Thursday, July 28, 2011

Death’s Head Review: Issue #2 – Contractual Obligations

The second issue of Death’s Head’s own series and the creative line-up remains largely the same: writer Simon Furman, penciller Bryan Hitch, letterer Annie H, colourist Abadzis and editor Richard Starkings. The exception is David Hine on inking duties.

The cover incorporates the tagline “Guest starring… Dragon’s Claws” and Hitch’s artwork does likewise: Death’s Head is tussling with four of the Claws (the fifth member, Digit, looks a bit spare in the background). They are each letting out grunts of pain, causing Death’s Head to comment, “Articulate lot, yes?”. It’s a passable joke, but the picture looks a little static, lacking the energy of an all-out brawl.

The splash page has Death’s Head bursting through the floor of the Dragon’s Nest base, specifically the living quarters of Scavenger, the Claws’ enigmatic sneak operative. For the last time, the captions reveal Death’s Head’s own thoughts (but this time in the present, not past, tense), “I know how to make an entrance, yes?”

As the two fight, we see that Death’s Head’s new body comes with improvements: boot jets, a bolas and tracking systems that work even when blinded. Though clearly outmatched, Scavenger puts up a scrappy resistance. He is only defeated when Death’s Head unknowingly triggers another of his upgrades: a jet of sleeping gas from his palm. He leaves with his prey just before the rest of the Claws arrive on the scene, though Dragon looks out of the window and recognises Death’s Head escaping.

Death’s Head returns to the underground ruins of Chaney Prison, a maximum security facility that, 10 years ago, got buried in an earthquake. Though presumed dead, the lower level prisoners survived and formed The Chain Gang, led by a tough character named Fox. Death’s Head throws Scavenger to his former crew.

Above ground, Dragon’s Claws are searching for Scavenger, as this was where Dragon first encountered him. We flash back seven years, where Dragon is outnumbered and wounded by a comedy-themed team called The Jesters. Scavenger leaps in to save him, quickly defeating all four Jesters, before vanishing again.

Back in the present, Fox is beating Scavenger for having betrayed their community as Death’s Head watches, bored. His internal monologue explains that, as the surviving inmates suffered from agoraphobia, they were dependent on Scavenger to fetch provisions for them. He gained their trust enough for them to take off an explosive tether, and then fled to join Dragon’s Claws. Death’s Head sympathises with Scavenger, though he concedes that he owes The Chain Gang for repairing him. He has apparently calculated his debt down to the last minute - in twenty minutes, his service is over.

Death’s Head has a brief exchange with Spratt, the puckish young man who repaired him and who took over Scavenger’s foraging duties. Spratt is intrigued by Death’s Head, though he makes the mistake of calling him a ‘hired killer’ and brushed aside.

Scavenger’s beating is interrupted when the rest of Dragon’s Claws storm the building. With fifteen minutes left on the clock, Death’s Head is sent to intercept them. There is a nice comedic moment when Steel, the team’s giant samurai, draws his sword to duel Death’s Head, and is immediately knocked off his feet with a less-than chivalrous punch.

The rest of the Claws are subdued pretty quickly, leaving only Dragon, which presents Death’s Head with a problem. As the man who came closest to killing him, Dragon has earned the mechanoid’s grudging respect. “For the first time in my life,” he admits, keeping one eye on his chronometer, “I was going to find it difficult to kill someone, yes?”

Fox moves to finish off Scavenger, who flees into the ruined corridors of Chaney, avoiding his crushing blows. With a change of tactic he leaps on Fox, obscuring his vision and leading him up to the surface. On the way, Scavenger argues that he wasn’t betraying The Chain Gang by abandoning them, he was setting them free. He casts Fox out into the wide open space, where his agoraphobia takes effect and he sinks to his knees, catatonic.

Meanwhile Death’s Head has overpowered Dragon. He raises his mace to finish the job, takes another glance at his chronometer and, with 59 seconds left, decides it is a minute slow. He walks away from the bemused Dragon.

Later, the authorities had arrived to take away Fox and the rest of The Chain Gang. Scavenger hopes he has saved them from Fox, though he acknowledges Fox was acting from what he thought was his people’s best interests. Dragon stares into the distance and, seeing Death’s Head looking at him, offers a half-salute.

Death’s Head finds himself pestered by Spratt, who has eluded custody and snuck up on him. Spratt tries to sell him on the idea of a business partner who can guide him through this world. Death’s Head brushes him off, only to find Spratt persistently tagging after him. He sighs as the captions promise, “The beginning…”

Hmm … after singing the praises of the past four adventures, I felt this one hits a bum note. If Death’s Head occupied too much of Dragon’s Claws #5, he more than returns the favour here. With the issue devoted to Scavenger’s history, and even a two-page flashback for Dragon, this barely feels like a Death’s Head issue. Conversely, with Dragon’s Claws’ own series following such a tight story arc, this extra issue adds no real benefit to them either.

As we learn his backstory, it’s also hard to sympathise with Scavenger. He was clearly the lifeline for an entire community – Fox’s agoraphobia is real and incapacitating, and since none of the others left for the surface, we can assume theirs is too. While he may have wearied of being their lackey, it doesn’t excuse abandoning them to starve. Moreover, as maximum security prisoners, The Chain Gang will presumably be sent to another facility, so defeating Fox hardly ‘saves’ them from captivity. It may be reading too much into it, but when Death Head voices his sympathies with Scavenger, it feels like the writer is trying too hard to support a dubious moral argument.

The tale begins promisingly enough, with Scavenger desperately improvising weapons against Death’s Head. But the subsequent clash against the whole team is a damp squib and mostly off-panel. The titanic battle in Dragon’s Claws #5 is a hard one to match, and this doesn’t come close. Indeed, despite Scavenger musing that The Chain Gang could tip the balance against the Claws, none of them are seen to get involved. There is none of the chaotic violence that occurred in The ‘Pool – Death’s Head just beats them up for a while, then stops when he decides his time is up.

The idea that Death’s Head is contracted for a limited period of time strikes me as awkward. In none of his other contracts – past or future – is he hired by the hour. He always has a set task to accomplish, or not, and by my reckoning he’d repaid his debt to The Chain Gang at page 7, when he delivered Scavenger. While it is always fun to see Death’s Head stick to the letter of his contract, regardless of morality, the ‘ticking clock’ idea seems an obvious contrivance to have him fight the Claws, but spare Dragon at (literally) the last minute. Having Death’s Head invent a reason to avoid his contract also seems seriously off-character, and some nimbler writing from Furman might have found a better excuse.

As the only character in this story to become a semi-regular, Spratt’s role is oddly minimal. He has a brief conversation with Death’s Head, and the story concludes with their unwilling partnership. If that epilogue was to be meaningful, I think we should have seen a lot more of Spratt beforehand, and be eager for him to team up with the bounty hunter. Coming across like this, it’s easy to find him as random and annoying as Death’s Head does. Perhaps he lost space due the necessity of accommodating Dragon’s Claws, but it’s not the best start.

(It’s got me wondering if the issue’s title – ‘Contractual Obligations’ – isn’t Furman’s hint that he didn’t want to write a crossover issue, but was compelled to do so for marketing reasons. Despite both being set in Earth 8162, Death’s Head and Dragon’s Claws share little in common, and it would be much cleaner to have let each series continue along its own path.)

The artwork is also something of a mixed bag. Hitch does a nice job of Death’s Head and Scavenger, although the rest of the Claws are less well-rendered (other than Geoff Senior, Hitch is the only artist to draw the Claws, so it’s a lot to live up to). His action scenes are showing more pace and bite, although the scenery is a little dull (Chaney Prison is nondescript rubble) and some of the framing lacks thought (Fox’s moment of agoraphobia is shown against the enclosing valley wall – I would have thought showing his view of open skies would be more effective). A noticeable loss from issue #1 is inker Mark Farmer, as David Hine’s finishes seem to flatten the art.

Next week: contractual obligations fulfilled, Death’s Head skips across the Atlantic to set up shop in Los Angeles in ‘High Stakes’!

Death’s Head #2 was republished in ‘Death’s Head Volume 1


"Not Today" said...

Hey chuggler- r u gonna do Dragon clawed as well! As for the reveal wtf!!!!!!

Jimtron said...

Hehehe... another vote for Dragon Claws.... Chuffer, after you finish with Death's Head, we may have to extend your contract, yes?

Chuffer said...

Oh yes. A Dragon’s Claws review sounds very tempting – I’ve recently re-read the collection and I’m amazed how well it holds up over the years. There’s a series that is crying out for a reboot.