The Marvel Universe is a place where literal monsters dwell, and though often hideous in visage, they aren’t necessarily villains. In fact, S.H.I.E.L.D. recently began fielding an elite black ops unit of monstrous agents known as S.T.A.K.E., tasking them with defending the world from weird and bizarre threats. The members of this covert team are the stars of writer Frank J. Barbiere and artist Brent Schoonover’s ongoing “Howling Commandos of S.H.I.E.L.D.” series, a book that takes a fun approach to its monstrous heroes by having them work to embrace their strange natures and using them to save the world.
Of course, this hasn’t been an easy task. The team is currently locked in a mortal struggle with the cosmic super villain known as the Sphinx. At the same time, they’re attempting to initiate a new member into their ranks while dealing with the uncertain loyalty of S.T.A.K.E.’s enigmatic leader, Doctor Kraye.
CBR News spoke with Barbiere about the challenges his team is facing, his and Schoonover’s vision for the series, and the Howling Commandos’ role in the upcoming Avengers family crossover, “Standoff.”
CBR News: The last time we spoke, you mentioned that the Howling Commandos were going to go up against a big Marvel villain whose identity you wanted to keep secret. We now know that villain is the Sphinx. What made you want to bring that character into the book?
Frank Barbiere: I think he’s an interesting choice. He’s not someone who gets a lot of play in regular books. When you’re doing a book like “Howling Commandos,” which is so off center in so many ways, and I mean that in a positive way, you don’t want to just go with someone obvious. I wanted to use someone a little more interesting, and as we started talking about the book I really wanted to bring a new character in as kind of our entry point, and do it in a subtle way.
That character is Nadeeen, and it’s been fun to see her in the book. We’ve seen her on the last page of issue #1 and then again in issue #2. In issue #3 she’s now in the base and being formally recruited, but there is the incident in that issue that does not look too good for her. So once I started dealing with her and her power set I decided I wanted to use a lot of Egyptian mythology. I then started looking at characters and obviously the Sphinx popped up.
The Sphinx just worked once we started putting him in. We did zombies in our first issue to sort of kick things off and have fun, but I like the idea of Egyptian mythology, and I love the way a lot of Egyptian relics look. That was really a natural fit visually for what we were looking for, gave us a fun mythology to play with, and as a lot of people know, ancient Egypt had a really cool fascination with the dead. I think that whole mythology is interesting to play with and lean on as well.
The Sphinx is normally more of a cosmic villain, but he’s almost a pulp adventure/horror villain in “Howling Commandos.” It’s been a fun and interesting contrast.
I’m glad you felt that way, because when we were working on the character we knew he really was more cosmic, but we really wanted to repurpose him to be that kind of pulpy horror character.
As you mentioned, the Sphinx is tied to your new characters: his apprentice Navid, and his sister Nadeen, who is now a resident of Area 13. Nadeen’s powers are quite interesting. It seems like she has superhuman strength and the ability to summon and control ghosts — or is she just capable of summoning angry spirits?
She’s going to learn a little, and we’re going to show more of what she can do. Her actual code name is Glyph, which is obviously derived from hieroglyphics. Basically, she can summon apparitions and use them for different purposes like attacking people and aiding her.
I really want to do something with “magic.” Not magic of the Doctor Strange sense, but more of a supernatural power set. It powers her up physically, but she can also use energy glyphs to create these apparitions and summon spirits. She’s a really fun character, and it’s cool to give a more amorphous power set like that to a character where both they and the creative team can discover cool things to play with.
Right now, she’s definitely kind of our anchor for understanding, this is what S.T.A.K.E. is, this is what they do, and this is the emotional journey of the characters within it. They go through the whole spectrum of, “I’m a monster,” to, “Okay, now I’m a prisoner. Why does S.H.I.E.L.D. and S.T.A.K.E. have me here?” And then it’s, “I’m a member of the Howling Commandos.” We see that growth pretty naturally through her arc.
“Howling Commandos of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is a celebration of, “We’re weird and we’re monsters, but we embrace that.” I want to use that as a positive, and through this first arc, that’s what I’m showing with this new character that’s struggling with what she is. By the end of the arc you’ll see Nadeen in costume, as a member of the Howling Commandos, embracing who she is.
You mentioned Jamie, AKA the Teen Abomination. Both he and Nina Price (Vampire by Night) helped Nadeen in issue #3. They seem to be adjusting quite well and quickly to life in S.T.A.K.E. Why do you think that is?
As I said, I don’t really want to do a self-loathing take on these characters where they are horrified by their own definition as a monster. That’s really the point of having Nina, who is more experienced than Jamie, as kind of a mentor. I really wanted to get across with Nina that she’s not afraid of who she is. She embraces it. That’s what gives her character power and gives her more agency.
Jamie was introduced in Tom Taylor’s “Superior Iron Man” as a very confused young person who is still struggling with their identity in so many ways. I like having him be kind of an anchor point, saying, “Hey, if I can figure this out and make this work, so can you.” I also like that they’re so close in age. That means they’re naturally the characters most likely to become friends. We’ll see more of their friendship as we move forward. As the youngest members of the team they’re going to support each other and they have that youthful viewpoint that I think readers kind of relate to well versus some of the more hardened or experienced characters.
As a military book, we could be very cold and tactical, so it’s really important for our characters to constantly be talking and having fun. I don’t want it to be a very cold and analytical book. I want the series to have its own tone. I feel Brent and Nick [Filardi] really give the book a dynamic and fun tone with the art and the coloring. That’s such a great gift as a writer; to know that if you’re writing an action scene it’s not going to read as extremely violent or really dark.
When I first saw Brent’s art, I wanted the book to have more of a horror and intense action vibe. I’ve really come to enjoy the tone that you, Brent and Nick have set, though. It’s almost like the Universal Monsters mashed with the fun, early Marvel Comics.
I saw some of the initial responses and disconnect to the book. I know some people wanted a really dark book, or a serious exploration of the darker side of Marvel, but I’m really happy with the choices we’ve made and the tone we’ve established. At the end of the day, as a writer, you have to do what feels right to you, and I was more charmed by these characters than horrified. That charm and that joy is really what we want to bring across rather than the more traditional horror.
I think your analogy is good. The Universal Monsters stuff has that sense of whimsy to it rather than being super, super dark, and brooding. I feel like there’s a place for that type of brooding darkness and I enjoy it, but this book became it’s own thing that we really enjoy.
I think Marvel has really done that well with a lot of the properties in their cinematic universe. There’s joy and whimsy in their films, and I think people as a whole tend to respond much better to that than the overly dark material we’ve seen over and over again — particularly in the ’80s and ’90s.
I feel like we’ve really drilled in on the dark take on super heroes and I’m really happy to see we’re moving away from that now. Bright palettes are coming back, and we’re reminding people that these stories should also be fun. They shouldn’t be jokes, but fun should be at the core of a lot of the books that are out there now.
I wanted to circle back and talk about one of your characters who’s a little more mysterious and menacing: Doctor Kraye.
[Laughs] I feel like we’ve seen a lot of different things about Kraye in these first three issues. He’s been very fun to plan for and move forward. He was introduced as a new character, and I was immediately taken with the idea of having some kind of nefarious action going on with S.T.A.K.E. and Kraye just jumped out. I don’t know if it was the way Brent had drawn him, or if it was Al Ewing’s story that set up our book where Kraye was scheming with Warwolf, who really aligns more as a human character than a monster one, because they were upset that Dum Dum has as much agency as he does.
I think one of the larger questions with Kraye is, is he more of a Henry Peter Gyrich type, or is he a full-on villain?
He was vetted by S.H.I.E.L.D., and you do see him talk with Maria Hill. I don’t want to give everything away, but he’s definitely very conflicted. He’s someone who is on the side of S.H.I.E.L.D., but I think he drew a bad card getting stuck with S.T.A.K.E., and he has a past that he’s trying to escape. So maybe being around all these monsters and these darker characters has not been good for him. [Laughs]
We’ll definitely see some more of the antagonistic choices he makes and where his allegiances lie in issue #4. There’s some pretty major stuff in #4 that I’m excited for people to see and there’s also some great moments for a lot of the cast. We also still have Warwolf, who is still very much in opposition to Dum Dum, but I think he’s slowly but surely realizing his expertise. We get some big progress with him in issue #4 as well.
Yeah, it seemed like in issue #3 that he was really starting to respect Dum Dum as a soldier.
Yeah, and Dum Dum also not being, for lack of a better term, a dick. He understands that it’s a bummer for Warwolf to not be in command of the team, but there’s a reason. He’s really trying to keep them alive and teach them what he knows.
What I like beyond the main theme of embracing who you are and what your situation is that Dum Dum really has realized that he’s not going to be of use to anyone if he just sits around moping because he’s not the real Dugan. He’s really taken over this mentorship role and is going to teach this squad to be the Howling Commandos. He wants them to respect who they are and what they can accomplish rather than moping as a robot and lamenting his identity. [Laughs]
Will these next few issues also bring clues to some of the book’s larger mysteries? I know a lot of readers are wondering what’s going on with Dracula.
Yes, there is a bigger plan slowly being seeded through, and an even a bigger villain behind Sphinx that we’ll start alluding to a bit. We definitely start referencing that in #4. You’ll get a little more of the scope of what’s going on and who exactly is involved. Right now, the relics and artifacts the Commandos and their adversaries are after are more related than they think. They’re starting to realize that all this different Egyptian stuff can’t just be a coincidence. This all tied together.
Finally, in March’s issue #6 the Howling Commandos’ S.H.I.E.L.D ties means they’ll be part of the Avengers family crossover “Standoff.” What’s it like bringing your fun, off-beat cast into a story involving iconic super heroes and other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents?
I’ve been Marvel fan for a long time, so to even be part of that at the ground level of plotting the event really was exciting! [Laughs]
Our issue of the event focuses pretty much on Orrgo, which is exciting because I know people have come to like him. We really wanted to do something where he was the driving force behind the issue, so you’ll see the whole team, but it really is tied around Orrgo. He’s on the cover of issue #6 holding a sign that says, “Will tolerate humans for a ride.”
I don’t want to ruin the “Alpha” issue of “Standoff,” but Orrgo is part of the event, and you will see him in that book. That will lead directly to our issue. I feel like Orrgo and Man-Thing are the characters we haven’t touched much on yet. We are aware though of the awesome characters we have on this team and we’re always looking for good spots for them to shine. With Orrgo, I think issue #6 will be his biggest moment so far. I’m excited for people to see that.
“Howling Commandos of S.H.I.E.L.D.” #5 goes on sale February 24 from Marvel Comics.