Marvel Comics: Who is Death's Head?

Death's Head Marvel Comics - Cover
(Photo: Marvel Entertainment)

Death’s Head returned this week in a new miniseries from writer Tini Howard and artist Kei Zama. If hearing that name gets you excited, then you probably already know about Death’s Head’s idiosyncratic charm and continuity. However, the number of readers with that response is likely very low. Death’s Head is the very definition of a cult favorite superhero character. Created abroad, provided with multiple iterations (and few clear connections), and ending most of his dialogue by asking “Yes?” has made him an acquired taste. That’s why we’ve assembled the most succinct introduction imaginable for new readers curious just what has kept Death’s Head around and made him a favorite Marvel anti-hero amongst a small, but very dedicated, fanbase.

Death's Head Marvel Comics - Original
(Photo: Marvel Entertainment)

Creation & Origins

Death’s Head was originally set to first appear in Transformers UK #113 in 1987, created by writer Simon Furman and artist Geoff Senior as a bounty hunter for the current storyline and with no plans for future use. After Senior delivered his mech-like design, it was decided there was more potential in the character than originally anticipated. This encouraged both Furman to revise the dialogue and Marvel to debut a single page strip titled “High Noon Tex” in other magazines to avoid a copyright dispute with Hasbro. Death’s Head subsequently appeared in a number of Marvel UK titles (an imprint creating unique content for readers in the United Kingdom) including Doctor Who Magazine and Dragon’s Claw, before receiving his own series and eventually being drawn into American comics.

Death’s Head’s origins were not revealed until 1990 in the story “The Body in Question.” Readers discovered that Death’s Head’s very powerful body had been constructed to hunt beings for sport in the far future by the villain Lupex. He was reprogrammed to be more cold and calculating before being sent through time and resized as a giant (explaining his first appearance in Transformers UK). Eventually, Death’s Head acknowledged that he did not want to be like his bloodthirsty “father,” choosing to kill Lupex and assert that he would never kill for pleasure.

Death's Head Marvel Comics - Death's Head II
(Photo: Marvel Entertainment)

History

The original Death’s Head has continued to dart in and out of Marvel Comics continuity in the intervening years. He has primarily been featured in cameos or guest appearances, acting as a temporary antagonist or nuisance for other characters. He was reintroduced to the mainstream of Marvel by writer Kieron Gillen in S.W.O.R.D., and continued to make minor appearances in the decade between then and the launch of a new miniseries this week. The confusion regarding Death’s Head arises as there’s more than the one described above. So here’s a quick history on Death’s Heads II and 3.0. While there have been even more across the years, they are the most essential to know about for any new fan.

Death’s Head II: Death’s Head II emerged after the original Death’s Head was killed and absorbed by the cyborg Minion. Over time Death’s Head’s personality reemerged and asserted control, recreating the appearance of its new body (seen in the image above) to resemble that of its old one. This reformed version of the character showed a sense of heroism, often teaming up with heroes and performing brave acts. He appeared in many Marvel UK titles, but has only resurfaced a handful of instances, primarily flashbacks or flashforwards, in modern canon.

Death’s Head 3.0: The newest iteration of Death’s Head appeared after winning a fan poll hosted by Marvel Comics. In this version Death’s Head is a mysterious cyborg weapon from 100 years in the future with no clear connection to earlier versions of the character. This one struggles with rivaling desires to murder and help the people it is surrounded by, and is not clearly drawn into prior Death’s Head lore. However, this version of the character has continued to circulate and be referred to as Death’s Head in stories like “Planet Hulk” and “M.O.D.O.K.’s 11,” even after the original returned.

Death's Head Marvel Comics - Death's Head III
(Photo: Marvel Entertainment)

Greatest Hits

Death’s Head is notorious for making cameo appearances, providing a little bit of action and humor to supehero stories (often those set in space) before disappearing again. That makes it difficult to find comics about Death’s Head and highlights what an excellent opportunity the new Death’s Head miniseries is for fans to discover what this character is all about. While it might be difficult to find some of these stories, especially those originally published by Marvel UK, this is the best further reading available on one character who never sticks around for long.

Wanted: Galvatron — Dead or Alive!: Transformers UK (vol. 1) #113: Death’s Head’s first full appearance was also intended to be his last. It’s easy to see why that wasn’t the case when reviewing these old Transformers UK comics, though. The intergalactic bounty hunter’s excellent design and pitch-perfect attitude are present from the very start, and they’re the reason he’s stuck around since 1987.

The Life and Times of Death’s Head: Death’s Head (vol. 1) #1-10: Following the successful appearance of Death’s Head in various Marvel UK series, he was given his own title. It did not run for long, possibly due to it being smaller than most European comics, but laid out much of the early Death’s Head mythos and delivered the exact sorts of violence and humor that fans would come to expect from every future appearance.

The Body in Question: Strip (vol. 1) #13-20: This story, also published by Marvel UK in the Strip anthology, reveals an origin story for Death’s Head. While the character has never been very plot-oriented, this early starting point provides just enough mythology for readers to understand where the bounty hunter is coming from and that he has never been one for change.

No Time to Breath: S.W.O.R.D. (vol. 1) #1-5: Writer Kieron Gillen is partially responsible for bringing Death’s Head into the modern Marvel universe, including him in the start of the S.W.O.R.D. series spinning out of Astonishing X-Men. It’s a familiar version of the original character updated only ever so slightly after a couple of decades hunting bounties across all of comics, and the best starting place until the new Death’s Head #1 available now.

Notable Adaptations

Death’s Head has not left comics very often, even across more than 3 decades of stories. However, the dedication shown in a variety of fan polls and with some creators looking to plant easter eggs has allowed him to appear in a few notable, if unexpected, adaptations.

Planet Hulk (animated film): Fans of both the original comic and this animated adaptation are likely to recognize Death’s Head 3.0. While you won’t ever hear this version apply his normally dry sense of humor or event utter a single “yes?,” the many copies of this body make for a deadly fighting force in battles on Sakaar.

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Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 (video game): Death’s Head has yet to be made a playable character, even in the LEGO adaptations of Marvel Comics. However, game designers managed to sneak him into this very popular franchise where he is shown battling alongside the X-Men.

Heroclix (board game): A fan poll provided to players asked which “unclixed” Marvel Comics character they would like to see adapted into this popular miniatures game, and the fans responded with two words: Death’s Head. This may be the most faithful adaptation outside of comics, with the original Death’s Head design weilding an enormous gun, axe, and mace.

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