Even though Marvel’s all-ages superhero comics are uniformly better than their “grown up” — and how laughable that term is — versions, I’ve never been able to warm to them, aside from when Marvel Adventures Avengers helped me through a difficult Bendis-related time. While they were more than competent in terms of writing and art, these titles lacked something, often retelling stories I’d already read in the “proper” comics 25 years ago, and the done-in-one format and intended audience — I could argue all day about giving complex stories to kids and letting them work them out at their own pace, but this is not the place — meant that there was an upper limit on the level of complexity the writers could bring to the story.
Marvel Heroes is published under license by the once-and-former Marvel UK, now Panini Comics, and while not quite the same thing as Marvel’s own all-ages titles — it’s an original story for a start — it does have some of the same problems, which is one reason why I’ve not read the preceding 32 issues. This issue is different though, because this issue feature’s Death’s Head, who is up there with Rocket Raccoon as one of Marvel’s greatest characters ever. This is also not the place for a lengthy discussion of how great Death’s Head is, but let’s assume for the purposes of the current discussion that he is very great indeed.
The comic consists of one story, split into two by a features section, including games, character profiles and a Death’s Head poster. There’s also a free gift, some sort of shooty thing that Marvel US would never dare to give away with a comic because they’re frightened of lawyers. The first half of the story — by Ferg Handley with pencils and inks from John Ross and colors by John Charles — comes off worst as it has to set up the battle between the Hulk — I may have forgotten to mention him with all this talk of Death’s Head — and Death’s Head — yay! — so it ends up a bit flat and superficial. The art is in a dynamic, clear-lined style reminiscent of television animation, and it does the job as well as can be expected given that there’s not much to work with.
In a nice touch, the games in the middle section are framed as training exercises for the Hulk’s upcoming battle, which gives the comic a slight interactive feel. It would have been better if the skills learned by the Hulk in this section came into play in the story, but it’s still a fun little exploration of what can be done with the comics format.
The second part is written by Death’s Head creator Simon Furman and it’s little more than a fight scene, but a crowd-pleasing one, at least for those in the crowd who are in their thirties; I’d imagine the kids will be a bit baffled by the way the ostensible hero of the comic is playing second fiddle to this robot bloke. Simon Williams has much less of an animated influence in his art, with more shading and depth to the linework, and the coloring from Jason Cardy and Kat Nicholson is a touch darker than that of the first chapter. The storytelling is good, aside from a couple of awkward panels — both cutaways to Thunderbolt Ross, oddly enough — and Williams’ Death’s Head bears favorable comparison with those of Bryan Hitch and Geoff Senior. The artist has also chosen to go for the square-head-squinty-eyed-scraggly-hair version of the Hulk from the 70’s and 80’s, a choice of which I can only approve.
This isn’t Eisner-winning stuff, just a fan-pleasing tussle between one popular Marvel character and another who should be much more popular. There are no great insights or developments here for Death’s Head, but for some fans — myself included — it’s enough to have him appear outside of a reprint, and the intended audience doesn’t give a fig where this comes in the character’s chronology so the fight is probably enough for them. All in all, this isn’t a “terrific example of the art form of comics” — although the games section has potential — but it’s not trying to be, and it succeeds on its own terms.