Robert Dunakin ‘26 / Emtertainment Monthly Staff Writer
With the announcement of James Gunn’s all-new, all-different “DCU” (DC Universe) came frantic googling and increased web traffic on the DC wiki that follows any new James Gunn project. From the time of 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, the characters chosen by Gunn to populate his projects have hinged on the inexplicable. Names so obscure that even the characters themselves don’t seem to know each other. In Guardians of the Galaxy, Korath meets Star-Lord, and the only question he can think to ask is, “Who?,” a sentiment echoed by audience members everywhere. Despite this, those same audiences have come to love Star-Lord and his misfit crew in the intervening decade. They have come to trust Gunn’s taste for deep cuts but sometimes cannot help but ask “Who?” Perhaps no announcement for the fledgling DCU was met with louder cries of “Who?” than that of the Creature Commandos. So, just who are they?
A team of super-powered soldiers and spies with monstrous appearances, the Creature Commandos first appeared in 1980’s Weird War Tales #93, written by J.M. DeMatteis and penciled by Pat Broderick. The debut of this unusual team came at a volatile time for the comics industry, especially their publisher, DC. The previous decade marked a period of tremendous growth and change for the industry, in which rival publisher Marvel Comics had made significant gains in the comics market, using their expanding slate of titles to tell bold new stories. DC, the market leader for decades, struggled to catch up with an upstart competitor whose ambitious integration of contemporary themes and politics into their comics had made them the voice of a new generation. Suddenly DC’s well-tested formulas seemed antiquated, and their characters old-fashioned. Nowhere was this better evidenced than in their war comics. Throughout the fifties and sixties, comic books depicting the glory of the American martial tradition were a mainstay. With the advent of the highly criticized Vietnam War many of these titles faltered, struggling to maintain relevance and audience into the seventies. By the nineteen eighties, Marvel’s only major war title was long-dead, and DC’s few remainders were on life-support.
Weird War Tales existed in a precarious position. As its name would suggest, the comic was not a traditional war title. It combined war stories with elements of another waning sub-genre, the horror anthology. Each issue would feature tales of combat up against some paranormal or supernatural interference, with no continuity to tie the issues together. By the time of the Creature Commandos debut, this formula was wearing thin, and the title’s popularity flagging. For decades, a common practice in the comics industry had been to float new characters in anthology titles with weak sales. The practice was imagined as low-risk, high-reward: if the character wasn’t well-received, they still filled a month’s issue. If the character was well-received, they could revive the title. Most famously, this approach gave rise to Spider-Man, introduced in the final issue of an unpopular anthology title, Amazing Fantasy. Before the green-light was given to The Amazing Spider-Man, it was imagined that Spider-Man stories could populate new issues of Amazing Fantasy. Although the Creature Commandos weren’t exactly Spider-Man, their debut was well-received enough to warrant feature status in future issues of Weird War Tales.
In-universe, the Creature Commandos were introduced as a secret project undertaken by the American government during the Second World War. Assembled by Lieutenant Matthew Shrieve, a group of soldiers was selected for their unique abilities, meant to function as an elite wartime strike force. Each member of the team was distinguished by their inhuman appearance, resembling a monster from film or literature. The original iteration was composed of vampiric Vincent Velcro, lycanthrope Warren Griffith, and “Lucky” Taylor, a soldier whose dead body was stitched back together and revived in a fashion resembling Frankenstein’s Monster. All three gained their monstrous appearance and abilities through government experimentation – and with questionable consent. Surprisingly, given the title’s pulpy title and subject matter, DeMatteis used the comic to pose serious questions about the nature of war. A key theme of the Weird War Tales-era Creature Commandos stories is morality during wartime, and how it demands behavior from soldiers that would otherwise be considered immoral or downright inhuman. This dark tone and heavy subtext are often forgotten in revisitations of the characters or title and are nowhere to be found in later Creature Commandos runs.
Later issues of Weird War Tales expand the team’s roster and establish connections to the larger DC Universe. In Weird War Tales #100, the Creature Commandos visit Dinosaur Island, a secret Axis naval base in the South Pacific, home to a host of prehistoric flora and fauna. This issue demonstrates the moral ambiguity of the title well, as skirmishes between the commandos and the dinosaurs are presented not as an entertaining spectacle, but as a distressing, regrettable result of man infringing on nature. Velcro’s bitter, disdainful attitude toward Shrieve and the war effort most often gives voice to these meditations. In subsequent issues, the four Creature Commandos are joined by Myrna Rhodes, a gorgon, and G.I. Robot, who is decidedly self-explanatory. While Rhodes was newly created for Weird War Tales, G.I. Robot and Dinosaur Island debuted decades prior. They were a part of DC’s “War That Time Forgot,” an ongoing feature in Star-Spangled War Stories, one of the numerous sixties-era DC war titles that met its demise in the nineteen-seventies. Little explanation is offered for Dinosaur Island in classic DC comics canon, although the 2003 Elseworlds miniseries DC: The New Frontier reimagines the island as a single living organism, a cosmic parasite called “the Centre.”
The Creature Commandos continued to appear in Weird War Tales until the title’s cancellation with issue #124 in 1983. They made no further appearances for almost twenty years until the team was revived with an eponymous series in 2000. This new series featured a much-altered line-up with many new and short-lived additions, debuting some half-dozen new characters before its cancellation after eight issues. Perhaps the most interesting of these new members were Gunner and Sarge, a pair of World War II-era soldiers revived as cyborgs. Like G.I. Robot, Gunner and Sarge can be traced back to one of DC’s defunct Silver Age anthology titles, in this case, Our Fighting Forces. Debuting in Our Fighting Forces #45, the pair were a consistent presence in DC’s war titles until the mid-eighties, when the last of them were extinguished. The modern incarnation of the Creature Commandos continued to make sporadic appearances, largely in crossover events. Until the “New 52” reboot of DC Comics continuity in 2011, which gave rise to a second reimagining of the Creature Commandos, one from which Gunn appears to be drawing significantly.
This latest incarnation of the Creature Commandos appeared in the pages of Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E, and was more often than not referred to as the “Agents of S.H.A.D.E,” rather than the Creature Commandos. Here, the team is reimagined in the modern era as operatives for a covert government agency (Super Human Advanced Defense Executive. A labored acronym, to say the least) battling supernatural threats. Retaining versions of Shrieve, Velcro, and Griffith from the original team, the New 52 incarnation swaps Lucky Taylor for the genuine article: Frankenstein’s Monster. Referred to as “Frankenstein,” (which the monster self-referentially states he has taken on as a name for “the sake of simplicity”), this creature is suggested to be the same featured in Mary Shelley’s novel. Versions of the Frankenstein Monster have existed in Marvel and DC Comics alike since the nineteen seventies, enjoying the happy coalescence of the monster’s continual popularity, recognizable name, and public domain status. DC’s version was first introduced in nineteen seventy-three, as a back-up feature in the horror title The Phantom Stranger. Referred to then as “the Spawn of Frankenstein,” no specific history was given for the creature. The New 52 Frankenstein is strongly based on the classic cinematic version of Frankenstein played by Borris Karloff, best evidenced by the presence of an Elsa Lancaster-esque Bride in the pages of Agent of S.H.A.D.E.
The Bride is one of three additions made to the New 52 team, each aligning with another of Universal’s classic monsters. A mummy called Khalis (a play on “Kharis” from The Mummy’s Hand and its sequels) served as the team’s medic, and a Creature From The Black Lagoon-inspired mermaid Dr. Nina Mazursky rounds out the team. The strained relationship between Frankenstein and the Bride, who have separated, serves as one of the central character threads followed throughout the series. Occasional appearances were made by Ray Palmer, better known as the Atom, a member of the Justice League of America. Palmer served as the team’s liaison to the United Nations, and the DC Universe, serving to help connect the comic to the wider world of the New 52. Canceled after sixteen issues, Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. drew criticism from fans for its similarities to Dark Horse’s Hellboy comics, specifically its premise and some of its characters. The mission statement of S.H.A.D.E. was too much like Hellboy’s B.P.R.D. (Bureau of Paranormal Research & Defense) for some readers and the same could be said for the resemblance between Dr. Mazursky and Abe Sapien.
After their third unceremonious cancellation, little was heard of the Creature Commandos in the decade that followed until James Gunn, taking a page from Doctor Frankenstein, gave the dead team new life. Details about the animated Creature Commandos are scarce, with the only confirmed information available being a cast announcement and a single publicity photo. Gunn’s Creature Commandos series combines the modern and classic rosters, along with several new characters not native to any comics incarnation of the team. Retaining the modern setting of Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E, the series will follow a team consisting of Frankenstein (David Harbour), the Bride (Indira Varma), Nina Mazursky (Zoe Chao), Rick Flagg Senior (Frank Grillo), Doctor Phosphorus (Alan Tudyk), G.I. Robot, and the Weasel (both voiced by Sean Gunn). Viola Davis’s Amanda Waller is also said to be appearing in the series in an unknown capacity. No particulars of the series’ story are known at the time, although strong rumors suggest Dinosaur Island will appear, based on the modern “Centre” imagining featured in The New Frontier. While Waller and Weasel previously appeared in Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, it has been made clear that these are new versions of the characters, existing in a continuity separate from that in which they previously featured. Gunn has stressed the idea of the DCU as a soft reboot, where actors and characters retained from the DCEU exist as new versions of themselves. A point of confusion among fans, this “soft reboot” idea is not helped by Rick Flagg Sr, who is unrelated to Rick Flagg Junior (Joel Kinnaman) from The Suicide Squad.
Flagg Sr. has a history adjacent to the Creature Commandos, first appearing in a flashback in Secret Origins #14, which retroactively imagines him as leading the World War II-era original iteration of the Suicide Squad. This original Suicide Squad appeared in Star-Spangled War Stories, undertaking missions to Dinosaur Island. Secret Origins was written decades after the fact, connecting the wartime Suicide Squad to the contemporary incarnations led by Rick Flagg Jr. in the Suicide Squad comic. Weasel, previously a minor adversary of the superhero Firestorm, appears as a member of this team, both debuting and dying in Suicide Squad-Doom Patrol Special #1. Imagined in the comics as a deranged man in a costume, Gunn’s Weasel is instead a giant, humanoid weasel. The film offers no explanation for the character’s appearance or origin. Weasel’s appearance and abilities are analogous to the Creature Commandos’ Warren Griffith, functioning as his equivalent within the Gunn version of the team. Given the acerbic personality of his comics counterpart, it is possible Doctor Phosphorus will function as the new team’s analogue to Vincent Velcro.
Regardless of the direction it chooses for these characters, James Gunn’s Creature Commandos promises to be an exciting, colorful series, focusing on a group of super-powered characters unlike any other audiences have met across DC or Marvel’s cinematic endeavors. Gunn has even teased that the commandos might someday make the leap to live action, positioning them to interact with the other heroes of the DCU, including DC horror icon Swamp Thing. Although often forgotten in modern discussions of comics, DC’s rich worlds of horror and war comics are a beloved facet of its storied publishing history. The DCU looks to celebrate the weird depths of DC Comics, emphasized by Gunn’s decision to open with characters from this obscure corner of the comics universe. In the same video that announced the Creature Commandos officially, Gunn named this first chapter of the DC Universe: “Gods & Monsters.” The name is an allusion to a quote from The Bride of Frankenstein, in which Doctor Praetorius invites Doctor Frankenstein to toast “to a new world of Gods and Monsters!” Gunn seems to be inviting audiences to do the same, to welcome a strange new universe of unprecedented characters, where the otherworldly Creature Commandos are guaranteed to be only the beginning.