INTERVIEW: NICK ROCHE ON DEATH’S HEAD II

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With his first Marvel work due to hit stands next week, I chatted with Nick Roche about landing his dream gig and what we should expect from the book. Nick happily supplied some art including a fan comic he did (I am not allowed say when).

From the panel at DICE, where it was it was announced you were on the book, I could tell you were a big fan of Death’s Head. How excited were you when you got the news?

Violently so. Garments were soaked, whole sheets of tissue paper were torn, and yes: trousers were shattered. It’s a dream of practically all comic pros to work for The Big Two, and my favourite was always Marvel. It’s also the dream of everyone in this industry to land their dream gig at one of these publishers, and luckily, my favourite Marvel character was the original Death’s Head. I didn’t know he was going to be appearing in this book until after I got the gig, but fortunately, my mid-teenage self fell helplessly for the 90s hardcore X-treme styling of Death’s Head II as well; I drew fan comics about him ALL. THE. TIME. I dressed as him (or ‘Coz’ ‘Splayed’, I think the youths refer to it as) for Hallowe’en when I was fourteen. (I’m trying to unearth photos as we speak…) It’s true that I would have happily taken any gig to make my Marvel debut, but as it was with getting the Transformers job, it all started on the highest note my narrow little mind could manage.
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Funnily, I got the news while at a Transformers convention in Birmingham at about 3.30am on a Saturday night last August. I had checked mails in my hotel room after 2 days without internet access, and found a message saying I’d gotten the thumbs up from Marvel editor Steve Wacker about doing some work for them. (And let me tell you; the ‘thumbs up’ from Steve Wacker feels like no ‘other thumbs’ up out there) …and I was on my own. Alone. In Birmingham. No one to call, hug, or high five. My Transformers accomplice, James Roberts was sleeping down the hall, and I came this close to waking him to bellow my excitement at him. But it was a very odd weekend, surrounded by friends that I couldn’t really share the news with. Odder still was chatting to the original Death’s Head’s daddy, Simon Furman, and not babbling in his face about what was to come.

But yeah, this was the dream gig, through and through. I hope the hard work and fun shows in the finished article.

I’ve read that part of the reason you got the book was due to your Transformer’s collaborator Andy Lanning knowing of your love for the character.

I think it’s totally the reason, though a few other factors play into it. When Revolutionary War was announced, The Big Bang Comic Shop’s owner and DICE organiser (and Irish comics’ Magwitch, beneficially forging the futures of creators across the land) John Hendrick, gave me a shout and told me to put myself forward. But it was a nudge from Dec Shalvey years previously that had cemented my fate. When Andy and Dan Abnett had written Transformers: Infestation (Robots vs Zombies IN VEGAS – available in all good, etcetera…) Dec had suggested I send a sketch their way as a kind of calling card to thank them for working with me. So I threw together a shot of Rocket Raccoon, Nova and Death’s Head II as a pin-up, and flung it their way. And, as Andy tells it, when he was cooking up Revolutionary War, he looked at his wall…and saw the sketch I did hanging there. So he had gone to San Diego last year – when he and Marvel were discussing creative teams – with me in mind for one of the books. Hard to know if I would have made the cut if I hadn’t approached him myself last summer, as he and I had discussed working together a few times since Infestation, but it didn’t hurt. So, as is often the case, huge thanks to John and Dec for gently encouraging me to put myself out there.

Plus there was your twitpic demanding the job if Marvel ever brought the character back.

Well, that probably would have gone against me, I’d imagine! I think I can say with near total certainty that an image (coloured by Josh Burcham, and from an earlier pitch to Marvel with Simon Furman) tweeted by me insisting I’m the man for the job DIDN’T really play a part in me getting work with the company. It was playful pleading, and hopefully it was looked upon that way. But it did provide a nice image to accompany the news pieces that followed the announcement.
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(colours by Josh Burcham)

It must make the job even better working with a writer you’ve worked with before. I’ve read also that you’re doing it Marvel style and you’ve worked with Andy on a lot of Easter eggs including dialogue. It seems like a very collaborative process.

Hugely so, and one that’s hard to tell whether I prefer or not. There’s a part of me that loves the writing side to be all laid out for me, so I can fully concentrate on the artwork. But as a writer myself, it’s very rewarding to be able to shape the narrative a little bit. Andy – and co-writer, Alan Cowsill – were far more generous than they needed to be with this. It helped that I knew the characters, for sure, but Andy has been kind enough to talk to me about how much he enjoyed my written work in the past, singling out my Transformers Spotlight: Kup as one of the highlights of his TF research. So I guess that allowed him to relax a little when I was making certain story choices. Being allowed contribute to the dialogue was a massive boost though. I never expected that fact to get out there, but it shows Andy’s generosity to fellow creators that he’s already publicly credited my with some of his favourite lines from the piece. It was another milestone to be able to crack open a document and write ‘DEATH’S HEAD:’ and follow it with some well-honed pith.

As for Easter Eggs, they appear predominantly in visual form, and aren’t all that hard to spot. There’s one page in particular that shows characters not seen since 1988, and is guaranteed to make men in their thirties and forties weep with a joy matched only by being allowed cuddle their long-deceased first puppy again.

Have you gone back to look at some of the old stuff while preparing to do the book?

Certainly. Though I genuinely could have drawn the two leads from memory, it was good to go back and cherry pick the bits I liked from both, and funnel it through the Nickspout. Andy Lanning, again, furnished me with a ridiculously complete Death’s Head database featuring his every published appearance. I’ll be passing it around the classroom at lunchtime. My Death’s Head II, for example, retains a bit more of the robotic torso of his initial appearances. I found from doing my research though, and I’m sure Bryan Hitch will disagree, but the first issues of the Death’s Head I maxi-series is as succinct and perfect an issue one as you’ll find. It sets the tone and the template for the character perfectly, and Bryan contributes a lot of DH’s signature humour in the artwork itself, something I’m not sure he gets a chance to do very often these days.

There were pretty big names on the old series. People like Geoff Senior (co-creator of Death’s Head with Simon Furman) and Liam Sharp (co-creator of Death’s Head II with Dan Abnett) who is also providing an alternate cover. No pressure there then?

Man, if I dwelt on it too hard, I’d crumble. And that’s something I definitely felt when I first started working in comics – just second-guessing myself, and over-analysing to an infuriatingly unproductive degree. And while this book is a massive deal to me personally as a fan, and to my career – it’s hard not to hope that it may be The Next Step – there was a ticking clock, and new collaborators to work with and a new editorial team to impress. I just had to get it done. I don’t for one second feel that I share anything with the dynamic figurework of Geoff Senior, the note-perfect story-telling of Bryan Hitch or the moody rendering of Liam Sharp other than the fact than ‘We’ve all drawn Death’s Head’. But yeah, there’s a part of me that hopes I don’t let them down, so to speak. Or myself, for that matter…
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Can you tell us something about the story and some of the things you’ve gotten to draw?

Well, it follows on from Revolutionary War: Alpha, in that Death’s Head II has royally screwed over Captain Britain, and my issue talks a bit about who paid him to do so. The original Death’s Head is drawn into the mix by a character from their past (or his future…?) and finds himself face to gorgeous face with his future counterpart. Neither character has ever really taken mortal peril seriously, so the wisecracks and puns start to match the bodycount. Scores are settled, some payback is delivered, and as happens in nearly every comic I’ve ever drawn, heads get lopped off. The supporting cast, friends and foe, are mainly taken from the Death’s Head II roster, so expect to see some familiar faces from that era, as well as some ridiculous callbacks to the original Captain Britain series. Yeah, Andy goes that far back.
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I assume you are hoping that Marvel will do more stories with the character possibly with you as the artist?

YES.

Hey, I’m a Death’s Head fan, and will be first in line whenever he shows up, so it’s a win for me even if I’m not drawing him. I’d love to do some more work for Marvel, obviously, and would love to branch out further than Death’s Head. But I do feel I could bring a little something to his world if he were to show up again. And obviously, now I’d like to be involved more in writing it. Oh, the ideas that sit in a folder marked ‘DH’ on my desktop. The icing on this mercenary cake though would to be collaborate with Simon Furman on a Death’s Head story though. How perfect would that be?
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The Revolutionary War has a good Irish contingent with yourself, Ruth Redmond (colouring Dark Angel) and Will Sliney (drawing Knights of Pendragon). Irish creators seem to be doing well at Marvel.

It’s very amusing to us that the ‘Marvel UK’ relaunch is reliant on so much Irish talent. (And you can’t tell me that a dude called ‘Kieron Gillen’ doesn’t fall into this bunch either…) Out of Will, Ruth and myself, I think I’m the only one who really was into this stuff beforehand, so it’s interesting to see their take on it all. Without spilling any beans, the Irish bias in Marvel is only going to be more firmly felt as this year goes on.

Anything else coming from you in 2014 that you can mention?

Nothing by name, infuriatingly. But in a few weeks (I think) the Brian Lynch creator-owned book that I’m drawing and Len O’ Grady is colouring will be solicited, and I haveta say, looking at them side by side, I think that comic is even stronger and more impressive than Death’s Head, but in very different ways. We’re all going mental to share stuff about that, but the skinny is: It’s all-ages, it’s a tiny bit spooky, and I get to draw it in pretty much the way I’d always love to draw.

The other news must also remain sat-upon for now. I’m currently doing lots of writing though. It’s not a creator-owned project. It doesn’t have a timeslot allocated for it yet. I will be drawing it. I wish I could say more, but unfortunately, the NDAs of the comics industry makes fickle teases of all of us.

Thanks for the chinwag, David. It’s so cool that all the Irish creators who are making waves right now have such a great website such as the good ship ICN to fly their tatty little flags from.

Revolutionary War: Death’s Head II hits stands on February 12th. Nick will be doing a signing to mark the release. You can check out the details on the event’s Facebook page.