Sunday, 28 November 2010

The Death's Head which Almost Was - an interview with David Leach.

The lot of a Marvel UK fan is not an easy one. It’s been over 15 years since we could proudly say that we had our own imprint of comics for the American market, our own home-grown creators doing UK-originated comics work and a reliable monthly output of material which we could be proud of. It was a great time for British comics (to work in and to read) which sadly came to a rather abrupt ending, as Marvel US decided to close the offices down as part of cost-cutting exercises, in those dark days of the 1990s comics industry crash.

But Marvel UK’s rather sudden departure from the world of comics was not clean one. I’ve spoken before on this Blog about projects such as Wild Angels, Europa, and Loose Cannons, which eventually did find outlets to be read, online or through Marvel’s publishing arms in other Countries. A good number of other projects sadly did not see the light of day, and for the hardcore Marvel UK faithful it’s glimpses into those ‘could have been’ projects which become like the holy grail of comics:

Finally getting to know what should have happened next.

Back in 2005, around the time of Marvel’s launch of the often fan-derided Death’s Head 3.0, I started hearing a rumour of another Death’s Head series, from the 1990s, which had been green lit but never quite made it into production at Marvel UK. A rumour that it was intended to be part of another multi-book relaunch for the Marvel UK brand, planned shortly before that axe finally fell. But sadly, back then, I could not find anybody to quantify that claim. And so I had kind of written it off as another great comic book urban legend, which was perhaps a little bit too good to be true.

That was, at least, until a couple of months ago when, quite out of the blue, I received an email from David Leach. For those of you unaware David was working for Marvel UK right up until those dark end days, and very kindly agreed to do an interview with me, about his time there and a couple of projects which I think that regular readers will be most interested to hear about.

So, without further ado, here it is:

Mark Roberts: Well David, firstly thank you for agreeing to do this interview, and welcome to the Blog. Can we begin by my asking you just to remind longer term readers of what projects you worked on at Marvel UK?

David Leach: I started off as an assistant editor working on Knights of Pendragon, Death’s Head, Incomplete Death’s Head, Warheads, and G-Force. To those got added: Death Metal, Death cubed, Death Wreck, Dark Guard and any of the other Death’s Head related spin offs. Incidentally, a fellow editor and I once found a list of proposed character names, all of which started had the word ‘Death’ as a prefix.

During this time I was still doing colouring jobs on Warheads, the fill-in strip for Incomplete Death’s Head, Gun-Runner and assorted covers. As a full editor I moved over to editing Marvel UK’s humour related titles starting with reprint titles Beavis and Butt-head and Ren & Stimpy, and then onto the fully originated Glam Metal Detectives special and the fortnightly Rugrats comic, which I ended up writing for too.

I was also the writer and editor of the Spider-Man and Ren & Stimpy newspaper strips.

MR: You mentioned in one of our earlier conversations that you had been an assistant editor on Liam Sharp's Death's Head Gold. That series, unfortunately, was never to be completed. Can you recall any of where that book was heading after its initial issue?

DL: Afraid not. My job on that consisted of transcribing Liam’s hand written dialogue script into a Quark document, and then drawing out the subsequent balloon placements. Liam hand wrote the whole thing in pencil in an old A4 page-a-day diary, and his scrawl wasn’t the easiest thing to decipher or read. The script was filled with crossings out and notes.

All I remember is that Liam had a vast galactic vision for DH!

MR: And of course it’s your connection with Death's Head brings us forward to your own chance to write the character – ‘Death's Head Quorum’. Am I right in thinking this was a series intended to follow on from where DH Gold had left off?

DL: No, not at all. Paul Neary, Marvel UK’s Editor in Chief, wanted to do a brand new Death’s Head title, with no connection to the cancelled Marvel UK series written by Dan Abnett or to DH Gold. It was to be a completely new start, a reboot, the only connection to the past was that it featured Death’s Head II. The ‘Death’s Head Quorum’ title was my suggestion.

MR: Did you have an artist lined up for the series?

DL: Not me, but Paul was very keen on Simon Coleby. Who was subsequently primed and ready to go.

MR: And what did you have planned for the series? Where were you going to take DH, and what was the story you wanted to tell?

DL: It started as a jokey comment. Paul told me that Marvel UK was going to relaunch Death’s Head II, and I said why bother, the character wasn’t working any more and had become boring. I joked that we should completely overhaul him, reduce his power, lose the time travel aspect and set it in present day England.

To my surprise, Paul liked the idea and asked me to work it up as a pitch. I felt that I shouldn’t try and ape the American books but try instead to make the book quintessentially British, injecting aspects of British culture into it as well as adding a strong vein of humour.

In a nutshell, the 4 book mini series started with DHII being beaten to within an inch of his life by a being known as the Time Keeper. He was a new character, who lived in a tower at the edge of time, called the Watch Tower, and monitored the time line for wear and tear which he then repaired. Over the eons he became bored with his job and in recent centuries had started organising illicit hunting tournaments using great warriors and fighters snatched from history as prey for the rich hunters here on Earth.

Anyway, the Time Keeper rips out DH’s time disc, destroys his weapon arm so that it could only morph into a knife mode, punctures his power source, dramatically reducing his power source and finally ruptures his memory storage capacities which causes all but 5 of DH’s stolen personalities to bleed away. His face mask is also severely damaged and left hanging on by just a bolt. But before the Time Keeper can finish off neutering DH, Tuck attacks him. She is severely injured in the ensuing fight, knocked unconscious and thrown through a time doorway, where she lands in our world in the present.

DH, decides to run away, dives through the door as it closes, crash lands in an alleyway somewhere in London and promptly shuts down. The two of them are separated. Tuck is found, clutching one last time disc, and taken to a nearby hospital. Suffering from Amnesia, Tuck would over the course of the series struggle to regain her memory and in the process form a romantic relationship with a doctor.

The DH consciousness is summoned to a meeting deep within his own subconscious with the other five surviving assimilated personalities, who inform him that freed from the containment field they have formed a ‘Quorum’. They are in control of DH’s basic operating platform and unless he follows their rules and advice they’ll shut him down. Disgusted, and over a barrel, DH reluctantly agrees. During this discussion a girl’s voice - whom DH mistakenly believes is Tuck’s - is heard, which drags DH back to the waking world, and despite being seriously underpowered he rescues a young woman from being attacked by a street gang. During the fight he is stabbed and collapses again, but the gang flee before they can kill DH, terrified by his shattered visage, which we don’t see.

The girl lives deep beneath the city of London, in an underground city, that dates back to the ancient times, and which has become home to a sub culture of society who have all chosen to reject the modern world above. The girl, born there, is curious about the world above and makes frequent excursions the top side. She drags DH back to her underground home and wires him up to the mains to recharge him.

The underground city is also a hunting ground for a cabal of the mega rich, who pay high stakes to the Time Keeper to hunt and kill humans. The hunt is organised by the Time Keeper and his human agent - a sinister little old man who operates out of a nondescript shop front property in the Aldwych. The old man might have been an alien in disguise, I can’t remember.

Book one ends with DH waking up in the girl’s dwelling, bandaged, weary and down to 15 % power. He limps over to a bowl of water, splashes water in his face then looks up and into a mirror that hangs above the bowl to see a human face staring back at him. His true human face, beneath the mask. The book ends with him growling to the girl, who has sat by his bed whilst he slept:

“I’ve looked better. Yes?”

The series played out with DH slowly regaining his strength. But only up to 25% and doing battle with both the Quorum, the Time Keeper and the hunters, while also becoming an urban legend. Meanwhile, Tuck struggles to regain her memory and to build a new life for herself, but suffers flashes of her previous life. Later on Tuck tracks DH down. The series continued with DHII fighting alongside the underworld dwellers, against a gang of alien and human hunters, which all built to a climatic fight when DH gets back to the Watch Tower, and he beats the living shit out of the Time Keeper.

However, the series ends with DH choosing not to carry on time travelling with Tuck, but instead staying on Earth with the underworld dwellers. For the time being at least. He keeps the time disc, should he ever want to return to the future.

It was an action packed script, that barrelled along at a frenzied pace. I wrote it a long time ago, so I don’t know how the series would have panned out. But writing it up again for you now, I realise how much story there was to squeeze into four issues!

MR: Great stuff. So, how far did this one get, before Marvel UK was wound up? How much was written/drawn?

DL: Book one was fully written. I write full scripts, not Marvel scripts, so it came in at I think 40 odd pages in length. The series was loosely plotted and book two was in note form. Simon Coleby was hired as the artist, but never got a chance to drawn a single panel. Alas all that remains are a couple of notebooks.

MR: Am I right in thinking that Death's Head Quorum was intended to be part of a proposed 4 title relaunch of Marvel UK? Can you recall what the other titles involved were intended to be?

DL: Paul Neary wanted to do a Marvel UK relaunch with a range of four titles: Death’s Head, Captain Britain, Nocturne (a new character drawn by Pino Rinaldi) and a fourth which I don’t remember.

I also developed another book for Marvel, called Warhide – the world’s first skinned communist super-hero. A man covered in liquid diamond so you can see all his muscles. That was plotted, books 1 – 3 written, book 1 was drawn and inked, and book 2 was pencilled, before it was canned. It was also advanced solicited, and the first cover was artworked. It appeared in Previews back in the early 90s and on the cover of a Marvel UK promo booklet.

I also developed another book called S.T.O.M.P. , which was about a teenager in a nano-tech power suit. But that only got as far as being green lit as a character, before it was canned.

Oh, and there was an attempt - on the instructions of Tom Defalco - to develop an all British super hero to be called Red Squirrel Man.

MR: Interesting! Some great ideas there. You know, I do recall Warhide being mentioned elsewhere. A great shame that one never made it to print, in the end.

Do you have fond memories of working for Marvel UK? Any anecdotes or musings you'd care to share?

DL: There was a fantastic atmosphere at Marvel UK, and there’s still an annual drink up at our old drinking haunt once a year. But that’s usually only attended by the editors and designers. There was this great camaraderie between us all and despite the fact I’ve worked for other creative companies since I’ve never found that same sense of friendliness. Also so many of us ex-marvel-ites are still working in comics in one way or another. It was a great breeding ground for talent.

MR: So, what other projects and companies have you been involved with since Marvel UK? As fate would have it I understand we've both found ourselves working for Codemasters, anything else of proud note? :)

DL: Yep, I escaped from Codemasters back in 2005. I’d been working there as an animator on LMA Football Manager and Club Football. Trouble was I hated football. I was there for four years. Apart from that, I managed to spend my entire professional life working either in comics, publishing, games or animation in a variety of roles so I’ve been very lucky.

MR: And finally, are there any projects you're involved with now, which you'd like to talk about?

DL: Currently I’m the editor of the SpongeBob SquarePants comic, which is great fun. I’m also one of the writers on the Wallace and Gromit newspaper strip, appearing daily in the Sun, and I’m also very proud of my children, Lydia and Baxter who rank as the best projects I’ve ever been involved in.

Sorry if that’s a cliché but it’s true.

MR: Nothing wrong with that. Definitely something to be proud of. Thanks for talking with us, David. Some really interesting stuff there. And I wish you all the best with your current projects.

So there you have it folks. The Death’s Head that almost was, and a little more besides. It’s interesting to think what a different path DH could have gone down. And, of course, with all his many timelines and universe hops I myself like to think that, in some fashion, somewhere out there in Marvel’s Multiverse, it may even already have happened.

Because that’s the great thing about Death’s Head. Pretty much anything IS possible.

And for me, that’s why I miss him the most.


  1. Hey, if Tom Defalco tells you work on a guy named 'Red Squirrel Man' you WORK on a guy named 'Red Squirrel Man'! ;)

    An example of an American editor perhaps not understanding British sensibilities? Well, possibly. But This does kind of raise a subject I've been thinking about quite a bit recently, largely in light of the great work Paul Cornell and 'Jimmy Broxton' have been doing with British superhero archetypes on DC's Knight & Squire.

    I'm surprised, even long after the concept of the British Empire, that we don't see more British characters in comics fashioned on Lion Motif's or regional National animal symbols. The Red Squirrel may seem like a comedic idea, but at the same point it is a traditional British animal. And mostly one killed off by the American native Grey Squirrel.

    There's your nemesis?

    I've been receiving quite a bit of response from folks elsewhere on the web about this article. Twitter being a fine example.

    I was tweeting last night with Andrew Luke who was saying:

    "@theswordisdrawn good one that - Leach on Death's Head - seems it had more in common with the sense of fun in the original incarnation."

    And I think I agree with that. Granted I',m sure that some purists might find the idea of a more human DH a little jarring to what they knew of the character. But he'd been human behind that mask for a long time, with a glimpse of flesh visible throughout DH2.

    But this proposed series, to me, goes back to what was probably the strongest thing about DH in his earlier incarnation. that was how DH used to be. Falling from one time/place/universe to another. And reading how he responded to that.

    He's not a hero. He doesn't always do the right thing. But his self-preservation was second to none, and that sense of happenstance adventure, through all those guest appearances and overexposure, had been lacking for quite a while.

    This would have doubtless been just another phase in the characters long life, but I think it could have worked out pretty well.

  2. Very interesting article. One of the main reason I feel Marvel UK lost it's way is because of the over-saturation of "Death". It was only a matter of time before Death's Granny turned up. there's an idea!

    If they'd have held back on the quantity and aimed for the quality, maybe things could've turned out different. There should only have really been two Death titles running, Original DH and DH2. After all they are for all intents and purposes two totally different characters.

    It's interesting that Leach's take would have gone in an opposite direction to Liam's Gold which felt like it was going cosmic in an epic way. I'd have read either, but I don't think both could've ran together.

    Liam himself has proposed a revival to Marvel which didn't get the green light. There's a page on his DA account.

  3. Hi commdesign.

    Indeed he did. I remember when Liam first posted that up at Millarworld's forums, with what was provisionally the title of 'Death's Heralds'. It never came off, as you say. I recall Liam having said to the effect that he was a little frustrated with how few people at Marvel even seemed to remember the character when he was pitching.

    Greatly sad.

    I would have loved to have had titles for both incarnations of DH running in tandem. Occasionally interacting with each other. But only occasionally...

    I'm very much of the opinion that Dan Abnett and Liam sharp did some great work with DH2. Unfortunately, when the character became over exposed and started turning up in pretty much EVERY Marvel UK book it kind of did break. Because they weren't always having a direct hand in working the stories through.

    A great shame.

  4. I don't know, I didn't mind Marvel UK exploiting Death's Head II. I quite liked him guest starring in other Marvel UK titles, rather than the ubiquitous X-Men. Generally they quite careful to present stories that fit DHII and they weren't pushing it too far. It gave us the Death Wreck limited series, which is enormous fun. Shame about Death Metal (a very poor effort from Simon Furman, not suprising given that he seems to have been given the character as a feeble 'thank you' for having a hand in Marvel UK's biggest seller...). Death 3 was pretty rubbish and Dell Barras art in that was slightly disappointing after those excellent Battletide covers. Speaking of which, Battletide was a good action packed set of punch ups. They rank amongst my favourite DHII stories. Dan Abnett works really well with Andy Lanning. In some ways, its a shame they weren't partnered up for the ongoing. Might have stopped it being such a drab affair. Again, I think the rather free-wheeling nature of DHII was the title's general undoing. A shame Marvel US didn't pick up the title though. I do recall his book being listed in Marvel US subscription page for some months after the collapse of Marvel UK, but it never materialised (perhaps there existed the slim chance they were seeing what take up there'd be...).

    I would have liked the original Death's Head to have continued, but the rather sad and final end to that character in the initial DHII series seemed very much a statement of intent.

  5. Lovely interview, nice one, Mark. And as Kelvin says, 'Red Squirrel Man'? Maybe he'll turn up one day as a relative of Squirrel Girl.

    And I'm sure Death's Head's day will come again. Well. one of em's.

  6. Hi guys,

    I'm so sorry it's taken so long to moderate your comments. I keep forgetting moderation is switched on, because it wasn't for such an incredibly long time. But the Spam post I was getting was beginning to get out of hand, trying to track them all down.


    I do agree that I'd rather have DH2 than the X-Men. Definitely. The fact that X-Men did appear so regularly in the early imprint days did kind of grate with me. Especially on Dark Angel. The idea that Cerebro had picked up Dark Angel never sat well in particular. She was not a mutant, that's for sure.

    Re: the original DH coming to his end with Death's Head II? Of course the wonderful thing about a character who travels from time and dimensions is that, in this case, you actually COULD have your cake and eat it.

    Ongoing stories with the original BEFORE he meets his fate, or even ongoing stories featuring DH from Furman's What If... Death's Head 1 had lived?

    Hi Mart,

    I'd say Red Squirrel Man, via Squirrel Girl, still might have a better chance of getting in with an Avengers team than Captain Britain right now. :) Frustrating though that is...

    As for Death's Head coming back? Keep an eye in newsagents for #33 of Panini UK's Marvel Heroes (out March 24th). You won't be disappointed.