Episode 18: Death’s Head II #1

It’s time to take a look at one of those characters who I immediately gravitated towards because of the look and nothing else. Of course “gravitated toward” really just meant “thought was cool,” I don’t think I ever even read the one issue of his comic that I had before this podcast. In any case I’ve brought back Ryan Daly to help me sort out this particular character and his starting issue, featuring the X-Men.

Listen to Episode 18: Death’s Head II #1.

Death's_Head_II_Vol_2_1

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Finally, a reminder that the podcast theme song is by Erica Driesbach,and you can find more of her work at her website right here.

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2 thoughts on “Episode 18: Death’s Head II #1

  1. Frank says:

    I like to look down my nose at fans of characters like Deadpool, but I still have a soft spot in my heart and head for Death’s Head, and I should consider that when I judge. When my brother visited England in 1988 (and it only just now occurred to me that this might have simply been an elaborate prank) he bought for me as a souvenir Dragon’s Claws #2. After many years spent reformatting imported reprints with some home grown material, Marvel UK briefly attempted to enter the U.S. market with original standard format comics. Dragon’s Claws was your basic Mad Max/2000 A.D. dystopian future riff married to an American style team book, and in that second issue they fought an opposing team that was basically a hair metal Misfits by way of Alice Cooper with a smudge of GWAR. It was perfectly timed for the shift from innocent childhood fantasies to cynical violent adolescent antihero nonsense. I happened upon a neighborhood comic shop in 1989 while the book was (barely) still coming out, and between back issues and the new arrivals quickly completed the book’s ten issue run. As I recall, the copyright-securing one page gag strip “High Noon Tex” starring Death’s Head was on the back of that first “souvenir” copy.

    The Life and Times of Death’s Head trade paperback turned up in 1990 at a B. Dalton Booksellers in a small local mall at a time when little beyond Batman and Superman collections were available. It was like a unicorn, and I treasured it. Oblique references were made to the Transformers and Doctor Who stories at a time when neither meant much to me (not sure how that mention is substantially different from today) as it offered a truncated collection of the brief solo series with editorial bridging material and some stuff from the Strips anthology magazine. In retrospect, that was probably for the best, as it cut out a lot of extraneous junk and kept the most fun non-licensed stories before the one-note character overstayed his welcome. Most of the issues were drawn by Bryan Hitch when he was deep into his Alan Davis period, and the rest were by the Sal Buscema of England, Geoff Senior, so the visuals were right up my alley.

    The gag is that Death’s Head is a mostly unconscionable and reasonably effective robot mercenary who refuses to acknowledge his true profession and ridiculousness. The supposed “freelance peacekeeping agent” favors professional euphemisms and through a combination of bad luck and poorly thought out decisions usually motivated by profit potential consistently lands himself in situations where he’s simply outclassed. He’s good enough to take out a modest super-hero, but instead he goes after the greatest of the Time Lords or the entire Fantastic Four, and he does it to earn money he doesn’t appear to ever spend or have an actual use for. Also, he had an amusingly contorted manor of speaking that I always read with a Spanish accent in mind, though I suppose any vaguely European dialect involving English as a second language would do.

    The Death’s Head II mini-series was lightning striking twice, developmentally speaking. Where the first series had a very late Bronze Age feel, the revamp was on the cutting edge of Chromium. In retrospect, it seems like someone at Marvel UK realized Liam Sharpe was combining the overly rendered proto-Image aesthetic of Jim Lee with the crude macho posturing of Simon Bisley’s Lobo and retrofitted Death’s Head as the perfect medium for his zeitgeist tapping inclinations. Which of course meant the story had to be a blatant rip-off of the Terminator movies and only the most masturbatory excesses of X-Men and Conan comics. I loved the first issue, where Hydra’s minion robot was sent to kill Death’s Head and download his mind to its catalog of fighting abilities to create the perfect assassin. I liked the second issue a bit less, not consciously realizing that what I missed was Death’s Head’s sense of humor and irreverence in a repeat encounter with the Fantastic Four. Things went even further afield by the third issue, an odd tangent into barbarian fantasy where DHII me his smart-mouthed girl sidekick. By the finale, the umpteenth Days of Future Past lift inside just the first decade of its endless copycats, I was realizing that as EXTREME! as the gnarly Death’s Head I I design was, the concept had lost more than it gained.

    Despite all this, I looked forward to the ongoing series, which was spearheading an aggressive revival of the Marvel UK line I’d flirted with in 1989. I bought a bunch of those early titles before I realized Marvel UK was clearly attempting to be Marvel’s in-house answer to Image Comics’ most blatantly creatively bankrupt pandering for the lowest common denominator of fanboy dollars. Marvel UK was arguably the most ’90s of all ’90s comics, where every issue had to have a forced guest appearance by a Marvel US sales draw; where every debut issue had to have a cover gimmick; where every new character had to have “die” or “cut” in their name, but without the level of thought or artistic integrity Rob Liefeld’s studio hands would have brought to such proceedings. In the history of the medium, I’m not sure any company has ever been geared so nakedly toward churning out pure product as Marvel UK.

    That said, the issues of Warheads drawn by Gary Erskine where glorious, Dark Angel had a solid premise, Gary Frank got his start on Motormouth, and Bryan Hitch was still doing great work there. Meanwhile, those early issues of Death’s Head II’s ongoing were to me an encapsulation of everything I hated about comics of the time, including the adulteration and hollowing out of characters that once had personal meaning and the squandering of talent with potential on hack work. It helped me abandon the entire lines of X and UK titles for good, and reminded me how unhappy I was with my too similar Image/Dark Horse/Valiant purchases as well. Despite a moment of popular heat, nobody followed Liam Sharpe to his Frontier title Bloodseed (still probably his greatest effort) and he toiled for years in Glenn Danzig’s satanic cesspool Verotik. I so hated Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s work here that I chose their taking over Legion of Super-Heroes as my jumping off point after four years collecting both titles monthly and having gone back to buy/read most everything published in the decade prior. Death’s Head II was so radioactive at a time when I was finding the toxicity of the industry most overwhelming that it was a turning point in my abandoning related creators and publishers in favor of a near exclusive commitment to DC Comics for the rest of the decade.

    But I’m over it now. I still like the Minion/Death’s Head II design in all its extremeness, and kind of want to reread the four issue mini. I fished most of the Amazing Fantasy Death’s Head 3.0 issues out of discount bins, and might even bother to read them someday. I got a bigger kick out of the Revolutionary War minor event series than it had any right to offer. If it wasn’t such a headache to organize, I’d try to do a Marvel Super Heroes Podcast on Dragon’s Claws. I still quite fancy the original Death’s Head character, whose action figure I recently bought at a Kroger’s supermarket without hesitation. You can swap out his hands for a Morningstar and an ax. It is rad, yes?

    For the record, Death’s Head II as a title wasn’t so much canceled as the entire industry went into a tailspin in 1993, the Marvel UK line was shuttered en masse in 1994, and the division was licensed to Panini in 1995.

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  2. Frank pretty well covers it (but when does he not, right?). DHII was somehow fairly big for Marvel on both shores. He ended up with the dumbest limited series title ever “Death’s Head II Gold,” and even his own What If…? issue in which Minion fails to assimilate Death’s Head and instead moves on to Reed Richards, becomes insanely intelligent and has to be brought down in true 90’s fashion.

    I remember the original Death’s Head series as being tongue-in-cheek, pretty much what Frank said about him not admitting his true profession, varying between false modesty and an overabundance of brovado, and so on.

    In regards to this issue specifically, I agree with most everything you and Ryan said here, Nathaniel. However, something about the way they did the colors of the X-Men on the cover has always appealed to me. I can’t explain it, but it’s like they are all a shade off their normal colors, so it seems like something new and different. Also, it should be noted that this issue released right around the premiere of the X-Men animated series, so it seems they might have been trying to tie into the success of that as much as the Jim Lee X-Men #1 cover. I know that’s what the X-team line-up reminds me of, anyway.

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