Thursday, December 8, 2011

Death’s Head Review: Doctor Who Monthly #173: Party Animals & The Incomplete Death’s Head #1-12

For this, I’m attempting the rather-ambitious goal of thirteen issues in one review. The Incomplete Death’s Head series was published around the launch of Death’s Head II. It reprinted most of the original mechanoid’s tales, and was given a framing story featuring Minion and Tuck.

The Doctor Who Monthly #173 was published two years earlier. It has practically nothing to do with Death’s Head, except for its puzzling inclusion in the ‘Death’s Head Volume 2’ collection. It only really makes sense when it was retroactively included in the framing story, which is why I include it here.

The framing story of The Incomplete Death’s Head was written by Dan Abnett, pencils by Simon Coleby, inking alternated between Simon Coleby and Neil Bushnell, lettering was either Annie Parkhouse or Gary Gilbert, colour David Leach, and the editor was John Freeman (also credited with the ‘plot’ for issue 1, so I guess this was his idea).

The cover to the first issue is by Liam Sharp and Hank Kanalz, and it’s quite a good one. Minion poses dramatically (behind him, Tuck just poses) and examines a glowing sphere that contains a portrait of Death’s Head. The real treat is that the sphere is a cut-out circle and the cover opens, like a pop-up book, to reveal the rest of Death’s Head facing many of his enemies: Mayhem, Big Shot, Plaguedog etc. Everyone is charging towards the mechanoid and, though I have my usual reservations about the way Sharp depicts movement, the whole image would make decent poster art.

The story begins with Minion and Tuck unexpectedly transported to a mysterious, hi-tech location. We later discover this is Maruthea – an ‘impossible’ space station in the centre of the space-time vortex. Quickly defeating the robot guardians, they discover they are in an archive dedicated to the original Death’s Head.

With one panel, the Pyra and Lupex origin is swiftly covered (the omission of the actual story is odd, but the high standard of that story’s artwork might have been ruined in this format) and move on to the next step: Death’s Head was stolen, programmed to be a bounty hunter, and set up in business where he ran into the unfortunate Tex.

Minion plugs himself into the archive to learn more, and a missing piece is added to the Death Head story: he was stolen again and sent to a parallel universe (i.e. The Transformers universe) where his size was considerably increased. To circumvent copyright, the computer screen shows a poor quality image of Death’s Head fighting an off-colour Galvatron. The story concludes that, during this robot war, Death’s Head was caught in the gravitational well of a collapsing planet and accelerated into the Crossroads of Time (not exactly matching the original story, but perhaps easier to explain in the limited space).

After viewing his adventures with The Doctor and Dragon’s Claws, Minion is intrigued to know more about Death Head, since without that dominant personality he would never have gained his own free will. He is suddenly blasted by electrical feedback and his mind is pulled into the cyberspace of the archive.

The consciousness of Minion then meets the consciousness of Death’s Head, which has materialised within cyberspace. Over the course of the series, they both review the past adventures of the freelance peacekeeping agent, peppered with moments of action (such as when the memory of Big Shot comes alive and attacks) to keep things interesting.

In the real world, Tuck is attacked by the creator of the archive: Hob. The diminutive robot valet survived the explosion of the Dogbolter Temporal Rocket, but his master went missing. Obsessed with finding Dogbolter, and rebuilt in mechanical-spider form, Hob created the archive to study Death’s Head (although he is ignorant of the Minion incarnation). His apparent hope is to trap Death’s Head and The Doctor, in the hope that they can be made to find his master.

As Hob has Tuck in his clutches, and Minion watches helplessly, the actual Death’s Head and The Doctor both arrive at Maruthea, which segues into the Doctor Who story ‘Party Animals’ (Gary Russell script, Mike Collins pencils, Steve Pini inks, Glib letters, John Freeman editor)...

The Seventh Doctor and Ace arrive at Maruthea to join the birthday party of a satyr named Bonjaxx. The party is a crowded scene of every character the artist can imagine (ranging from a Sontaran to Captain Britain to Star Trek’s Worf to Bart Simpson). The Doctor is told that someone is looking for him, and he wonders if it is Death’s Head, who is sat alone, drinking a cocktail with a little pink umbrella.

He is then met by another eccentrically-dressed chap with a female sidekick. They chat to each other, amiably and enigmatically, as a massive brawl erupts around them. After a comment about the First Law of Time, they step into their respective TARDIS’ and reveal the not-too-surprising truth that The Doctor has just met a past/future incarnation of himself.

And back to the framing story, Hob joins the brawl and faces off with Death’s Head. Watching from cyberspace, the virtual Death’s Head points out that his past self might actually be in danger, since causality means nothing in Maruthea.

With The Doctor gone, Minion fears that Hob will vent his frustration on Tuck. Death appreciates looking out for his partner, and admits that, given the chance, he would have tried to save Spratt (probably the nicest thing he’s said about his deceased sidekick). He offers to shunt the cyborg back into reality on the condition that he doesn’t let Hob kill him (presumably because he wants to save himself for the pleasure of being killed by Minion later on).

Minion leaps back into life and attacks Hob, severing the arm that held Tuck captive. He then teams up with the real Death’s Head and the pair make short work of blasting, then slicing, Hob into pieces.

In the aftermath, Death’s Head makes some quick deductions about the cyborg who moves like him and shares his name, and decides that Minion cannot be allowed to live. Before violence starts, Death’s Head is zapped and falls to the ground. The Doctor has returned to blast him, once again, with The Tissue Compression Eliminator (which has been modified into a Deus Ex Machina device, since it knocks Death’s Head unconscious and wipes his memories of the whole encounter).

Confronted by Minion, The Doctor confesses that he was the one who sent Death’s Head into The Transformers universe, trying to bring out his capacity for good by shaping his adventures. He was also the one who brought Minion and Tuck here, so they could conclude the unfinished business with Hob. Minion appreciates the save, but dislikes being manipulated, and so warns The Doctor against doing so again (and, continuing the theme of Minion being tougher than any other comic character, The Doctor meekly accepts). Minion and Tuck return to their own time, while The Doctor helps Death’s Head back to his feet.

As a way of reprinting the old Death’s Head titles (although I’m not sure I believe the promotional rhetoric that Death’s Head II was so amazingly popular that audiences demanded to know more about his namesake), this was nicely done. Like a compilation episode of a long-running sitcom, the framing story gave Minion a good little adventure, and even filled in some of the blanks of Death’s Head’s backstory.

Minion and Tuck still in ‘tough guy and sidekick’ mode, although space is limited to give them much more scope for character. Their initial wisecrack responses to the archive reports – commenting like Beavis & Butthead – get a little tired, but once danger kicks in, things improve. I like how some reprints are used to support an argument – such as the She-Hulk episode about time-travel – rather than have the characters passively watch them.

Having Minion speak with the cyberspace ‘ghost’ of Death’s Head was a nice touch. It’s interesting that Minion only took the mechanoid’s personality, not his memories, and it helps to give them different perspectives. And I still think that Abnett writes the first Death’s Head better than he does the second one.

Coleby’s artwork gets stronger as the series goes on. The initial line work is fairly thin and insipid to begin with, but does improve once Bushnell’s inks add some depth and atmosphere to the panels. Everyone has over-emphasised guns, muscles and blades, even by Minion’s standards, but that’s nothing new. I did like the nightmarish creation of Hob: a mechanical-spider with his little round head as an angry nodule on the end of his Alien-esque tongue.

Story-wise, it was a clever move of Abnett (or Freeman) to bring Hob back into the narrative, since Dogbolter was one of the more obvious loose threads of the series. Hob’s logic about capturing Death’s Head in order to find his master is a little skewed, but I’m happy to give him some crazy-robot leeway. It also gives a good reason to bring in The Doctor and the short story of Maruthea.

As for ‘Party Animals’, unless it figured into a large narrative about The Doctor’s future self (and I don’t think it did), I couldn’t really see the point. Aside from the glimpse of a future Doctor (and given they had free rein to create anything, a middle-age man in a dapper jacket is hardly original), there’s no drama or resolution in this story. The artwork is functional, although it tries too hard to capture Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred, and Collins clearly had fun in depicting a diverse range of characters.

Generally that story felt like a bit of end-of-term silliness , and only just manages to fit into the wider narrative. It’s surprising that this made it into the republished volume – since it’s hardly a Death’s Head tale – whereas the more significant framing story did not.

I’m also not convinced by the final reveal: that The Doctor has been manipulating Death’s Head’s life – as far back as sending him to hunt Transformers. Apart from its very implausibility, Death’s Head’s career has hardly been a positive one – that’s part of his appeal – and making him the puppet of The Doctor somehow undermines his story.

Next week: Furman’s revenge – as we visit a parallel universe that asks: What if Minion Had Not Killed Death’s Head?

The Doctor Who Monthly #173 was republished ‘Death’s Head Volume 2’.


Hans said...

It's been a while since I read this, but I seem to remember thinking that this was a way to bring back the original Death's Head as well, if they ever wanted to use him again. I can't remember how, though, but apparently his personality has been copied into that mainframe or something? It felt that way to me, anyway, when I read it.

Anonymous said...

well with the conclusion of this and Death's Head II you do technically have the possiblity of a returned Death's Head via several means.

1. his original body, now time jumped into the past, makes its way to the mainframe and the two are recombined.

2. the Deux ex machina mind wipe thing didn't take, Death's Head at some point remembered his encounter with his future self, and avoided their first encounter thus creating a paradox version that could coexist.

I've never read this series, as to be honest I got sick of Death's head at this point. The Body in question had not wowed me, since it contradicted a lot of established continuity, and Death's Head II had proved to be an ugly badly plotted mess.

That said I was still a Dr Who fan, so I feel I may have missed out by not getting this after all.

The idea of the 7th Doctor manipulating Death's Head is actually in keeping with the 7th Doctor's motivations in both the comics and the TV show. He tended to play the big game, moving pieces about time like a chess player. More so than any other Doctor. It was even implied in Silver Nemesis, that he had been doing this much longer than even the audience were aware. It was certainly a theme continued in stories like Curse of Fenric and Ghost Light.

I have issue however with using the Doctor as the get out of jail free card for this story. He isn't a Marvel owned character, long term they are going to have to gloss over even this story if they ever resurrect Death's Head. It would have been far better to have used a new force created just for this story, or better still and existing time related Marvel villain (or hero) it isn't like there aren't plenty who would fit the bill. Kang, Immortus, the Time Variance Authority, the Tomorrow Man, Dr Doom, Read Richards, Nathaniel Richards, Merlin, Saturnyn, Roma, the Technet, the list goes on. Plus didn't Marvel UK also create their own version of the Time Broker for the Death's Head II on going series who could easily have fit the bill?

No instead they have to muddy the waters further by having a character they clutched from Hasbro's claws, motivated by one owned by the BBC!



Anonymous said...

Haven't read past the end of the original Death's Head series myself, but Andros Tempest's list of possible manipulators suitable for a Marvel DH revamp just made me realize how awesome it would be if IDW somehow got permission to do a more Transformers-centric revamp that retcons his being manipulated by Heinrad in an attempt to toss him into the Beast Wars and stop Shokaract after judging that he was the key to defeating Unicron centuries earlier/later.

I reiterate, I have no idea what I'm talking about. Gotta' save up for these trades sometime. But I did read all but the last issue of Incomplete, and agree that working Hob in was clever. Not unlike what Furman used to do with throw-away concepts from the US TF book come to think of it...


Tim Roll-Pickering said...

Regarding the future Doctor and companion Ria in Party Animals, they were from the Audio Visuals series of unofficial fan audio Doctor Who adventures, the final season of which was produced by Gary Russell who wrote the strip and presumably this was a deliberate nod to the series (and a back door way of canonisation). Their appearance is based on their audio actors Nicholas Briggs and (I think) Heather Barker. As far as I know this is their sole appearance in licensed Who stories, though in the late 1990s the Who comic strip did a story where the Doctor seemingly turned into this incarnation, but it was later revealed to be a set-up.

Anonymous said...

they also have a very brief cameo at the end of the first Dr Who / Death's Head crossover, which I suspect was a deliberate lead into Party Animals.


Alexander Smith said...

Regarding Anyonymous' points above: I've always felt that part of the appeal of Death's Head's character is the way he's infringed on so many copyrights. Surely that befits a time-hopping character like him? It also points up how fun Marvel Comics could be back then.

Incidentally, his nature as a dimension-and-time-hopping character means that if he ever does come back long-term I don't it'll take much explaining - it could be the version of him from the What If...?, or any number of other realities.

One final thing: Fans of Transformers, fans of Death's Head and fans of writer James Roberts (there should be some overlap there, yes?) should have a read of his TF novel Eugenesis, available for free online. Not only does it star DH in a pretty big role, but it also gives the truth to that description of him disappearing in 'the gravity well of a collapsing planet'.

John Freeman said...

When Death’s Head II proved a runaway success for Marvel, the demand went out for more, and quickly, from Marvel US. Editorial Director Paul Neary was, initially, reluctant to republish the original Death’s Head, fearing it would dilute the impact of the new character created with Dan Abnett and Liam Sharp, so I suggested adding a framing sequence that featured Death’s Head II, and worked up the outline idea Dan Abnett utilised with his usual aplomb, Simon Coleby - by then, the regular Death’s Head II artist - drawing the new pages.

Back then, of course, Marvel UK also published Doctor Who strips under licence, and longtime Death’s Head readers will recall how the Seventh Doctor provided the plot device used to bring the bounty hunter - sorry, peacekeeping agent - down to size, literally, from his giant form seen in Transformers comic, where he first appeared, to a more manageable height, pitted as he would be against Dragon’s Claws and other human-sized foes.

So, for me, it made perfect sense that the Seventh Doctor would be manipulating Death’s Head II, following events in the story “Crossroads in Time”, first published in Doctor Who Magazine 135, written by Simon Furman, with art by Geoff Senior, Richard Starkings suggesting the use of the Master’s Tissue Compression Eliminator to bring Death’s Head down to size.

The framing sequence enabled Death’s Head II to feature on some covers in the series, to help boost sales.