Saturday, 28 August 2010

Death's Head

The classic Freelance Peacekeeping
Agent. The original... and best, yes?
Artwork by Geoff Senior.
It's no secret that I am a HUGE fan of Marvel UK's classic character Death's Head. Created by Simon Furman, and first appearing in Marvel UK's TRANSFORMERS title as a bounty hunte... sorry, Freelance Peacekeeping Agent, Death's Head was part of several classic UK Transformers storylines. Along the way, he battled the likes of Galvatron, Shockwave, Cyclonus and Scourge and even Unicron! From the get-go, Mr. Furman knew his character was destined for great things... and Death's Head eventually moved on from the Transformers universe (via a certain Timelord... in a classic Dr. Who strip written by Mr. Furman and classic DH artist Geoff Senior) to the Marvel Universe. From there he went on to battle Dragon's Claws (another Furman/Senior classic) in Dragon's Claws issue 5, then star in his own 10 issue series, followed by a graphic novel which told Death's Head's origin story: Death's Head: The Body In Question (which features absolutely beautiful painted artwork from Mr. Senior!). He even went on to guest star in several US Marvel titles... including She-Hulk, Marvel Comics Presents and the Fantastic Four (which at the time was written and drawn by Walt Simonson, who had become a fan of the character).

Things were looking up for our favourite Freelance Peacekeeping Agent... that is, until Marvel UK (under editor Paul Neary) launched a line of US-style Marvel UK titles, and decided to completely re-vamp the character....

Death;s Head II #1 (volume 2).
Artwork by Liam Sharp.
1992 saw the debut of Death's Head II... written by Dan Abnett and featuring awesome artwork by Liam Sharp, who had completely re-designed the Death's Head character to fit in more with the harder-edged type characters that were popular at that time. Death's Head II was Minion... a cyborg built by A.I.M scientist Dr. Evelyn Necker to hunt and assimilate the instincts and skills of 106 of the universes deadliest hunters. One of these of course, was the original Death's Head... whom Minion battled and easily destroyed (a battle which I can remember being very short and one sided... considering that the original went one on one with Unicron and survived!!). However, as Minion was assimilating Death's Head.. Death's Head's personality overloaded Minion's systems, and Death's Head became the dominant personality.
Death's Head II featured some great stories, and again phenomenal artwork by Liam Sharp... but the character was such a drastic change from the original, losing a lot of the familiar characteristics and quirks that made the original so popular (like ending each sentence with "yes?"). I've always said that I would love Death's Head II if he'd have been a separate character all together, or if the original had have been able to have been kept around... as the character design was awesome, as well as the artwork from Mr. Sharp (and later on Simon Coleby). Still, Death's Head II was a very successful title, and was the highest selling of Marvel UK's American style comics.... up until Marvel UK stopped producing titles in the US a couple of years later.

Little was seen of Death's Head until Marvel introduced a third version in 2005. Marvel featured a poll on their website asking which character fans would like to see again in their Amazing Fantasy title. The choices were Woodgod, the Aquarian, Texas Twister and the original Death's Head. Despite some difficult competition (note the sarcasm, yes?), Death's Head won easily.... and it looked as if we fans were finally going to see the original Death's Head again! Simon Furman was even announced as being the writer... so things were looking good. That is, until the first image of the character was shown online....
Death's Head 3.0... artwork
by Lucio Parillo
Death's Head 3.0 debuted in Amazing Fantasy #16... written by Simon Furman with artwork by James Raiz. The character had very little in common with the original, and instead was a spin-off of the Death's Head guards from the popular Planet Hulk storyline, featured in the Incredible Hulk at the time. Although, Simon Furman had worked out a way to tie this character in with the original... by having the last page of the series hinting at Death's Head 3.0 being an early version of the original. The character was to be shown saying "I'm Death's Head, yes?". However, the clueless editor of the book.. obviously having no knowledge of the original edited out the "yes?" in the final page... thus totally ruining the revelation that Simon had come up with. This version of the character lasted 4 issues and hasn't been seen since... possibly due to fan's disappointment that it wasn't the original who returned, which their online poll had seemed to promise.

In 2009, the original made a grand return to the pages of Marvel Comics... but before we go into that, I'd like to talk a little bit about my work on the character....

Now, when I broke into the comics business in 2003... I was fortunate enough to be working for Panini Comics, who now have the license to publish Marvel's characters in the UK. Whilst working on their Spectacular Spider-man Adventures title, I asked editors Tom O'Malley and Ed Hammond if there would be any chance of me doing a Death's Head team-up with ol' Spidey (Simon Furman even agreeing to write it if I could get them to agree on it). Whilst the powers that be couldn't approve it at the time, that didn't stop me from throwing in a few cameos here and there.....

Death's Head in the Nightmare realm.... from Spectacular
Spider-man Adventures
#115. Artwork by Simon Williams.

Watch out, Nightmare!! Death's Head attaches his trusty
axe-attachment. Again, from Spectacular Spider-man Adventures #115.
Artwork by Simon Williams. 

Spidey saves the day, yes? Death's Head looks on with a host
of other characters (I had to include ol' greenskin as well!!).

Even though the editors of Spectacular Spider-man couldn't feature Death's Head in a prominent team-up, it was great fun sneaking in the character here and there... it even got noticed in a review in Comics International! Shorty after this though... Panini decided to collect the original Death's Head's adventures together in a series of trade paperbacks... and thanks to editor Brady Webb I would get a chance to achieve another one of my ambitions in comics: to officially draw Death's Head. This was an absolute dream come true for me... here are the art pieces that I produced for the two volumes.

A dream come true, yes? Pencils by Simon Williams,
inks by David A. Roach. Colours by James Offredi.

Big guns... pencils by Simon Williams, inks by David Roach.
Colours by Jason Cardy.

The popularity of these collections led to Panini doing a Dragon's Claws collection.... which led to me producing this piece of work for the book. This is based on a certain Freelance Peacekeeping Agent's guest appearance in issue 5, which was not only re-printed in this collection, but also in Death's Head volume 1:

Death's Head vs Dragon... based on their battle in Dragon's Claws issue 5.
Artwork by Simon Williams, with colours by Jason Cardy.

Again, it was a dream come true to draw these pieces... at last, I was an officially published Death's Head artist! However, I still had it in my system that I wanted to draw a comic strip featuring the character.... so, in my own free time I started drawing up a comic strip that I'd always wanted to see... just for fun. These featured Death's Head in battle with the one character that Death's Head comes second place to in my personal list of all-time favourites: the Incredible Hulk.

The battle I always wanted to see: Death's Head versus the
Incredible Hulk. Written and drawn by Simon Williams.
Again, this story was just being drawn up for fun... hence the sketchy feel to the work. However, when I started posting them up on my DeviantArt page, it started to take a life of it's own. The pages were proving to be very popular, and fans were asking what was going to happen next. It was then that I decided to complete the story as part of my convention exclusive sketchbook,  Soulman Inc: the artwork of Simon Williams. The sketchbook, published in a format which was a tribute to the Marvel UK comics of the 1970's was an Auto Assembly exclusive, sold at both the 2009 and 2010 conventions (and maybe next year as well, if I have any copies left!). The story features a forward by Simon Furman, giving the tale an authenticity... and which included some very kind praise for my little tale. This means a lot to me, as not only is it my first foray into published writing... but I know Simon is very protective of the Death's Head character (thanks for the inspiration Simon!). The story has also had very positive reviews so far... both online and from fellow comics pros alike. As a result of this, plus the many people who asked me at this years Auto Assembly if a sequel was planned, I'm planning a follow up which I hope to be available at next year's Auto Assembly 2011 (more on that soon!).

The Monster and the Mercenary... the cover to my Incredible Hulk vs
Death's Head team-up. Pencils and colours by Simon Williams,
with specially commissioned inks by classic Hulk inker Joe Rubinstein.
As I mentioned before talking about my involvement with the character, Death's Head made his triumphant return to comics in 2009... in Marvel Comic's S.W.O.R.D title. And it wasn't Death's Head II, 3.0 or any new version... it was the original, Transformer-sized Freelance Peacekeeping Agent (albeit with a slight re-design by series artist Steven Sanders). And this truly was Death's Head as we knew him.. with writer Kieron Gillan giving us the best version of the character since Simon Furman (and featuring a VERY clever origin for the 'Freelance Peacekeeping Agent' phrase). As short lived as the title was, it was great to see the character back in print... and gives great hope that we'll see him again in the future.

Death's Head.. the King Kong that shoots back! From the
pages of S.W.O.R.D #1 from Marvel Comics.
Artwork by Steven Sanders, and written by Kieron Gillan.

I hope you've enjoyed my little foray into the life and times of everyones favourite Freelance Peacekeeping Agent. Again, the character is an all-time favourite of mine... and I'm so proud that I've not only drawn him professionally, but in my own way done my bit to keep the character alive and well (and I'll continue to do so as well). And as his various incarnations and most recent appearance in S.W.O.R.D prove to us....

..... you just can't keep a good character down, yes?


Ian Hewett said...

After years in the wilderness (and getting thoroughly hacked off with Marvel UK's treatment of the character in DHII, not to mention the brushing under the carpet of his past in Transformers in the pages of The Incomplete Death's Head), it's nice to know somebody who's kept the flame burning all these years.

It'd be nice if they included a reference in Doctor Who, yes?

BTW, spookily enough, the verification word attached to this post is Pyral. What are the odds, huh?

Simon Williams said...

Thanks Ian... a reference in Doctor Who would be brilliant! By all accounts though, the previous editor of Doctor Who magazine has been trying to forget that Death's Head's appearance in the Doctor Who comic strip ever happened. I thought it was really cool that the Doctor was kinda part of the Marvel universe, but there you go....

But of course... WE know it really did happen, yes?

PJMontgomery said...

I really enjoyed reading this mate. I know I've only really become a Death's Head fan in the last few years, but I absolutely love the character now! Here's hoping for more of him in the future! Now, I need to gets me one of your sketchbooks...

Mark Roberts said...

Coming a little bit late to the Party here, but a great piece Simon.

I really do miss the days of more fluid licensing, which Marvel UK enjoyed in the 80s in particular. DH could show up anywhere, in any licensed book, and it was pretty much okay. I found those days much more fun.

Don't get me wrong, it was great to see DH interacting with the main Marvel Universe, with the Fantastic Four or She-Hulk, but I think once he was limited to a certain dimension by the number of 616 it was a little bit of a shame.

I'm probably in the minority here, but I was kind of a fan of DH2. When I first read that story it probably made me the most angry I have ever been :) But I still followed that series, ad every other appearance, like a hawk. It was loyalty to the character. The initial 4 issue mini was very much Death's Head. Even down to the occasional 'Yes?' but as time went on, and other writers took him on, he lost that. I think he only really got it back in Liam Sharp's 'Death's Head Gold' which, sadly, was his final Marvel UK appearance.

Love your DH vs Hulk, btw. Spotted that on DeviantArt earlier in the year. Great stuff!

An incredible shame that SWORD only lasted 5 issues. The US direct market is such a mess right now. When a book can be cancelled on pre-orders, two months before it is released? Insane. But it was great to see a return to the origins of Death's Head. And frankly Kieron Gillen, child of the 80s, was the perfect guy to have been handling him.

What I find most interesting about that story though, is that while it clearly IS Death's Head he looks so makeshift. He doesn't call himself a 'Freelance Peacekeeping Agent' (In fact it's The Beast who suggests the term) and he doesn't look quite right.

It was my take on this that what we are seeing is a DH from the earliest point in his own life cycle that we have seen. Before Transformers, before he's perhaps made a bit of money and remodelled a more durable form. This is proper Early DH, travelled to 2009.

It could well be. And would possibly explain away his appearance... :)

Simon Williams said...

Paddy... thanks fella. I'd definitely recommend picking up the Panini collections... and also the Titan TRANSFORMERS books FALLEN ANGEL and LEGACY OF UNICRON, which reprint the early Marvel UK Transformers stories which featured Death's Head :o)

Mark... thanks for the kind words (and also for the plug on your blog as well!)! It's always great to hear from fellow Marvel UK/Death's Head fans :o)

Regarding DH II... I do like the character, and especially the look that Liam Sharp came up with. As I said before, I would have loved the character had it been a separate character to the original. It just seemed to me that after the original DH II mini (which you rightfully say is still very much DH), Marvel UK seemed to want to push any remnants of the original out of the title/character (which from what I can gather was mostly down to then Ed-In-Chief Paul Neary), leaving us with an entirely new character... with little connecting it to the original. That was of course, until Liam's excellent DEATH'S HEAD II GOLD... which like you said was the last UK appearance of the character :o(

As for what you say about Death's Head's recent appearance in S.W.O.R.D... Simon Furman pretty much said the same thing when I saw him at Auto Assembly back in August! He LOVED what Kieron Gillen did with the character, and pretty much said himself that this is the earliest version of Death's Head that we've seen so far. Here's hoping that the big guy will make another appearance sometime soon :o)

Again, thanks for stopping by... hope all is good with you :o)

Craig said...

Any chance those of us that can't get to auto assembly can get a copy of the complete Hulkj vs Death's Head, and the sketch book?

Craig said...

I guess the original Hulk vs death's Head tale will be one unfinished story in my collection, unless Simon can be persuaded to post up the remaining pages?