I consider myself a pretty peaceful person, but comic book villains have always intrigued me much more than heroes. Villains aren’t just more violent than heroes, but they use a variety of weapons and abilities to harm others. I’ve written about criminals who have killed by creating earthquakes, fire, and explosions, but what ever happened to a classic, practical choice of weaponry, like a giant axe?
Headsman was a villain who had a very violent gimmick, but wasn’t utilized to his full, brutal potential. Even when writers tried to develop this character, he was only granted a superficial backstory shortly before his final appearance. For most of Headsman’s tenure within the Marvel Universe, he wasn’t much more than a muscular redneck with an axe. Heads up, folks, because this month, we’re welcoming Headsman to the D-List.
Created by Kurt Busiek and Pat Oliffe, Headsman first appeared in Untold Tales of Spider-Man #8 in 1996. The villain targeted the titular hero after Norman Osborne supplied him with an axe and a flying glider. Headsman managed to slice Spidey’s mask, but the hero retreated. After a second battle with Spider-Man, Headsman believed he had killed the hero, but Spidey resurfaced a short time later. Since Osborne now viewed Headsman as an embarrassment, Norman cut the power to the villain’s glider, so Spider-Man nabbed the criminal and turned him over to the police (Headsman will never get ahead this way).
Since there isn’t much more to do with a giant axe than cause bloody damage to a person, it was odd that this villain appeared in a Spider-Man title. Although Headsman only managed to slice Parker’s mask, I believe that occurred simply to illustrate how quickly both the hero and villain could move; I never thought that someone would be dismembered in a Spider-Man comic. If Headsman had appeared in a violent title, such as Punisher or Wolverine, his murderous tendencies would have been more fitting. However, Headsman likely would have been killed by a homicidal hero, so I suppose it was for his own good that he disappeared for a decade (sounds like he buried his head in the sand).
Norman Osborne was appointed as head of national security, and recruited Headsman onto his secret team of killers, the Thunderbolts. Osborne sent this team to kill Deadpool, and after they battled across a few comics, Headsman chopped off Wade’s head. A disguised Black Widow reattached it, however, and Wade’s healing factor saved him unbeknownst to Norman’s team.
After a handful of appearances, Headsman finally lived up to his name. Although Wade ultimately survived this encounter, I shouldn’t let that diminish Headsman’s brutal nature. Clearly this character was created to kill, but the next few stories in Thunderbolts showed a softer side of Headsman (and that he had a good head on his shoulders).
Although he was obviously a disturbed individual, Headsman tried to befriend a few of his teammates. Among other personal details, Headsman revealed to Mr. X that his real name was Cleavon Twain, which was a pun, as the axe-wielding villain could “cleave in twain.” He also brought Ghost some dinner. (some boo berries, perhaps?)
The Thunderbolts were ordered to kill Songbird, so they captured her and Black Widow. Scourge prompted Headsman to behead Songbird, but Cleavon didn’t want to murder her in cold blood. As Scourge berated him, Headsman hit the masked man in the gut with his axe. Fellow Thunderbolt, Paladin, freed the two heroes, and the Thunderbolts fought amongst each other (what a bunch of knuckleheads).
While it was an interesting contrast to his violent tendencies, it was nonetheless surprising to see Headsman take pity on a hero. His namesake implied that he enjoyed beheading his victims, so an attack on his teammate in order to free Songbird was unexpected. Furthermore, watching him try to befriend his fellow Thunderbolts added an unexpected layer of depth to Headsman, because until this point, he seemed like nothing more than an angry loner.
Headsman rarely actually beheaded anyone, but he was fairly effective against the Agents of Atlas. Although the Thunderbolts forced the heroes to retreat, Venus used her hypnotic powers and caused Cleavon to relive a terrible moment in his life, but it served as an interesting flashback to Headsman’s childhood.
The Twains lived on a farm in Louisiana, and as Cleavon’s older brother, Cody, chopped the heads off of chickens, young Cleavon asked about their dog, Duke. Cody ominously stated that the dog bit him again, so Cleavon ran to the side of the house, and sadly, found Duke dead. The dog’s body was shown on panel, but not his head, which likely meant that Cody had beheaded the animal (it’s sad because Cleavon was head over heels for that dog).
The Agent’s telepath, the Uranian, knew that the Thunderbolts were secretly working for Osborne, so the hero implanted a command within Scourge’s mind to shoot Norman on sight. When the team arrived at their base, Norman appeared in a holographic video message, so Scourge fired his gun. Because it was a hologram, the bullet passed through, and sadly, struck Headsman in the head (which gives new meaning to the term “headbanger”).
Just when Headsman was given a backstory and a hint of character development, the creative team killed him (I really can’t make heads or tails of this decision). I was deeply upset when this happened, because Headsman was not only intriguing, but definitely the character who changed the most during this run of Thunderbolts; I really wanted to see Cleavon further grow as a character. However, the creative team teased potential for a new Headsman when the Thunderbolts’ Ant-Man, Eric O’Grady, visited Cody Twain, and told him about Cleavon. Eric made Cleavon sound heroic, and left Cody with Cleavon’s hood and axe. This incident seemed to foreshadow a circumstance that would cause Cody to take his brother’s mantle, but it’s been 8 years since this occurred, and there still hasn’t been a new Headsman.
To my knowledge, Headsman has never appeared outside of the Marvel 616 Universe. It’s a shame that a character with so much promise to be horrifyingly violent was so grossly underutilized. Comic books don’t need to be filled with villains who have grandiose plans for world domination; small-scale criminals can be just as interesting and threatening, and I believe Cleavon Twain proved that to be true. While Headsman was certainly not considered a very important character, I hope that someone new takes the Headsman mantle, so this villain can go head to head with heroes in the Marvel Universe once again.