I love teams.
As far back as I can remember, I’ve cared way more about groups of do-gooders than ones that fly solo. That’s one reason why I’m an X-Men guy. It also explains why I was more interested in the Planeteers than Captain Planet for the one summer little me was convinced he could save the environment by watching a cartoon.
But yeah, the X-Men cast, ’90s X-Force and government X-Factor got all my attention as a kid; adult me crushed hard on the relaunched Guardians of the Galaxy squad and the goofballs in the Parker/Walker/Shalvey “Thunderbolts” run. Give me a sizable cast of mismatched characters bickering and bonding while fighting bad guys over any hero that chooses to bear the weight of the world on their shoulder pads. And now, after two rock solid issues, I think I’ve found another grouping of weirdos to root for: the Howling Commandos.
I honestly was not going to buy Marvel’s “Howling Commandos of S.H.I.E.L.D.” series when it was initially announced. There are just so many comics out there and my dollars can only go so far, especially when you’ve developed an addiction to neckties… and sweaters… and also I bought my first pocket square. The point is, I have to pick my comics wisely, and as I’ve never read an ongoing from writer Frank Barbiere or artist Brent Schoonover, nor have I ever really had a fondness for any of the Marvel monsters, this book seemed like one I could miss.
And then I read the CBR interview with Barbiere. This will make comic publicists very happy to hear: interviews work on me, almost always. It might be because I’m big on behind-the-scenes stuff, or because I find discussions on the craft of comic-making interesting, but pretty much every interview I’ve read with a creator has done a good job of selling me on the subject matter. I’m an easy mark. So that interview won me over and, after two issues, I’m very glad it did.
This book is as weird as one would expect a mash-up of the spy and classic monster genres to be. It has a giant Jack Kirby monster called Orrgo as the communications officer (he works on a computer the size of a house) and features Jasper Sitwell — now a mindless zombie — in the main cast. There’s a one-monkey-army (the appropriately named Hit-Monkey) and a character (not a pop-punk band) called Teen Abomination. The cast is nuts and, as a guy that counts a mutant named Strong Guy as one of his favorites, I heartily approve.
The book’s premise finds that large cast of monsters led by Dum-Dum Dugan, who was revealed to be a Life Model Decoy in the “Original Sin” event, as part of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s supernatural-fighting S.T.A.K.E. division. The monsters are all kept in cells when not fighting other monsters while their support staff, which includes check-ins from Director Maria Hill, Captain Martin Reyna and on-location doctor Agent Kraye, works around them.
Here’s what I really love about this book: the structure. Yes it has a scene wherein a zombie bazookas himself in the face (and later bazookas the team leader), but the outrageous action and comedy is supported by a rock solid foundation. I love the X-Men and the Avengers, but in recent years those franchises have felt unwieldy, with rosters vaguely shifting between issues and spinoff series. “Howling Commandos” spent the first issue introducing the core cast of monsters and then put a smaller group to work in the second one, allowing readers to get to know Vampire By Night, Manphibian and Dum Dum even more. Characters have roles to fill — and a lot of those roles are at odds with first impressions. Orrgo runs communication while Manphibian brings the science perspective — that clash of ideas makes this book unique. Each issue, both of which have been done-in-one adventures, has also ended with a 1-2 page teaser of what’s to come next. Comics shifted toward telling longer storyarcs back in the early ’00s, so it’s refreshing to read a book that knows how to get in, run the mission and get out in 20 pages.
I’m also new when it comes to the characters, even though some of them go back to the birth of the modern Marvel Universe itself. The lengthy histories of characters like Orrgo and Manphibian and Man-Thing don’t feel overwhelming; all the information I need to sink my teeth in the story is included, everything else is just wiki-dessert. I doubt many people know Nina Price’s history from when she debuted a decade ago in “Amazing Fantasy,” but Barbiere’s recap of her origin (which was fantastically illustrated in a ’70s movie poster-style by Schoonover) in “Howling Commandos of S.H.I.E.L.D.” #2 left me mega intrigued. She’s a werewolf that was turned into a vampire?! Love it.
But there is one character that I am familiar with. He came in at #3 in my countdown of the hottest comic book characters. I donned a bowler hat to go as him for Halloween in 2014 and I commissioned Kris Anka to draw him, Marvel Swimsuit Special style. He’s big, burly and mustachioed — he’s Dum Dum Dugan. Here’s the deal: Dum Dum Dugan is my Dick Grayson. Take the specific type of heart-eyes attention that sexy superspy receives and apply it to Dum Dum, my sexy superspy. I said earlier that an interview alone persuaded me to check out this book; it was the interview and the prospect of getting Dugan action on my iPad every month.
But aside from being eye candy for my specific eyes, Barbiere is doing something deeply fascinating with the character. “Original Sin” revealed that the Dum Dum we’ve known for 50 years has been a series of unaware Life Model Decoys created by Nick Fury following World War II. This series isn’t shying away from that reveal, it’s using it to continue Dum Dum’s story past a retcon-bummer toward something unique. He knows he’s artificial but he feels like a man and has the memories to back it up; he’s coming to terms with being a monster (being on the monster squad sorta helps) and he’s helping his team do the same. His arc will no doubt resonate with Martin Reyna, the Commando called Warwolf who has yet to wolf out in two issues. Reyna keeps his distance from his monster powers (“I’m no monster — I’m a solider”) but the prejudiced Paul Kraye calls him both a “dog” and a “monster.” There’s a genuine discussion happening about self-acceptance and discrimination happening in between “Ghostbusters” homages, and I love that.
The visuals also play to this layered approach. Schoonover’s a clean, straightforward artist with solid storytelling skills. I praised the structure of this book, and a lot of that falls to Schoonover who has put these characters in a consistent setting that has a real sense of space; he doesn’t skimp on the locations. He’s also made sure that every human cast member looks as different from each other as the monsters; Kraye’s silhouette looks nothing like Reyna’s, and neither of them looks like Dum Dum. Colorist Nick Filardi leans into the grounded aspects of Schoonover’s work, giving the spy scenes a sterile color scheme that contrasts with every instance of the supernatural, which Filardi fills out with violently vibrant neons. While reading issue #2, I got a very “dark ‘Scooby-Doo'” vibe from this book. While I can’t really put my finger on why, I do know that I mean that as the highest compliment. And I’d be remiss not to mention letterer Joe Caramagna, who continues to make balloon-filled pages of rapid-fire banter flow effortlessly without obstructing the art.
My only complaint is the overall lack of female Commandos. It’s true that Marvel’s monsters, and most monsters in general, skew heavily male (although “Thunderbolts” alum Satana would be right at home on this team). Still, I applaud Barbiere for taking a forgotten character like Nina Price and putting her in a prominent role, her first in almost a decade. And I think Barbiere sees this imbalance too, as he introduced a new character — the spirit-channeling, alternative-styled Nadeen Hassan — and added her to the cast. The victory in issue #2 even hinges on Price and Hassan connecting and communicating, as the Vampire By Night used her psychic powers to help rather than terrify. In two issues, the only victory scored by the Commandos came thanks to their female member.
There’s no shortage of superhero team books out there right now. Your Justice Leagues and X-Mens and Avengerses make up a sizable chunk of the market — always have, probably always will. But every now and then, a weirdo team with heart comes along and gets my attention. “Howling Commandos of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is special and a book unlike anything else I’m reading right now. It’s also fun, which, at this point, is what I want most from superhero comics. So you have my attention, “Commandos,” and it’s surprisingly not just because of Dum Dum Dugan.
Brett White is a writer and comedian living in New York City. He made videos for the Upright Citizens Brigade as a member of UCB1 and writes for the podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).
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