Revisiting Marvel's Dragon's Claws

Feature James Stansfield 24 Sep 2013 - 07:18

A violent 10-issue dystopia from Marvel UK, Dragon's Claws was a sorely underrated 80s comic, James writes...

1988 was an exciting time to be a young comics fan in the UK. Whereas today even the small Yorkshire town I grew up in has its own dedicated comic book store stocking all the new issues from across the Atlantic on a weekly basis, getting hold of those books 25 years ago involved an hour and a half journey by bus and train.

Our local newsagents stocked some comics, but you really needed to go to a WHSmith's a few towns away to get anything worth getting excited about. There we’d find the likes of Marvel UK titles such as Spider-Man & Zoids, Action Force and Transformers. These A4 sized offerings contained some original material, but were often boosted by reprints of stories from Marvel’s US output.

It was with some glee, then, when adverts began appearing in the pages of Transformers for new, wholly original books from Marvel UK, and ones which seemed to promise the more mature leanings of comics from across the pond. One such title was Dragon’s Claws.

Earth. 8162. Not a nice place to live…But a good place…To die!

Dragon’s Claws was the brainchild of writer Simon Furman. Furman was no stranger to UK comic fans, having penned some of the original material in Action Force and Transformers. In the pages of the latter, he'd created the bounty hunter character of Death’s Head, which had seemed like a massive leap for the usually kid-friendly comic. We’d all seen Star Wars, we all knew bounty hunters were dangerous, and therefore, undeniably cool. Death’s Head was a tremendously exciting character, one who probably deserves a feature of his own, who dealt out a level of violence we were not used to seeing from Marvel UK.

Shortly after Death’s Head’s introduction, Marvel UK were persuaded to try things in a more American fashion, producing books the size of their US counterparts which may appeal to a slightly older demographic. The rapturous reaction to Death’s Head had proved that there was a portion of the audience ready for something a little different. Furman chose to test these waters with Dragon’s Claws.

Drawing influences from the future shocks of 2000AD and movies such as Rollerball, Furman set his story in a distant future where the Earth has drifted dangerously close to the sun and many of the planets natural resources have been used up. The human race has survived somehow, but an appetite for violence and mayhem has developed. To satisfy this, The World Development Council (kind of like the United Nations, I think) developed a contest known simply as The Game.

The rules of The Game were never explicitly stated during Dragon’s Claws’ ten issue run, but it seemed to involve two or more teams of five players battling it out, with the aim of getting a number of team members across a line to win by any means necessary. At the beginning of this story, The Game has been defunct for sometime after an incident referred to in later issues as the “Miami bloodbath” when a match between the teams known as Split Infinity and The Evil Dead got a little out of hand and a number of deaths were involved. Now game teams are kept under the close scrutiny of N.U.R.S.E (National Union of Retired Sports Experts).

Within its first few pages, which chronicled the grand final of one season of The Game, Dragon’s Claws established itself as quite different from the likes of Transformers. It was full of ultraviolent brawling that put the reader in mind of the recent Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, The Running Man. Or at least, it would have if we’d been old enough to see it.

Dragon’s Claws shared many ideas with the Arnie pic - the notion of a deadly sports contest served up as mass entertainment with a number of colourful contenders. As well as Rollerball, which Furman openly admitted had influenced the story a great deal, the future scape of Greater Britain, where the majority of the comic was set, owed a great deal to RoboCop, too. The N.U.R.S.E headquarters could have been picked out of Delta City, while each issue opened with a half page news bulletin called Fast Fax (a more high tech ceefax) which read very similarly to the news broadcasts that appeared in Paul Verhoeven’s film.

Dragon

Originally meant to be known as Dragon’s Teeth but forced into a name change at the last minute for legal reasons, the characters at the centre of the comic were the eponymous team, Dragon’s Claws. Furman created five very different individuals for his titular players, led by hero Dragon. We never found out Dragon’s full name, though we are left to assume that Dragon was his surname as his wife is known as Tanya Dragon. Dragon has taken to farming in the years since retiring from The Game, but yearns for the thrill it once gave him, spending his nights shouting at old tapes of his glory days.

Issue one was almost entirely devoted to N.U.R.S.E’s pursuit of Dragon, sending their errand boy Deller in to persuade Dragon to reunite his team as a peace-keeping unit that would bring troublesome game teams into line. Tempted but reluctant at first, Dragon’s acquiesces after a run in with a team known as The Wildcats. Despite his wife’s desperate pleas to not give in to N.U.R.S.E, Dragon cannot help himself. He admits to himself that his current life is not enough without The Game, or as close as he can get to it.

Dragon is essentially a retired celebrity sports star. It’s arguable that even though the book was named after him, he isn’t the most exciting character in it, though watching his inevitable downfall during the first issue was a great strategy to hook readers in. He is a character not unlike many well known athletes who give up their sport, returning a few years later as nothing can live up to that thrill, only to find the magic is gone and a younger model has replaced them. For this story, that’s Deller, except in Deller’s case he finds himself being elbowed aside by the returning Dragon, a plot line that would carry on throughout the book's run as Deller’s resentment of Dragon grew. In fact, Deller’s hatred of Dragon, and his aspirations to lead Dragon’s Claws himself are so great that it was soon revealed to the reader that The Wildcats had been hired by Deller to dispose of Dragon.

It was a move that was to backfire on Deller in spectacular fashion. Not only did it fail outright, but it persuaded Dragon to come out of retirement and left Deller hunted by the brother of one of the slain Wildcats. During issue six, this would all come back to bite Deller in the ass. Controlled by his obsession with leading Dragon’s Claws, so willing to do whatever N.U.R.S.E. asks of him, Deller is despatched to take care of Dragon’s wife and son, whom Dragon has been trying to track down since the skirmish of the first issue. Unfortunately, Shrine, another game team led by Kurran, the Wildcat’s brother, follow him, believing him to be visiting his own family. After a spectacularly violent shoot out, Dragon’s family are kidnapped, forcing Deller into an alliance with The 'Claws to get them back for the book's final issue.

The Deller vs Dragon storyline was just one of the number of plot strands the book continuously ran. It was quite meticulously planned with a number of twists, where even the actions of minor characters, such as The Wildcats, had a major effect of the overall plot arc of the book.

The ‘Claws

Backing Dragon up were the four members of his team – Mercy, Scavenger, Digit and Steel. Although each of them was introduced during The Game sequence in the first issue, it would take several issues for any of them to become a fleshed out character in the same fashion as Dragon and Deller, and some had barely managed that by the end of the issue ten.

Mercy was the group’s token female. A rich kid, vigilante assassin with big 80s stadium rock hair, Mercy showed her moniker in name only. In some issues, Dragon’s Claws furnished its readers with handy fact files on each of the Claws team members, which helped us fill in a few of the gaps in their history. From Mercy’s we learned she had been on a one woman crusade to avenge her father’s murderers when she was given over to Dragon. Mercy was one of the ‘Claws who had their own evolving story strand when the group are tasked with bringing down a copy cat killer in Canada.

Faced with seeing what she could have become had she not been a member of Dragon’s team, Mercy shoots her nemesis dead. In previous years, a character like Mercy, one of the good guys, wouldn’t have killed in cold blood. It was elements like this that marked Dragon’s Claws as a more mature title. As her fellow team member Steel notes, Mercy could have shot to wound, indicating that this could have been the start of a slippery slope for the character.

Steel, on the other hand, wasn’t really given much of a back story during the run, though there were nuggets of info dropped that would probably have paid off later in the series. Steel was supposed to be a Japanese samurai warrior, but he looked more like Steven Seagal. Equipped with swords and spiky body armour, Steel was the team’s strongman, who gains wisdom through his meditation. The most interesting thing we learnt about Steel was that he had a previous, romantic relationship with Death Nell, one of the book's most colourful villains. It might have been that we’d see this rekindled in future storylines, or the nature of it further explored.

Digit was this writer’s favourite member of Dragon’s Claws. Not at the front of the action as much as the other ‘Claws in the series, Digit was the computer nerd of the group, much like the Laughlin character in The Running Man. Equipped with artificial eyes and a computerised brain after being found left for dead in a Game arena, Digit was a cross between Bishop from Aliens and C-3PO. Digit was often none too popular with his fellow ‘Claws over his lack of emotion and tendency to look on the logical side of things.

Making up the numbers was Scavenger. Presented as the most mysterious member of Dragon’s Claws, we did actually end up finding out more about Scavenger than we did Steel and Digit. A former member of group known as The Chain Gang, Scavenger betrayed them when he helped out Dragon and earned himself a spot on the team. Scavenger was an underground dweller, with expert creeping up on people abilities. And he had a dog.

Furman created a bunch of lead characters that had a great potential for conflict within the group. Although they always worked well as a unit, there were dark sides to each member of Dragon’s Claws. None of them fit the mould of the true hero, Optimus Prime, Lion-O role that Furman had written for his previous do-gooders. They were action anti-heroes. This of course meant that if the good guys weren’t clean cut, then their adversaries had to be even worse.

The Evil Dead

Throughout their ten issues, the Dragon’s Claws encountered a number of other Game teams they were forced to do battle with. The aforementioned Wildcats and Shrine, The Vanishing Ladies (an all-female team with suits that bend the light to make them invisible) and members of Split Infinity to name a few. By far the most colourful, though, were The Evil Dead.

As you may expect from a bunch of characters collectively named after one of the most notorious horror movies at that time, The Evil Dead were a macabre bunch of individuals. Led by Slaughterhouse, their initial line-up was completed by the vamp-like Death Nell, wolf man Feral, deathly magician Hex and grim reaper with a sheep’s skull for a head, Scythe.

This seems like a good time to mention the other creative force behind Dragon’s Claws, artist Geoff Senior. Senior had been illustrating for Marvel UK for some time and had done several issues of their Zoids comic strip a year or so before ‘Claws. Senior’s artwork was markedly different to the well rounded edges that a lot of artists used. There was always a grittier feel to Geoff’s drawing which lent itself well to the grungy future in which Dragon’s Claws was based, and it was great for portraying The Evil Dead.

By the pen of Senior, Slaughterhouse was envisioned as a more demented version of David Bowie’s Goblin King from Labyrinth, but with blue skin and long, razor-like teeth. He was a cross between Fright Night’s Jerry Dandrige and Jon Bon Jovi. Death Nell was similarly styled, while the other Evil Dead cast members were all drawn heavily from horror movie influences.

And they lived up to their name too. Readers were teased with the team at the beginning of issue one, when they brutally and violently take out a team of soldiers. The same thing was repeated in issue two, but in full revealing glory. When they leave one hapless individual alive to relay a message to N.U.R.S.E, he begs them as to why they’re senselessly killing so many men. Slaughterhouse’s simple answer was “Because we like it!”

It’s probably fair to say that The Evil Dead were much more interesting than the title’s central team, certainly to impressionable young comic book fans eager for something a little different.  It was a bit disappointing that the ‘Claws managed to wipe out all but Slaughterhouse and Death Nell during issue two, especially as Hex at least was such a great character that could have done a great deal more.

Towards the conclusion of Dragon’s Claws, The Evil Dead resurfaced with new members - or Dragon fodder - and the origins of Slaughterhouse began to be explored. Death Nell’s history had also been hinted at in her previous relationship with Steel and it would have been great to find out more about both these individuals. In fact, it was Death Nell who, in the end, disposed of the book's even greater threat – the person behind N.U.R.S.E.

N.U.R.S.E.

In the beginning, N.U.R.S.E. were the facilitators behind the reformation of Dragon’s Claws under the pretence of bringing into line wayward game players. As the story progressed, the true nature of N.U.R.S.E’s business was revealed as running a sort of game players' protection racket, and the ‘Claws were being used to round up those who wouldn’t pay up. This was all a bit of a woolly part of the plot, as what hold N.U.R.S.E. had over ex-game players was never really established.

N.U.R.S.E served as the bigger evil behind the curtain in Dragon’s Claws. If Dragon and co were the colonial marines, The Evil Dead were the xenomorphs then N.U.R.S.E was Weyland Yutani, commanding things from their Delta City-style skyscraper. Their dealings were overseen by Stenson, a Carter Burke-esque stooge with ridiculous futuristic tailoring, always hiding behind his government credentials. Stenson was particularly loathsome.

Pulling the strings, though, was an entity that remained a mystery for much of Dragon’s Claws' run, occasionally teased in shadowy artwork, until the reveal came at the end of issue eight. Furman has admitted that much of Dragon’s Claws was born out of films and television he watched during his formative years, and that N.U.R.S.E. head honcho, Matron, was influenced by Hattie Jacques from the Carry On movies. That is, if she was turned into a 500 pound, nightmarish creation.

In the dramatic finale to the N.U.R.S.E. story arc, Matron took on both Dragon and Slaughterhouse, physically and then mentally via a virtual reality machine where she tried to break both men. Slaughterhouse is visited by twisted memories of childhood beatings and medical experiments, while Dragon is confronted with his family abandoning him, something he had been wrestling with for the past eight issues.

Matron was a real shock of a character. I can’t remember what my expectations were of who was leading N.U.R.S.E. when I first read this book, but they certainly weren’t a deranged and psychotic cartoon hospital worker. The difference between Stenson and Matron had seen to that.

End of the road?

Dragon’s Claws wrapped up its run and most of its loose ends in its tenth and final issue. A man known as Golding spent the issue attempting to convince the World Development Council that the reformed Dragon’s Claws could be used for good, and that they had only done the bidding of the evil N.U.R.S.E. organisation unwittingly.

A chance encounter led the team, now with Deller as a full time member, to uncover the location of Dragon’s kidnapped wife. Once again, this ended in disaster with Tanya fleeing from Dragon, and their son, after the accidental death of her father. Deller also showed that he was just as ruthless as ever, murdering Kurran, the man who had kidnapped Dragon’s family before he could tell the ‘Claws' frontman that Deller had paid The Wildcats to attack him back in the very first issue.

The book ended with Dragon’s Claws vowing to fight on against whoever was causing trouble and make the world a better place. And that was that. Furman in his introduction to a collected edition of Dragon’s Claws said that the team would have continued as government agents under the World Development Council. What adventures they may have had is open to fan speculation, but there are couple of avenues set up in issue ten that we can guess would have been explored.

Certainly, Tanya Dragon would have returned, more than likely as an adversary for Dragon, blaming him for the death of her father, taking her son away and generally ruining her life. Knowing that Deller couldn’t be trusted and still secretly desired to lead the team himself had loads of scope to be explored, while in the final issue Digit reveals that he downloaded all of N.U.R.S.E’s files into his brain, before silently revealing to the reader that “there are many files that will bear a much closer inspection at a later date”.

I’d like to think that Slaughterhouse and Death Nell would have returned, while the fact files on Dragon’s Claws make mention of Steel’s predecessor on the team, Megaton, a character who would likely have been introduced.

For now, though, the only further Dragon’s Claws material that has appeared was a one page charity comic, written by Furman and drawn by fan Paul Ridgon. It’s a really good-looking one shot that shows Dragon holding Slaughterhouse at gun point and deciding whether or not to pull the trigger. We don’t find out what decision he makes, though the page did reveal that the scene took place in 8163, a year after the book run was set, and that two of the team have died.

Dragon’s Claws’ cancellation was attributed to a couple of factors. The first was that newsagents simply didn’t know where to stock it on their shelves due to its size, which meant it would often get lost in amongst the bigger, A4-size comics. The other was that due to its violent nature, the parents of readers of Transformers drew the line at their offspring being subjected to a more mature book.

Dragon’s Claws wasn’t perfect by a long shot. The dialogue often seemed corny and clichéd, and though the story had a good structure there were times when you wondered why certain events were really happening. What it did have, though, was a great premise and a great set of characters, and to a young comics fan on the verge of their teenage years and discovering a broader comic book market, it was a tremendously exciting read that this writer has fond memories of as a bold, experimental step for Marvel UK.

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