James Gunn has always excelled at taking the strange and making it accessible. As a part of his and Peter Safran’s extensive new DC film and TV slate, Gunn is taking that to a new extreme by starting off with a team that has even deep cut DC lovers scratching their heads. The Creature Commandos were first introduced in Weird War Tales #93 by J.M. DeMatteis, Pat Broderick, John Celardo, Adrienne Roy and Ben Oda. This radical revisioning of a traditional war comic pitted Frankenstein’s monster, a werewolf and a vampire against the Nazis in World War II. For Gunn and Safran, it’s a delightfully daring B-movie-style choice that will establish a wild new team in the onscreen DC Universe.
The Creature Commandos’ origin is especially interesting as DeMatteis came up with a great twist on why and how the team was created. While it would’ve been easy to simply say “someone recruited the monsters,” we instead get a darkly scientific reason. In an alternate WWII, the U.S. government wants to psychologically horrify their enemies on the battlefield. After much research, they discover the most terrifying archetypes that have long haunted humankind and recreate them.
Although it’s an out-there premise, DeMatteis imbues it with a realistic horror as we learn how each member of Project M (for “monster”) was recruited and made into their monstrous form.
To bring a werewolf to life, they found a young man named Warren Griffith who suffered from a mental illness that made him think he was a lycanthrope. Through shady techniques, a group of medical scientists took Griffith’s mental struggle and used it to forcibly manifest a physical version of lycanthropy in the farm boy. For their vampire, they didn’t try recruiting Dracula. Instead they found Vincent Velcro, a soldier who was facing decades in military prison and who was willing to undergo strange experiments in order to avoid his sentence. One has to wonder if he’d have said yes to the deal if he’d known that he would be injected with bat blood in order to be turned into a vampire. Then there’s “Lucky” Taylor, a Marine who became the crew’s (Frankenstein’s) monster after he stepped on a landmine and was put back together by military surgeons. Finally, the team is rounded out by maybe the most monstrous of all: their human leader Matthew Shrieve.
What could have been a simple, but effective gimmick is brought to life in a far more complex way by the creative team. Broderick and Celardo’s classic art evokes more traditional war comics, adding an extra surreal layer to the introduction of the Creature Commandos. DeMatteis plays with our expectations, making the monsters emotionally complex characters. In one of the first issue’s most moving panels, we see Lucky cry over the loss of his battalion in a shocking crash. The close up on the monster’s face, tears leaking from his eyes, is a great example of the mission statement of Creature Commandos. Yes, this is a raucous action comic featuring iconic monsters fighting Nazis. But it’s also a book about the horrors of war.
Artist Fred Carillo joins colorist Adrienne Roy and DeMatteis for their second appearance, which continues the heartbreaking exploration of the violence and terror of war. This time the team joins forces with a doctor on the ground who isn’t what she seems. It leads to one of the most brutal and affecting final panels in a Bronze Age DC comic that still hits to this day.
But that’s far from their most painfully truthful appearance. In the “Children’s Crusade,” the team faces off against a group of child soldiers trained by Hitler himself. While the monsters can’t bear to kill the children, Shrieve has no qualms. The comic ends with a powerfully bleak final panel showing the dead children as Velcro tells the ultimate truth: “In this contest, nobody wins.” Wrenching stuff.
With a B-movie premise and an anti-war message, there’s so much in just these issues that you can see why Gunn would be eager to translate the story and the team to animation. Reluctant heroes, monsters with hearts of gold, exploited soldiers and prisoners. We’ve seen Gunn tackle these themes in his brilliant The Suicide Squad and here those analogs become textual as the Creature Commandos are forced into a war as cannon fodder for their country.
Over the years, the team has reappeared in different guises and iterations—and, as we saw in Gunn’s announcement, his team will include more monsters like the Bride of Frankenstein and a Creature from the Black Lagoon-inspired hero named Nina Mazursky—so it’ll be interesting to see how close to the original source material the new series sticks. But we can definitely expect a subversive superhero story focusing on the horrors of war and the people who have to fight them.
For more on Creature Commandos and the other movies and TV series in development at DC Studios, click here.
Rosie Knight is an award-winning journalist and author who loves Swamp Thing, the DC Cosmic and writing about those and more here at DC.com. You can listen to her waxing lyrical about comics, movies and more each week as she co-hosts Crooked Media’s pop-culture podcast, X-Ray Vision.