Many people will know the name Dave Gibbons from his seminal artwork on Watchmen or for co-creating Rogue Trooper, a staple 2000AD character, or for his work on everything from Batman and Aliens to Doctor Who and Dan Dare. His legacy of work is vast, far too much for any one blog post to even hope to cover a fraction of. He even collaborated on the classic videogame Beneath a Steel Sky (and its Apple Arcade remake) and worked on Kingsman: The Secret Service which led to the successful movie series.
He may have been appointed Comics Laureate nine years ago but for pig pals he’ll forever be associated with one page of our piggy publication. In #49Lew Stringer’s script for The Superhero’s Day Off was brought to stunning (and incredibly funny) life by one of the greatest superhero comics artists of all time. Lew and Dave had been friends for a long time by this stage, and Dave’s son was a pig pal, so he was on board to work for Uncle Pigg for a special one-off collaboration.
Back in the review for this issue of OiNK Lew told me how Dave added in little extra gags where he could, such as the kid reading an issue, the newspaper headline and the dog’s face turning blue from lack of air in the depths of space, our superhero blissfully unaware. I explain how, while at the time I didn’t have a clue why this strip’s artist was being hyped on the cover, “as a child I loved this page and having been a fan of Christopher Reeve’s Superman films I got all the little jokes (my personal favourite being him signalling the bus) even if I didn’t appreciate the significance of its inclusion in the first place.”
I also asked co-editor Patrick Gallagher what it was like to have Dave working on their comic. “Yes, when Mark (Rodgers) told Tony (Husband) and me Lew’s idea to collaborate on a page with his friend Dave Gibbons,” he said, “we were thrilled and all gave it the big OiNK thumbs up with our trotters! And all credit to Lew’s brilliant writing talent for providing Dave with a killer script that matched the super-heroic credibility of his drawing talent.”
Now, Dave has decided to write a memoir of his comics work over the years and OiNK has been included.
Confabulation: An Anecdotal Autobiography is being billed as “a comprehensive, in-depth and personal journey through the eyes of one of the world’s most famous comics creators!” Inside its gorgeous hardback cover you’ll find a series of alphabetically chaptered stories, each described as an “extensive anecdote”. It also contains a staggering 300+ pieces of art and photographs in its 256 pages, many of which have never been published before. Dave also discusses the reasons why Watchmen co-creator Alan Moore and he no longer speak, for the first time.
Lew Stringer has already got his hands on a copy and says it’s a great book, hugely entertaining yet extremely informative. According to Lew, “[Dave] talks about his earliest days on D.C. Thomson comics, through to the Watchmen era, The Originals, and beyond. This really is one of the best autobiographies by a comics creator that you’re likely to see. Dave’s had (and is still having) a significant career in the business and his affable personality comes across well in his illuminating writing style.”
As for that word, what does ‘confabulation’ actually mean? According to the Bing dictionary it means, “to fabricate imaginary experiences as compensation for loss of memory”. I think this book could be a fun read!
Written by Dave with Tim Pilcher, Confabulation: An Anecdotal Autobiography is published by Dark Horse and is on sale now at all good book and comic shops. If you live in Northern Ireland may I recommend Coffee & Heroes in Belfast, a simply superb shop that would be more than happy to order it for you. You can also read Lew’s post about the book and see his own photographs in his Lew Stringer Comics blog post.
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.
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.)
There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it announcement on the cover of the latest OiNK from 35 years ago, and a rather big announcement at that. The art is by Marc Riley and despite his strips being loved his style is rather simplistic for a cover image. As a fan it doesn’t matter to me, but would it have been too simple for any new readers the now-weekly OiNK was trying to attract? The little box on the right may have had more of the desired effect but I’m not sure if anyone would’ve noticed it on the shelves.
The news of course is that Dave Gibbons (Batman: Black & White, Judge Dredd and of course Watchmen) had drawn a brand new superhero strip for this issue. Watchmen had been released the previous year and been a phenomenal success, hence the design of that box, so to have him contributing to OiNK was huge. As such I think the news of his inclusion really should’ve been sung from the rooftops, or at least with a banner above the logo which could’ve been seen on the shelves above the other comics. We’ll get to him in a minute but first up, as usual in these early weeklies, are The Slugs.
Last week their page was taken up with the results of a lyrics writing competition and now we’re still sans strip but what we’ve got instead is just as enjoyable. This was thanks to pig pal Jane Streathfield’s incredible work for the LP Sleeve Design Competition. A very worthy winner I’m sure you’ll agree! The runners-up aren’t to be sniffed at either. These entries, along with the promotion of Watchmen’s artist on the cover show how OiNK’s actual audience was shifting somewhat from its original 8-13-year-olds target audience, something Uncle Pigg would confirm in a later issue.
Page five of each weekly so far has been a quick one-off gag strip by co-editor Tony Husband. They take up the full page yet are only a few panels in length, almost like a giant version of a mini-strip. A Grave Joke is my favourite of the series and the perfect example of Tony’s sense of humour and his easily identifiable art. It may seem simplistic at first glance but Tony’s style was always so full of character and wit, up alongside the likes of Ian Jackson and J.T. Dogg is synonymous with OiNK.
Speaking of Tony, pig pals weren’t the only ones to appreciate his talent as the Cartoonists’ Club of Great Britain can attest. In 1987 Tony won their prestigious ‘Cartoonist of the Year’ award. He would also go on to win the Pont Award for “depicting the British way of life” according to his website. In the case of the 1987 Awards for Cartooning Excellence Tony wasn’t alone from the page of OiNK.
We all know how modest Uncle Pigg was, he would never boast about his fine publication. No, not at all. Well, given his penchant for proving to the world he was editing the greatest comic that ever existed I think it’s just right that OiNK decided to blow its own trumpet, giving over half a page to the news of the awards. Sitting proudly alongside Tony were Clive Collins (Maggie Pie) and Pete Dredge (Master T), all of whom received this (cow)pat on the back.
So now on to what has to be the main event. Was the news on the cover exciting to me at the time? No, but only because I’d no idea who Dave Gibbons was. I do now of course! At ten-years-old I’d only collected two comics. My first was OiNK and then I added Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends so you can forgive me for not being aware of Watchmen or any of Dave’s mountain of incredible work. Now though, I can see this for what it would’ve meant to the teen and older readers OiNK had been attracting (especially potential new readers) and it’s amazing to me that he contributed to OiNK!
“All credit to Lew’s brilliant writing talent for providing Dave with a killer script.”
Patrick Gallagher, co-editor
From the very first issue of 2000AD to Watchmen, Dave is a giant in the industry and this was certainly the case back in the 80s, so how did this come about? We have Lew Stringer to thank. The two men had been friends for several years by this point and Dave’s son was a regular OiNK reader (Transformers too apparently, he obviously had taste) and after they discussed the possibility Lew approached co-editor Mark Rodgers about the idea, who understandably jumped at the chance.
Lew wrote the script and Dave produced this incredible page below, adding in little flourishes according to Lew, such as the kid reading OiNK, the newspaper headline and the dog’s face turning blue in the depths of space. As a child I loved this page and having been a fan of Christopher Reeve’s Superman films at the time I got all the little jokes (my personal favourite being him signalling the bus) even if I didn’t appreciate the significance of its inclusion in the first place.
I asked co-editor Patrick Gallagher what it was like to have Dave working on their comic. “Yes, when Mark told Tony and me Lew’s idea to collaborate on a page with his friend Dave Gibbons, we were thrilled and all gave it the big OiNK thumbs up with our trotters! And all credit to Lew’s brilliant writing talent for providing Dave with a killer script that matched the super-heroic credibility of his drawing talent. Lew did the same thing with the late great Kev O’Neill when they collaborated on Lew’s brilliant Truth About Santa script. So, hats off to the super-talented OiNK icon Lew for bringing in the super-talented Dave Gibbons and Kev O’Neill.”
You can read more about the creation of The Superhero’s Day Off on Lew’s Blimey! It’s Another Blog About Comics. The site is no longer updated but it’s a trove of comics information and you can still follow Lew’s career on his Lew Stringer Comics blog. Alongside Dave, as Patrick mentioned OiNK also had Kevin O’Neill contributing to the first Holiday Special and The OiNK! Book 1988, and later on this year you’ll see the result of Davy Francis bringing in John McCrea for a Lost in Space spoof!
Time for a quick glance at some other highlights from this issue.
After succumbing to plastic surgery last issue, Burp’s leftover gastric juices grow a clone of himself and see off the shiny new him so we can get things back to normal (or as normal as this strip could be), the cliffhanger from Frank Sidebottom‘s page gets wrapped up in one ludicrous panel, Sherlock Hams finally confronts The Beast in the concluding chapter of his story and when Tom Thug thinks ‘gel’ is spelled ‘jel’ even readers didn’t think he’d be that thick!
Jeremy Banx’s Hieronymous Van Hellsong mini-series doesn’t conclude until next week but this issue sees an ending of another kind, despite the fact the character would return in a new mini-series in the not-too-distant future. Previous chapters have relished in some very dark humour. While that continues, it’s more about the ludicrous nature of the battle between our hero and Jimmy ‘The Cleaver’ Smith rather than laugh-out-loud moments, beginning with what seemed impossible in OiNK up to this point.
Let’s ignore the fact Hellsong seems to have regrown his arm in the bottom-left panel and concentrate on the ridiculous fact that this over-the-top maniacal villain is actually just a shop butcher, seemingly representing those on the street corners of every town in the UK, able to chop speeding bullets with his cleaver while fighting a human-sized pig to the death. It also continues Jeremy’s comically exaggerated gore he brought to previous Burp and Butcher Watch strips. How did they get away with this is a children’s comic? Well, Hellsong isn’t a human.
Similarly, Marvel UK’s Transformers didn’t show any humans dying, if they did it happened out of sight or in an explosion for example. The poor Transformers however could be decapitated, ripped limb from limb, cut into hundreds of pieces or even violently tortured or melted alive. But they were robots, so in the conventional sense weren’t ‘real people’ to those who would normally complain about such things. Pigs being cut up by a butcher (or a young girl pulling apart a sentient teddy bear) is all so ludicrous we kids just laughed at it all.
After making his debut appearance back in #38Kev F Sutherland finally returns to the pages of OiNK with the first of his Meanwhile… strips. In fact he has two in this issue but I just had to choose this one because I found it so funny. Each Meanwhile… strip was its own entity, not linked in any way to the rest. They could vary from being mini-strips to full pages, linked by Kev’s easily identifiable art and his great sense of humour. He’d end up producing a huge variety of scenarios, each guaranteed to raise a hearty chuckle.
These would appear in nine issues altogether, including every monthly, but often there’d be more than one in each. As mentioned before, Kev was so prolific in his OiNK work he’d produce about a sixth of the final issue himself! The Meanwhile… strips contain some of my most fondly remembered jokes so it’s great to see them finally join us on the blog and I can’t wait to relive them all over again this coming year.
Before I sign off for this week there’s just time to take a look at this week’s newsagent reservation coupon put together by Patrick Gallagher. As ever he’s trawled the pages of his book of Victorian illustrations (first used back in #23’s How Radio Sound Effects Are Produced!), this time for a Great Moment in Art instead of a great moment in history. More specifically, he’s used it to give us an insight into one of his fellow co-editors.
Next week is something of a celebration as OiNK reaches the 50th issue milestone and we get a glorious cover photograph of Frank Sidebottom receiving his honours from the Queen herself. The comic also really begins to settle into the new weekly schedule and 24-page format so there’s plenty to be looking forward to. Make sure you check back here on Saturday 11th February 2023 for the big party!