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Death?s Head: Keeping the Peace.. with Violence

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Hero or villain? Peacekeeper or mercenary psychopath? You decide - just don’t call him a bounty hunter. He’s a freelance peacekeeping agent, damn it! He is, of course, Death’s Head…

Seven feet of armored steel with horns, an arsenal of high-tech weapons and absolutely no sense of humor may not seem a likely description for the hero of a sci-fi comedy strip, but then Death’s Head (DH to his friends, if he had any) is not your traditional hero. The slightly psychotic Freelance Peacekeeping Agent (NEVER call him a bounty hunter!) debuted in 1986 in a single page strip called "High Noon Tex", set on an unnamed planet, in which he tricked a robotic cowboy into blowing himself up. This rather pointless strip, by Death’s Head’s co-creator Simon Furman and artist Bryan Hitch, appeared in several Marvel UK titles simultaneously, and was apparently published purely to secure copyright on DH - a necessary step, since his real introduction would be in the pages of a licensed title, the British version of The Transformers (#113), based on Hasbro’s popular toy line.

Created by Transformers writer Furman and artist Geoff Senior, DH was dropped straight into the middle of the endless war between the heroic Autobots and the evil Decepticons (who’d have been hard pressed to be anything but evil with a name like that) without even the benefit of an origin story. Still, his laconic manner, odd appearance and quirky characteristics (like ending every sentence with an interrogative "yes", yes?) made him an instant hit with readers. Violent, amoral and somehow utterly impossible to dislike, the mad Mechanoid with the deadpan delivery became a regular in the weekly Transformers strip through #151, before being flung off into the space-time continuum.

Death’s Head reappeared in the unlikely setting of another licensed strip, in Doctor Who Magazine #135. In this eight page story, again by Furman and Senior, DH (giant-sized when we last saw him, to fit in with the Transformers characters) was shrunk to human proportions by the devious Doctor (who he had tried to kill) and sent to Earth in the year 8162AD; in an uncharacteristically callous dismissal, the Doctor’s parting remark is "a pity. It was my favorite planet!"

Dragon’s Claws #5 (Feb 1989) picked up DH’s story as he landed in the urban hellhole known as The Pool (by implication, Liverpool) in the 82 nd Century, finally becoming a part of the Marvel Universe…or at least, that slightly peculiar backwater of it in which the Marvel UK characters toiled in relative obscurity. Though nothing much happens in the story, the huge back cover blurb on the previous issue is a clear indication that Marvel had high hopes for the character and were actively promoting him, and sure enough, the next month saw the publication of Death’s Head #1, by Furman and Bryan Hitch.

Deaths Head’s solo series established a new status quo for the character as DH, given a makeover by his unwanted new partner, obnoxious mechanic Spratt (who had rebuilt him after Dragon’s Claws dropped a building on him) began to take on new clients. Hitch’s cartoony art was perfectly suited to the quirky, comedic feel of the strip, which went from one crazy situation to another as DH and Spratt took on Dragon’s Claws again, then relocated to Los Angeles, were hijacked by animal rights activists, delivered an explosive birthday cake to a gangster (DH - seven feet tall, with horns, remember - dresses up in a butler’s uniform and blond wig for the job) and encountered foes such as gang boss The Undertaker, the monstrous Plaguedog and hit man Big Shot (who would become his archenemy).

Unfortunately, from #4, the flow of the book was somewhat spoiled by a succession of changes of artist, first Lee Sullivan, then John Higgins and, with #6, Liam Sharp filling in for Hitch. Furman and Hitch’s #7 is the weakest of the series, though we do meet a previously mentioned recurring character, gang boss Dead Cert, in the flesh for the first time. Fittingly, he has the head of a horse, prompting a succession of witty exchanges ("you’re backing a winner, Dead Cert". "Are you trying to be funny?" "No, I wouldn’t horse around with you.").

Deaths Head #8 - drawn by Art Wetherel - featured a rematch with the Doctor (the only time the Time Lord has made an "official" appearance in a Marvel Universe title) and is written by Steve Parkhouse, a former writer of the Doctor Who strip and creator of the villain of the piece, the Doctor’s old foe Josiah W Dogbolter.

Furman and Senior returned for #9, in which DH interacts with the US Marvel Universe for the first time, the Doctor having dropped him off at the headquarters of the Fantastic Four at the end of #8. And in #10, with Hitch back on the art, DH is sent back to the future by Reed Richards only to mistakenly end up in the year 2020AD, tangling with Arno Stark, that era’s Iron Man!

Unfortunately, though, DH’s assimilation into the Marvel Universe proper came too late to save the book, which was unceremoniously cancelled with this issue without warning or explanation. Presumably, low sales were to blame, though in late 1990, DH returned in a graphic novel – Death’s Head: The Body in Question - which gave him an origin at last (also serialized in the magazine Strip! in #s 13-20) and established that he had been created by the evil "technomagus" Lupex and his lover, Pyra, before gaining his freedom. This was a direct contradiction of hints in his early appearances that he was created as a rich man’s toy in 2003.

Marvel were not yet ready to give up on Death’s Head, though. In March 1990, the metal maniac had made his Marvel US debut in Fantastic Four #338, and after a couple more US appearances (in Sensational She-Hulk #24 and Marvel Comics Presents #76) Death’s Head ‘returned’ as part of the newly launched Marvel UK line of American style titles, available on both sides of the Atlantic (and also serialized in Britain in Overkill magazine).

Unfortunately, the comedic Death’s Head was not felt to be a good fit for the line as a whole, and so the first issue of Death’s Head II (March 1992) sees Death’s Head decapitated and his memories (though not his quirky personality) assimilated by the cyborg Minion, a servant of terrorist group AIM. The revamp, courtesy of Dan Abnett and Liam Sharp, was a four-part limited series, but it led to an ongoing title (16 issues, Dec ’92-March ’94) and several spin-off titles for DH and his voluptuous new partner, Tuck - all of which, in keeping with the requirements of the time, were unremittingly grim, gritty, and above all totally humorless! Predictably, as with many not dissimilar titles at the time, the Marvel UK line burned out pretty quickly. By August 1994 it was all over, and aside from a cameo in the limited series Avengers Forever, Death’s Head II has not been seen since. The name has been reused, in the ‘Deaths Head 3.0’ series in Amazing Fantasy #s 16-20 (2006) but there seems no direct link to either previous version of the character.

No Marvel character ever really dies for good though, and hopefully sooner or later someone will see the untapped potential of the original (and best) Death’s Head, and give him another shot at stardom. After all, no-one knows more about shots than the freelance peacekeeping agent. Yes?

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If you want to investigate the stories discussed here further then Death's Head Volume 1 (ISBN 1905239343) and Death's Head Volume 2 (ISBN 1905239696) are available now from Panini UK.

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