Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Creature Commandos – Weird Comic Bookery

More Pathos Than Horror

They say that war is hell, and if (as Pat Benatar said) hell is for children, then war is for children. And what do children like more than analogues of classic Universal movie monsters? Nothing, that’s what! Kids today continue to thrill to the 1950s versions of the vampire Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, still gasp at the sight of the Wolfman while they ride their Schwinn Phantoms around with baseball cards in the wheels’ spokes to simulate the puttering of a motorcycle as they turn. Yes, fun is yet to be had at the Candy Shoppe where a skilled soda jerk can…what’s that? You don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about? No, you are a doddering old fool living in the past! Why, I’ll have you know that versions of the Universal movie monsters were in a comic book as recently as 1980! What?! That was over thirty-five years ago?! I think I need a drink. Read on while I sit and wonder what the hell I’ve been doing for the last several decades.

It’s strange but true that there was a time when classic monsters were banned from appearing in comic books, at least those that sought the seal of the Comics Code Authority. Amorphous, monstrous blobs and dubious spectral possessions were allowed, but there could be no vampires, mummies, creatures from lagoons of any color, werewolves or other were-beings, not even ghouls or zombies! This gave rise to the horror magazine, such as those produced by Warren Publishing. These were black & white horror comics, with some movie stills and text stories inserted to justify their being placed with more adult fare at the magazine rack instead of adjacent to copies of Uncle Scrooge. Books like Vampirella and Eerie followed a similar format to MAD Magazine, except they used horror instead of humor. And sometimes humor. Anyway, this article isn’t about Warren Publishing, though its founder James Warren and his career are worthwhile subjects.
Let's start a rock n' roll band!
In 1971, the Comics Code Authority would relax their restrictions on monsters, and Marvel capitalized almost instantly with popular titles Werewolf By Night and Tomb of Dracula, the latter of which would bring us the popular vampire-killing hero Blade. DC Comics would also capitalize on this rewriting of the Code…nine years later with the debut of the Creature Commandos in Weird War Tales #93. Yet their creation was not so much related to the Comics Code as it was the DC Implosion of 1978, which saw the cancellation of more than two dozen titles and a revamping of their entire publishing plan. Since the number of titles being produced was slashed, creator J. M. DeMatteis worried that he would be getting less or no work from DC Comics in the foreseeable future, so he pitched the Creature Commandos—a U.S. Army squadron of monstrous freaks (and one regular human guy) fighting during World War II—to editor Len Wein, who decided to give it a shot because that dude is really out there. I mean, I don’t know him, but this guy created Swamp Thing. And you ever see that rendering of him as one of the parade party attendees in Batman #237? All shaggy hair and counterculture goatee…yeah, we know what he was up to.
When bickering conjoined twins and a fish-headed man are calling you ugly, that's harsh.

The Creature Commandos were a group of soldiers and a couple civilians who, one way or another, came under the scope of secret Project M, a military initiative essentially defined as “make things wacky.” The team was led by Lt. Matthew Shrieve, a normal, healthy person whose life hadn’t been destroyed by mad scientists; Warren Griffith, a civilian who suffered from lycanthropy and became a werewolf with the help of Project M; Sgt. Vincent Velcro, who escaped a life in the brig by submitting to dangerous experiments that would turn him into a vampire; Dr. Myrra “Medusa” Rhodes, a military doctor and plastic surgeon whose hair turned into snakes after she inhaled the fumes from some haphazardly-mixed chemicals; and Pvt. Elliot “Lucky” Taylor, whose body was blown apart by a land mine and then stitched together and reanimated much like Frankenstein’s monster. Later, the team would be joined by the mechanical J.A.K.E. and even later on, J.A.K.E. 2, aka G.I. Robot.
Don't ask, don't tell.
Conceived as a bit of a laugh, the adventures and lives of the Creature Commandos were often anything but. For one thing, Lt. Shrieve routinely treated all of them like complete shit, calling them freaks and reminding them that they were disgusting and would therefore never return to civilized life. And this was no tough love by a grizzled veteran, he really had nothing but contempt for them and his lot as their commanding officer. Yet that didn’t stop him from ordering them into the heart of the most dangerous situations imaginable while he bullied them from relative safety. You know how some leaders wont task their underlings with things they wouldn’t do themselves? Yeah, Shrieve never heard that one. Also, their missions were usually depressing as fuck (which was somewhat standard fare for the war comic genre), yet the fact that human atrocities were observed and committed by beings that were atrocities themselves cast an even more somber mood than usual on these funnybooks. Very early on in the series, in The Children’s Crusade (Weird War Tales #102, August 1981), the Commandos go to a Nazi camp where children are being subjected to cruel tests that will make them into super soldiers—and I mean children, of eight or nine in short pants and pinafore skirts—and they have to murder them all, watching some suffer and bloat with chemical enhancers coursing through their veins. Hey kids! Comics!
If it's any consolation, she would have grown up to be a Kardashian.

The angst and loneliness suffered by the Creature Commandos was, in some ways, more acute and real than that exhibited by the Doom Patrol: while the latter team’s exploits were covered by the media and they were largely accepted by the public at large, the Creature Commandos dealt in black operations, darkly heroic acts unknown by the average citizen and therefore resulted in none of their admiration. Indeed, nearly every story during their run in Weird War Tales showcased some cruel shunning by the public; in issue #117’s story A Miracle For Monsters!, Sgt. Velcro saves a little girl from falling to her death from the Eiffel Tower, and he’s still chased away by French gendarme. Like, what the fuck do these guys have to do? Blow everybody? Probably not a good idea with Sgt. Velcro. Not Pvt. Taylor, either. Frankly, I think this is a rare situation where free sex might not be the solution to unpopularity.
"On the other hand, my shirt sleeve isn't covered in kid's boogers."

The series ended with Weird War Tales #124 (June 1983) in Destination Unknown!, when they are sentenced to death by firing squad on orders of “Commanding General” Paul Levitz, but their sentence is commuted at the last minute to becoming the payload of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile aimed at Adolf Hitler’s headquarters in Berlin. The rocket ignites and immediately veers off course into outer space, leaving the Commandos’ immediate futures uncertain. Eventually it was shown that they had been captured by Brainiac in Action Comics #868, and that would be the basis for a miniseries from 2000, written by Tim Truman and drawn by Scot Eaton, but I never read those comics. And besides, by then the inherent weirdness was out of the bag, rendering most tongue-in-cheek reminiscences irrelevant. The original series, which is available in one trade paperback collection, is worth checking out for people even remotely interested, because the characterization is pretty good and the bizarre situations the Creature Commandos find themselves in are quite compelling. And, if nothing else, you get to see an arrogant white guy berate sad, ugly people. It’s like having your own physical trainer without paying any gym membership fees.
"I treat you with the same derision and contempt that I do my own family!"

1 comment:

  1. I'll need to dig out my 90s limited series of Creature Commandos now!!!