Thursday, September 22, 2011

Death’s Head Review: Issue #10 – The Cast Iron Contract

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


Jimtron said...

I, too, found this to be a strong offering. So strong, in fact, that I went and tracked down a bunch of Iron Man 2020 stories to read. For some reason, I've a soft spot in my heart for Arno.

Anonymous said...

I have yet to track down the rest of Arno's story myself, but this issue compelled me to buy the Iron Man 2020 figure Marvel Legends released in their 3 3/4" scale series earlier this year. In the end, it just left me even more pissed that their 6 inch line has all but ended, and we never got a figure of any version of Death's Head, since that would have put him pretty much in scale with all of our TF collections. They could've milked it with costume variants too, RRRRGH!

Though I suppose it wouldn't be too hard to kitbash him out of parts from ML Doctor doom, plus Baron Karza to give him interchangeable-wrist-weapon-firing action.

Say, has Furman ever said if Karza was part of his inspiration for DH's design? I'm not big into Micronauts but I know he was a huge influence on Megabyte from Reboot. Did he influence Darth Vader, or does the timing make that impossible?

Back on topic, this is as far as I've read up on Death's Head, so I'll likely just have to skim these reviews until I get around to buying the trades, choosing to avoid spoilers for the time being. Say, are you going to do some sort of overview of different collections? Most of what I knew of him was from a strangely spotty old trade which omitted not only the TF stuff, but also Doctor Who, the Claws, and others, awkwardly jumping from the first issue to Plaguedog. Then I found all but the last issue of Incomplete DH, making the title live up to its name in my collection.

The funniest part about that old trade was DH's first person overview, rationalizing the inability to name TFs he encountered by having him complain that he REALLY doesn't like talking about that phase of his career. This always made me imagine an eventual epilogue to his time hopping in which a still human-sized Death's Head lands on prehistoric Earth, face to face with a certain purple sauropod and his team of renegades...

DH: Oh, you've GOT to be sh!tting me, yes?

BWM: Ye-eeeeeesss...

Using your reviews as a guide, I'll finally know what order to read the rest in, so thanks!


Chuffer said...

Thanks Bumblevivisector, I don’t know much about Micronauts, but I don’t think Baron Karza was ever mentioned as an inspiration. Furman has said that he suggested an animal-skull head and some interchangeable arm-weaponry, and the rest was Senior’s imagination. I would say that a metal-man with horns and/or a grill-mouth is a fairly common starting point, from real-world suits of armour to Doctor Doom to Darth Vader to the Cylons (as for Karza influencing Vader, the timing would suggest coincidence).

Speaking of Death’s Head kitbashes, I was impressed with the one I found here:

I think the trade paperback you’re referring to was the 1990 version – the only other attempt at a Death’s Head collected works (to the best of my knowledge). I’ve never read it (published so soon after buying all the comics, I didn’t see the need), although I would have liked to have read Death’s Head’s narration.

That collection was incomplete, and even the one I’m using the reviews doesn’t *quite* have everything (missing out the framing story that featured in The Incomplete Death’s Head series, as well his appearance in the Death’s Head II mini-series), but it’s the best one available. There will probably never be a definitive version, what with the Transformers reprints owned elsewhere, and Death’s Head making new appearances in S.W.O.R.D and Marvel Heroes.

And if you want to be careful about spoilers, I’d avoid the next three reviews, as they cover the Furman/Senior graphic novel that is really worth a read. The remaining stories don’t really contain any surprises (until we get to Death’s Head II), and at least one was retconned into happening during the full series.

Anonymous said...

I always took the arm changing gimmick to be taken from the trail breaker toy, which featured inter changeable hands, though the gimmick does indeed date back to the micronauts (and prior to that microman/microchange from Takara) ironically the origins of the TF line too.

This was possibly the best story of the last half of the series run and a great ending to a mostly fabulous series. Such a shame that Marvel UK pulled the plug after this on the American format monthly comics (until the new genesis line which I sincerely hope is next on the list of reviews...)

As for Arno/ironman 2020, there really isn't that much of him to collect, he was featured in the Machine man mini set in 2020 and I beleive was introduced in a Spiderman annual, beyond that he's mostly been one panel guests. it is generally understood that since we are only 9 years away from 2020, his original adventures are a parallel universe where Tony Stark had kids back in the 80's, and no longer connected in any way to the current Marvel universe. Shame, because his mercenary outlook on heroism was quite intriguing.