvious sign of the 2000 AD influence; basically Hattie Jacques on steroids, as Matron’s a great big wall of fat in a nurse’s uniform. Even Dragon is left speechless by this end of issue cliffhanger.
Issue ten sees a few familiar Furman gimmicks come into play. Matron rigs Dragon and Slaughterhouse into a virtual reality machine she controls with her mind and makes them explore all their deepest fears and neuroses, much as happens to Megatron in the Transformers story Salvage (#160-161), or indeed any one of the Megatron/Straxus mind duel issues. They’re then made to fight but quickly realise the only way out is to resist their natural urges, just like in issue 100 of the UK Transformers comic (and issue 3 of the Generation 2 comic). They do manage to overcome their fears and the whole thing is ended when Death Nell, in brief alliance with the Claws, slits Matron’s throat (the second most graphic “Blimey, how’d they get away with that?” moment in the run). With N.U.R.S.E defeated the Claws are now their own bosses, but unsure of their fate now the group that brought them together is gone.
That all sounds fairly simple and direct when written in a paragraph, but the insights into Dragon’s insecurities about his leadership and Slaughterhouse’s twisted upbringing (beaten by his Dad and then experimented on in prison as part of some demented scheme to bring 80’s rock back) is, when coupled with Senior relishing the chance to go all out on the weirdness, and makes this two parter the best part of the collection.
The tenth and final issue, End of the Road! (if playing the Furman drinking game down the bottle at the use of that title) is the last hour of The Return of the King, more concerned with tying up lose ends and providing some closure rather than telling a big story in its own right. Only unlike the last hour of The Return of the King this only takes ten minuets to get through and has lots of shooting things with guns in it. Huzzah!
As Golding makes the case for continuing the Dragon’s Claws project the team themselves are supposed to be grounded. However, a large futuristic super truck being hijacked makes them decide to break the curfew rather than ignore those in need, so they head out with Deller now a slightly uncomfortable team player. It’s lucky for them that they ignored orders as the hijacker is transporting a valuable prisoner for the Shrine, and said prisoner knows where Dragon’s wife and son (and indeed father in law) are, which means he can now stage a rescue. This is of course a massive lucky coincidence and is perhaps slightly contrived (for starters, if you know you’re going to be ferrying someone about clandestinely why not bring your own transport), but with the short page count remaining we’ll let it pass.
This leads to an all out assault on the Shrine base, where the non-too bright cult members start to realise they might have kidnapped the wrong woman. Deller manages to sneakily kill Fury before he can let anyone know it was him who hired the Wild Cats, and Dragon goes into a full on berserker rage. Ultimately Tanya herself angrily demands he stop, as she hates what he has become. Before Dragon can properly respond part of the ceiling of the now burning and battered building falls on her father and kills him, which makes Tanya run off, never to be seen again.
The end of the series is typical, Golding has gotten the team reactivated under his control, but there’s a sense of loss and a bittersweet feeling to the victory. Dragon does rally everyone around though, promising that Dragon’s Claws will help to keep order no matter what.
And that was that. Whilst the ending is still reasonably open so as to allow a new series of post N.U.R.S.E adventures Dragon’s Claws quickly faded into complete obscurity, never even managing the non speaking background cameos Death’s Head did. A shame, because these issues have some of Furman’s best writing. There’s an intelligence and thoughtfulness amongst the quips and violence he’s rarely managed since. Though Death’s Head is by far a better character than any of the Claws I’d say this is actually the better comic overall, there’s more structure to the plots and it feels less made up as it goes along, even in the last issue which was probably fairly quickly thrown together to deal with the cancellation.
Panini have done the usual outstanding job, and the inclusion of the Death’s Head issue so people don’t have to buy both books for all the character’s appearances is very welcome, even if, lets face it, there’s probably not many fans of the one who won’t be buying the other.
In terms of extras we get a Furman introduction that gives a good overview of the series’ history (including how it was very nearly Dragon’s Teeth in homage to the film…err… Greek myth), a afterward by Lying in the Gutters writer Rich Johnston and a one page final for the series that was done for a charity comic in 2004.
The really interesting stuff comes from the original issues though. Rather than a traditional editorial page Dragon’s Domain was presented, Tharg style, from an in-Universe perspective, with the “Fast Fax” (hey, it’s the 80’s so Ceefax seems sexy and futuristic) giving background details that don’t make it into the strips themselves and even setting up future plotlines. Panini have rather wonderfully included these as well, plus the character profiles for each Claw from the original issues (again; lots of details not in the stories, such as Dragon being an orphan and Michael’s step-father rather than his real Dad. Still nothing interesting about Steel though), plus three posters including a gorgeous painted Geoff Senior one. In effect the only thing you’re not getting from the original comics are the letters pages and the adverts.
The only omission is a one page promotional strip that appeared in various Marvel UK titles at the same time the ones for Death’s Head and Transformers did the rounds. A shame, but perhaps it was felt that as, unlike the two done for Death’s Head, it was just Slaughterhouse narrating events from several issues rather than an original story and so it was inessential. Or maybe no one except me remembers? Take your pick.
Despite those fiends at Panini playing with my OCD by changing the design of their Marvel books since the Death’s Head trades (they don’t match on the shelf! GRAAAAHHHHHHHH!) I have no reservations in recommending this most heartily. Buy it and marvel at a Simon Furman who looks as if he could really cut it in the big league and then wonder what happened.
Fantastic Facts! The comic's logo, designed by Richard Starking's, was voted by Wizard Magazine the worst of all time.
The Claw's never enjoyed crossover fun like Death's Head did. The closest they came was issue #199 of the Furman written British Transformers comic. Time Wars Part 1, set in the far flung future of 2009 has an issue of Dragon's Claws lying in the street. Gently mocked for years for grossly overestimating how long the comic would last it's actually surprisingly close to getting the 2008 publication date of this collection right. And thus is the most accurate prediction about the future Furman ever made.