By Charles EP Murphy
In the last issue of Tini Howard and Kei Zama’s Death’s Head, Dr Necker tells the original Death’s Head that of all the versions she’s ever seen: “You’re the one that endures. I don’t get it. I think you’re embarrassing. You look like something my parents would’ve spent money on in 1987. … But they literally don’t make them like you anymore.”
Last time, we had a look at the very, very messy history of Death’s Head and the many creative and corporate reasons for them. He crossed three continuities and umpteen timelines, was killed and replaced and then almost replaced with a whole new version on top of that. But as Howard and Zama say, it’s the original that endures. This is the arc, they’re telling us.
But that’s the arc in our timeline, one where Death’s Head II arrives but then lies fallow, where Death’s Head 3.0 is not successful, where Kieron Gillen and Simon Williams and others can bring the original back.
What if any of the following relaunches of the character had happened instead?
The One That Was Cancelled
The first point of diversion is what happens if Simon Furman and Geoff Senior get their Death’s Head revival through in 1991/92, rather than being replaced with Dan Abnett and Liam Sharp’s revamp.
This is the simplest point of diversion: just have the comic already been started when Neary becomes editor, or Sharp’s redesign doesn’t make it to him in time. From an interview Furman did with Down The Tubes in 2016, we know it would have featured Death’s Head on trial and facing the death penalty, and “it guest-starred the Fantastic Four, I believe.” Senior had drawn a new look for Death’s Head but exactly what that would be is, sadly, lost to time.
The comic, as established last time, would sell 30,000 copies of #1 and Paul Neary did not believe Marvel UK’s future lay in this character. In this timeline, Marvel UK does not penetrate the US market at this point. Neary’s big “Genesis ’92” launch is already in the works and so Marvel UK will still enter the direct market (and be devastated when it contracts), but they’d lack the perfect storm – a known character in the UK, art that was part of the zeitgeist, a big Marvel US promotion during the height of the boom – to have a really big success. Marvel UK still dies an ignoble death but without ever having its shot at the big time.
Death’s Head would be left out in the cold during the Genesis 92 days, considered something that has once again failed. Where he likely would still make a few appearances is in Furman’s run on Alpha Flight – he put Death’s Head in his US comics in our timeline and if can still do it in 1992 here, he quite likely will. This is going to be the only real appearance the character will make until creators like Gillen and Williams can bring him back – a gap of maybe fifteen years.
This most likely means we may have less Death’s Head in the 2010s: there’d be no ‘hook’ of his potential replacement for Revolutionary War or the Howard/Zama run. Death’s Head 3.0 (which probably would just be called Death’s Head now) would look even odder, allowed to die off in continuity limbo. In this timeline, Death’s Head remains even more cult a character.
The second point of diversion for the character is Death’s Head Quorum.
As discussed last time, Marvel UK was planning a stripped-down relaunch in 1994. Death’s Head II, Captain Britain, Nocturne (a Night Raven revamp), and a new character called the Golden Grenadier were going to be the four core titles. You’ll notice here that Death’s Head II is the only one of the 1992-93 characters to make it, as he was the absolute biggest (and really only) hit Marvel UK had; this is also after Death’s Head II was been heavily exploited and spun off. David Leach, then an editor on Death’s Head II titles, believed the character was exhausted and so when he was was asked to do a pitch for the new title, he made a Doctor Who joke instead: they should strip away D.H’s powers, stop him time travelling, and exile him in present-day England.
Leach was then told to write that.
In a 2010 interview with the blog It Came From Darkmoor, Leach recounted his plan for Death’s Head Quorum. The four-issue miniseries would have Death’s Head II almost killed by a being called the Time Keeper and left stranded in 1994 London, most of his powers and saved minds taken away. The remaining minds would inform Death’s Head II that they’d formed a quorum and unless he followed their directives, they’d shut him down. From here, he’d find himself in a secret ancient city under London, where an underclass subculture had rejected the modern world and were being hunted by rich people. Death’s Head II would become their protector and even after defeating the Time Keeper, he would decide to live there.
To have this happen, you just need Marvel in America to have more faith in (or benign apathy about) the attempted relaunch. Considering the shoddy state of Marvel at the time, the still-inbound Panini merger, and the falling sales in the direct market, this relaunch would most likely have just delayed the inevitable. They might get another comic out of it. However, if Quorum is even slightly successful (and it’s probably the most likely of the four to be), the Americans may decide to give him another miniseries on their own later as well.
Thus, Death’s Head II would have been greatly simplified: a moderately strong cyborg-for-hire in London. One of the reasons the original Death’s Head can keep coming back is that he’s such a simple character to pick up, ‘this robot kills you for money’, and Quorum would do the same but leaving him Earthbound, easy for other comic creators to pick up and use. In the long run, this means Death’s Head II makes more appearances and childhood fans like Gillen can use him even more – and, this being comics, those creators would likely start to slowly restore Furman-era elements like his speech pattern.
And so, Death’s Head II would end up cemented as the Death’s Head. The original would be treated as two different costumes for the same guy in different eras, rather than as two separate characters.
Death’s POD 3.0
The obvious third point of diversion is going to be if Death’s Head 3.0 is closer to Furman’s original vision. Possibly he can argue with editorial – who had always planned to approach him about the Amazing Fantasy reboot – that this is what the fans want. The story inexorably leads to 3.0 being eventually snatched from his time and space and being rebuilt into the original Death’s Head (which likely changes the arc, as you won’t have a story of a killer robot with a growing conscience if he’s going to become an amoral killer-for-hire!).
Fans would be happier and the “Unnatural Selection” story from Amazing Fantasy is now proper canon. Little else is likely to change. Would this make the story more successful? No: sales records for Amazing Fantasy #16 show it sold 11,816 in North America’s direct market, part of a steady drop before anyone had read the story. Amazing Fantasy - an anthology of all new characters with similar names to old ones and a revolving creative team - just didn’t have the support needed to sell in 2006.
However, there’s a point of diversion. The reboot that’s been shrouded in mystery since 2008: Ultimate Death’s Head.
In 2008, Liam Sharp posted two pieces on his DeviantArt of a revamped Death’s Head II and referred to it as a rejected Ultimate Death’s Head pitch to Marvel. Another piece of art mentioned he’d tried to rework the failed pitch for one to Wildstorm, called Stem C.E.L.L. Other than that, nothing was known – except for a single line in a 2013 article that Bryan Hitch would be involved.
Wanting to know more, we contacted Liam Sharp and asked him how this came about.
Sharp told us that: “I'd had a few years without much work and couldn't seem to cop a break. So I thought - what worked before? What am I missing, and what do I need to do to get back on the shelves in the comic store? I had loved working for Marvel - I honestly thought I'd be a Marvel stalwart forever in my naivety - and I missed it. So I thought, given the success of the Ultimate line back then , that it might be worth pitching Ultimate Death's Head.
“I contacted Bryan who had done such incredible work on The Ultimates with Mark Miller, and ran the idea of co-writing it with him. Back at Marvel UK we had often talked about doing that, and he and I have both written our own comics over the years. It was a fairly transparent attempt to give the project more of a shot as I had ceased to be an industry 'name' at that point. I wanted to give it the best opportunity possible!”
The plot of the series would have been about “cyborg weaponry, and the ethics of that. Covertly making weapons of soldiers, and training them in virtual environments. What happens if such a weapon escapes, then finds out the truth of his origins?” (Sharp compares this to the Marvel character Deathlok.) A cosmic-level threat was added to give it “some of the 'Ultimates' scope and epic scale, but I also wanted it to have a grounded point of view”. This revamp would have aimed for Hitch’s contemporary audience – and indeed, the new look for ‘Ultimate Death’s Head’ is akin to Hitch’s work on characters like Ultimate Iron Man.
“The pitch was taken very seriously,” Sharp says, “and quickly moved up through the Marvel inner-circles. It was only the marketing department that eventually nixed it, as later DH incarnations had been shown to not do that well. It was a huge shame and I confess I was absolutely gutted at the time.”
From the timeline, what this suggests is that Death’s Head 3.0’s low sales and mixed response from readers had caused the marketing department to nix Ultimate Death’s Head. It’s hard to pitch a reboot when the reboot from last year hasn’t sold. As established, Death’s Head 3.0 can’t sell without major changes to how Amazing Fantasy works. If his story was never published, then Ultimate Death’s Head might get past the suits.
In 2007, the gloss had come off Ultimate Marvel and it was no longer the sales-dominating juggernaut it had been, but it was still a line of steady sellers. What would happen if Bryan “The Ultimates” Hitch is co-creating a new Ultimate Marvel comic? It quite likely sells! And when Marvel starts the Ultimatum crossover to try and boost sales, Death’s Head will be part of it along with every other character– and likely survives to appear in future Ultimate comics.
This leads to two outcomes.
The first is that market forces mean Ultimate Death’s Head is the Death’s Head for the moment and by having a whole new, modern-day-Earth origin, he’s a lot easier to spinoff for other media. He may start to appear elsewhere. Potentially, instead of a whole new take on Deathlok being in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. show, it could be Ultimate Death’s Head – someone new, someone with a name that really fits a HYDRA plot. If that happens, well, being the MCU Death’s Head means he becomes the Death’s Head. When Marvel starts to bring Ultimate characters into the 616 timeline after Secret Wars, Death’s Head would be one. (And inevitably, he’d run into Death’s Head 1 in a comic!)
The second is that Ultimate Death’s Head doing well means Simon Furman, Kieron Gillen, or whoever has an ‘in’ can pitch Marvel on publishing a ‘616’ Death’s Head miniseries again. One that will sell better than Amazing Fantasy because it’s able to unite old-school fans and the new Ultimate ones. What happens then? Knowing comic fans, a war over which version of the character is the best one – probably too, both characters continuing to run at the same time and, after Secret Wars, running into each other frequently. This could impair spinning Death’s Head off (which one are you going to do?), or it might not, but either way it will sell quite a few comics.
Whichever outcome you choose, both lead to Death’s Head favourite thing: MONEY.
All of the above timelines are just theories, and you may have a different idea of where things would go. What does it all mean in the end?
What it means, I’d argue, is that the fate of comic characters – when they’re big, what stories they have, which version is the ‘proper’ version – is up to random chance and fickle tastes far more than we might like to think. Death’s Head escaped being a minor Transformers villain because of one artist’s design, and he was briefly the flagship for an entire sub-company because of another’s. One writer referencing his early comics for a laugh provides the stories for the next decade. The original version is dismissed as old and tired in one year, then the new version is in another, and then twenty-four years after that, both provide fodder for story about aging and feeling you haven’t met your potential. Market forces dash the best laid plans of mice and men.
Nothing in comics is fixed or certain.
Except that someone, somewhere, somewhen is going to have Death’s Head pop up.
Charles EP Murphy is the author of Chamberlain Resigns, And Other Things That Did Not Happen, published by SLP.