Thursday, November 24, 2011

Death’s Head Review: Death’s Head II – The Wild Hunt #3: Outlaws!

The third instalment of the Death’s Head II limited series kept the same creative line-up: story by Dan Abnett; pencils by Liam Sharp; inks by Andy Lanning; letters by Peri Godbold; colours by Helen Stone; and the editor was John Freeman.

The front cover competes with the previous issue for non-action. Minion and Tuck – a feisty redhead wearing a skimpy costume, some large tattoos and a number of blades – are posing in a forest, doing nothing but looking directly ahead with grim expressions. Minion is wearing a medieval tunic and bearskin cloak which, considering he doesn’t need to wear clothes, looks like a terrible disguise or a strange affectation. The captions tell us “On the run in the far future … Death’s Head and Tuck are partners in crime”. As we don’t know who Tuck is, and the swords and trees don’t look too futuristic, this doesn’t add much.

As with last issue, the back cover has a better idea, but a worse execution. Minion is off-centre and awkwardly posed, duelling swords with a muscled opponent who is almost standing behind him. Tuck and Dr Necker (one of whom we don’t yet know, the other we wouldn’t recognise) are in the background, and the caption promises, “Swords, sorcery and big guns!”. The image looks like an interior panel and looks like some speech balloons have been removed.

The story begins in 3442AD on the forest planet of Lionheart. An unseen narrator explains how a caravan train (drawn by dinosaur beasts, rather than horses) is travelling warily though the forest. As feared, they are attacked by swashbuckling bandits led by Minion – who is calling himself The Hood.

Inside one of the wagons, a group of nuns suddenly produce weapons to “Lock and load – and blow those stinking robot outlaws apart!” (none of them actually have guns – which we learn are prohibited on Lionheart – but I guess the gag took precedence over story consistency). The Mother Superior gets the drop on Minion, but is stabbed in the back by another nun, who throws off her wimple to reveal Tuck in disguise. She has been tracking The Hood for months and wants to join the band.

In the aftermath of the battle, Tuck gives her reasons for joining with some heavy exposition: the King of Lionheart is fighting a crusade light years away, while the corrupt authority exploits the people to enrich themselves. ‘The Hood’ and his band are the only ones fighting back. Minion explains that his band of cybernetic outlaws are united by the laws that forbid artificial sentients, not by any high ideals. Tuck reveals that she is also artificial – a replicated organic – and deserving of a place in the band (forgetting that she wanted to join for a cause that Minion doesn’t apparently believe in). Minion gruffly relents.

Back in 2020, Spratt – now sporting a broken nose – and Baron Strucker V are working to repair the original Death’s Head. Strucker notes that the damage was too extensive to be repaired by 2020 technology (which does explain why the technically-able Spratt would need extra help). Spratt also notices that Strucker’s tools are sorcerous ingredients, so the Baron clearly has a non-scientific solution in mind.

Returning to 3442 and the citadel of Lord High Protector Roderick, an indolent, boastful noblemen. Roderick is flirting with his harem when he hears news of The Hood’s recent attack. He gives orders to fetch ‘Major Oak and the Huscarls’ before returning his attention to one of the woman. She removes her veil to reveal “Lady Evelyn Clarice Necker of Aym”, dressed in a Princess Leia slave girl costume, and continues her odd running gag about sharing a name with Roderick’s mother.

In the outlaw’s camp, Minion and Tuck share a fireside moment as he recaps the past two issues. He has been in Lionheart for a year and, contradicting his earlier cynicism, claims to be enjoying the life of a popular hero.

The peace is broken by the sudden attack of Major Oak, the muscled opponent from the back cover, and his Huscarls. As the Merry Men are slaughtered, Necker and Roderick watch from the sidelines. Necker discreetly changes back into her A.I.M. uniform and knocks Roderick unconscious.

Minion – his arm configured for a sword – duels with Major Oak and proves his superior fairly effortlessly. While Oak keeps coming back at him, Minion is relaxed enough to make fun of his dialogue. Oak gains a brief advantage and, in one of the issue’s good jokes, tells Minion to “Prepare to meet thy maker”. He is then shot in the back by Necker (who decided to violate the anti-technology laws in style, by brandishing an enormous gun).

The outlaws decimated and royals neutralised, Necker tries to reassert control over Minion’s programming. When that fails, she offers payment and they haggle for the space of a page (which is fairly laboured, but I guess the point was to show, in addition to his unparalleled fighting skills, what a hard negotiator Minion is). Tuck insists on coming along and all three time-jump away.

Moving to 2020, Spratt is horrified to see that Baron Strucker has merged his own body with the remains of Death’s Head, becoming a mechanical-sorcerous hybrid. He claims he will seek revenge on A.I.M. for spurning his family line. The terrified Spratt tries to run, but is killed with a mere spark from Strucker’s eye. Towering over Spratt’s corpse, Strucker quotes Revelation and re-names himself ‘Charnel’.

Minion, Tuck and Necker leap into A.I.M. headquarters, presumably some time later, as Charnel has already visited and killed everyone. The place is a grisly mess of skeletons, fused together with magic. Using the time tracker, Necker discovers that Charnel has gone back to 1992, where he will threaten the timeline and their very existence!

There were some exciting pages prior to this cliffhanger, but for me, the rest of the issue fell flat. Minion is thrown into a Robin Hood homage, and given a new sidekick, with no real reason for either. Playing around with different genres is fine, but not when the central character is so ill-defined. The story ends where it could have ended last issue: an independent Minion being coerced by Necker. And while the Charnel sub-plot was good, the whole issues feels like filler: written to meet the demands of a four-part series, when there was only enough story for three.

After allowing some leeway for his jumbled-up personalities, I’m still no closer to getting a handle on the Minion character. The ascendency of the Death’s Head personality – promised at the end of last issue – is nowhere to be seen. While prompted to action by good deeds and/or the promise of money, he doesn’t seem motivated much by either. In battle and at rest, everything is met with a smart-alec/tough-guy response which just makes it seem as if Minion is bored.

The addition of Tuck does little to open up Minion, as they don’t have any chemistry. Her hero-worship gives no edge to their relationship, and since Minion doesn’t seem to care either way, it also lacks the comedy of Death’s Head’s exasperation with Spratt. Maybe Tuck is going to turn out to be Charnel-kryptonite, justifying a whole issue to get her into the story (although since she’s usually depicted striking a pin-up stance, I’m guessing her reasons for inclusion are otherwise).

It’s not a good issue for Dr. Necker either. Adding a whole year to the story not only robs her quest of its desperate urgency, but makes her seem incompetent. With little to do but show up and hire Minion, Necker is reduced to cheesecake poses in Roderick’s harem. Her comment to Roderick that time-line archives were very precise about this period is an odd one: a) for someone trying to infiltrate the royal court, b) considering the date is over 1400 years after Necker’s own time and c) raises the question of, if she was so well-informed, why did it take a year to find Minion? I don’t think it has an explanation, other than Abnett couldn’t be bothered to make sense of it.

This seems to be a problem for whole of Lionheart. There’s nothing wrong with having a futuristic Robin Hood setting with cod-dialogue, but the writer has to take it seriously. I like a good pun (and even a bad one), but having a road that leads from ‘Finder’s Keep’ to ‘Loser’s Weep’ is just painful to read. Characters lapse from medieval-speak into “Give me a break” and “Pronto”; Minion makes a huge deal of mocking the expression “Beshrew me” – it feels like Abnett has created this world, wants us to buy into it, but then makes fun of it anyway.

Sharp’s artwork has gone back a step from last issue. Things are looking too dark and too detailed, as if it has been shrunk down from a larger format. For an issue filled with swordplay and swashbuckling actions, the depictions of action still need a lot more energy. Also, the dinosaur-steed are almost cartoonishly poor.

The one solid thread is the Strucker sub-plot. It’s a well-trodden irony, but I like that A.I.M. inadvertently created the very threat they tried to avoid. The depiction of Strucker/Charnel is very good – Sharp seems to improve when he’s being less literal – and the scene of death at A.I.M. is wonderfully macabre. His journey back to 1992 is a bit contrived – why would Charnel endanger his own creation when he could just go forward to conquer? But it does give the heroes something to chase after.

And finally, RIP Spratt. He wasn’t always my favourite sidekick (although, as this issue shows, there are worse options), but it was fun whenever he got under Death’s Head’s metallic skin to irritate him. The little scavenger deserved a better end.

Next week: an epic conclusion from an apocalyptic future! The Marvel superheroes take on Charnel in “2020 Vision”!

P.S. There's a great overview of the entire history of Death's Head in Starburst's interview with Simon Furman. I especially liked the letter of congratulation from Stan Lee after Issue 1 was released.


Anonymous said...

Normally I would have gushed over a story written by Dan Abnett, but the further into Death's Head 2 the more frustrated I got. Firstly I'm not a fan of Liam Sharp's style, never have been, probably never will be, secondly the plot just seemed like one editor enforced piece of nonsense after another. Replacing Spratt with Tuck was acceptable (if you're a horny heterosexual teenage boy) but beyond that nothing seemed to gel. For one thing why on Earth did Strucker need Death's Head? since minion was originally intended to be the body he formed Charnel with, along with a shed load of data on various great thinkers and tacticians. Surely recapturing Minion and returning to the original plan would have guaranteed his success, if not why even bother with minion at all?

Plus the whole body swap thing had already been done, far more successfully in the graphic novel "the body in question". Repeating virtually the same plot device, only with the opposite outcome, just felt lazy.

A.I.M. and Strucker also felt like deliberate attempts to draw Minion into Marvel US continuity, sadly it wasn't done terribly effectively and in the end it still felt like a parallel world where some characters were the same as Earth 616, but slightly off (just as the original Death's Head cross overs did).

I must point out though that this isn't sour grapes because Furman and Senior were bumped for this line-up. Like I said at the beginning, I like Dan Abnett normally, his writing is fresh, well observed and has real emotion to it. Few people write super heroes like he does.

I strongly believe he wrote the story he was told to write, not the one he would have written otherwise.

Anonymous said...

I thought the cover was definitely notable, though the text seems superfluous.

The interview with Simon was good. Interesting thing about Stan is he's always been very giving in his praise, in fact I don't recall ever hearing a sour note from him about anything, even against people who have publicly attacked him.

Good review as usual.