Marvel UK, the British arm of US publishing giant Marvel Comics, had a burst of furious activity from the mid-1980s until the early 1990s. Although the company mainly concerned itself with reprints of its American output, it also hired a few writers and artists to flesh these out and make the stories more relevant to a British audience. Occasionally, the new employees were allowed to express their own creativity - rather than just adapt the work of others. The most interesting of these inspired efforts was the character of Death's Head. He is the only Marvel character to successfully cross the pond in the other direction.
Death's Head (hereafter also referred to as DH) is a time-travelling, robotic bounty hunter with a keen eye for business. Indeed, his main personality trait (according to himself) is that he cares only for the financial end of things and derives no enjoyment from his job. He even claims that he is not a bounty hunter at all, but rather a 'freelance peace-keeping agent', finding his nominal profession somewhat seedy. To quote a line from Death's Head, 'Some people call me a bounty hunter, but never twice, yes?'
He maintains an aloof and emotionally detached outlook, although this is challenged by certain unruly 'customers'. DH once commented that his main rival, Big Shot, is such an annoying hindrance that he might just enjoy disposing of him. DH also has something of a soft spot for his sidekick Spratt - although he'd never admit it.
One of the interesting gimmicks belonging to Death's Head is his detachable right hand. It can, in times of need, be replaced with either a blaster or an axe (depending on his preference) that he retrieves from its storage slot on his back. In one story, he walked into a room with his cloak draped around him, his right hand poking through it. When he shot everyone in the room it became evident that the right hand was already detached: the blaster attachment was in its place, hidden behind the cloak.
Death's Head's origins are shrouded in mystery. He always believed he was built as a millionaire's plaything, but in one extraordinary adventure, DH encountered what appeared to be his parents. An extra-dimensional hunter called Lupex, whose powerful life-essence continuously consumed his host body, constructed a robotic shell in order to permanently contain his energies. His wife, a sorceress called Pyra, became disgusted by Lupex's bodyswapping and took a lover. Finding out, Lupex took over the body of Pyra's paramour. In retaliation, Pyra created a personality for Lupex's robot shell - and let it loose. It became Death's Head. As neat as this appears to be, there are still unanswered questions about Death's Head's past (and not a few inconsistencies).
From tiny acorns do mighty oaks grow, and so it was with Death's Head: his first comic story was only one page long. Simon Furman and Bryan Hitch - writer and illustrator, respectively - were kicking around ideas for a new bounty hunter character and created the short story. They did this in order to cement their concept and to have something to show to others in the company. Clearly, their efforts gained approval: permission was given to weave DH into other established stories.
Death's Head's first 'continuity' appearance (this time drawn by Geoff Senior) was in the UK version of the Transformers comic. He was hired by the Autobots to find and subdue Galvatron, the maniacal Decepticon leader who went missing at the end of Transformers: The Movie. He had a number of adventures in that comic, being hired by both sides several times, before playing a decisive role in defeating the evil Transformer 'god' Unicron.
He was then flung into the Marvel Universe timestream, where he popped up occasionally in other comics in both the US and the UK. The first place he materialised was the Doctor Who Magazine, where he encountered the seventh incarnation of the Doctor1. The Doctor shrank him down to human size2 and returned him to the timestream. He also turned up in the year 8162, where he was destroyed by the mercenary team, Dragon's Claws3. He was then rebuilt by the street urchin Spratt, who became his sidekick (much to DH's chagrin, but DH figured he owed Spratt something for the work and having him hanging around was cheaper than paying him). More adventures followed, including another run-in with the Doctor and numerous meetings with the Fantastic Four, who became uneasy allies with the robotic hunter. It was around this time that DH discovered his true origin, much to his amazement.
Death's Head eventually encountered a robotic weapon called Minion: it had the ability to absorb the personality traits of its downed enemies. It apparently killed Death's Head, but in fact DH downloaded his entire personality into Minion and, with the help of Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four, overwrote Minion's own personality. Minion then became Death's Head II, who proceeded to have similar time-hopping adventures around the Marvel Universe. In this body his right arm was able to 'morph' into various weapons, as opposed to the detachable hand of his previous shell.
However, it seems that Death's Head's character was changed by his movement to the new body4. He became less of a bounty hunter and more like the standard Marvel adventurer type. During this time, he was partnered by the techno-organic construct Tuck, from the planet Lionheart5. He also spawned a couple of short-lived spin-off characters, Death Wreck and Death Metal, whose bodies were both variations on the Minion robotic frame. Unfortunately, DH seems to be in hiding at the moment - his last appearances were in the dimension-spanning Avengers Forever mini-series in 2000.
Death's Head is undoubtedly Marvel UK's most successful and well-loved character. Few British comic characters, such as the main stars of 2000AD, Dan Dare, Marshall Law, Tank Girl, Modesty Blaise, Andy Capp or Dennis the Menace could claim to be more popular.
Death's Head II came about because of a rethink within Marvel UK. The company was very happy with its brief trial of US-style comics (there had been three others: Dragon's Claws, Knights of Pendragon and The Sleeze Brothers) that they tried again with most of the titles set within a coherent universe. DH was to be the central character - hence he needed a revamp in order to fit in. However, DHII does seem to be the least favoured of the bounty hunter's incarnations, having none of the mannerisms and personality traits that made DH such fun to read. It is notable that the original creators of Death's Head (Simon Furman, Bryan Hitch, Geoff Senior) had nothing to do with this series. He was such a popular and likeable character that the re-invention was perhaps doomed to failure. Many fans still hope for Furman to retcon6 DHII into oblivion and bring back the original. The recent release of graphic novels containing DH's appearances in the UK Transformers comics may spur this on.
Simon Furman is currently writing for TV, contributing scripts for Dan Dare and X-Men: Evolution. He has not written for comics for a long time, but has recently launched his own webcomic: The Engine. He has also contributed to Dreamwave Productions' resurrection of the Transformers franchise by writing Transformers: Armada and Transformers: The War Within for them. He is also writing Necrowar, a non-Transformers related comic, again for Dreamwave.
Geoff Senior, the purveyor of great 'jagged' art, has more or less left the world of comics. He does the occasional piece for Transformers conventions and has recently provided covers to the Titan Books collections of the UK Transformers comic. He now works in advertising (producing storyboards) and his comics presence is much missed.
Bryan Hitch has done pretty well for himself - after landing some of the most high-profile gigs in US comics. He drew the first 12 issues of Warren Ellis's groundbreaking superhero series The Authority for Wildstorm. He has also made Marvel's The Ultimates look absolutely amazing. His art has evolved a great deal from the Marvel UK days, so it'd be fascinating to see how he'd do Death's Head now.