In October of last year, James Gunn and Peter Safran were appointed as DC Studios’ Co-CEOs and Co-Chairmen. They didn’t waste much time before unveiling what projects would be hitting screens soon. And of course, the first project on their list is… wait, Creature Commandos?!?
That’s right! Ripped right out of the pages of DC’s Weird War Tales from the 70s, the Creature Commandos are getting ready to kick some ass. Or are they? While the roster of the heroes and the tone might change considerably for the DC Studios project, a look at Weird War Tales tells us a bit about why this team exists and why they tend to be a little squeamish when it comes to violence.
DC’s Weird War Tales
First of all, to get an idea of who the Commandos are, you have to understand a thing or two about their parent series. Weird War Tales is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a strange collection of stories about wartime. What you might not gather from the title, though, is its overarching theme. Each issue, a series of shorts that depict all kinds of weirdness going on in battles, is narrated by Death. Death – personified as a skeleton who wears a soldier’s uniform – vacillates between reveling in the carnage and warning the reader to turn back before it’s too late. Sometimes he wears the uniform of a Nazi officer, other times he dresses as an American marine. Death holds no loyalties. He’s neither evil nor good. He’s here for the show, just like the rest of us.
One Weird War Tales story features dinosaurs fighting off human armies, punishing humankind for their love of violence. Another story shows a man fighting in the trenches, shaking with fear. When he runs towards the reader, screaming that he wants out, the scene is interrupted by a director yelling “Cut!” – it’s only a movie set but the realness of it still spooked the actor. Finally, there’s the Creature Commandos. Though they seem almost goofy – a vampire, a werewolf, a Frankenstein-esque monster all thrown together to fight Nazis in World War II – their scripts are anything but goofy.
Written by J. M. DeMatteis, with art by Pat Broderick and Fred Carrillo, the Creature Commandos exist to highlight the inhumanity of their surroundings. Each of them, along with their human minder, exemplifies a way that people cope with their role in war. The whole Creature Commandos narrative is a surprisingly thought-provoking meditation on the horrors of battle.
Project “M”… for Monster!
The first thing you’ll notice about the Creature Commandos is how human they all are. That’s actually the point. DeMatteis, Broderick, and Carrillo often depict them in scenes where they’re truly disgusted by what they’re witnessing. (It packs an extra punch when it’s a vampire who’s telling you that you’ve gone too far.) The Commandos are also not just a bunch of monsters that happen to find each other and join the war effort. No, they were created by the US army to strike fear into the hearts of the Nazis. They’re monsters because they were made to be that way. And so, we see that war is far more horrifying than any Universal Monster flick. The real monsters are mankind. But who are the members of this ragtag team referred to in the comics as Project “M”?
Vincent Velcro, Vampire
First, there’s our vampire, Vincent Velcro. (You have to love that alliteration.) Velcro is the voice of reason in the group, though we often see him sacrifice his own noble standards for the sake of survival. It’s a cycle of compromise he finds himself in that he seems hopeless to break free of. The first time we see this cycle begin is when he is facing 30 years in an army brig. He agrees to undergo experiments that will change him completely, in order to purchase his freedom. Now, he can turn into a blood red mist, he can become a bat, but he has to drink blood for sustenance. It’s a trade-off he very clearly thinks was not worth it.
Velcro is constantly talking back to his commanding officer, Lieutenant Shrieve. Insubordination seems to be a habit for Velcro. The very reason he was facing a 30 year sentence in the first place was for crippling a commanding officer. “We may have the forms of monsters, Shrieve – but you – you have the monstrous spirit!” He screams at the Lieutenant at the end of their first assignment, in Weird War Tales #93. Yet, earlier, Velcro gladly sucked all the blood out of two Nazi soldiers, calling them “a satisfying meal.” Despite the back talk, Velcro is a man who will do what he’s ordered to do. When backed against a wall, he will fight his way out and he might even enjoy doing it. He knows each act of violence is a sin against his own soul. But he also acts like a man who figures he has lost his soul by now anyways.
Warren Griffith, Werewolf
Griffith is an incredibly interesting character in Weird War Tales because he’s probably the most disturbing of them all. A representation of the warring natures of a man in battle, he’s the physical embodiment of the parts that the army requires from you and the parts they could do without. Before Griffith ever joined Project “M,” he had a psychotic case of lycanthropy and even though he wasn’t a werewolf yet, he sincerely believed he could transform into a beast. It was the scientists at Project “M” that turned this psychosis into a reality, which Griffith embraced wholeheartedly.
See, Griffith loves the war. He literally drools at the thought of violence and can’t wait to spill the blood of whoever gets in his way. But he’s also a farm boy from Oklahoma. He can quite literally switch his humanity off and jump into the fray, but the stuttering teenager who barely knows how to hold a gun often shows up at inconvenient times. It’s not until later on in Creature Commandos’ appearances that Griffith finally gains control of when he can change back and forth between his wolf form, and Lieutenant Shrieve is always screaming at him for ever letting his human side show up. War doesn’t want you to be the young boy you were at home. War only wants you to be an animal.
Elliot “Lucky” Taylor, the Patchwork Man
If Griffith is the most disturbing of the Commandos, Elliot “Lucky” Taylor is easily the most tragic. In their first appearance, Taylor is described as a “good hearted marine private.” His only fault was that he stepped on a mine that blew him to bits. The scientists behind Project “M” saw their opportunity and stitched Taylor back together to look something like Frankenstein’s monster. However, in another cruel twist of fate, they were unable to repair his vocal chords. Taylor exists as the mute, heartbroken, traumatized onlooker who has found himself stuck in the middle of a fight that he wants no part of.
Taylor is always the one with the most emotion of the group. When a plane goes down with some of their fellow soldiers in it, the rest of Project “M” shrug it off and move on. Taylor hangs back, watching the flames grow as he silently weeps. He even tries to take his own life at one point, after Shrieve forced him to kill someone he actually loved. Of course, this Patchwork Man’s slit throat becomes just another patch and he’s quickly brought back to life. When Taylor awakes, the first thing he does is scream incomprehensibly, horrified by the thought of living at all.
Lieutenant Shrieve, Monster
It’s no secret that Shrieve is the real monster in the Creature Commandos. He might actually be the only human among them, but he has absolutely no conscience to speak of. Not only does he manipulate people like Griffith – a young man with a clear case of mental illness – but he kills enemy soldiers and even children without blinking an eye.
At one point, Shrieve is briefing the team on their next mission. He explains that a bunch of kids have been brainwashed by Nazis, clarifying that children were used because the adult brain is still too complex to undergo the procedure. “And I’m sure when intelligence perfects it, you’ll try it out on us, Shrieve…” Velcro snarls at him. Shrieve barely skips a beat, not even acknowledging what Velcro said. Frankly, he probably isn’t even offended. It’s an accurate observation. Shrieve has no qualms about war. He was bred for it. He leaves his morals, if he had any to begin with, at the door. And God help the people who get in his way.
War, (Huh!) What is it Good For?
James Gunn and Peter Safran’s version of the Creature Commandos already clearly differs a lot from its comic book counterpart. Instead of Velcro, Taylor, Griffith, and Shrieve, we have a collection of other characters from other DC properties. Weasel, G.I. Robot (who also found his beginnings in Weird War Tales), Doctor Phosphorus, among others. But hopefully, the upcoming Creature Commandos project keeps the message at the heart of Project “M.” War is what’s really scary, and no monster movie horrorshow could ever come close.
The original Creature Commandos stories were published in Weird War Tales #93, 97, 100, 102, 105, 108-112, 114-119, 121 and 124 and have been collected in a single trade paperback collection. You can find them in all good comic book shops, online retailers, eBay, Amazon/Kindle, and DC Universe Infinite.
Editor’s note: Zac has also interviewed J. M. DeMatteis about Creature Commandos.