Rule one: Always honour a contract but never trust a client
“Death’s Head is pure and concentrated commercialism. Kind of a child of Thatcher’s Britain pushed to the nth degree.” That’s the view of co-creator Simon Furman on the cult merc … freelance peacekeeping agent who debuted 24 years ago in Marvel UK’s Transformers.
Furman says Death’s Head’s popularity is still high because “he’ll never change or compromise or grow or repent or agonise like most comic book characters. He’s this unchanging, uncompromising rock that other characters bounce off. But you still kind of love him. Weird.”
Simon Williams’ art for the first Death’s Head collected trade paperback
The slightly satanic-looking mechanoid was put together on the pencil board of Furman’s Transformers collaborator Geoff Senior as an expendable one-off bounty hunter for the storyline Wanted: Galvatron – Dead or Alive back in issue #113. Occupied Autobot leader Rodimus Prime sends the assassin out to hunt his nemesis while he deals with the war on Cybertron. However, after kicking the crap out of the mad Decepticon’s lieutenants Scourge and Cyclonus, Death’s Head travels to the past to confront his quarry – and did surprisingly well until being yanked back to the future.
Death’s Head versus Scourge and Cyclonus
“We knew almost from the first panel Geoff drew that we had something special in Death’s Head,” said Furman. “He just captured something, some elusive ‘wow’ factor where you know a character is destined for more than just a brief supporting role. Death’s Head was created very much as a means to an end after which he’d have been killed off or discarded.”
Recognising Death’s Head’s potential, but innocent of knowing the Nazi connotations of the name, Furman revised his script, imbuing the character with his trademark verbal quirk (Yes?) and endearing mannerisms that don’t often grace your stereotypical killing machine-cum-freelance peacekeeping agent – just don’t call him a bounty hunter.
Uncanny X-Men scribe Keiron Gillen resurrected Death’s Head for S.W.O.R.D.
All this effort would have been in vain had Death’s Head launched straight into the Transformers universe. He would have been absorbed into the encompassing copyright of toymaker Hasbro. So a teenage Bryan Hitch – who would go on to enjoy fame for his artwork on The Ultimates – was enlisted to take Senior’s designs and draw a one-page strip called High Noon Tex featuring the horned robot, thus making him Marvel.
After two more outings in the Transformers-verse (facing off against no less than planet-busting Unicron), it was time for Death’s Head to go on to bigger and better contracts.
An encounter with the Sylvester McCoy version of Doctor Who stranded the mercenary in the year 8162
Furman said: “So, having gone to so much effort initially, it felt that Death’s Head was always destined to outgrow his origins and thrive in his own right. But it took a while. And it was only the advent of Marvel’s US format line that provided the opening we needed to showcase Death’s Head. So, very quickly, we shuffled him out of Transformers, via Doctor Who (and a size/scale change), into Dragon’s Claws and finally into his own title and original graphic novel, The Body in Question.”
Debuting shortly after Dragon’s Claws in the Marvel UK world of 8162, the pun-slinging contract killer went up against his own who’s who of wacky opponents in a series of self-contained stories during his ten issue run. Sadly, the same market forces that did for Dragon’s Claws – an American size format swamped on newsstands by bulky UK magazines, poor promotion, distribution and being 10 years ahead of US-sized comics looking commonplace in WH Smith – did for Death’s Head.
A rare bit of Death's Head/Marvel US synergy. His one and only appearance on a trading card from 1991
The series cemented its own cult following of fans who would get nostalgic nearly two decades later when the tales were collected into a pair of trade paperbacks. Among them was luminary Walt Simonson, current X-Men scribe Keiron Gillen and the Man himself, Stan Lee.
“Naturally, having co-created Death’s Head, I feel strong paternal instincts for the character, and having him ensconced in the mainstream Marvel (US) universe feels like the pinnacle of achievement in my career so far,” said Furman. “I still remember that when Death’s Head #1 hit the stands, I/we received a letter from Stan the Man himself, describing the first issue as ‘sensational’, and further praising the creators involved.
Stan Lee’s letter of congratulations to team Death’s Head
“Now, while I’m grounded enough that this could have been some kind of almost ‘form’ acknowledgment, it came entirely un-solicited, and I guess I just couldn’t help but bask in the approval of the writer I’d grown up reading (and respected beyond easy measure). So it became something of a mission to not let Death’s Head go gently into the good night, and to keep pushing him into the mainstream spotlight every time I got the slightest opportunity.”
Head to Head
Death’s Head meets thy maker, Lupex, in The Body in Question
After a gorgeously painted origin story graphic novel by Senior (The Body in Question and serialised in Brit magazine Strip) that opportunity seemed to end when Death’s Head himself met his end at the blade-hand-axe-thing of his uglier, more muscled successor, Death’s Head II.
Furman said: “There were plans for a new series featuring the original Death’s Head during Paul Neary’s reign as editor in chief at Marvel UK. In fact, we may even have started in on script and art (Geoff was back!). Sadly, nothing remains of either story or that art. And before we got very far along Paul canned that series and launched Death’s Head II instead.”
Death’s Head meets Death’s Head II
Created by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, Death’s Head the Second reflected the trend in early 90s comics: big muscles, bigger guns, attitude and an art style reminiscent of current fan favourite Rob Liefeld. It didn’t last.
“I think the biggest problem with Death’s Head II is the look of the character became very generic movie-of-the-moment, and in personality terms he lost his most important aspect; the dark-edged gallows humour,” said Furman. “So in and of itself I think it’s a very tight, proficient and action-packed comic that really tapped into that early 90s anti-hero vibe. But to me it was never Death’s Head. It was another character.”
What If gave a hint of how Death’s Head would have gone on to look had he survived cancellation and Death’s Head II
The original would get his own back in Furman-penned What If #54 – returning as an even bigger, badder version which put the replacer into the ground. The new look, coincidentally, was what Death’s Head would have gone on to enjoy had he survived cancellation, a story that Furman hopes to continue.
Rule two: Make no concessions for age, size or gender
Hope reignited, albeit briefly, in 2005 when an online poll saw Amazing Fantasy readers vote heavily for Death’s Head to be featured in the comic.
During this time Greg Pak was making waves with his Planet Hulk storyline in Incredible Hulk. The two unrelated titles briefly rubbed shoulders when Furman introduced Death’s Head 3.0 in Amazing Fantasy #16, an all-black dreadlocked robot with gasmask face, recognisable as one of the Reaver droids from the Hulk story.
The situation, said Furman, was “a strange chicken and egg thing”. The Reaver design from Planet Hulk was absorbed into the Unnatural Selection storyline in Amazing Fantasy. The goal was for the tabula rasa that was the droid to begin picking up Death’s Head quirks during the five-parter (“a kind of Death’s Head year zero”) before it ultimately ended up being appropriated by mad magician Lupex from The Body in Question and used to create the classic Death’s Head.
A vacant Death’s Head in Lupex’s lair prior to his programming and adventures
Marvel, however, were against the move (“maybe wisely,” said Furman) and the final product met with mixed reaction, including from the writer.
“I always thought it strange that poll was to bring back one character and what readers got was another entirely,” he said. “It was part of my motivation to try and somehow meld the two together. It’s a shame. I’d have much rather done the original. I think it would have made for a much better series (though I rather like Unnatural Selection, I think it works well ... But, as with Death’s Head II, it just isn’t Death’s Head). So I have mixed feelings about 3.0.”
A brief history of time (lord)
A meeting with the 1990s Fantastic Four led to more time bouncing
If Marvel had not vetoed the above move, what Furman would have created was a time loop beginning from the character’s humble origins as an alien warrior robot, captured and modified by self-styled creator Lupex, before being stolen and enlarged to Transformer proportions. From there an encounter with the Sylvester McCoy seventh incarnation of Doctor Who in Doctor Who Magazine would have seen Death’s Head shrunk back down to human proportions and unleashed on the year 8162 and resident trouble-shooters Dragon’s Claws. He would go on to enjoy time-travelling cameos with the Fantastic Four and Iron Man of 2020 before killing his creator and in turn being killed by his replacement, Death’s Head II.
Despite being a closed circle, Furman lengthened the loop when he was reunited with the former teenager who had cut his pencils on the character, Bryan Hitch, during The Sensational She-Hulk #24.
Drawn to greatness
Death’s Head’s last appearance in Transformers, drawn by Bryan Hitch and assisted by Geoff Senior
Furman said: “Geoff Senior and Bryan Hitch were both from Cumbria and Geoff may even have introduced us to Bryan, maybe via Steve Parkhouse (also based in Cumbria). I think Bryan, initially at least, based his style a lot on Geoff’s, and interestingly the final Transformers appearance of Death’s Head (issue #151) was drawn by Bryan and inked/art assisted by Geoff, so we got a real fusion going there.
“For the Death’s Head series, Bryan just seemed the obvious choice. Geoff was busy on Dragon’s Claws and had already handled his Doctor Who and Dragon’s Claws guest appearances, so we looked to Bryan (who had already drawn the High Noon, Tex strip) to step in.
The Bryan Hitch re-design
“Bryan came in with lots of energy and ideas, and the re-design was largely down to him. We all felt the title was in good hands. Sadly, deadlines started to slip, and Bryan was already being courted by Marvel US, so we drafted in a slew of guest artists (John Higgins, Lee Sullivan, Liam Sharp and even Geoff himself). But, fittingly, Bryan returned to draw the final issue.”
Bryan Hitch back on Death’s Head art chores, in The Sensational She-Hulk
Since his time off Death’s Head, Hitch’s art had evolved into a larger-than-life style but not quite at the level he is known for in his work on The Authority and The Ultimates. “You could see how much his art had grown and how he’d shrugged off some influences and absorbed others (notably Alan Davis, who had kind of taken Bryan under his wing around that time), said Furman.
“But I’m really glad Bryan drew both the She-Hulk issue (he was regular artist at the time, so that wasn’t a huge stretch) and the Marvel Comics Presents story, The Deadliest Game. It just felt right somehow. Bryan understood Death’s Head in a way another artist might not have.”
Rule three: Never kill for free, but it pays to advertise
Walt Simonson’s cover for Death’s Head #9
Another artist was drawn to the signature style of Death’s Head, Fantastic Four and Thor visionary Walt Simonson. He lent his pencils for the cover of Death’s Head #9, a cover for the serialisation in Strip and a final cover for the eventual collection of The Body in Question trade paperback. He even extended Death’s Head’s time loop by guest-starring the character during his run on Fantastic Four.
Death’s Head is back – and bigger in S.W.O.R.D.
Keiron Gillen, who has just started his X-Men run, was a fan of Death’s Head in his younger days and used the character – at his Transformers size – during his short-lived S.W.O.R.D. series.
Furman said: “My main aim is always to get Death’s Head back out where he belongs, as part of the modern Marvel universe. So other writers championing the character in their books is totally fine with me. Keiron was so polite. He asked me if it was okay with me for him to bring Death’s Head back in S.W.O.R.D. He didn’t need to ask, but it was nice of him to do so. Respectful, I guess. But – unless they intend to radically re-make the character – I’d never resist anyone dusting him off and getting him back in a monthly comic.
“Panini UK rolled out a Death’s Head vs Hulk story, of which I wrote the second part (the more Death’s Head-centric chapter). And I’m still knocking at Marvel US’s door with my latest plans for the character.
The first Death’s Head panel in Transformers
“What inspired/inspires all this effort? Maybe it all goes back to that very first panel, in a Star Wars-style alien cantina/bar, with Death’s Head looking at Galvatron’s holo-wanted poster. We just knew. We had that rare confluence of creative energies that, if handled right, could create a character with real staying power. And hey, we were right!”
Death’s Head co-creator Simon Furman