In the latter months of 1988 I began reading Marvel UK’s Transformers weekly and my second issue contained a very funny comic strip advert for a new monthly about a certain Freelance Peace-Keeping Agent (not a bounty hunter, never a bounty hunter). It also popped up in The Real Ghostbusters and so I found myself dipping my toes into the first issue of Death’s Head, not fully knowing what to expect and with no knowledge of his already extensive adventures with the Transformers (and even Doctor Who, which I’d just started watching that year too).
Over the next couple of years reprints in Transformers and my friend giving me his back issues meant I was able to read those stories. But I never did buy more than Death’s Head first issue, despite having very fond memories of reading it wrapped up in bed while ill one day and really enjoying the action and comedy. But I was only allowed a certain amount of comics on order at any one time and, while I did buy more with pocket money, a month was a long time for my attention span back then. Now I can finally make up for this, so let’s take a look at how this very famous Marvel UK character was introduced to the public.
Writer Simon Furman originally created Death’s Head as a one-off character for a Transformers story (not knowing the name had also been that of a Nazi tank division). However, upon seeing legendary artist Geoff Senior’s interpretation Simon knew they had a recurring character on their hands, even rewriting his lines to better suit the image Geoff had created, inspiring the hilarious speech patterns and quirks we came to love, yes? He proved very popular with the readers and altogether appeared in 17 issues and three serials, including two highly regarded epics.
“I loved messing with legal”Richard Starkings, Editor, Death’s Head
Despite online information to the contrary, Death’s Head did indeed first appear in Transformers #113 on 9th May 1987. There’s a one-page strip called High Noon Tex (further below) which Former Marvel UK editor Richard Starkings (The Real Ghostbusters, Doctor Who Magazine, Elephantmen) tells me was created to run in other titles first so the company could retain ownership of the character, otherwise Hasbro could claim the copyright. However, it didn’t appear until a year after his first Transformers appearance.
“I dare say,” Richard told me, “that between commissioning the strip (it’s one page, so you know it was my idea) and legal establishing the trademark … his appearance in Transformers notwithstanding, we weren’t able to run High Noon Tex beforehand. There was also a Doctor Who crossover (I loved messing with legal) so the BBC couldn’t own him either!”
Wanted: Galvatron Dead or Alive was one of the early future-set (the then future of 2006) stories Marvel UK produced. With the release of Transformers: The Movie the UK team could focus on stories set after it, creating a new timeline of events (making it easier to write original stories not linked to the US ones). On the first page we see what would become a familiar detachable hand pointing at the wanted poster of the title. A bounty set by Autobot leader Rodimus Prime for Galvatron (the immensely powerful resurrected form of Megatron) after he disappeared at the end of the movie is too good for Death’s Head to pass up.
The story saw the beginning of the comic’s use of time travel and the building of a huge universe populated with both organic and mechanical races, for example the slight-looking barkeep in the tavern where our anti-hero finds himself between contracts. Intending to pay, Death’s Head soon changes his mind when the owner pulls a gun on him, wrongly suspecting his customer of leaving without clearing his tab. What happens next is the perfect introduction for this character.
Over the course of a year Death’s Head even made the cover of Transformers, no less than five times in fact. He’d become a big selling point for the comic, such was his popularity with the young readers and the fun Furman had in writing him. My favourite of these is the classic ‘The Good… the Mad… and the Ugly!’ cover by Geoff for #117. His return was always hyped in advance in Next Issue panels and editorial promotions. Really, it was inevitable he’d get his own comic eventually.
One of my favourite aspects of the character was his loyalty to the contract. Once he’d taken on a job he’d see it through to a successful conclusion no matter what he’d have to put himself through in the process. Yes, it was all for money but it was clear he enjoyed what he did and he had a brilliantly dark sense of humour as a result. But even if someone else (usually his bounty) offered him twice the amount he was being paid he would turn it down, his reputation was more important.
Death’s Head certainly left an impression, not only on the young readers but on the Transformers’ universe as a whole. Travelling back to 80s Earth he went head-to-head against Galvatron, aiding the Autobots and Decepticons in their battle to stop him from becoming an all-conquering god! In this story he also ends up killing beloved Autobot Bumblebee (in the US comic G.I.Joe mistakenly did this) who Hasbro was relaunching as Goldbug, thus this led to his resurrection.
When Death’s Head returned next time he took a contract from Decepticon leader Shockwave to track down and capture or kill Cyclonus and Scourge who had travelled back in time too, and who Shockwave had discovered would kill him in the year 2006. It was great stuff! This made what Death’s Head did in The Legacy of Unicron all the more interesting and dramatic for me. He was actually instrumental in stopping Unicron’s return, aiding Rodimus Prime by linking with the giant god’s mind on the psychic plane, distracting him so that the Autobots and Junkions could get on with their plan free of being psychically tracked.
This was a compelling chapter in the characters’ life, as he found himself going above and beyond to do the right thing as well as complete his contract with Shockwave. The Legacy of Unicron was an important story in the history of Transformers, spread over several issues including the landmark 150th in which the origins of their race was told for the first time. This was created by Furman for the UK comic, the cartoon series would go on to create its own far less interesting version.
The tale, one as old as time itself, of myths and gods, of the birth of the universe and the eternal fight battle light and dark, was told by Unicron, the transforming planet eater from the movie reinterpreted by Furman as an all-conquering god of chaos. It’s still incredible to read today, especially when you remember this was a toy licence comic! Transformers really did break the mould. Even better, we the readers found all of this out as Unicron relayed his tale to none other than Death’s Head while the two were locked in their mental battle.
The Legacy of Unicron ends with Death’s Head shoving Cyclonus and Scourge through a time portal as the Junkion planet explodes beneath them. The Decepticons reappear on Earth in the present day, but of him there was no trace. He wasn’t to be seen in the world of the Transformers again. Instead, as he flew through the corridors of time and space he bumped into a familiar blue police telephone box in another of Marvel UK’s titles. That’ll be the first chapter in Death’s Head’s real time read through in just a few days.
Apart from the last photo above, all of the preceding images were taken from the OiNK’s Blog’s Instagram feed from the last few years. Over there I’ve been reading Transformers in real time, week-in, week-out for about six years now, taking up to ten photographs of each issue and summing them up in a mini review of sorts. You can check out all of the issues featuring Death’s Head via these links below.
WANTED GALVATRON: DEAD OR ALIVE
Transformers #113, #114, #115, #116, #117, #118, #119 and #120
THE LEGACY OF UNICRON
Transformers #146, #147, #148, #149, #150 and #151
By 1988 plans were afoot. Commissioned by Richard (who also commissioned the one-page strips below, Dragon’s Claws and The Sleeze Brothers) at last Death’s Head was going to get his own ongoing comic, but first of all a change had to happen to the character himself. As you’ll know from reading the comics or watching the movies, the Transformers are somewhat larger than us humans. Seeing as how Death’s Head would now be interacting with plenty of humans he had to be taken down a peg or two first.
This was achieved with a one-off strip in the pages of Doctor Who Magazine in which one alien time traveller of much smaller stature showed he was more than a match for the other. After this the stage was set for the new comic, the first issue of which was released in November of that year. To promote it he also popped up in an issue of Dragon’s Claws, another Furman/Senior original creation just before his own premiere issue.
During 1988 High Noon Tex finally appeared across Marvel UK’s range, promoted as a one-off strip for the character. For those who hadn’t been reading Transformers this must’ve felt like a very random addition to their comic, but a highly enjoyable surprise nonetheless, showcasing the action, his brutal personality and most of all his sense of humour. The example above is taken from the back page of an issue of Dragon’s Claws. It was written by Furman and drawn by Bryan Hitch (who would draw half of the monthly issues, co-creator Geoff Senior surprisingly only drawing one of the strips).
As the comic launched another one-page story appeared, this time as an actual advertisement for the monthly. I first saw it in Transformers #193. How could I not rush out to buy it after that? The scan above was taken from #29 of my Real Ghostbusters collection, which went on sale 17th December 1988 while #2 of Death’s Head was on sale. Richard was the launch editor of that comic and told me, “I’d edited The Real Ghostbusters for a year and I knew you could tell a story in one page.”
A much simpler yet no less eye-catching full-page advert was also found in the pages of my comics, using the cover image of the first issue. The issue of The Real Ghostbusters this first appeared in went on sale the same week as #1 of Death’s Head and in that same issue he popped up for the first time in the Mighty Marvel Checklist, which a lot of their comics ran at the time. As you can see it was the one not to miss that week and I obliged. At least for one month anyway.
Death’s Head’s comic lasted ten issues. It was printed on smaller than normal paper, the same size as US comics rather than the larger UK paper we were used to. Some fans say this contributed to less than stellar sales because it ended up hidden amongst all the larger comics. Richard tells me this just isn’t true; it was selling 60,000+ a month which would be a massive hit today. “The profit to the company versus cost of origination was too high for those days”, Richard says. “The Incomplete Death’s Head (collecting the whole series and his guest appearances in Doctor Who and others – Phil) #1 sold 400,000. So they got their money back.”
After his comic was cancelled he appeared in Strip in a multi-part adventure, collected in a graphic novel after Strip finished.. He was relaunched as Death’s Head II and 3.0 later but I never bought into those versions. Furman wasn’t involved in the first and it lacked the humour, a key factor for me, and Simon has also said he doesn’t see either as Death’s Head, so this put me off. They definitely have their fans though so I’m happy there’s a version for everyone. In the new century he’s popped up in cameos or guest roles in some more Marvel comics in his original form too, which I’ll detail at the end of the read through. You can’t keep a good Freelance Peace-Keeping Agent down.
So here’s my complete Death’s Head collection containing 30 comics altogether.
You can check out all of those Transformers issues at the links above and as you can see I’ve opted for the graphic novel version of the Strip story, The Body in Question. The premiere issue won’t be reviewed until 5th November later this year (this is in real time, remember), but in just three days on Friday 10th March 2023 you’ll be able to read the first Death’s Head review in a special post about his clash with the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) in Doctor Who Magazine #135!
See you then, yes?
(Special thanks to Richard Starkings, Steve White, Lee Sullivan, Lew Stringer and John Freeman for all their help in putting this post together.)