The final issue in the Death’s Head series has the same creative core as the one that started it: Simon Furman writer, Bryan Hitch artist and Annie H letterer. Steve White was editor and Euan Peters takes on colouring duties.
The cover is another superb Hitch/Farmer collaboration: amid rubble, smoke and flames, the Iron Man of 2020 stands victorious over a decapitated Death’s Head, holding up his head. It’s one of the more action-orientated covers, and Iron Man is very menacing, though his posture seems a little awkward. Death’s Head looks suitably expired (worryingly so, for an end-of-series issue), and there’s even red fuel/oil leaking from his felled body, adding some gore.
The only complaints I have are with the dialogue: Iron Man proclaims “There’s only one Iron Man … and I’m it, yes?”. As with Issue #6, the joke is repeated within the pages. Also, if the cover was being played for laughs (and they usually were), it seems funnier to have Death’s Head’s disembodied skull speak the final line as a cheeky response.
The opening page is a splash of Arno Stark, the Iron Man of 2020, looking even nastier than he did on the cover. Bullets are zinging off his armour as he leaps down into the streets of New York (there’s also a fluttering Daily Bugle in the background with the headline ‘Horned Monster!!’, so we can assume Death’s Head has arrived).
Iron Man is attacking a group of armed goons, which he despatches with relative ease, even blowing up their retreating van to show he means business. The men he just saved – diplomatic emissaries – refuse his violent protection, saying there has been some mistake. The emissaries drive away, leaving Iron Man to his nagging doubts, “not again” presumably a reference to his previous defeat by Machine Man.
This entire scene was narrated with a conversation between two unseen observers. As well as providing some exposition on Iron Man, it reveals they staged the entire incident and duped Stark into participating. The scene moves to a mansion and we meet these observers: Chance, a rich middle-aged dilettante (complete with monocle, smoking jacket and brandy) and his refined Indian valet, Athey. Chance is a member of The Dicemen, an elite group who set up these real-life contests for their own amusement.
Chance is eager to manipulate Iron Man for a second time, prompting Athey to warn his master that The Dicemen only use players once, to prevent their actions being traced back to them. Nonetheless, Athey suggests an opponent: Death’s Head has just appeared on television, having captured a gang leader and is keen to correct the news reporter that he did it for the reward, not civic duty. Chance orders an immediate contest.
Before that happens, we see Death’s Head working on another case: in a Hell’s Kitchen hideout, a trio of kidnappers are waiting for their reward money. Instead they get Death’s Head, punching through a wall to quickly overpower them; including one who accidently shoots down a section of ceiling on his own head, and another who mistakes Death’s Head for a demon and becomes paralysed with fear: “Il Diablo!” “Charming!”
Somewhat richer with the reward, Death’s Head returns to his offices, reflecting on his unexpected good fortune: 2020 is an even better market for his skills than 8162. And he’s even rid of Spratt. Athey is waiting for him, and offers a bounty on two ‘international terrorists’ (the diplomatic emissaries Iron Man is protecting). Death’s Head is distrustful, but accepts the job.
Later, Iron Man is still protecting his unwilling charges, bustling them into a hotel elevator. Before he can join them, he is shoved away by a mechanoid hand and the doors close in his face, leaving Death’s Head alone with his prey. Iron Man tears off the elevator roof and the two battle, almost severing the elevator cables in the process.
With a burst of righteousness, Iron Man barges into Death’s Head, rocketing them far away and slamming into a distant rooftop. Before the mechanoid can recover, Iron Man grabs his head and tears it off his shoulders. Alone on the rooftop (unaware that he is being watched by Chance) Arno Stark wonders aloud at why he needs this victory so badly that he won’t question all the suspicious elements of the job. Before he can go any further, he is tapped on the shoulder, and punched by the mechanoid’s headless body.
Then follows one of the funniest sequences of the series: Death’s Head’s body continues to deliver a solid beating to Iron Man, as the disembodied head sits among the rubble and grumbles away. “Ever had your head ripped off, huh? … Anyway, it hurts! Does nothing for one’s sense of humour.”
Once Death’s Head has finished letting off steam, he picks up right where Iron Man left off and they start comparing notes about their employer. Realising they have been deceived (Iron Man is personally angered, Death’s Head is concerned about the balance of his fee), they join forces and soon track down Chance’s mansion.
As his defences fall to their combined assault, Chance turns to Athey – only to find his valet pointing a pistol at him. Athey explains that he really serves The Dicemen Council, which Chance has jeopardised by breaking the rules. Shooting his employer, Athey departs as Iron Man and Death’s Head burst into the study. They find the dead Chance, the remainder of their fees and a mysterious set of dice. Before they can investigate further, they have to fly away as the house explodes.
Safely clear, the two depart with a handshake and Death’s Head offers some words of advice to the troubled Iron Man, “Be sure of yourself, huh? Everything’s straightforward when you believe in what you’re doing. Strike fast, take the money … and don’t lose your head, yes?” It’s a neat summation of what makes Death’s Head such an enjoyable character to follow, so makes for a good closing note of the series.
But before things come to an end, we get a two page epilogue (narrated in a cute, fairy-tale style). Death’s Head sees his spacecraft fly out of a dimensional portal, crash-land and disembark a distressed Spratt and vulture. As Death’s Head bemoans their arrival, out leaps another passenger: Big Shot. The bounty hunter has come for revenge, claiming that, “She sent me here to destroy you!”. The caption assures us that they would live, “happily ever after!”
And so the Death’s Head series ends on a strong note (two strong notes, if you count the epilogue). A good plot, a solid antagonist, lively action and some nice humour.
The guest star was well-chosen: Iron Man of 2020 gets to develop as a character, but not at the expense of Death’s Head. Being a fellow mercenary, albeit with a hint of morality and a lot more self-doubt, he teams up nicely with the mechanoid.
Stark’s backstory is only hinted at, and could perhaps have been laid on heavier since it is relevant to his behaviour (the Machine Man series and the Spider-Man annual was featured in the Transformers UK comic, so perhaps Furman was counting on the likely readers having prior knowledge). It’s great that Death’s Head is able to contribute to someone else’s growth (rather than just passing by the Fantastic Four, or being lectured by Doctor Who) and makes this the most satisfying guest issue. In terms of the Marvel universe, Arno Stark is just as peripheral (if not more so) as Death’s Head – so perhaps that gave Furman more freedom as a writer.
The story is well paced. In the scene that introduces the two antagonists, we get some nice mirroring of Iron Man and Death’s Head: one is violent and plagued with doubt, the other cool and efficient. Once united, they do seem to counter-attack remarkably quickly, and the last few pages do rush along – perhaps this is another issue that would have made a good two-parter.
Treacherous employers Chance and Athey are pitch-perfect as decadent gamesmaster and his faithful manservant. The Dicemen Council was also an interesting idea that could have been developed into a 2020 antagonist, had the series survived. Athey’s betrayal is signposted in thought bubbles, although I prefer the subtler clue when the impeccable valet delivers a warning using his master’s first name, breaking all rules of domestic service. In many ways, the set-up is a repeat of Dogbolter and Hob – only much more satisfying, not least because Death’s Head immediately senses duplicity and manages to turn the tables using his own wits.
Bryan Hitch’s artwork, as always, is first-rate, although he does seem to have gone a little heavy on the inks. I’d say Hitch’s pencils were best complimented by Mark Farmer’s inks, and it’s a shame that, after Issue #1, they only worked together on the covers.
That wraps up the Death’s Head series. For the most part, it was an enjoyable read, but I think the title nonetheless failed to live up to its potential. At the time of launch, Death’s Head was a strong and versatile character (with an established Transformers fanbase) yet the series seems to have meandered, never managing to hit a constant stride (not least because over 40% of its content was given over to guest appearances, and it accommodated a number of different artists). I’m surprised that Furman seemed to have such a loose grasp on the series arc, especially when the sister-title Dragons Claws wrapped up neatly, despite also falling prematurely under the axe. Perhaps once Dragons Claws folded, the idea of an 8162 universe was abandoned, and the final issues were just meant to launch Death’s Head as a perennial guest star.
Looking back, the stories that worked best were the ones that allowed Death’s Head to take centre-stage, glorifying in his amorality and sardonic wit. I’m still surprised that the internal monologue was dropped after a few issues, and though I have no real objection to Spratt, I don’t think he added much as a sidekick that a client (like Thea) or ally (like Iron Man) couldn’t have provided.
According to the foreword in the collected works, the title closed down for distribution reasons, so no matter what changes were made, I think the series was always doomed. However, it did provide some memorable stories, strong action pieces and a good few laughs. It certainly built on the foundations of a memorable character, with the potential to cross over into any other title, yes?
The series may have been over, but it never ends! Next week: we get a taste of Death’s Head’s origins and find out what that epilogue was all about. Part one of the stunning graphic novel: ‘Hunters’.
Death’s Head #10 was republished ‘Death’s Head Volume 2’