By Charles EP Murphy
Which single character both links the Heroic Autobots, Doctor Who, and the Fantastic Four in a continuity nightmare, and is a living embodiment of the history of Marvel Comics UK?
Meet Death’s Head, amoral ‘freelance peacekeeper’ robot!
Cheerfully black-humoured and fixated on professional ethics over the moral kind, Death’s Head takes any contract for money and never stops coming; handily for comics, he comes with a signature speech pattern, phrasing his statements as ironic questions (“yes?”).
He can work as an implacable antagonist, a comedy protagonist, or even a dramatic antihero depending on your story. Created by Simon Furman and Geoff Senior, Death’s Head was originally meant to be a one-off heavy for Marvel UK’s licensed Transformers comic, interfering with Rodimus Prime’s attempts to stop Galvatron. Senior’s design was so impressive, Marvel UK rushed out a one-off strip about the mechanoid (drawn by a teenaged Bryan Hitch) so he’d legally count as their character and not Hasbro’s.
When Death’s Head proved a hit with the young Transformers fans, he was chosen as one of the several planned US-format monthly titles that Marvel UK hoped would expand their market. Hitch would again be tapped to draw it. First, to promote the comic and explain why he was now human sized, he appeared in Doctor Who Monthly for the first of four run-ins with the Seventh Doctor and got zapped with the Master’s tissue compressor!
In his ninth issue, he popped over to the Marvel Universe (“Earth 616”, to the initiates) to fight the Fantastic Four and then Iron Man 2020 in #10. Death’s Head was cancelled after that issue, but an origin story ran in Marvel UK’s new mature-readers aimed title Strip and was later reprinted in graphic novel format. Following this, Walter Simonson picked him up for an issue of Fantastic Four and made him an agent of the Time Variance Authority, a time-travelling conceit that allowed Furman to use him in a She-Hulk fill-in with Hitch.
In the space of four years, Death’s Head had thus gone through two outside licenses, into the Marvel Universe, and from children’s comics to the teen audience
This is the simple part of the backstory. Hold on!
Death’s Head, Death’s Head, And His Friend, Death’s Head
In 1991/2, when Marvel UK once again thought of doing US-format monthly titles, they reached out to the old slugger. But while the title was solicited, incoming editor Paul Neary (as he bluntly told Comics World #8) “didn’t like the pages that had been produced – I didn’t think there was much future in Transformers-based robots and I thought we do an awful lot better.” A redesign by new artist Liam Sharp was more in line with the early 90s zeitgeist, and the comic was resolicited with writing by Dan Abnett.
The story had 2020 A.D. scientist Dr Evelyn Necker create the Minion cyborg and send it to kill and copy the minds of over a hundred people – including the original Death’s Head. However, thanks to the Fantastic Four, his mind took over Minion’s body (though his old speech pattern was lost) and turned him into cynical adventurer Death’s Head II. Old school fans have found this decision controversial but as Comics World #8 noticed, it worked. The early orders had been 30,000, which jumped to 70,000 when it was resolicited with Sharp’s cover art, and then the Americans caught sight of this and made it part of 1992’s Big Guns promotion, causing #1 to sell a quarter of a million copies of #1.
Deaths’ Head II thus broke Marvel UK into the US. And in the speculator frenzy of the comic shops direct market, this meant Marvel UK needed to put out a lot of comics to play with the big boys and so Death’s Head II had to be exploited. The cyborg had his own title, he crossed over into every other Marvel UK comic, he anchored line-wide crossovers, he had spinoff characters (it turned out Necker’s Minion program had created two other cyborgs), and he was even on the Lord Mayor’s Show in 1993.
No, seriously. (Note - video link above)
Unfortunately for the Anglophone comic industry, the speculator market crashed and the American direct market contracted in late 1993. Marvel UK was one of various publishers left massively overextended and out of pocket. To regroup, it cancelled hordes of titles (including burying comics that had already been completed) and asked for $1m in financing from their parent company in order to reform as a leaner publisher, restricting itself once more to a handful of titles. House ads, some with Death’s Head II, touted them as a lean, “hungry” company. By spring of 1994, however, it was shut down as a direct-market publisher by American management, then died as a UK production office, and in 1995 was merged into Panini UK (newly bought by Marvel) and everyone in management replaced with Panini’s team, who had no interest in these sorts of titles.
Death’s Head II and all his stablemates were abandoned. (Among the last titles was that most 90s of ideas, Punisher VS Death’s Head II)
However, both Death’s Heads’ had enough fans that in 2005, Marvel held a readers’ vote for which character to reboot in their Amazing Fantasy title and D.H. won. A new “Death’s Head 3.0” was created, written by Furman himself with art by James Raiz. This version was a superpowered assassin droid in the late-21st century but growing a conscience in the process, eventually defecting to the GEIST spy agency. For synergy reasons, rather than a whole new design, he was one of the robot henchmen from the contemporary Planet Hulk story.
Furman admitted in a 2011 Starburst interview that he felt it strange to offer readers Death’s Head and then give them something new. Thus, he’d pitched that 3.0 was going to gradually develop the original Death’s Head’s mannerisms and then turn out to be the original Death’s Head in the past, “a kind of Death’s Head year zero”. Marvel rejected this idea – “maybe wisely”, Furman said. To Starburst, he admitted he has “mixed feelings” and would “much rather done the original. I think it would have made for a much better series.”
A few cameos of Death’s Head II had happened over the years – in Excalibur and Avengers Forever – and would continue into the mid-2000s. Most significantly, a younger Evelyn Necker appeared in Abnett & Andy Lanning’s Nova series around 2008, and in a minor bit of continuity clear-up, she was experimenting on 3.0’s robot race as part of her Minion project.
However, the mid-2000s is also when the fans-turned-pro of Furman’s Transformers began to debut at Marvel and when given the chance, they wrote the Death’s Head that they’d grown up with. Kieron Gillen’s SWORD in 2009 featured a gigantic Death’s Head 1, implied to be the lad before he ended up in the Transformers universe, while in 2011, writer/artist Simon Williams convinced Panini to let him have Death’s Head fight the Hulk (with Furman writing) in their kid-aimed Marvel Heroes series.
In 2013 and 2014, the giant Death’s Head would appear in Gillen’s Iron Man for the 50th anniversary story, a time-travelling human-sized one in an issue of Avenging Spider-Man, and then both the original and Death’s Head II would show up for the Revolutionary War crossover, intended to revive the old Genesis ’92 UK cast. The two fought each other and then teamed up to beat up (and insult!) Necker’s army of Death’s Head 3.0’s. At the end of the crossover, it was implied the original was going to learn of his upcoming death from his present-day self.
Over the next few years, the original Death’s Head has made numerous appearances as antagonist, facing heroes from the young X-Men to the Guardians of the Galaxy, and was a supporting character in last year’s Infinity Countdown: Darkhawk miniseries. This year, he’s once more in his own miniseries, as Tini Howard and Kei Zama created a tale where he’s dealing with age and being considered obsolete, past-it, unwanted, no longer the future – and a ‘teenage’ replacement, Necker’s new Death’s Head V, has debuted to rub that in.
By this point, Death’s Head 1 has been cemented by constant reappearances as the Death’s Head, his inevitable replacement gradually reduced to a possible alternate future version. Everything comes back to the original.
But of course, all of this could have been different.
Come back on the 29th November as we discuss several revamps and reboots that never took place, and try to work out what might have happened...
Charles EP Murphy is the author of Chamberlain Resigns, And Other Things That Did Not Happen, published by SLP.