Frank Barbiere loses no time to exposition and dumps readers into the middle of a hotbed of activity in “Howling Commandos of S.H.I.E.L.D.” #1, while Brent Schoonover joins him and starts blowing apart the deck of the S.S. Chaney. Dum Dum Dugan is the center of this tale, with all sorts of weirdness radiating out as readers meet the Special Threat Assessment for Known Extranormalities team, a.k.a. S.T.A.K.E.: S.H.I.E.L.D.’s supernatural threat division.
The course of action in “Howling Commandos of S.H.I.E.L.D.” #1 is not quite as bizarre as the “Secret Wars” tie-in “Mrs. Deadpool and the Howling Commandos” #1, but it doesn’t need to be. This is a government-sanctioned operation to retrieve an artifact, exactly the type of plot device Barbiere needs to introduce readers to the entire cast, draw out connections and set the direction of the series. Barbiere accomplishes all of that in the first issue but avoids giving readers any substantial character bits to latch onto. Dugan’s arc in this issue is short and sharp, perhaps reflecting instability rather than true evolution. If anything, readers will have a favorite character prescribed before opening the front cover of this comic, or they’ll find a visual favorite in Schoonover’s art.
Schoonover has the opportunity to draw Jasper Sitwell (as a zombie), Manphibian, Vampire by Night, Teen Abomination, Orrgo, Man-Thing and Hit-Monkey under the direction of Dum Dum Dugan and Captain Reyna, also known as Warwolf. Maria Hill makes an appearance as well (because, S.H.I.E.L.D.) and the team is set against a malleable, mossy foe. Schoonover builds the Howling Commandos as physical pinnacles, but they needn’t be. This is a supernatural war comic, not a superheroic world-saver. Even Hit-Monkey is ripped in his form-fitting S.T.A.K.E. garb. A little more physical variety and visual nuance are certainly in Schoonover’s repertoire; I just hope he brings them to future issues to provide some visual flair and diversity. His expressions are topnotch, even on Orrgo, a gigantic, rock-hewn Jack Kirby creation. Schoonover’s storytelling is sharp and clean, which comes in handy with the battle sequences and in between, but he would benefit from exploring the gritty unknown inherent to these Howling Commandos.
Helping with the visuals is Nick Filardi, who follows Schoonover’s lead and uses a selection of dynamic colors in tandem with these characters, undermining the creepiness that should be present in the company of a vampire, werewolf, amphibious man and muck monster. With bright oranges, purples and greens prevalent throughout the issue, this very much looks like a superhero comic. Letterer Joe Caramagna packs in sound effects, heads-up view screens and worn-out location tags, but — like his visual compatriots — could push it just a bit farther. Orrgo’s word balloons are the same as Dum Dum’s and Manphibian’s (minus a few extra “S”). It’s all serviceable and functional, but it could just take a step over towards creepy with a little more diversity.
“Howling Commandos of S.H.I.E.L.D.” #1 is a fun introduction to a new concept, but it needs to decide what direction it’s going in: is it a creepy war comic, a horror comic with soldiers, a monster mash-up or something altogether different that defies labeling? I initially thought it might be closer in line with DC’s “Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E.,” which it certainly may wind up being, but — for now — it appears to be wrestling a little bit to find its identity.