Ryan D.: Just in time for Halloween season, Howling Commandos reads like a love letter to the schlocky B-Movie horror gems of the late Sixties and early Seventies, along the lines of Dracula vs. Frankenstein. Is it any good? Who am I to apply such a binary judgement to a creative work?
Howling Commandos sports a preposterous line-up of miscreants as protagonists:
These oddballs either sell you the comic or make you run from it. If you fancy the old-school scream comics of yesteryear, than the roster includes left-overs such as Orrgo, the “god from space” (1961) and Man-Thing, the “most startling swamp-creature of all”, both of whom hail from the pages of Strange Tales. Alongside Manphibian, whose name pretty much says it all (1975), these vintage characters are a hoot to see if one is a comics buff who understands how these pulp characters and their titles kept the industry afloat in a time of rampant censorship (some not-so-light reading on the subject can be found in the novel Men Of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book). With how absurd the other characters’ designs are, you may be surprised by how recently created many of them are: Vampire by Night from 2005, Hit-Monkey from 2010, and hailing from the 2015 pages of Superior Iron-Man, Teen Abomination.
The fate of these miscreants falls onto the burly shoulders of long-time Nick Fury sidekick, Dum Dum Dugan. Finally getting his own starring vehicle, it is interesting watching a title be built around this character, one normally used as an in-joke between comic fans. Writer Frank J. Barbiere does not shy away from acknowledging Dum Dum’s absurd — yet consistent — fashion sense, and moreso, artist Brent Schoonover’s style seems most at home when drawing Duggan’s pro-wrestler/Saxton Hale physique:
Dum Dum also seems to be the only character here who enjoys the opportunity to have some self-awareness and inner obstacles. Now that he knows that he lives only as an advanced Life-Model Decoy at the behest of Fury, Dugan grapples with his humanity and the knowledge that he is just as much a “freak” as the rest of his para/extra-normal squad. I hope that the rest of the series offers the other characters a chance to show some dynamism, because the development of the team as individuals or a whole has not been…well…it’s no Warren Ellis’ Thunderbolts, I’ll say.
If you are looking for a silly little romp featuring some shout-outs to days gone by, Howling Commandos of S.H.I.E.L.D. might be your cup of tea, as long as you do not mind a comic that feels like its creators are playing with off-brand action figures. Spencer, I think I get the appeal of this comic, but what niche do you see this title filling over the course of its run? And are there any particular characters featured here whose inclusion excites you?
Spencer: I’m excited to learn about all of these characters, Ryan (although my favorite so far may just be that rascally ol’ Zombie Jasper Sitwell). Every single one of them is already pretty outrageous, but I also think they all have the potential to reveal some real depth (again, with the possible exception of Zombie Sitwell). That’s why I hope to see Barbiere and Schoonover dig more into these characters; I like Dum Dum Dugan, and I think the creative team is doing an impressive job exploring him thus far, but this book can’t rest upon just his shoulders alone.
When Howling Commandos of S.H.I.E.L.D. was first proposed as a book we should cover this week, Patrick and I were both excited about how bonkers it looked. I think there’s a lot of potential for a title like this one to succeed based on the sheer audaciousness of its concept alone (think Nextwave), and there are times when Howling Commandos seems poised to live up to that potential.
I mean, we’re only three panels into this thing and already we’ve got a classic monster-movie shout out and two different X-Files references — that’s setting a pretty irreverent tone, and the issue is at its best when it sticks close to it, whether that means letting Zombie Sitwell launch off a few rockets or watching Hit-Monkey amaze and confound his teammates simply by existing.
Yet, that’s clearly not the book Barbiere’s writing, at least not entirely, and that’s okay — my own personal preferences are the last thing creators should be trying to meet. But what that means is that, if Barbiere is going to try to mine some depth from this concept and not just play it for laughs, he needs to commit to it; it’s not going to work if Dugan is a strong character but the Commandos themselves are just ciphers, yet so far, that’s exactly what they are. They really don’t have any personalities of their own, or even their own vocal tics (outside of Teen Abomination) — heck, I can’t even tell what all their powers are! (Vampire by Night is a vampire…but fights with a stake, and can turn into a wolf and is apparently psychic?)
Then there’s Reyna, who is apparently a werewolf who also…thinks he runs the team? I’m not really sure what’s going on with Reyna. Dugan never gives Reyna’s claims of superiority the time of day, but is it because Reyna’s delusional, or because Dugan just doesn’t care about his rank? Notably, no other characters speak to Reyna, and Maria Hill specifically puts Dugan in charge of the team, so I honestly have no idea what to think. I’m guessing Reyna is supposed to be a running gag, but if he is, than it’s not a very good one.
As for the art, I’ll admit that I got off on a bad foot with Schoonover’s work, as Howling Commando 1‘s cover committed one of my artistic cardinal sins: the T&A shot.
I feel like I shouldn’t even have to explain why it’s offensive for the lone woman on the team to be posed to show off her bust and butt while all the men get to stare straight at the camera heroically, but honestly, by this point I’m more offended by the fact that artists keep using this technique even long after it’s been accepted as sexist, tired, and cliche. I know you can do better, Schoonover.
Fortunately, he treats Vampire by Night much better within the issue itself. My main problem with the interior artwork is the way Schoonover’s characters move. More specifically, there’s just not much motion to his action scenes at all. Just take a look at the issue’s first big spread.
There’s no weight to any of these characters. Vampire by Night might as well be hovering in mid-air as opposed to leaping at her opponent, and it doesn’t even look like her foot is connecting with the guy; likewise, Dugan’s target looks pretty chipper for a guy getting his guts blown out. Teen Abomination is throwing a goon into the air, but that’s almost impossible to tell by the art alone — it looks just as likely that he could be falling onto Abomination. All the action throughout the issue is equally stiff.
The one area where Schoonover does seem to excel, though, is at drawing creepy monsters. My jaw practically dropped when Man-Thing showed up, and his presence continues to be the artistic highlight of the issue every time he shows up.
Clearly, Schoonover should be drawing nothing but non-human monsters, and if there’s any book that could provide that for him, it’s The Howling Commandos of S.H.I.E.L.D. Let’s hope Barbiere starts playing more to his strengths in future issues.
So throughout this issue, there’s more than a few things Barbiere and Schoonover do right, but also plenty that could use improvement. I still think this book could be something terrific with the right approach, and I’ll be keeping an eye on it to see if the execution ever lives up to the potential.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?