Sunday, 19 March 2017

Comic Review: Death's Head, Volume Two

PUBLISHER: MARVEL UK (1989-1990), MARVEL (1991, 1993)

The second volume of Death's Head reprints basically plot an ongoing attempt to keep the character alive, a rag-tag punch of crossovers and guest appearances as all involved defiantly refuse to give up on the concept while continuing to unwittingly dilute it. Since landing his own ongoing series the capitalist killer had been calmed down considerably into a Saturday morning cartoon - you remember how in that nineties X-Men show where Wolverine would always be snarling about wanting to hack people up  but would always listen to Cyclops this time bub or someone would get lucky this time bub and those claws would only be used on robots and electric fences and whatever? That's solo series Death's Head - make an exception this time, yes? Hope heroics are not catching, yes? Let you live this time, yes? As such a series of guest appearances where he can't very well go around killing other established characters are hardly promising.

First on the table are the last three issues of his solo book, pinwheeling towards cancellation as readers got bored in their droves. The first actually sees the first run-out for the character not under the pen of Simon Furman; instead Steve Parkhouse gets the job, possibly because of his familiarity with guest star the Doctor. In fact, once you throw in Dogbolter hiring Death's Head to nobble the Doc and steal the TARDIS it feels more like a Doctor Who comic with Death's Head in. Death's Head claims his first name is Death and calls a robot 'son', which says a lot for Parkhouse's handle on the character. He's given a time machine jetpack thing and sent off to find the Doctor's not being written very impressively either, his combination of skills and interests leading him to opt to play a jester in a pantomime, literally. His comic was full of shit like that, though it rapidly turns into an escalating contest of crapness - Death's Head gets embarrassed busting into a ladies' changing room, the Doctor escapes him with the help of a bloke called Dave who lets him share a pantomime horse costume. I'm not sure if Parkhouse just hates the seventh Doctor and Death's Head or just the reader. Naturally Dogbolter tries to double-cross them with a bomb (the story is called "Time Bomb" so no points for rumbling that little twist before it thuds in two-thirds of the way through the issue) and the pair work together - naturally with Death's Head resisting the chance to get even with the Doctor and the Doctor handily dumping him on top of Four Freedoms Plaza. It might be the worst Death's Head comic ever but then there's a way to go yet.

The desperation continues in the ninth issue of Death's Head then as it's time for a crossover with the first dysfunctional family of comics. The good news, much needed after Art Wetherell's efforts on the last issue is that this one has an artist - with Dragon's Claws cancelled Geoff Senior is free. The finest of Marvel UK's cadre never really made it far beyond Transformers but really his dynamism here shows that it was the industry's loss as his geometric style is a great fit; his Thing and Mr Fantastic especially are superb. Furman's back on scripting duties and while that means less humiliation for everyone he can't come up with a better plot than "everyone fights until a common enemy comes along". This time it's the Baxter Building's security system that brings along the "we'll finish this when we're all safe by actually we won't and Ben's not going to smash Death's Head's face in and neither is Death's Head going to shoot Ben because he needs a time machine and that's the only reason he saves Franklin, yes? Some good dialogue and the aforementioned incredible art helps but it's basically exactly the same plot as every other crossover the character's in, a series of excuses for the character not to actually kill anyone.

More of the same follows when the time machine - thanks to last-minute tampering by Reed - sends him to 2020, where he gets embroiled in a scuffle with Arno Stark, the Iron Man of 2020 who - as discussed here - had a sizable UK following for weird reasons. The plot is so close to the previous issue it's amazing even Furman - the man who wrote Maximum Dinobots - has the gall to be so blatantly repetitive. Fight, fight, realise common enemy, sort common enemy out, bedgrudging respect, no-one dies, no imagination was harmed in the making of this comic. A slight twist comes when cascading sales led to the series ending, meaning a last-minute arrival for Spratt and Bigshot (from the first volume) to try and get the character to something approaching status quo ahead of the axe.

While Death's Head had died a death comics themselves were booming post-Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, which opened up an adult market. Marvel blamed the failure of Dragons' Claws and Death's Head on the book's US format being lost on British shelves (no, seriously) and, eyeing the success of the seminal Deadline and Fleetway's similar Crisis opted to make the character part of their own planned large-format grown up comic Strip. Like the others it mixed the serial anthology format that continued to dominate the weird UK market with stories for grown-ups; initially it featured the likes of Marshal Law and The Man from Cancer but midway through the run with the title dying (sensing a theme here?) and decided to up the ante by bringing back some better-known names, with Death's Head joining up in #13 (the Punisher would also sign up soon afterwards).

The result was "The Body in Question", a respectable return to form tying up some loose ends from the ongoing (including Spratt and Big Shot crashing in on Death's Head in 2020 and the teased stuff about Death's Head's apparent wife looking for him in 8162) and then exploring the character's origins. It's a little darker than the previous material both in that they actually let him kill someone without diffusing it with comedy and in the introspective nature; it might just be the best post-Transformers script the character's had, certainly. Best of all is the format, with all sixty pages of the serial beautifully drawn by Senior and with painted colours too.

Around this time the character made his debut in an American Marvel comic for the first time (his solo series had been released in the USA as an import but actual distribution was sketchy) in Fantastic Four #338, written and drawn by Walter Simonson. I'm sure Walt did do some good comics but everything of his I've read recently has been garbage and it might be that I'm thinking of Louise Simonson. Fair play though the art is striking but the issue is part of some Kang-related time travel madness that's already trying to fit Iron Man and Thor (because Simonson) into things so Death's Head's appearance as an agent of the Time Variance Authority isn't hugely substantial, though Simonson has a fair handle on his dialogue and he's no worse than he was in much of his solo series but it's not the character's finest moment either. Even more inessential is a third run-in with the Doctor at a birthday party in which Death's Head cameos in about three frames; you can admire the editor's exhaustive approach but the truth is the strip is as much about Captain Britain as it is about Death's Head.

Furman had by now crossed the Atlantic for most of his work and with Transformers clearly on the way to the knacker's yard was getting odd bits on other titles as well. Among these was a fill-in stint on the aggressively quirky Sensational She-Hulk. The first issue involves a plot where Jen ends up with a valuable vase and a local kingpin hires a hitman to - chortle - smash it rather than kill her. I know, it's zany. Such a remit brings out various quirky Z-listers like Plant-Man, the Whirlwind and Death's Head, handily zapped to the present day Marvel universe after his run-in with the Fantastic Four. Naturally after an initial fight they end up working together against the blah blah fucking blah. Released at the same time was a short, simple and none too original strip in Marvel Comics Presents depicting Death's Head on the run from a vengeful fellow freelance peacekeeping agent which touched on the same stuff as the first issue of his own series, clearly intended to strike a chord with American audiences. Seeing as this effectively ended the original Death's Head as a live character it can be considered to have failed.

Marvel UK, spearheaded by Paul Neary, however weren't giving up and despite their series of failures launched a whole line of new books in the US format with a full American distribution operation. The result was a plethora of sub-Image crap like Killpower & Motormouth and Warheads the character of Death's Head got killed off and given a radical overhaul as the even more generic Death's Head II. This was without the consent or involvement of Furman and ironically briefly found commercial success (partly due to an X-Men crossover in the early issues) before the whole idiotic idea collapsed in on itself to the extent that Marvel UK found effectively end when the surviving parts were sold to Panini. No material from this incarnation is included in the trade, thankfully, but this is the context for the book's endcap.

Largely left out of the whole Marvel UK disaster, Furman was in the process of prepping for Transformers Generation 2 and killing off Alpha Flight while also doing a couple of fill-ins on What If...?. For the third of his issues (#54) he reversed the events of the Death's Head II limited series - Death's Head survives his run-in with Minion and instead Reed Richards is killed. Minion is then taken over by Baron Strucker and becomes Charnal; the thing's inventor Carol Necker then hires Death's Head to take him down. Temporal antics and emotional blackmail lead to the rounding up of the remaining members of the Fantastic Four plus allies Namor, Luke Cage, Captain America and War Machine. The result is typical of the title with much preposterous death (Namor just pipping Rhodey to the title of most hilarious) but does see a decent take on Death's Head, arguably one that could never have worked in the real Marvel universe. Though to be fair one that could have worked in the UK subsection if Furman could ever actually kill anyone off.

It makes for a solid ending however and along with "The Body in Question" (probably the essential solo Death's Head comic) are worth reading. As for the rest, the initial Fantastic Four crossover and the Iron Man 2020 issues are workable but the rest is a mess; the problem with a comprehensive round-up like this is that Death's Head seems to be endlessly introduced to a reader who's halfway through a book about the guy while Furman's repetitive structure really does wear thin. Like the first collection it's as good a way as any of rounding up the character's adventures but the truth is the concept never received the storylines to bring it to fruition.

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