The British market of comics – and its readers – has always had a morbid fascination of how screwed up the world can get.
The best place to test this theory is in the petri dish of the future. It is a successful formula that has kept 2000AD in rude health for decades (and past its own namesake year, as pointed out by writer Al Ewing here).
Dragon’s Claws creator Simon Furman acknowledges that debt to the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic but even he was surprised how accurate his baked-dry vision of the future has been 23 years after conception.
“I don’t believe the term ‘climate change’ or even the concept of global warming had entered the general consciousness back in 1987,” he said. “Certainly, it wasn’t the in-your-face, ignore-it-at-your-peril thing it is now. But Dragon’s Claws was post-Live Aid, so the concept of starvation on a global scale was indelibly printed on my brain.
Furman’s vision of the year 8162 echoes current climate change concerns
“I just think I mined a few simmering topical trends and pushed them to some grossly exaggerated nth degree for Dragon’s Claws, which is something John Wagner and Alan Grant always did so well in Dredd. But it does now make Dragon’s Claws look quite relevant and prescient, I suppose. And yes, strangely, the whole sports star-hero worship thing is much, much more a fact of everyday media life now than it was at the time.”
Claws, not Teeth
Originally intended to be named Dragon’s Teeth after the myth that warriors spring up where the reptile’s gnashers are planted, the team became Claws after eleventh hour negotiation with a same-named small press comic failed.
DRAGON: Leader and founder of Dragon’s Claws. Dragon was an orphan who excelled at little except sport, with a growing fascination with the Game. His own team prove wildly successful but the controversial Miami bloodbath incident by rivals The Evil Dead sees the Game scrapped. Dragon is pensioned off to a remote farm with his wife Tanya and adopted son, Michael. But it’s not game over for him yet.
MERCY: A rich brat who goes out on a mission of vengeance when her industrialist father is found slain in one of the Game arenas. Her flair for athletics served her well in her undercover quest for truth, ending in the bloodshed of her father’s rivals and their puppets. She joins Dragon to avoid jail.
STEEL: A giant among his fellow Japanese, Steel saw himself as a misfit and chose to surround himself with such in the Game. When his Yakuza father is defeated in honourable combat, Steel quits his native land to fill a gap in Dragon’s Claws.
DIGIT: A genius child, Digit was spirited away from Scotland to work for the World Development Council. As an adult he disappeared for six months. His shattered body was found in a Game arena, shot in the head. He lived thanks to an organic computer transplant in his brain.
SCAVENGER: A mystery wrapped in enigma, Scavenger is linked to the slaying of a band of sky pirates he worked with after they killed six people. Tunnel wars underneath Birmingham saw him jailed but the prison he was in sunk over a fault line. He resurfaced to rescue Dragon during a battle.
DELLER: The agent used by the shadowy N.U.R.S.E. – the National Union of Retired Sports Experts- to reactivate Dragon’s Claws during which he sparks a gang war that results in Dragon’s wife being kidnapped.
“All my favourite characters tread a fine line between good and evil, hero and villain, and Dragon’s Claws is bursting at the seams with this category of characters,” said Furman. “Everyone has some kind of shady past they’re constantly struggling to rise above, or some dark secret, or some inner compulsion that threatens to lay waste to whatever ‘normal’ trappings they’ve erected.
“Even Deller, who starts out as one of the bad guys, goes some way to redeeming himself and changing who he is. So I’m going to have to cop out and say they were all my favourites.”
Both Mercy and Scavenger’s back stories fuelled the plots on two occasions but Furman said he was itching to do the same with Steel and, in particular, Digit, if the series went on past issue #10. Evil Dead leader Slaughterhouse, Dragon’s dark opposite, had his past thrown up during the arc but it is another ‘villain’ that caught Steel’s, as well as Furman’s, eye with a hinted-at history between the pair.
The first incarnation of the Evil Dead, before 60 per cent of the team get killed
“I really wanted to, ahem, explore Death Nell more,” he said. “We learn a fair bit about Slaughterhouse in issue #9, but Death Nell is a bit of an enigma. Would have liked to get into who she was and how she got entangled with the Evil Dead in the first place.”
Death Nell in action
‘Warriors, come out to play’
No prizes for noticing the Evil Dead share their name with the cult Sam Raimi film (along with a werewolf from An American Werewolf in London, a Furman film favourite). Parallels to Rollerball are strong, the creator crediting the James Caan original’s murky behind-closed-door politicking as an influence on his then 14-year-old self.
“Well, the 80s Walter Hill film, Warriors, was another big influence,” he said. “I love that movie, and its cast of colourful/costumed NYC street gangs definitely crept into Dragon’s Claws. There’s 2000AD of course. That kind of bleak, dystopian future they specialized in was very much the backdrop to the Claws’ world. And I’m sure there’s other stuff in there too, if you look hard enough.
Death’s Head does his T-800 impression
“For example, the initial battle with Death’s Head culminates in a scene that channels the first Terminator movie. Even the NURSE/Matron thing is an affectionate nod to Hattie Jacques and the Carry On movies I grew up with. My entire childhood/teenage/young adult years are probably in there if you look hard enough.”
The future doesn’t carve itself; for that you need an artist. Only one would do in Furman’s mind and that was long-time Transformers art partner Geoff Senior.
“For the most part, Dragon’s Claws was written for Geoff,” he said. “He was always our first choice and subsequently I was always visualising how he would draw stuff as I described it in the scripts.
“So, I’ve never really visualized anyone else drawing it (though of course Bryan Hitch did in Death’s Head #2). It certainly wouldn’t have been the same comic with someone else drawing it. It really, I think, played to Geoff’s many strengths as an artist. So, could anyone do it better? No. I don’t think so.”
Dragon’s Claws chase down a runaway juggernaut with the help of their craft, the Pig
The art is superb. The metropolises of tomorrow have that Escher style of straight lines; farm buildings look like they are grown rather than built, their shapes all rounded and bubbled like fungus. The vehicles range from the functional to the mammoth like the Claws’ own transport, the Pig, and a memorable road chase on a motorway involving a skyscraper-height lorry-cum-juggernaut.
The action has all of Senior’s signature moves: heads snap back when kicked, punches are thrown in wild windmill fashions, ducks turn into dives and rolls and then somersault kicks - the catalogue goes on.
A sample of Senior’s fight choreography between Slaughterhouse and Dragon
“Everything played out at pace, with Geoff’s larger-than-life artwork further unsettling and rattling you,” said Furman. “And it was quite explicitly brutal. Even when I look back at it today, with the likes of Marvel Max and Vertigo, people are going through windows, fingers are jabbed in eyes, incinerated corpses lie around board tables. You lose count of how many people die in just the first three pages of issue #1. Boys love that kind of stuff. In a way, I was writing it for myself!”
A running joke was Deller’s left shoulder constantly getting injured. Over the course of the series, it is stabbed, shot and shot again – but no-one remembers why.
Despite being the forerunner of the afore-mentioned Death’s Head, the Blues Brothers/Blade Runner inspired Sleeze Brothers and the more typical fare of The Knights of Pendragon under the Marvel UK umbrella, the Game ended for the Claws in 1989 after ten months of hitting the shelves.
The problem, said Furman, was one of distribution and visibility. “There really wasn’t the direct market we have today, nor the sheer number of comic shops, which left Marvel UK reliant on the likes of WH Smith and John Menzies to stock the title.
Dragon’s Claws was literally crowded out of the newsstands by oversized UK comics
“I think they did initially take it, but it kind of got lost among the A4-sized UK comics, and being a different format, they didn’t quite know where to rack it. Also, there was just no kind of proper marketing plan to support the title. The only advertising was in other Marvel UK titles and comics industry mags like Speakeasy. I also imagine the parents of Transformers and Thundercats readers drew the line at Dragon’s Claws.”
The Hattie Jacques-inspired Matron, puppet master of N.U.R.S.E
The timing, plot wise, worked out well. The conspiracy simmering behind N.U.R.S.E. and the revenge plot against Deller was all brought to a head in an explosive finale. Some loose ends were left dangling: the fate of Dragon’s wife who fled his life of violence by running into a burning building; if Deller’s multiplicity would ever be found out.
If the series continued, Furman said the team would be truly acting as agents of the World Development Council – and there was some closure of a sort in the charity comic Just One Page where creators could return to past projects and tell what they could in a single page.
Dragon’s Claws, as drawn by Dave Gibbons
But the ending of Dragon’s Claws did not leave as much unfinished business as some of his other projects, said the creator, citing the Marvel US version of Transformers #80 or Transformers: Generation 2 #12. “Mind you,” said Furman, “maybe we should start a petition aimed at Marvel US – you never know what might happen!” The petition ploy has worked in the case of Transformers. Fans will get #80.5 in spring 2012 with the original team of Furman and artist Andrew Wildman and the promise all dangling plot ends will be wrapped up in the #100 conclusion.
Dragon’s Claws fans who hadn’t kept the original run or pieced it together via eBay had to wait until 2008 for a definitive collection to be released. It is now 2011 and 23 years after the Dragon’s Claws committed themselves to making the world a better place. Did they?
“I do think that - 2000AD aside for the moment - there was just nothing like it in the UK at the time or since,” said Furman. “Action-packed, visceral and kinetic – every issue is packed with incident and revelations and twists and turns.
“If I was a kid at the time, I know I would have loved it because it was just so in your face – everything from story to art to character. There was never any sitting around and talking.
“And I just want to add and freely acknowledge, that Dragon’s Claws wouldn’t have ended up any way near as good as people seem to think it is (still), without the input of Richard Starkings and Geoff’s sheer artistic energy. It really is one of the bodies of work I’m most proud of, even after all this time.”
The British invasion of, erm, Britain in the late 80s continues in Starburst next month with Simon Furman on the quintessential time-travelling, ex-Transformers / Doctor Who / Dragon’s Claws / Fantastic Four / Iron Man 2020 / She Hulk opponent and bounty hunter … sorry, freelance peacekeeping agent, Death’s Head.