Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Comic Review: Death's Head, Volume One


Death's Head's history is intimately known to those who know and an obscurity to those who didn't. He was born out of one of Marvel UK's regular disastrous attempts to become a proper comic publisher rather than a repackager and licence handler; designed by Geoff Senior as a one-off infodump character for the weekly Transformers comic that was earning the arm's bread and butter, Simon Furman - the Tommy Wiseau of the British operation - decreed it to be of considerable potential. Death's Head was promoted to a full supporting role in the resulting story, getting to battle Galvatron, but not before a one-page strip ("High Noon Tex", included in this collection) was drawn by a pubescent Bryan Hitch and got into print in various publications to secure the copyright with Marvel rather than Transformers owners Hasbro. After his debut (which involved killing beloved child assocation character Bumblebee as soon as he materialised in the 20th century) the character was recalled for "Headhunt", where he stalked Rodimus Prime back in the Transformers' future timeline, with a third appearance in "Legacy of Unicron" seeing him shift firmly towards the role of anti-hero before being time-zapped out of the comic.

The character's fine design, cool array of equipment and memorable speech patterns and aversion to being described as a bounty hunter had made him a solid hit, especially in the eighties when everything was Wolverine this and Punisher that and Batman the other - double-hard bastards who were marginally less brutal than their quarry were the order of the day. Obviously pound signs were lighting up at Marvel UK with Furman clearly picturing Death's Head at the vanguard of a universe of titles likely all written by him in his increasing desperation to get away from writing about toys. The character was then sent on a brief hype tour of Marvel UK's other titles; first stop was in Doctor Who Monthly, then well into morphing from a bad comic to a factual magazine with a bad comic strip in it. "Crossroads in Time" deals with the seventh incarnation of the Doctor sorting out that Death's Head was forty feet tall, something that Death's Head has the good manners to never, ever, ever mention again despite the fact you'd think he'd be pretty pissed at being shrunk to 20% of his original height and then time-travelling him to 8162 and a guest appearance in Dragon's Claws.

The far-flung future setting was a necessary as no-one in the American offices read much of this stuff so setting anything in the present was continuity suicide. Dragon's Claws had ran for a colossal five issues at this point and was the vanguard of Marvel UK's new US-format titles; one of the better Rollerball rip-offs doing the rounds (certainly better than 2000AD's risible Mean Team) the comic benefited from a colourful array of enemies to obscure the generic nature of the team themselves, a conspiracy-laden plot and the always-dynamic pencils of Senior. The resulting guest appearance saw a brief few frames of teaming up before Death's Head was heavily damaged (with a wry nod to Monty Python and the Holy Grail) in time for a rebuild and a new costume for his own monthly.

The actual Death's Head comic gets off to a good start with a firm restating of the character's basic nature - a freelance peacekeeping agent whose only priorities are his bank balance and his self-preservation, who'll kill anyone for the credits without sentiment or scruples. Remember that, because you're about to get some major character decay. The problem is that Marvel UK's target audience were basically the same people who were buying Transformers and a more mature 2000AD-style direction just wasn't possible so about the first thing that comes off are all the edges; by the end of his second issue Death's Head has found numerous contrived reasons to not actually kill guest stars Dragon's Claws (now veterans of a colossal seven issues) and end up on the side of right against Scavenger's old muckers while also gaining a Rick Jones-style sidekick in the form of Spratt. Over the next few issues there's much of the mechanoid doth protest too much about how Death's Head doesn't appreciate Spratt being his partner, how he doesn't care about whether the human lives or dies or whatever but what do you know, the boy wonder's still there helping out and getting begrudging respect.

The third through seventh issues have something of a linking plot with Death's Head still in 8162 (but not crossing the paths of the cancelled Claws again) and coming up against a web of vaguely linked funny bad guys - horse-headed crimelord Dead Cert, diminutive inept hitman Shortfuse, drooling psycho competitor Bigshot, luckless thief Keepsake and his estranged wife Thea and mercenary nutter Mayhem with his hit-squad Sudden Impact. It's colourful and often funny but again often it's a contrived series of jumps to avoid Death's Head kill anyone Furman clearly has bookmarked for future use - however derivative - and to keep Spratt aboard (including his predictable killing of beastie Plaguedog and chameleonic fugitive Photofit). It's around this point that Hitch, already being courted by the American wing of the company, fell off the schedule, Death's Head being made at a time when monthly comics went out every month. The usually decent Lee Sullivan steps in first and proves somewhat miscast, especially with drawing the lead, before Liam Sharp and then John Higgins take a turn before Hitch returned for the seventh issue.

The seventh issue closes the first collection, being the last set entirely in 8162 ahead of some big crossover plans from issue eight onwards. It seems the character was already flagging; Dragon's Claws had been cancelled, an attempt to relaunch Action Force as a monthly had failed while neither Thundercats nor The Real Ghostbusters had really taken off and even the bulwark Transformers had a nervy moment (which ironically would be patched over by Death's Head reprints). The UK market just wasn't healthy enough to support American style comics, especially as imports were becoming cheaper and more widely found in the wake of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. And Death's Head suffers from a muddled pitch anyway; it's too colourful and silly to be of interest to many who read the latter but too dark - at least in its' marketing; unwittingly (hopefully) giving the guy the same name as a Nazi murder squad was not the best idea ever - for the kids, the title fell between two stools. What's collected in this first collection is far from without value as Death's head himself is ceaselessly entertaining but there really is a feeling of a sharp, vibrant character being homogenised at a rapid rate.

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