Over the years, a number of metaphorical monsters have plagued the heroes of the Marvel Universe, but some of their most dangerous foes have been literal monsters. It takes a special kind of person to hunt and defeat gigantic marauding alien war lords and supernatural creatures such as werewolves and vampires; heck, one school of thought suggests that sometimes it takes a monster to fight a monster.
This October, writer Frank Barbiere and artist Brent Schoonover kick off their new “Howling Commandos of S.H.I.E.L.D.” series, which sees the titular espionage agency launching a new military unit called S.T.A.K.E. that is composed of bestial, fantastic and grotesque monster hunters. It will be up to the various team members and their leader, the Life Model Decoy Dum Dum Dugan, to either accept the monster label they’ve been given or forge their own identities. Barbiere joined CBR News for an in-depth discussion about the book that touched upon the mood of the series, the book’s larger theme of identity, Barbiere’s take on his cast and the foes they’ll face.
CBR News: The teaser image for “Howling Commandos of S.H.I.E.L.D.” features a lot of different elements: monsters, spies, robots, aliens and even anthropomorphic animals. It seems to me, though, that all those things are coming together to create a fun tone. Would you say that’s accurate?
Frank Barbiere: Yes, it’s interesting because with a line up like this there’s a lot of room for different tones. Overall I think one of the biggest contributors to the tone of the book is Brent Schoonover’s artwork. I’m so, so happy to have him on board because Brent’s art looks like comic book art. He doesn’t try to draw overly realistic. His art has a cartoony feel about it, but it fits the book so so well. Because if this was a book that was played entirely self serious, it would be overly dark and I don’t think that’s something anyone wants.
So I feel with Brent’s style, the book has developed a horror/adventure tone. There’s some levity, but there’s very much a focus on action and adventure. It’s got a sense of fun and whimsy, but at the same time it is about monsters fighting other monsters so to speak. [Laughs] So I’m also definitely enjoying infusing a little bit of horror into the book. It’s nothing super dark, but I think it’s something we don’t see in a lot of modern books, and certainly not a lot of Marvel books at present.
Where is your team when you pick up with them in “Howling Commandos of S.H.I.E.L.D.” #1? Will we see the events that lead S.H.I.E.L.D. to activate this special unit?
I think Al Ewing did quite a bit to contextualize that in “S.H.I.E.L.D.” #9. They’ve been building towards this. We don’t get the reveal of exactly why they’ve been doing this, that’s going to come in this book, but you see that this is a new organization.
So Al did a great job of setting up the new status quo for Dum Dum. He wrote the story where they come together for the first time. [“S.H.I.E.L.D.” #9 is] not essential reading for “Howling Commandos of S.H.I.E.L.D.” #1, but I would recommend it to anyone who is interested as it does kind of set up some ground work. We did make sure our #1 issue is a clean read though.
Over our first arc we will kind of reveal the bigger threat that lead S.H.I.E.L.D. to mobilize S.T.A.K.E., but I think the interesting point of why the book is called “Howling Commandos” is that Maria Hill sees an interesting opportunity with Dum Dum to take these oddities and extranormal characters and turn them into an actual fighting unit. That’s certainly where the Howling Commandos DNA comes in.
I think the cast is really, really interesting in that they all have very different backgrounds and very different origin stories from people who are actually aliens and outsiders, to people who have just mutated, to Hit-Monkey — who is an actual monkey. So we’ve got a lot of unique personalities. The book is largely about who you want to be and how you’re going to be that. So the meat of this book is it’s a series about identity. It’s about being labelled a monster and embracing it, or fighting against it in order to find yourself.
I think Dum Dum is a really excellent personification of that. When he finds out he’s a Life Model Decoy he’s very conflicted about that, but we’ll see in “Howling Commandos” #1 that taking this leadership role again and embracing the structure of a military unit is really helping him. He’s becoming more of a mentor and leader and that’s helping to ground him despite some of the craziness that’s been going on.
Let’s get a little more into your cast. You’ve talked quite a bit about team leader and member of the original World War II-era Howling Commandos, Dum Dum Dugan. Is he our point of view character in this series?
In this first arc, yes. We don’t use a lot of narration though. I typically don’t in a lot of my work, so it’s not like we’re really in Dum Dum’s head. We get a lot of him talking to Phil Coulson, especially in the first issue. We get a briefing with Phil kind of explaining who each of the cast is.
It was really important for me, though, to get Dum Dum’s story across — to show that he is choosing to become this leader and this identity, but also to really start building out the whole cast. We start off with a roster of nine characters and, as I said, we’re adding a couple. [Laughs] So we’ll have even more and I really want this to be an ensemble piece. I don’t want it to be just about Dum Dum’s journey. He’s definitely kind of an entry point, but I think we quickly move past that. And if anything, our new character is very much an entry point the helps us get into our established cast members.
So we’re getting all their views and seeing them interact and trying to show you how Hit-Monkey is different from, say, Dum Dum and even Vampire by Night. Or how are their stories different from a character like Manphibian, who’s actually an alien, or Orrgo, who might actually be more antagonistic and not happy to be part of this organization. So how does that all work? And how do they all really come together?
There’s also some strife within S.T.A.K.E. Some of the characters who are part of the organization have secret ulterior motives and muddy histories, so we’re really looking forward to building out the intrigue there as well. We want to show that this actually goes much deeper than we first present. The intrigue and conspiracy within the organization all plays into a long term plan I have for the book. So as we move forward, we’ll start to tackle some really fun mysteries within the organization. At the end of Al’s story in “S.H.I.E.L.D.” #9 he seeds some stuff I’m going to be playing with.
Your team features another character with a connection to the Howling Commandos — Nina Price AKA Vampire by Night, who was in Keith Giffen’s 2005 “Nick Fury’s Howling Commandos” series.
Yes, we’re not really addressing that at this point. I’ve looked at that series to see what kind of characters I could handle and what their backgrounds were. A lot of it was really informative, but this is definitely a brand new take with, no pun intended, new stakes on the table, [laughs] a new focus, and something that all the characters are unfamiliar with and learning to deal with in this first arc.
The team has a very lycanthrope looking member in the form of Warwolf. Is this the Marvel Universe’s most famous Werewolf, Jack Russell, or is it another character?
He is not Jack Russell, so that’s a big difference. He’s a new character named Martin Reyna who is an official member of S.H.I.E.L.D. and a soldier. He’s a really interesting character who is featured prominently in “S.H.I.E.L.D.” #9.
Reyna does not consider himself a monster. He sees himself as a soldier, so there’s definitely a lot of animosity between him and the Commandos because the way Warwolf works is [is that] he has that big gauntlet on that delivers a gene package that transforms him into Warwolf. He’s not cursed in any way. So it will be interesting to see how he interacts with the rest of the team, especially with Dum Dum who they all know is an LMD. So we’ll definitely see some conflict between the “human” characters and how they treat the monster characters, and how they view their roles within the organization.
The other established S.H.I.E.L.D. operative on your team is zombie Jasper Sitwell. What inspired this take on the character?
[Laughs] I think that it was really that we wanted to give something new with an established Commando and how it fit with the team. I don’t know exactly who came up with the take, but it was something to add a little bit more history while reinventing things. So we’ll get into a lot of his background in the book, but we’re keeping things very quiet up front.
It’s also a really nice emotional beat for Dum Dum to have Sitwell there. We’ll see a lot — especially in this first arc — of Dum Dum trying to validate Sitwell and really be like, “He was one of the greatest soldiers I ever knew.” We’ll also see though that now he’s really just a shambling zombie. [Laughs] So that’s also part of Dum Dum’s quest — to uncover what’s going on here, what he can do, and how he can turn this team into his own unit and fit his own needs.
The Sitwell stuff is all really fun, and it’s a blast to write. There’s a lot of stuff I have planned for him and hopefully readers find it very interesting. I like that we’re keeping him mysterious going forward and not showing you exactly how zombie Jasper Sitwell came to be.
So Sitwell a typical zombie then, without any of his former intellect?
There are glimmers, but that’s really the question at hand. Does he remember who he is? Is there any way to get him back up to snuff, or is he just going to bite people and bump into corners? So we’re really playing with that fun dichotomy of Dum Dum knowing that he’s probably in there somewhere, but at present he’s very much a zombie.
While we’re on the topic of the intelligence levels of your team members, what can you tell us about your takes on Hit-Monkey and Man-Thing?
A lot of readers have asked me about Man-Thing, and this is the version of the character where he doesn’t speak, because I guess when he appeared in “Thunderbolts” Man-Thing talked a lot. My take is very much the more traditional, silent and mysterious Man-Thing.
Hit-Monkey also does not speak, but he has sentience. He’s not chaotic and crazy. He listens to and interacts with people. I really enjoyed Dan Way’s “Hit-Monkey” series. I read it years ago and always wondered where that character went and when he would pop back up. So this definitely was a huge curveball for me. I never expected to write Hit-Monkey. [Laughs] I’m having a lot of fun with him though. He’s clearly into being a Howling Commando.
Hit-Monkey is definitely an interesting one that I think people are really going to enjoy. The Man-Thing is one as well. I’ve been reading a lot of older Man-Thing stories to get some more background on the character. I think he’s such a fun, interesting, visually cool and dynamic character. We have a really cool scene with Man-Thing right in the first issue, so I’m excited for people to check it out.
There are also two older characters: Orrgo and Manphibian. What are their roles in the book?
Orrgo is great. I like to think of him as a little chaotic. You don’t know if he’s happy to be there among these humans. He definitely has a lot of very fun dialogue with a great sarcastic tone. He questions everything and is kind of the team’s operations expert. He works at a giant computer and, because he’s super smart, he handles things like mission analysis. It’s an opportunity to get a lot of great commentary from him. I like it when some characters have their own unique motivation and they’re working towards it. Orrgo is one of those characters. I think a lot of people are going to enjoy our take on him. He’s definitely fun and sassy [laughs] for lack of a better term.
I’m also a nerd for mining through the past of these characters and finding little things that we can add in that nod to their past. Orrgo’s background is specifically interesting because he would have literally conquered Earth, but he made the mistake of falling asleep next to a circus and a gorilla came out and beat the crap out of him — so Orrgo is not entirely happy with the fact that Hit-Monkey is on the team. [Laughs]
I was familiar with Manphibian because of Rick [Remender]’s run on “FrankenCastle” and Dennis Hopeless’ “Legion of Monsters” but, I’m really interested in his background. He’s a lot smarter than anyone ever gives him credit for. They kind of talk about that in the “Legion of Monsters” mini, but right away we see him building some tech. He’s using his alien background to build some weapons for Dum Dum. I think that’s a really interesting take. I wanted to embrace the fact that he’s not just a humanoid or part of this team in a normal way. I want to go into the histories of these characters and look at where they’re from and how they can contribute to the kind of unit that would hunt monsters.
There’s also a new character, Teen Abomination, who debuted in the recent “Superior Iron Man” series. How does he fit in?
Then Teen Abomination is the youngest character, which is really interesting, so we get a whole different perspective with him as well. I hate to keep going back to the issue, but “S.H.I.E.L.D.” #9 shows how he comes to be part of the Commandos. That kind of colors his whole take on what S.T.A.K.E. is. I’m really enjoying him because he is a newer and younger character. I feel like any time you have a character that’s not a hardened soldier or doesn’t have the wisdom of being an adult they can make more mistakes. They’re a little more interesting. They tend to be a little more volatile and I think, for lack of a better description, Teen Abomination is going to be “one to watch” in this series because there’s a lot of room to show what the character is all about and what he can do.
In addition to the action, horror and intrigue of going on missions, will we get to spend time with the Commandos when they’re not out on the field?
That is something that I’m really interested in doing. We definitely will. In the second and third issues you’ll see one of the things I’m doing to manage the team being so big is that not all of them go on every mission. So issues two and three have two very different squads on missions and we get to see what the other characters are doing back at S.T.A.K.E. H.Q.
Finally, let’s conclude with some hints and teases about the Howling Commandos’ initial targets. What can you tell us about some of the monsters and familiar faces we’ll see in your first few stories?
I definitely have been digging into Marvel Universe history to find some of the more horror-focused and monster characters to deal with, so there’s going to be a lot going forward.
I hate to give a weak answer like that, but we’re kind of keeping our classic villain in the first arc a secret. As I said, though, I’m going to introduce a brand new villain and that’s a really fun opportunity for myself. There are also rumblings of Dracula already. We have a very specific plan for him — that’s about all I can say right now. You’re definitely going to see a lot of other groups come into play once S.T.A.K.E. starts gaining some notoriety. They are a secret organization, but when you have monsters out and about in the world, someone is going to find out and it is going to draw some unwanted attention.
I can say that the first issue features a horde of plant zombies. [Laughs] It was probably interesting for Brent to read the first script and see, “The whole background is covered with plant zombies.” I think he did a great job with them though.
Brent Schoonover and Nick Filardi, our colorist, are amazing collaborators and I think this book looks very unique and it has a strong visual identity. I think when people look at it, they’re going to be able to get it immediately, which I think is really important for comics just from the style, tone, and the work.
I think this book is going to take a lot of people by surprise. We’ve got a lot of fun genre elements in here, but I’m also focused on telling stories that people will care about and not just feature pointless action. X-Men was always a book about identity; about being hated and feared, but being a hero anyway. I think we have a lot of that DNA in the Howling Commandos. These are characters who have been labelled monsters and we’ll see what they do to fight that label or embrace it. They’re going to carve out their own paths. We’ll also deal with the institution of S.H.I.E.L.D. There’s going to be a lot of rules and we clearly have a cast that likes to break rules. So there’s a lot of room for fun and excitement and I hope people give the book a chance.
“Howling Commandos of S.H.I.E.L.D.” arrives in stores in October.
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