Thursday, September 15, 2011

Death’s Head Review: Issue #9 – Clobberin’ Time!

The original creators are reunited for Death’s Head #9 – Simon Furman and Geoff Senior as writer and artist respectively . Continuity is kept elsewhere with Louise Cassell as colourist, Annie H letterer, and Steve White editor.

The cover is by Walter Simonson, writer and artist for the US titles X-Factor, Mighty Thor and Fantastic Four, who was apparently a fan of the character (Death’s Head later guested in his Fantastic Four run). The Thing holds the mechanoid upside-down as Death’s Head shrugs and decides, “It’s clobberin’ time, yes?”. It’s a good cover: lightly comical with the two figures nicely rendered and larger than life (spilling out over the title). Death’s Head is especially well done and, despite his obvious predicament, Simonson avoids making him look weak or stupid. Indeed he nicely captures the cool detachment Death’s Head displays throughout this adventure.

We begin in the Four Freedoms Plaza, 1989, a full-page splash of Human Torch melting his way through half a metal door, as The Thing tears through the other half in angry pursuit. He yells that it’s “clobberin’ time” and, in case the references get too heavy, a footnote jokingly assures readers that they haven’t picked up the wrong book.

The two continue to roughhouse around Mister Fantastic’s laboratory, with the Invisible Woman trying to restrain them. They are eventually called to order by Reed, who explains that he is working on a new form of security for the building. Encased within a green sphere is a logic chip that can assess threats and direct the building’s defences accordingly. Unexpectedly, the sphere hovers into life: it has already found a target on the roof!

Meanwhile on the roof, Death’s Head is once again regrouping after an encounter with Doctor Who, “Tricked, yes? Tricked by a feeble time traveller and dumped here.” It’s the same words he used last time, but rather than unrestrained fury, this experience barely raises a mechanical eyebrow.

A little gun pops up behind him and starts blasting. Grumbling about having to materialise on a building that shoots at him, Death’s Head acrobatically dodges the fire, affixes a shottblaster and destroys the gun. He barely has time to gloat before dozens of massive guns appear, forcing him to engage boot jets to survive the artillery barrage.

Flying through the newly-created hole in the roof, he arrives in the vehicle store and reasons that anyone this advanced might have a time machine. Hoping aloud that the residents are sane, normal people, a tap on the shoulder reveals the Fantastic Four. Death’s Head sighs that it’s going to be one of those days.

Back in 8162, Spratt and the vulture are once more competing to answer the phone. Winning the race, Spratt finds himself speaking with someone asking for her ’love’. Intrigued by the idea that Death’s Head might have a girlfriend, Spratt sets up a date.

Picking up with the great caption, ‘Six thousand years ago’, Death’s Head is trading blows with The Thing. Ben shrugs off a mace, then punches the mechanoid hard enough to send him smashing through three separate walls. Human Torch follows up, flame-blasting the mechanoid, but when the other superheroes catch up, they find Johnny unconscious on the floor.

Before he can explain, Death’s Head is attacked again. He manages to fell The Thing, but is seized by Mister Fantastic. Reed is unexpectedly zapped and Sue takes over with a vengeance, crushing Death’s Head against the wall with a force-field. Reed recovers to reveal that he and Johnny were attacked by the building’s defences, not Death’s Head.

On cue, the green sphere hovers into the room, identifies them all as intruders, blasts The Thing and scoots away. As they battle through retracting floors and enclosing walls, Reed explains that the logic chip must have been damaged and their own building is now attacking them.

Pausing for breath, Death’s Head explains that his internal systems can track the sphere (causing Reed to hilariously exclaim, “You’re a robot?”), and discovers it is with the 5-year old Franklin Richards. An armoured vehicle trundles up and begins to unload its heavy weaponry on the group – except for Death’s Head who, as a mechanoid, is not being targeted by the body-heat sensors.

As Mister Fantastic pleads with him to save his son, Death’s Head is quick to recognise the bargaining position and secures the promise of a time machine. Shortly, the mechanoid arrives at Franklin’s room to find the infant tethered to the sphere. Attaching a precise laser cutter, he disables the sphere but also triggers its self-destruct mode. About to flee, Death’s Head catches sight of little Frankln’s face and changes his mind, freeing the child and carrying him to safety at the last second.

Crisis averted, Franklin is reunited with the Fantastic Four. Death’s Head is in the process of being sent through time, while still protesting that he rescued Franklin for selfish reasons, not heroism. In response to The Thing’s claim that he must be some kind of 8162 super-hero, Death’s Head shows an ill-judged mood of candour, and admits that he kills people for a living. Horrified, Reed tries to cancel the time-jump, but only succeeds in sending him to the year 2020.

Which leads to an epilogue in New York 2020: a shadowy figure is convincing a reluctant Arno Stark to accept a mercenary job. He finally does so, with the words, “May God have mercy on me” and a close-up on the Iron Man 2020 helmet.

As Death’s Head’s first foray into the ‘proper’ Marvel Universe, this is an entertaining issue. While the story is a fairly standard set-up for a crossover – protagonists meet, fight a little, then team-up against a common foe – it still manages to be an exciting tale.

The plot device of a security system that gets smart and turns against its creators isn’t too original either, but it makes for non-stop action and circumvents the need to accommodate a more rounded antagonist (which would probably make things cluttered). This way, both Fantastic Four and Death’s Head get to fight various automata (and each other), with the threat to Franklin neatly upping the stakes at the right moment.

The Fantastic Four are depicted in a fairly textbook manner, which I have no complaints about. I suspect the Four weren’t as well-known to UK readers (especially those who came to the title via Transformers), so a solid introduction is useful. It may also be that Furman was finding his feet in depicting classic Marvel characters.

Once again, Death’s Head is more of a guest star in his own title, although this can’t really be helped, given the overall story dictates that he is just passing through this era. With Furman back on writing duties, Death’s Head is solidly in character, facing extreme situations with dry resignation. As with Dragon’s Claws #5, he copes with his new circumstances admirably: surviving whatever’s thrown at him, then exploiting the first opportunity that appears.

I also got the feeling that Death’s Head was being re-introduced to the audience: he was a little heavy on the exposition about his commonplace accessories and abilities. This is odd for a series almost at the end of its run, but my guess would be that it was marketing-driven: hoping this series of guest stars would drum up some new readers.

The artwork, as you would expect from Senior, is brilliant. The full-length panel when he first appears is one of the best renderings I’ve seen (and also the first time Senior got to draw the new uniform). This kinetic issue, full of explosions and power-punches, suits Senior’s style perfectly. There are some nice visual jokes too – the comedic escalation from one little rooftop gun to an entire arsenal pointing at Death’s Head is particularly good.

The artwork also brings out the best in Cassell’s colouring – compared to the fairly flat colours of the past issue, this one has real depth and shade, especially with the Death’s Head’s metallic skin.

(The only howler in the art comes when Death’s Head was confronted by the Fantastic Four: he is tapped on the shoulder by The Thing, then immediately turns to face the Four – who are all standing six feet away! Either Ben has learned Reed’s stretching powers, or he quickly scurried back to join his team for a group pose.)

Only one page is given to the continuity of the series: Spratt and the mysterious suitor. It’s characteristic of Furman to seed future plots like this, although it’s not clear what Spratt thinks has happened to his partner (did he even know about the Dogbolter job?). At the moment, it’s a plot worth noting, rather than actually getting engaged with (although the ‘girlfriend’ angle is somewhat left-field).

Next week: the final case in the Death’s Head series puts him up against the Iron Man of 2020 in “The Cast Iron Contract”.

Death’s Head #9 was republished ‘Death’s Head Volume 2


Anonymous said...

Interesting that at this time Geoff Senior was drawing more for crossovers than main titles that he helped define, but I guess it makes sense to use the best available talent wherever new readers are more likely to be drawn in. I sometimes tout the merits of the Action Force crossover by pointing out that since Senior was the only comic artist who could consistently make Transformers look even better than Sunbow's animation, it's worth overlooking Centurion's unexplained sentience just to see his take on some '83-'85 Joes.

Likewise, I'll explain to an FF fan that what made him the greatest TF artist is his ability to make robots look solid and blocky but lively and energized at the same time; therefore this issue is worth reading just to see his take on The Thing. Okay, his rendering isn't so spectacularly unique that it stands out THAT much, but to paraphrase a Superman ad, you will believe a man is actually made out of orange rocks. I've seen a lot of books drawn by mainstream U.S. artists who fail to get that across.


Anonymous said...

I'd just like to point out that Sunbow never animated anything, they were a law firm that acted as intermediary between Marvel and various licensed properties. Marvel was officially the animator and creator of the Transformers TV series (despite Sunbow claiming otherwise).

Secondly Senior made a major error in the art for this story, Ben Grim had lost his powers at this point of the US continuity and his position in the FF was taken up by the She-Thing Ms Marvel AKA Sharon Ventura. Presumably this was intended to be set either prior to the formation of the "New Fantastic Four" which did not feature Reed Richards or his Wife, or shortly after the Walt Simmonson run (which was on going at the time of this issues original printing) which concluded with all the original four members reunited.

Otherwise it's a what if? universe and the true present day of the Iron-man 2020 universe seen in the next issue.

Tim Roll-Pickering said...

I don't think the Fantastic Four was reprinted much in the UK in this period. The classic line-up was probably used simply for familiarity rather than having to stop and explain all the changes.

Or perhaps Ben is in his Thing suit for the duration of the story and Sharon's gone shopping?

Anonymous said...

I realised after I posted that the simonson era was long after this and actually features death head in a brief cameo, now as part of the Time Variance Authority. [oops spoilers sweetie]

Andros Tempest said...

as was mentioned, clearly the use of the original four was intentional to make it more accessible for UK readers who may only be familiar with the FF via reprints of the 60's/70's material or the TV show.

however this does seem slightly odd. Firstly, Furman (the writer) was possibly just as well known at Marvel UK in the 80's as the editor of Secret Wars 2, a title which featured the Fantastic Four extensively. At that point UK readers would have been more familiar with the She-Hulk, Invisible Woman, Human Torch, Mr Fantastic team up, again NO THING.

Also, one of the things that always got me to seek out new titles, was when a cross over hinted at some intriguing personal development in the guest star's own title. Referencing (even in one panel) current continuity would have been a great boost to the US import sales at the time (could even have lead to calls from UK readers for a new reprint title...) a definite fumble on Marvel's part (IMO).

placing this story in FF continuity is a tricky one. it is clearly before the Steve Englehart[sp] era, but how far before is debatable.

it certainly couldn't have been any later as (as was pointed out before) Reed and Sue were absent from the team for a time, and when they returned Ben was rendered powerless until after their NEXT meeting with Deaths head.

Since they have the John Byrne designed costume and head quarters, but no mention of She-hulk, I'd say it was safe to say with was just after Byrne left but well before Walt Simonson took over. I'm not sure of the exact issue numbers or dates.

Chuffer said...

It’s a tricky one to place. It definitely happened before Fantastic Four #338, because that’s their second encounter with Death’s Head and they specifically refer to this meeting. Reed and Sue return in #326, but Thing loses his powers at the same time.

I think Tim’s explanation is the best: Ben was wearing his ‘Thing exoskeleton’ the whole time and She-Thing was absent and never mentioned (and also it showed the ‘classic’ Fantastic Four to UK readers).

I’d personally place it at the start of the Simmonson run: between the ‘Acts of Vengeance’ story #334-336 and the ‘time stream’ saga of #337-341. In #336, they even have problems with the building’s automated defences, which Reed sort-of references in this story

Tim Roll-Pickering said...

The Secret Wars II title had certainly featured the Fantastic Four from the She Hulk era and actually took the opportunity to give them additional exposure by running the full story arcs that the SWII crossovers literally just set foot in. I seem to recall it was openly acknowledged on the letters page that this was to give UK readers the chance to see some characters who didn't get such great exposure. However I presume it didn't lead to heightened demand for them, as I don't think Marvel launched many new super hero titles in this era.

By the time this Death's Head issue came around, SWII had finished over two & a half years earlier so I don't think familiarity with the She-Hulk era line-up could be taken for granted to the point that it could override the classic line-up as the default without an explanation. (The familiarity would also have been boosted by reruns of the 1960s FF cartoon around this time.) Certainly with FF you'd need to give some explanation as to why they're not the most usual four - they're not like the Avengers or the X-Men, let alone the Defenders, with a constantly evolving membership - but the classic line-up is the most fun to write. (And it's also different from Iron Man 2020 who doesn't need that much introduction - he's clearly a relative of Tony Stark who's inherited the mantle in the future.)