You never find out how truly popular you are until you’re dead. At least, that’s what it was like for the time-traveling, cybernetic, bounty hunter called Death’s Head. But, for that to make sense, you have to visit the past (or would that be future?)
The Death’s Head cyborg was created some time in our near future in the pocket dimension of Styrakos. Originally built to house the consciousness of his creator, Lupex, the mechanized being soon slew his “father” and set up shop as a “freelance peacekeeping agent” for pay (or bounty hunter for those brave enough to call him that!). He went on to create quite a reputation until, as with all things, he finally met his match.
Enter the Minion cyborg. Minion, created in the year 2020 by the scientist, Dr. Evelyn Necker of A.I.M, was built to destroy a future threat to the universe, Charnel. To do this, Minion was supposed to kill each subject in it’s database and absorb the subject’s abilities/knowledge. It did this successfully until it came into contact with Death’s Head. After a fierce battle, Minion actually defeated the bounty hunter but, when attempting to absorb his traits, accidentally absorbed Death’s Head’s entire personality! The process was so complete in fact, Minion, by all counts and purposes now was Death’s Head! Now with a new, more brutal and sophisticated body, (plus a sexy, female sidekick named Tuck) Death’s Head II went back to business as usual. It wasn’t until two other cyborgs, Death Wreck and Death Metal, appeared on the scene, that the idea of an actual family dynamic was introduced.
Let’s begin with Death Wreck. A prototype for the Minion cyborg, created with mostly junk, car parts, and a poor homeless wino for the frame, this cyborg was accidentally reactivated by a man searching for Death’s Head II. Dimwitted and with a drinking problem from his previous life, this creature was built for power. Next, would be the Death Metal cyborg. This being was created from living, liquid metal from an alternate timeline. Originally seen as more of a villain type, Death Metal soon got its mind to function properly and became a hero when it truly counted. This cyborg had the ability to create bladed objects or energy-firing weapons anywhere on its body. A true living weapon!
All three of the “Brothers Grim” operated solo for a short time, but came together against the resurfacing threat of Charnel, cooperating as a team (or family?) to defeat him once and for all, saving the universe. Little is known what happened to the “Death’s Head family” after that day. I, personally, would like to think they remained together but, as with even non-cybernetic families, this may not have been the way things turned out in the end. Well, there you have it. One cyborg is destroyed, and a family is born from the ashes. But a family, be it genetic or cybernetic, is still a family nonetheless.
My name is Mark (Sparky) Ryan and I was invited by Dean Compton, my good pal, and fellow fan of ’90’s comicdom, to give some of my thoughts and views on the history of the Marvel UK expansion of titles in the early ’90’s.
So with no further ado, welcome back to part 2 of our brief look at the Marvel UK Explosion of the early ’90’s. In part one we left you with Death’s Head ||’s ascension to the top of the sales charts, scoring a palpable and bankable hit for Marvel UK division, (#1 went into a second printing, such was the demand for the guarantuan killing machine).
A solid foundation of properties had been built and the bedrock existed for further expansion.
All the UK titles featured many guest star appearances by mainstream US heroes. X-Force appeared in Warheads, X-Men in Dark Angel/Death’s Head ||. Iron Man appeared in both Warheads and Knights of Pendragon.
Reed Richards made an appearance in Death’s Head || also, in an entertaining story where Death’s Head was trying to assimilate his genius intellect and was thwarted. Wolverine appeared again and again over the next two years. Venom appeared also in ‘Wild Thing’ in 1993.
As you can probably guess, these guest appearances were solely to anchor the UK line in the American market and attract US readers to these new properties. As an attempt to ground the UK line and become incorporated into the US line, it was ultimately a failure, for several different reasons.
One major reason was that the US characters were being shoehorned into the story in an inorganic, forced way which often made little sense. Guest stars could turn up at any juncture with little rhyme or reason.
Whatever happened to say, the X-Men or Iron Man in the UK line was never, ever referenced in the characters’ US book which essentially told readers either directly, or subliminally, that anything that happened to the US characters in the M-UK books was inconsequential and ultimately so was the line in the greater Marvel Universe.
Another problem, which connects to the last one, was that so many of the US characters were tied up in the UK characters’ war with the Faustian group Mys-Tech that it further distanced itself from the greater Marvel Universe than say, if both parties did battle with A.I.M or Doctor Doom etc.
Mys-Tech was a new creation that even sole readers of the UK books would have had to wait to read more to find out more about them and their motivations. It was clearly a Mys-Take.
This further served to make appearances by US heroes seem inconsequential and unimportant, as the adversaries involved were unknown and little understood by the casual US reader that was trying out these books for the first time to see if they were any good.
Probably the biggest problem, was however that the UK heroes never appeared in the Marvel US comics, and I honestly believe that this was one of the major downfalls of the M-UK line.
In fairness, for the UK team to co-ordinate their efforts with the US editors and writers who would be using the UK characters as guest-stars would have probably caused a major headache for both editorial and writing teams, both of whom were already under the yoke of an increased workload during the explosion of titles during the’92-’93 bubble.
One property proved an exception to the rule. That exception was Motormouth and Killpower, who appeared in the pages of Incredible Hulk #409, in 1993. This incluson may have been prompted by then artist, Gary Frank, who also happened to have been the artist on the Motormouth title.
One of the big storylines from the UK branch was the Mys-Tech Wars. This was a four issue limited series that featured a battle between the UK heroes and Fantastic Four, X-Men, the Secret Defenders and a wealth of other US heroes against the clandestine group Mys-Tech (again).
It also crossed over into several UK titles. Even with the inclusion of all these heroes, it is very much forgotten on both sides of the Atlantic despite having a reasonable story and some very nice art. It features some smart writing by Andy Lanning and fine artwork by the great Bryan Hitch. Check it out.
Battletide is another decent story. It featured a Death’s Head and Killpower (from Motormouth) and almost the entire Marvel Universe. It was silly, but fun. Like a lot of the UK output – it didn’t take itself too seriously. The Geoff Senior (Transformers/Dark Angel) artwork is worth the price of admission alone.
Super Soldiers was a decent title that appeared in mid ’93 and featured a guy who was a product of a UK Super Soldier project a la Steve Rogers, who started his career in the Falklands War and his team. It makes references to Daredevil’s Nuke character, and uses the tried approach of featuring US characters such as USAgent. It’s worth a look.
Gene Dogs was an attempt at an X-Men type property/knock-off. It ran for a 4 issue limited series. Genetix was another title that debuted in ’93. It was ok.
The direct market imploded in 1994 and the bloated Marvel UK imprint which had appeared so healthy before was now in bad shape and eventually had to close its doors. Several commissioned and completed work remains unpublished including Armageddon Knights. This was a rework of the Knights of Pendragon. Loose Cannons by Dan Abbnett was another project that never saw the light of day. In 1994 Marvel UK tried a slight re-brand, introducing the Frontier line. It ultimately failed.
It is sad that such an ambitious project by the UK office ended so unceremoniously. They had definitely over expanded their line flooding an already bloated market and experienced diminishing returns. Had editor Paul Neary decided to keep publishing a small group of say, five popular titles they might have enjoyed greater longevity.
To tell you the truth, the larger the line got, the lower the quality of the product reached in my opinion (The UK office were far from unique in this regard in the early ’90’s!). Some of the later stuff like Nikki Doyle:Wild Thing is risible fare, as is Plasmer.
Later Marvel UK mags featured a lot of T & A and big guns perhaps in an attempt to appeal to lowest common denominator, pubescent tastes, or maybe it’s just a reflection of the general (an)aesthetic that was prevalent across the board in comics.
In reality, Death Head || is really the only property remembered well by long time US readers. The Marvel UK characters have returned to Marvel US pages recently in Revolutionary War and it is being reasonably well received.
Hi,my name is Mark (Sparky) Ryan and I’m delighted to have been invited to do this blog post by my good friend Dean Compton, who like yours truly is a huge fan of comics of the ’90’s variety. This blog is more or less unique in the blogosphere, in its focus.I commend Dean for that.It’s a great blog he’s got here Please visit my own blog http://sparkyslongbox.blogspot.ie/ if you wish, for reviews of individual issues from both Marvel and DC from the start of the Bronze Age, or find us on Facebook at Marvel UK Comics.
What was Genesis ’92?
In 1992 Marvel UK launched a bevy of titles directed at the US market. Many of you reading this, actually probably most, will remember Deaths Head ||. This was probably the most successful title in the line and is still fondly remembered by many on both sides of the Atlantic to this day (Death’s Head || and the other Marvel UK characters returned in Revolutionary War earlier this year).
Marvel UK created many properties or characters in the early 90’s. Some were very good, some mediocre and some were plain atrocious. Most anyone that has read Marvel comics over the last 20 years or so should be familiar with some or all of these names; Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Geoff Senior, Charlie Adlard, Doug Braithwaithe, Simon Furman, Bryan Hitch, Carlos Pacheco, Salvador Larroca, Alan Davis, Gary Frank, Andrew Wildman. All these gentlemen cut their teeth working for the UK branch of Marvel and have gone on to have varying degrees of success in the US.
A Little Background. ..
Marvel UK have existed since 1972. They were originally created to reprint US Marvel titles in weekly format for UK consumption. These reprints proved popular. They were in a larger format and normally black and white. It was ultimately controlled by the US operation but had UK editors and staff.
Marvel US had the idea in 1976 to create a character exclusively for the UK market in attempt to ground the line of mags, and give British readers their own superhero. Captain Britain was born.
Now Cap B was written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Herb Trimpe and later John Buscema. It was very much a US type superhero and the only thing that differentiated him from the US stable of heroes was a perfunctory illustration of London’s Big Ben or Trafalgar Square and some English type expressions that often failed in their attempt at naturalism.
It was a fairly popular strip that eventually faded from the pages of Marvel UK until the early ‘80’s when Alan Moore took over the writing duties, who, aided and abetted by the gifted pencils of Alan Davis gave the character a second lease of life in a classic and much celebrated run.
Captain Britain is still the most popular and important Marvel UK character ever, appearing for many years in the pages of Chris Claremont’s Excalibur, a popular X-title. Except he wasn’t really a Marvel UK created character as he had his origins in the US.
Marvel UK’s first attempts at reaching the US market.
After the Secret Wars 2 and tie-ins dried up for Marvel UK they took the editorial decision to stay away from superheroes due to falling sales and concentrate on profitable licensed products such as the hugely popular Transformers, Thundercats and Action Force/GI Joe.
These mags had a mix of US material and fresh UK originated material that still proves popular with collectors today, particularly fans of the Transformers.
1987 – Death’s Head Appears
In 1987 Simon Furman and Geoff Senior create the first Death’s Head robot, a bounty hunter that kills Transformers. He proves popular with the readership returning several times, even though he had nothing to do with established Transformers continuity in the US. The seed is planted for the UK line.
In 1988, due to his popularity with Transformers readers the Freelance, Peace-keeping Agent/Bounty Hunter gets his own title, yes?. It’s written by Simon Furman and drawn by Bryan Hitch/Mark Farmer. It is in US format with the Marvel US logo and is sold in US comic shops alongside popular US comics of the day. It lasts 12 issues and features appearances from Iron Man 2020 and the Fantastic Four in an attempt to appeal to the US market and also ground the character in the greater Marvel Universe. Although the early issues had no appearances by US characters, the character appeared in Dragon’s Claws,, with the Claws then also appearing in Death’s Head’s book. I honestly believe the first Death’s Head character is superior to the second – but that’s just personal taste.
This initial series is a damn good read.
Note: This 12 issue series was re-released in the US in 1992 as ‘The Incomplete Death’s Head’.
1990 – The Knights of Pendragon
Death’s Head and its companion title Dragon’s Claws didn’’t last due to low sales. In 1990 Marvel UK releases the Knights of Pendragon. This was a classy title with tenuous links to Captain Britain that was steeped in Anglo/Arthurian mysticism and environmental concerns. It featured gorgeous artwork by Gary Erskine and featured appearances by several US characters such as Iron Man and the Fantastic Four. It proves popular and again, is sold on the direct market in the US along with a fortnightly glossy magazine called Strip which featured Marshall Law, Death’s Head (again) and a variety of mature European type strips.
Genesis 1992 – The Big Push
By 1992 Marvel UK already looking to expand, were encouraged by the popularity of comics, even the cool kids were reading ‘em in the wake of the million + selling X-Men #1 & X-Force #1 in Summer ’91.
In April 1992 they release an anthology title in the UK called Overkill. It features five strips, Hell’s Angel, Warheads, Knights of Pendragon, Digitek and Motormouth and Killpower.
It was also sold in the US as separate standalone titles. It was a two pronged assault. The UK had a 2000AD type anthology title that didn’t always include the appearances from X-Force or Iron Man and the US editions included this extra material in an attempt to appeal to the US market. Paul Neary, who many US readers will remember from his pencils on Captain America (1985-1986) was the Editor-in-chief at the time and the major driving force behind this publishing initiative.
These characters didn’t particularly look like regular US superheroes and they battled a Faustian evil conglomerate that was given nefarious powers in the 16th century called Mys-Tech. Hell’s Angel /Shevaughn Haldane(later Dark Angel after a costly legal dispute with the biker club) had part of the universe implanted in her that gave her powers. (yes, really). The strip was nothing special but was anchored by the gorgeous artwork of Geoff Senior, whose dynamic work I could look at all day.
Digitek is a little remembered computer warrior who teamed with Deathlok at one point. It was a little bland at times but featured gorgeous painted artwork by Dermot Power. It was a feast for the eyes. It lasted 4 issues and wasn’t bad at all, however Digitek is very much a hero of his time and is rooted in the technology of the early 90’s.
The Knights of Pendragon, were heroes of Arthurian legend and more of a Saturday morning cartoon. They were bland and uninteresting in my opinion. They teamed up with Iron Man early in their series. Again, they resembled actual superheroes to a very small degree and had little connection to the earlier, excellent KoP series in terms of flavour or theme.
Warheads were a ragtag group led by the scarfaced Col. Liger who travelled around wormholes (because it seemed hip at the time) and fought against Mys-tech aswell. The Warheads book wasn’t bad, but far from great. It was a book that had pronounced peaks and troughs. It featured the sublime artwork of Gary Erskine in the early issues and was later drawn by Simon Coleby.
Motormouth and Killpower was a pretty good strip with gorgeous art by Gary Frank. Motormouth /Harley Davis was a foul mouthed street rat who cursed constantly and travelled between dimensions. (Notice a trend) fighting against the forces of Mys-tech. Killpower was her simple minded Hulk-like friend. She and Killpower had the distinction of being the only UK characters to appear in a main US book, as Killpower battled with the Incredible Hulk in the pages of his book. (Probably prompted because M & K artist Gary Frank was now the artist on Hulk).
I was excited as anyone at the time when these strips arrived as I was a Marvel zombie and voraciously consumed any product I could get my hands on.
The big breakthrough was with the appearance of Death’s Head || an upgrade from Death’s Head | who was more technologically advanced and had the same bad-ass, extreme attitude of Cable and his crew, an anti-hero. He was one part Predator, visually and another part the molten metal guy from Terminator 2. The book and character proved an instant hit with both audiences on either side of the Atlantic with his first issue reaching high numbers, largely in part to the Image stylised, yet individual artwork of one Liam Sharp. Death’s Head’s stories were irreverent and full of attitude and black humour. Marvel UK now had a real and tangible hit and a property they could really bank on. It really was the title that anchored the entire line.
Make sure and come back for part 2, as we take a look at some of the many crossovers and titles that the line spawned as it reached its commercial zenith in ’93.