Thursday, 24 January 2008

This was intended to be a short piece on Marvel UK 2nd Biggest Name. ;-)

While I still try to get around to putting up that Mortigan Goth piece I've been promising, I'd like to go a little off track and bring something else to the table. A character who - to me - is right there at the roots of Marvel UK, and was somebody I got to thinking about, again, when I chanced upon the DeviantART page of former Marvel UK artist (And modern day DC artist, of course) Liam Sharp. Now, while I suppose this really should have been saved for a future 'Who the Hell is?' feature (And maybe I will at some point) I wanted to share this with you while it was still fresh in my head. It all stems from a weird obsession I have with a character we haven't really seen properly in 15 years, but who I feel is almost as important to Marvel UK as Captain Britain - in terms of brand identity, anyway. An obsession which really began when I first read this:

Death's Head II #1, by Dan Abnett and Liam Sharp.

In terms of my own personal experiences with comics, this issue is a biggie for me. It's a biggie, because this was one of the first times I hated the shit out of a comic for what it had done to the character it dealt with. The cover says it all - They killed Death's Head! Like any other self-respecting kid of the 80s, here in the UK, I read the British Transformers comic, almost religiously. That was my first contact with Death's Head, in his original form, and I loved reading that guy. My favourite Transformers issues back then were the ones where DH turned up - Because he brought dry humour, and an array of interchangeable weaponry. The way he always ended his dialogue with a 'Yes?' in that way that wasn't a question, so much as a 'This is how things are, and you are going to be cool with them or you are going to be dead. Okay?'

How could you not love that?

And here he was DEAD!? I was one angry young kid that weekend! ;-)

So why rake this up, now, you might ask? If I genuinely hate it that much, why even talk about it? Do I just want to rant, here, or do I have an actual point to make?

Well, yes I do, and no - it's not a rant. Not at Death's Head II, anyway. I want to talk about Death's Head II, because this is one of those rare books where you might very well hate the shit out of it at a first reading but yet, in time, it becomes one of your favourite all time comics.

How? Well, I think that Sharp's artwork certainly did play a part here. I personally see Liam Sharp as being one of the most under-valued British comic book artists, around today (Certainly by Marvel), and his work throughout this series is great. It struck a balance between sci-fi and fantasy which fitted Death's Head perfectly, for the stories he and Abnett wanted to tell. But what impressed me the most about the series was what it was doing to Death's Head as a character. Because this wasn't the death of Death's Head - this was an evolution. And up to that point in my comics reading life I'd not really seen that done before.

The problem with Death's Head as he was was that he was very much a light relief character, from a very different kind of aesthetic to the mainstream Marvel Universe - which Transformers continuity is very much no longer considered to be part of. What Abnett and Sharp were doing by creating this new cyborg, and putting Death's Head into its body, was placing him in a form which not only fitted clearer with the way that the industry was changing back at start of the 90s, but also brought some interesting new elements to the character, which could fuel future stories. With the Transformers continuity becoming a potential copyright minefield, establishing new directions (Whilst also referencing DH's guest appearances and links to Iron Man, the Fantastic Four and She-Hulk) was probably the best way to go.

The change from Gun-arm to living metal weaponry arm might seem a little cliched since the 90s, but it did have a number of practical applications, and finding new ways to use it, to reconfigure it, provided plenty avenues for development. But by far the most interesting element, to me, was the psychological possibilities. This new body had been created by AIM (Advance Idea Mechanics - Marvel's technologically advanced bad guys) to assimilate the personalities of History's finest Warriors and Scientific minds. There were 107 of them swimming around in there, including Death's Head, but Reed Richards (Mr Fantastic) was able to stop the cyborg assimilating him, by forcing the cyborg to take Death's Head the primary personality. That saved Richards from execution, but it really wasn't that straight forward for Death's Head, himself. Here he was, technically in charge, but with 107 other schizophrenic voices screaming in his head, each fighting to knock him aside and seize control themselves (As, on occasion, they did). That, to me, made for a far more interesting character. He still had all the personality of his former self but with some more curious baggage to take along with him on his journeys through time and space.

Oh, yeah. And the new female assistant Tuck? Well, she was certainly aesthetically pleasing to a teenage boy, as well;-)

Of all the titles that the early 90s Marvel UK imprint put out Death's Head II was probably the most consistent, in my opinion. I stuck with it through that mini, then the ongoing series, right through to the unfinished Death's Head Gold - which showed such incredible promise. The concept of a character travelling through time and space, touching new characters but also embracing established Marvel characters, was a winning formula in my eyes - something we don't have out there anymore. And Liam Sharp's rendition of DH was the definitive look of the character, for me. Granted, a young Salvador Larocca did some great work on the last few issues of the ongoing series, but Sharp was the man. I'd so hoped that someday he and Abnett might bring the character back from limbo, and finish what they started with DH Gold - that Marvel would see a future for the character.

And that was part of what led me to Liam Sharp's DeviantART page ( ) . Going back almost a year ago now, I was doing a painful late night shift at work and found myself browsing the forums over at Millarworld, to pass time while I waited for some files to download, when Liam Sharp put a post up about something he had just tried to pitch to Marvel; a pitch which (unfortunately) had not been successful, under the name of 'Death's Heralds,' and the following image.

Liam basically told the few of us who were online at that late hour, and posting to that thread, that he wanted to sound a few people out about it. He also made a comment that he had been a little disappointed, from speaking to Marvel, just how few people actually remembered Death's Head. :( After talking with a few of us for forty odd minutes he eventually deleted the thread, basically telling us that he thought that some aspects of the pitch might yet be salvageable for pitching elsewhere, so he thought he'd probably keep it to himself for the time being. I could respect that. Luckily, if you are interested in seeing more of that image, Mr Sharp has posted it up on his DeviantART page, here:

You'll also find another particularly interesting image from a different pitch, for a Death's Head for Marvel's Ultimate line.

I particularly like the more organic looking gun arm on this one. That's the kind of image of Death's Head I have in my mind; the menacing, emotionless, cyborg who only has to think of what he needs to do a job, and that arm blooms into exactly what he needs.

Looking over both these images, and also Sharp's artwork for DC's Lord Havok and The Extremists, two thoughts slide firmly into my head. Firstly, Marvel are idiots for letting Sharp slip into the hands of the Distinguished Competition ;-) and secondly I find myself despairing that Marvel could reject these pitches and yet PUT OUT Death's Head 3.0.

For those who don't know, back in 2005 ran a poll on their homepage for the next Marvel property to be revamped in the pages of the now defunct Amazing Fantasy. I was over the moon, because Death's Head was on the list! The original Death's Head, granted, but this really looked to be the big opportunity I'd been hoping for. DH won, with 49% of the vote; and while the competition wasn't that tough (Who the hell are Woodgod, The Aquarian and Texas Twister, anyway?) who cares? Death's Head was going back into print. And it would be the creator of the original Death's Head, Simon Furman, who would be writing it.

Surely, this was going to be great!

Or so I thought. This was the end result:

And frankly, I'm more than a little confused. Kind of the eyes of Death's Head 1, the wiring rasta-plaits of Death's Head 2, but no gun-arm? Or No morphing weapon-arm? The weapon arm is a fundamental rule of Death's Head. It's a big part of the character, just as much as the trademark style of speech, or the bounty hunting. To lose that isnt right.
Sadly, all three of those elements are missing from this incarnation. Heck, this Death's Head doesn't even speak, let alone add a 'Yes?' at the end of a sentence.
Sadder still, is that's not all that's missing. Sure, this machine was also build by AIM, and it can time travel, but as far as any genuine link to the original Death's Head goes? Well, there is none. This is really just a machine built by AIM which has somehow inherited the name.
And it's not alone, either. Just one of many units. There's a whole army of these things in the Marvel Comics Planet Hulk/World War Hulk storyline. To date they still haven't been adequately explained, either.

The bottom line is that there's certainly a demand for Death's Head out there - as the poll revealed - but this isn't him. We still don't really know what this is, in all honesty. I don't entirely blame Furman - maybe he chose not to reference the original Death's Head (as he was when he was left in limbo) or maybe Marvel's editors simply didn't want him to? I don't know.
But my problem is simple. As a story in its own right it's not bad, but as a continuation of the Death's Head brand I just don't feel like it fits. And that's a shame. I felt the same way about the Excalibur brand being given to an unrelated non-British X-Men team a few years ago, for the same reason.
The way I see it, people will always associate the name 'Death's Head' with the character who began in Transformers and who evolved into the Liam Sharp designed cyborg. That's the guy people want to see. That's the story people want to hear about.

It's been a long time, but I still live in hope that we'll see him again some day.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hard to believe now that the first issue of Death's Head II was one of those few comics from MUK to ever go to a second printing, such was demand. I still remember the hard work everyone put in on this book, not least Liam and Dan, but also Paul Neary who was determined the book would really make its mark in the US and reworked much of the script into the early hours with me trying to keep up with his thought processes.

    It wouldn't be the last book he re-worked, sometimes, if time permitted, in conjunction with the creators, during that white heat period for MUK. (Dan Abnett was amazingly tolerant of all this and added more ideas and thoughts despite, I'm sure, not being that happy about the rewrites). But it's the one that was the most important for the US books ongoing success for that brief, final period of MUK history.

  3. Funnily enough, Andy Lanning just sent me a huge pile of original artwork from my Marvel UK days... and I found this:
    It's the original cover for DRAGON'S CLAWS #5 which we rejected as too boring. Feel free to post this more prominently on your blog if you wish.

    My understanding is that Paul Neary's "white heat" burned a lot of people's fingers... I suspect that Simon Furman's were the first to get singed -- I never understood why he wasn't writing the relaunch. Having worked with him on... um, everything, I know that he would have taken on a new direction quite happily.


  4. Thanks for that Richard. I think I may well post that one up in a separate blog in the coming days. Some very nice artwork.

    It's funny, because I find myself really torn over the two chief incarnations of Death's Head. I loved the original incarnation, from Transformers, Strip and his own series. There is something perfectly classic in his styling. Sure, he wasn't the kind of design that fitted entirely neatly with the Marvel costumed heroes of the day - but who said he had to?

    (Ironically, nowadays, if he turned up in his original guise I think he'd fit fine. It kind of amuses me that in the sometime twee styling of late 80s Marvel, right into the OTT Liefeldian designs of the 90s, in some ways it's taken the 15 years to catch up with a visual aesthetic British comics were working with long ago).

    But I do, personally, prefer the stories, and continuing direction of Abnett and Sharp's Death's Head II. That said it was a very different animal. It was quite intentionally part of Marvel's universe, proper. Maybe Neary's choosing of the Abnett/Sharp pairing was more down to wanting to redesign Death's Head more to push him very deliberately into the US books, without the past associations of the character.

    Who knows? I can only speculate on that, of course.

    Thanks for stopping by John and Richard. It's really interesting to hear from you.

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  6. As I recall, Simon did indeed pitch a revamped Death's Head treatment to Paul, which was rejected, but I don't know the reasons. This was before my move from Doctor Who to Death's Head and what became the "Genesis 1992" books. It wasn't a happy time for a lot of creators or staff, with several redundancies.

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  8. And, because I have NO shame, now on ebay!

    No headcount too high, no paycheque too big, yes?


  9. Oh, and here's Simon as Death’s Head, John Tomlinson with the blond hair, me with the beard and Steve White as Trench.

    Art by Dougie Braithwaite, back when he was a nipper. This stuff has been sitting in Andy Lanning’s attic for 20 years!


  10. This blog is excellent! Sorry for resurrecting this old thread, but just wanted to add my two penn'th!I was a big fan of Marvel UKs output.

    Death's Head remains (even after all this time) my favourite Marvel character. His whole, look, persona and attitude really struck a cord with me. The origin tale Furman & Senior produced 'The Body In Question' still stands up today and must rate as one of the finest examples of painted graphic art anywhere in comicdom (in my opinion!).

    When Marvel UK's 'Genesis '92' rolled around, I was happy with the new direction with which Death's Head had been taken in the form of Death's Head II. The initial limited series was superb, and featured Dan Abnett's usual riff on current major pop culture phenomenoms (in this case, a mash up of Terminator 2 and Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves). The absence of Simon Furman and the loss of Death's Head's traditional speech pattern didn't concern me overmuch. At first.

    It was what came next that disappointed me. The ongoing series really failed to live up to the promise of the initial limited series, and really drifted along for the first twelve issues not really doing much to establish a direction for the character. In short, he lacked a purpose. Only towards the end of the series with the adventures on Mars, did we get some direction and a bit of characterisation into proceedings. This was was my main hang up with Death's Head II. The simultaneous reprinting of the old Furman stories only highlighted how 'lost' DH II had become, and indeed a fair number of letters were printed expressing disappointment with the ongoing series.

    Where the character was redeemed, was by Liam Sharp's penning of a wildly imaginative cosmic tale in Death's Head Gold #1. Best of all, we actually got to see DHII exhibit the use of some his other personalities (not properly seen since the Die-Cut limited series!)and the rather harrowing addition of a new personality in the form of Heron. Such a shame this series, and indeed the character were not picked up by Marvel US after the UK division folded.

  11. Hi Simon,

    I'd agree with you about parts of the ongoing DHII losing its way a little bit. That was a shame.

    Death's Head Gold, on the other hand, was an excellent story. Incomplete after Marvel US pulled the plug, granted. But I too loved that they were playing with all those personalities. I really wished we could have seen more of THAT Death's Head. Which if the plug had not been pulled we probably would have.

    I always saw Death's Head as very much being a kind of Lobo figure for the Marvel Universe. The bad-ass who can literally turn up at any place and time, maybe intentionally but more often than not by fluke, and raise havoc with the excuse of a paid job.

    He is sorely missed, and Death's Head 3.0 could never make up for that.

  12. it is a shame. Death's Head could easily be worked into the MAX imprint at marvel. You wouldn't even need to bother with any continuity. Just bring the character back to basics as a bounty-hunter, stick him in a suitably grimy real world setting and run with it. Do a limited series, then work in any back story (I'd certainly bring back Tuck!). You could pass off any reference to DHII as being 'missing' from DH's memory and use the reappearance of Tuck to facilitate a 'what happened' storyline. Maybe. Perhaps I should put together a pitch! :)

    Although the DHII series was disappointing, I did really enjoy the two Battle Tide minis with Killpower. They worked really well. Dan Abnett's writing with Andy Lanning brought a bit more structure and welly to proceedings, I thought.

    I didn't see DH as Lobo-like myself, but i get where you're coming from. Much as i liked DH's ocassional bounces through time, they did leave some avenues of 8162 unexplored (such as 'the Operation' mentioned by one of The Undertaker's lackeys in DH #7).

    Ah, good times! Love it!

  13. Hi Simon.

    I do agree with quite a lot of what your saying.

    And you might want to have a look at the blog I've just put up.

    DH may be gone, at present, but clearly not forgotten.