GETTING MORE TALE #880: Death Team
One of my favourite ways to spend a Saturday morning was down in the basement drawing pictures while listening to heavy metal music with my best buddy Bob. Most likely, we were watching one of my VHS tapes of the Pepsi Power Hour while doodling away with our pencils. It was the best of times, with the best of friends, and the absolute best kind of music.
In the early to mid 1980s, MuchMusic was only available on pay TV. We had it, but Bob Schipper did not. Therefore he only had two pathways to the Pepsi Power Hour:
- Wait for the one or two weeks per year when pay TV was free for sneak preview.
- I tape the videos, and share my finds with him on Saturday mornings.
It was an amazing way to bond as kids. He brought with him his paper and pencils, and we would get down to business while watching music videos.
In the summer, we moved activities to the front or back porches, with a ghetto blaster playing Kiss or Iron Maiden as we sketched. In fact, the story really begins on the back porch. The very same back porch on which we schooled George Balasz about Accept. Bob had mastered the art of drawing muscled warriors in cool poses. His very first was a master of escape whom he dubbed “Motor Head”. In his first appearance, he seems doomed, hanging from a noose. But a closer look reveals him casually smoking a cigarette and holding a pair of nun-chucks for his imminent escape. Note the frayed rope. He was in no danger – he was biding his time!
Having mastered this first character, it was time to expand on the concept. Bob drew many different designs and body types. Giants, archers, characters with cybernetic limbs…the field was wide open, but heavy metal music was always an influence.
Bob’s second sketch was a man in a metal Quiet Riot mask he named “Killer”. Killer was one of Bob’s favourites. As his drawing abilities grew, he expanded upon Killer. Next, he designed a custom car and robotic pet for the character. I liked the way he used metal plates and rivets for detail.
Bob taught me the secrets of drawing these heroic figures, and I began to create my own warriors. The characters we were sketching resembled Mad Max marauders, crossed with heavy metal tropes. Really, all of that metal stuff was inspired by the post-apocalyptic fiction genre that was all the rage in the early 80s. Nobody did it better than Mad Max, and many of our characters wore masks like Lord Humungous. Others had bandaged faces, like Eddie in some of the Powerslave-era Iron Maiden artwork. Some wielded ninja-like weapons, since ninja movies were also all the rage at the time.
We called our characters “Death Team”.
Bob’s backstory concept of Death Team was a school gang, with a strong influence from martial arts movies. The idea was that the gang evolves into a government-sanctioned fighting force. That meant no limits. The cars and trucks that we drew were armoured and kitted out. Very much inspired by M.A.S.K., Mad Max, and other shows of the time. If there was something cool on the screen, we would try to draw it and add our own twists. What I brought to the table was my interest in GI Joe comics, and the military side of fiction. The ninjas were the common ground between Death Team and GI Joe, and many of my characters had weapons and outfits inspired by the comics. I started giving my characters code names and bios, just like GI Joe, and gave them the inverted star sigil.
At this point during the earliest Death Team drawings, my sister and I had our big musical schism. That means that up until 1985, she was into the same music I was. Well…not W.A.S.P. But she liked Quiet Riot, Motley Crue and Iron Maiden. Then something happened, and she went into what I called “New Wave”. Pointer Sisters, Corey Hart, Tina Turner. To counter our heavy metal Death Team, she created her own squad called the Wavers. She drew her own team members: “Waver” and “The Wave”. Needless to say, Death Team would have crushed the Wavers in combat.
Bob and I sketched solo, during the week. Then we’d gather on the weekends to share our work. We’d inspire each other and keep drawing more. Those are the Saturday morning Power Hour sessions I remember so fondly.
One weekend, Bob came over excited that he had learned to draw “a really cool bike”. He arrived at my door with his new character “Bike Ninja”. We helped each other name our characters, but that one didn’t need anything fancier than simply “Bike Ninja”. His boots had outward-facing spikes, and his left hand was replaced by a robotic claw with a laser in it.
“That might make it hard for him to ride his bike,” I offered up.
“Nahh!” said Bob. “He’s a ninja!”
My mom noticed that many of the characters were smoking cigarettes. She asked why that was. Bob started putting cigarettes in some of their mouths (even the ones wearing masks) to make them look cooler, so I followed suit. That was the rock and roll influence, as many of our rock star heroes like Eddie Van Halen were constantly smoking. We had no interest in it, but the visual followed into our art.
Bob’s art was much better and more original than mine. I improved over time. By 1987 I had finally drawn one I was really proud of, a character all about street justice and inspired by Dee Snider from Twisted Sister. In fact this character was meant to be the real Dee Snider, joining our team to save Earth. The concept was stolen from Sgt. Slaughter, the WWF wrestler who joined the fictional GI Joe team. If that could happen, then Dee Snider could join Death Team!
As Bob and I built our little world of characters on paper, we realized our gang needed someone to fight. Bob was watching the Silver Hawks cartoon before school in the mornings, and took influence from some of the creatures seen on early morning TV. We decided on a force of alien invaders as our adversaries, and a wide variety we did draw.
Bob was really the visual guy though; his drawings were so far ahead of mine. I was more a conceptual guy. I came up with the character bios and some of the overarching story. It was hard bridging the street gang origins together with the alien invasion concept, but I wrote an origin. Together, Bob and I wanted Death Team to be a Canadian team (with some American and overseas volunteers). We wrote them as a down-on-their-luck school gang who lived together on the rough side of town, wherever that was. They actually began as two rival gangs who combined their forces together. We wrote the first pages together and then I finished writing the story. The guys were so tough, that they were swiftly recruited by the Canadian government as a unit of street enforcers. The Death Team was born!
I decided that the leader of the alien invasion was to be a human. Perhaps inspired by Xur in The Last Starfighter, the alien leader was a former Death Team computer wizard who made contact with the aliens by sending a signal through a black hole. He then defected and joined them, determined to conquer the Earth for his own. We even named our alien alliance the “Xor Aliens”.
Bob was really good at drawing aliens, though most had human bodies with alien heads, hands and feet. Some were covered with hair. He was good at drawing big round mouths with a circular row of teeth. I thought that was a cool visual. Many of ours were aquatic. Planet Xor must have had a lot of oceans.
When I look back at these drawings, I see a difference between Bob and I. It’s quality vs. quantity. His are better while mine are plentiful. Some of mine were little more than outlines with no shading or depth. Plenty of mine are rip-offs. He was coming up his own ideas. The thing we have in common, easily seen in these sketches, is how much fun we had!
The pinnacle of of our fun was realized one afternoon when we decided to commit Death Tape to an audio adventure. One side of a 60 minute tape contains us acting out our favourite characters, in a series of adventures. This is all done to the backing tracks of great hard rock tunes. It opens with “In the Beginning” and “Shout at the Devil” by the mighty Motley Crue. This meant we used two ghetto blasters in making this tape. One to record, and one to play the backing music while we acted out the scenes. Quiet Riot’s “Slick Black Cadillac” and “Caught in the Crossfire” by April Wine were the songs used for the other scenes. I just remember having so much fun doing it. It didn’t matter if the tape is unlistenable. My face was red from laughing so hard that day.
All this Death Team stuff goes hand-in-hand with the earliest days of my discovery of metal. You can see the influences bleeding through. Characters named “Motor Head” and “Killer” and “Helix” and “Crazee” and “Iron Maiden”. We weren’t terribly original, but we were terrifically entertained. Entertained by ourselves! All we needed was some paper, some sharp pencils, and a good song. I can still hear the tunes playing, whether it was W.A.S.P. or Motley Crue or Iron Maiden themselves. The tunes were critical. The team could not have existed with the tunes, and the tunes were only more fun to listen to while drawing pictures of the team.
Later on in school, when I was much better at art, I tried my hand at doing a sequel team, called “DT 2”. I played the music, and tried to recreate the magic by sitting down and drawing some updated ninjas. Without my friend it was a futile exercise. Death Team cannot exist without three things:
- Heavy metal music
- Paper and sharp pencils
- My buddy Bob
Anything else is simply a knock-off.