Thursday, August 4, 2011

Death’s Head Review: Issue #3 – High Stakes

Issue three maintains the same creative line-up as before: writer Simon Furman, penciller Bryan Hitch, inker David Hine, letterer Annie H, colourist Abadzis and editor Richard Starkings.

Bryan Hitch does the cover – a close-up of Death’s Head holding a hand of playing cards and looking worried at five gun barrels pointed at him: “Bum deal, yes?”. It’s very well rendered and true to one of the danger points in the story, just not particularly exciting and shows Death’s Head a little too nervous for my taste. It’s also the first of many gambling–based puns that Furman crams into this issue.

We begin in the “Los Angeles Resettlement”: a futuristic cityscape of tall buildings, hovercars and street scum. One of the criminal inhabitants – a man named Collins with a pony tail and domino mask – is fleeing from Death’s Head. The mechanoid is chasing him for information and, after lobbing a few explosives from his grenade launcher attachment, gets him bloodied and knocked to the ground.

Spratt appears over Collins, playing the interrogation’s ‘good cop’ role, but instead gets taken hostage. Death’s Head claims not to care about Spratt’s life and Collins soon realises that he’s not bluffing. He releases Spratt and gives up the whereabouts of a target named Ogrus, adding that Spratt will prove a liability. Death’s Head agrees, as we flash back to three days earlier…

Death’s Head is crossing the Atlantic in a passenger aircraft. Guzzling hot dogs next to him is Spratt, who has been tagging along since Chaney Prison and persists in claiming to be his business partner. He leaves for the washroom and Death’s Head contemplates how to get rid of him.

His thoughts are interrupted by a gun at his head: six hijackers have appeared. Their leader is alarmed at Death’s Head’s presence, but he blithely admires their “youthful free enterprise”. He even offers some ransoming advice, only to be disappointed to learn they are fighting for idealistic goals, not profit. “Tsk. Kids these days – no business sense!”

Things escalate when Spratt bursts from the washrooms to ambush and overwhelm the hijackers (Death’s Head ‘accidentally’ lends a helping foot to trip the last one). The mechanoid is impressed enough to give Spratt a chance which – jumping back to the present time – he almost blew.

Their destination is the ‘Stake Your Life’ casino. Leaving Spratt outside, Death’s Head gains admittance by showing an unflappable doorman his retractable wrist-blade. The casino is in the style of a futuristic space bar: exotic-costumes and mutant/alien denizens. Sitting alone at a poker table Death’s Head finds Ogrus, a powerfully-built man (who appears to be modelling his fashion on Miami Vice).

As Death’s Head sits down to join him, Ogrus explains that he turned from his successful business to crime in order to face the highest stakes of breaking the law. Declining his offer of cards with the best gambling pun of the issue (“best if I just throw in my hand”), Death’s Head attaches his shottblaster, only to find Ogrus’ henchmen have guns pointed at him (the cover image).

Death’s Head randomly throws a punch (which, as is traditional, ignites a massive barroom brawl) and uses the diversion to close in on Ogrus. Here we get one of his finest “I am not a bounty hunter!” lines – petulantly slamming down his fist on a round table that flips up and smacks Ogrus in the face.

Peeping from outside, Spratt sees the danger and resolves to save Death’s Head. He crashes his hovercar through the wall, but his tough-guy stance is met with universal laughter. Meanwhile Orgus gets the upper hand on Death’s Head, betting that Spratt won’t risk shooting him until it is too late.

Pondering the dilemma from a balcony above, and not wanting to alienate Death’s Head with another bad judgement, Spratt flips a coin to decide. The coin falls through his hands and lands on Ogrus’ head, causing enough of a distraction for Death’s Head to knock him unconscious. Grudgingly admitting they make a good team, Death’s Head escapes with their captive as Spratt confesses that he’s already spent the reward money on a new office.

The final page is a teaser for the next issue (something which becomes a semi-regular feature). A thin and pallid undertaker is marking an empty office as ‘sold’. From the darkness comes the demand, “Hungry!” and we see a slimy green talon. The undertaker promises, “… supper’s on it’s way!”

After the standalone #1 and crossover #2, this could be viewed as the issue where the Death’s Head series really gets started. He spends about five or six issues based in Los Angeles – not much, but quite a commitment for a dimension-hopping mercenary.

Taking Death’s Head away from Dragon’s Claws territory makes sense from a narrative perspective, although by crossing the Atlantic he seems to have moved into another world. The 8162 of Dragon’s Claws was grim, relentless and moribund. It had an established government (the ‘World Development Council’) and culture (the mass-appeal bloodsport of ‘The Game’). The 8162 that now exists for Death’s Head is more free-wheeling. While there is still plenty of violence and corruption, there are also eccentric characters, knockabout humour and not a lot tying it together.

You could say that the Death’s Head series bridges the gap between the relentless, quasi-realistic world of Dragon’s Claws and the zany, joke-led universe occupied by The Sleeze Brothers (a six-issue series that was also part of the Marvel/Epic stable at the time). Each of them have their merits, but my point is Death’s Head could easily have jumped through a dimensional portal at the start of this issue, as the world bears no resemblance to anything that went before.

Matching the style of issue #1, the story is neatly divided into three parts: the interrogation of Collins, the flashback to the hijacking, and the showdown with Ogrus. The interrogation makes for a solid (and surprisingly bloody) beginning, showing Death’s Head in his common role as a brutal private investigator. The foiled hijacking is also fun, not least because the mechanoid does little else but look exasperated (one of the few times that show him struggling in an alien world).

The final third of the story didn’t work so well for me. By walking straight up to his quarry, Death’s Head shows uncharacteristic, almost lazy, carelessness and almost pays the price in the subsequent fistfight with Ogrus. Spratt’s intervention saves the day – which is really the point of the story – but it does come across as contrived. It’s a shame, as the other two-thirds work well, but the tepid conclusion makes the whole issue feel like something less than the sum of its parts.

After a couple of episodes in the sidelines, this issue puts the spotlight on Spratt, introducing him as Death’s Head’s new partner. The two have quite a good chemistry: the sardonic tough-guy contrasting against the upbeat ‘boy wonder’. I prefer Death’s Head as the lone hunter (and for most of the run, Spratt serves more as a comic foil than useful sidekick) and it’s notable that, now he has someone to talk to, we lose his inner monologue.

It’s odd that, of the qualities to endear Spratt to Death’s Head, Furman went with fighting ability. As the one who repaired him, Spratt must possess some mechanical genius; and Death’s Head could certainly use a tour guide to this strange world. But combat is the one area where he really doesn’t need much assistance – at least not until Ogrus.

Which makes the story’s antagonist a strange one: for a guy with merely above-average build and no apparent powers, Ogrus was able to deliver quite a beating. The mechanoid’s strength is never really established, but if he can take down all of Dragon’s Claws, he should be able beat one unarmed man. I can appreciate putting Death’s Head in jeopardy to have Spratt rescue him, but he could at least have been swamped by a pack of thugs. Or else upgraded Ogrus’ character design with some cybernetics or hidden weapons; the scariest thing about Ogrus is his haircut.

The artwork is a step up from the previous issue. There are fast, pacey action panels, like when Spratt takes down the hijackers. Hitch also produces some nice subtle touches, such as the laconic doorman and the generally frustrated expressions on Death’s Head. And depicting the Los Angeles underworld gives plenty of scope for imagination (although one of the brawling casino denizens appears to be wearing love-heart boxer shorts – which veers to close to Sleeze Brothers territory for me).

(I also spotted a mismatch in Death’s Head’s back weapons – when he stands over Orgus, his shadow casts his mace on his right shoulder; in the next panel, the axe is on his right shoulder and the mace on the left. I mention it because such slips are a lot rarer than I thought they would be.)

It seems like Hitch is starting to make the character design his own: with Senior, the teeth-like grill was always set high, like a robotic skull; Hitch seems to place the grill low, in more of a Clint Eastwood-style grimace.

Next week: Death’s Head takes on Los Angeles’ organised hoodlums as Spratt is hunted by “Plaguedog!”

Death’s Head #3 was republished in ‘Death’s Head Volume 1


Eugene said...

I prefer DH with the high grill. Hitch overall does a great DH though.

Andros Tempest said...

hitch was probably the more prolific artist associated with DH. Certainly when death's head 1 made it to the states it tended to be in hitch associated titles (like sensational she-hulk).

Walt Simmonson did a good take, I certainly hope once you finish the volume one reviews you cover his crossovers in She-hulk and Fantastic Four too.

Chuffer said...

Funny you should mention that, Andros, because Hitch takes a break from art duties from the next issue. He only does two more in the series, plus the She-Hulk crossover (still, 5 issues puts him second only to Geoff Senior). And yes, I'm working my way through all of Death's Head's catalogue, so there will be the regular series, graphic novel and guest appearances.

Eugene, I agree - I thought Hitch was really developing his take on the character. But I also prefer the high grill - makes him look more like a 'death's head'.