Monsters, Merlin, and Mentally Challenged Alien Avengers: Giffen talks "Howling Commandos" and "Drax the Destroyer"

Mon, August 29th, 2005 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Dave Richards, Staff Writer

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"Drax #1," Page 17

The Marvel Universe is home to an army of nasty, menacing and powerful super-villains. The average citizen can't always rely on a costumed hero to arrive and save the day, so sometimes your only chance against evil is someone just a powerful and twice as mean. This fall writer Keith Giffen tells two of these tales at Marvel Comics- in "Drax the Destroyer," a four-issue mini-series with art by Mitch Breitweiser beginning in September, Drax is reintroduced to the Marvel Universe and is a remote Alaskan town's only hope against a group of desperate, marooned alien convicts. In October, Giffen introduces S.H.I.E.L.D.'s secret weapon in the war on terror a covert operations unit of monsters in the new ongoing series "Nick Fury's Howling Commandos," with art by Eduardo Francisco. CBR News spoke to Giffen via phone about both of these projects.

Giffen's work on "Thanos," another dark toned cosmic powered Marvel character, lead editor Andy Schmidt to offer him "Drax". "I guess Andy liked what he saw on 'Thanos' and liked the direction I was taking it because when they were considering Drax he called me up and asked me if I wanted a piece of it," Giffen told CBR News. "They wanted a rethinking and reinvention of the character while not violating the history that had on gone on before. It was Andy who came up with the idea that we do 'Drax' kind of like a dark 'Lilo and Stitch' for which I'll always be grateful."

Readers not fond of the current dim-witted incarnation of Drax should not dismiss the series before it hits the stands, as it'll address their concerns. "It starts off with the 'Drax Smash!' character." Giffen said. "Then basically we turn him back into that driven, narrow focused cosmic avenger. We really go back to his roots, the way Starlin introduced him but we lift the amnesia from his mind. Now he knows everybody who has ever screwed him."

"Drax the Destroyer" begins when an alien prison transport carrying Drax, and a full load of intergalactic scum, crash lands into a remote Alaskan town. "The criminals have got the presence of mind to go, 'Oh shit! This is where the Fantastic Four and the other heroes are from!' All they want to do is get off the planet before the superheroes know they're there," Giffen explained. "In a small Alaskan town there's not a lot of technology and it's kind of this horror story about being press ganged into working for aliens who have no respect for your life. It's a dark story."

Paibak, the Power Skrull, is one of the alien criminals that enslaves the town and one that Giffen really wanted in the series. "I wanted Super Skrull," Giffen stated. "For reasons I forgot but they made sense back then I didn't get him. Going in I went, 'Paibak? It sounds like one of the Keebler elves." He turned out to be a really cool character to work with."

The Blood Brothers, who are big, burly mafia style enforcers, assist Paibak in oppressing the town's people and are another nod to the man most associated with Marvel's space adventures. "They were introduced by Jim Starlin," Giffen said. "I seem to play in Jim's playground a lot lately."

Finally, Lunatik rounds out the trio of despots who terrorize the town. "Lunatik was introduced as an answer to Lobo at Marvel," Giffen explained. "I wanted Lunatik there because I wanted closure with the character."

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"Drax #1," Page 18

Since "Drax the Destroyer" was envisioned as a dark, twisted version of Disney's "Lilo and Stich," there is a little girl named Cammi, with whom Drax finds himself aligned. "She's my favorite character in the book," Giffen stated. "She's got a sinister streak in her a mile wide and she has every reason in the world to have it. She's a character I'm kind of proud of. If I could pluck any one character out of that book to follow them around for awhile it would be Cammi. Simply, because she fascinates me."

Drax and Cammi's partnership is a very reluctant one, at least on the side of everyone's favorite Destroyer. "Have you ever watched the cartoon 'The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy?' She's like Mandy," Giffen explained. "He's like Batman with a Robin he doesn't want.

"I know by talking about it like this everyone's going to go, 'Oh no! He put the Wa-ha-ha in it!' But no 'Drax' is a dead serious dark story. It has its moments of odd little humor but it is more of a horror story. It's probably the closest I've ever come to doing a Stephen King riff in my career."

"King is really good at setting up the mundane and then dropping the bizarre into it," Giffen continued. "If the mundane here has been set up properly it's a lot more to do with Mitch [Breitweiser, Giffen's artist on 'Drax The Destroyer'] than with me. You can really feel this small Alaskan town. It feels right. The woods feel right. There's a real sense of place. I think that makes it all the more disturbing when you drop the sci-fi element into it."

Giffen enjoyed watching Breitweiser bring the "Drax" story to life, taking the project to another level with each new page. "Mitch is stunning," he stated "He is going to go places. He is going to be star."

If "Drax the Destroyer" sells well, Giffen would love to tell more stories of the comic avenger. "Anytime. Anywhere. Absolutely," he said. "Because he's pointed in a very interesting direction."

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"Drax #2," Page 4

October will be heaven for Giffen fans, with the release of "Defenders" issue #4, "Drax the Destroyer" #2 and the launch of "Nick Fury's Howling Commandos," a series that was born out of a friendly conversation between Giffen and Marvel editor Mark Pannicia. "At one point I mentioned the Howling Commandos is such a great name. I love that name it shouldn't go to waste," Giffen explained. "I don't know whether he threw monsters into the mix or I said, 'Wouldn't it be cool to use monsters in it? Or S.H.I.E.L.D. got involved?' The next thing I know Mark calls me and goes, 'Hey, I pitched it to Joe and he likes it. Now we need someone to write it.' I'm thinking, 'What?' It just took on a life of it's own. It was almost one of these books that was going to happen whether we wanted it to or not."

The concept of "Howling Commandos" is Tom Clancy by way of a monster movie, explains the scribe. "In a Tom Clancy book if they call in an air strike planes come soaring over and drop napalm or bombs," Giffen stated. "Here you're going to get a fire breathing dragon flying by. When they dust off it's not a helicopter; it's some huge beast. It's all this weird stuff that we've seen a million times in action movies or stuff like 'Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell' but with monsters instead."

The Howling Commandos are a top-secret unit that's been running clandestine operations in the Marvel universe for quite awhile. "It's a lot like 'Men in Black,'" Giffen explained. "If you ever wonder where all the old Marvel monsters went S.H.I.E.L.D. has been rounding them up and saying stuff like, 'Hi. You're a vampire. Here's your choice you either join the Howling Commandos or we're going to throw you into the sun."

S.H.I.E.L.D. has recruited a huge menagerie of monsters into the ranks of the secret unit, hence the "Howling." "We've got subdivisions of the Howling Commandos like the vampire corps, the werewolf corps and the Sasquatch corps," Giffen said. "If you go into the cold you bring Sasquatch, the Abominable Snowman and characters who are right for that terrain. If you're going under the sea you've got the sub-aquatic characters."

"Howling Commandos" will feature cameo appearances and guest stars from a host of Marvel monsters, but the book does have a core cast, and at least one member of the core group will be in every issues. One member of that elite group is Nina Price, Vampire-By-Night who was recently introduced in the pages of "Amazing Fantasy." "She's kind of Paris Hilton with fangs," Giffen smiled.

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"Drax #2," Page 7

The Living Mummy is another member of the core group of characters and will present an interesting dynamic for other characters to respond to, not always positively. "He's a prig," Giffen stated. "He's royalty and he can't get over it."

Another vain cast member is The Frankenstein Monster, who isn't quite the character you might expect, but not so different that he won't seem familiar. "He's not technically the monster, he's the clone of the Frankenstein Monster, which to tell you the truth I'm not really sure what the means either, Giffen stated. "He's very intellectual and very disdainful. He's got an attitude about him as well. He thinks he knows best. Basically he's Frasier Crane."

The Glob is another core cast member who drives his teammates bonkers with his perception of his own self-worth. "The Glob is somebody who believes that being the Glob is Karma," Giffen said. "He's actually very spiritual and it drives the others crazy. They say, 'Shut up! Geez! Who cares?'"

The real identity of one of the cast members will be a mystery. "There's the Zombie. It's not Simon Garth. It's John Doe right now. I know who the Zombie is, you're going to find out," Giffen explained. "The problem with the Zombie is that he's not the brightest guy because he's losing brain cells. They're rotting. He's a really nice guy he just doesn't understand why people keep screaming, 'Don't eat me!' He has no idea. He's never seen the movies. He doesn't know."

Believe it or not, there is one cast member who actually seems to enjoy being a member of the Howling Commandos. "Gorilla-Man is there and he's a lot of fun," Giffen stated. "He's basically the smart-ass, the Dum-Dum Dugan. He's the guy who almost gets off on being a monster."

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"Howling Commandos #1," Page 4

The battlefield leader of the Howling Commandos is named Warwolf and as the name implies, has similarities to the classic werewolf. "He's kind of the non-com, the hardcore guy, the Sarge," Giffen explained. "He's a werewolf but we'll find out down the line his change is triggered by Mars not the Moon, which means he can change any night he wants. Mars is always in the night sky. He retains his human intelligence. He doesn't go bug-fuck."

A familiar face, to S.H.I.E.L.D. fans and players of "Heroclix," is in charge of the entire Howling Commandos operation. "Clay Quartermain is the new C.O. of Area 13, which is the covert operation that S.H.I.E.L.D. runs with the monsters in a secret headquarters below the Pine Barrens in southern New Jersey," Giffen explained. "Quartermain does not like being in command. He's got a bad attitude and doesn't see the need for the unit. He's being kind of a dick."

The official title of the series is "Nick Fury's Howling Commandos" but don't expect Fury to be a major part of the book. "I actually finished the second issue before they said, 'Oh Nick Fury is part of the title,'" said Giffen. "He shows up in the first issue but Nick is not a major part of the book."

In this series, the Howling Commandos will find themselves caught in a battle between the forces of magic and science. "Do you remember these characters called the Legion of the Living Lightning that appeared in the Hulk? They were really corny," explained Giffen. "We revamped them into The Lords of the Living Lightning, which is a doomsday cult that provides high tech weapons to fringe groups with hopes of triggering the final war after which they will rule over the survivors. They are a big part of it.

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"Howling Commandos #1," Page 6

"As is Merlin Reborn. He looks around and goes. 'Too much science, too little magic. We're going back to Camelot. I'm going to do it my way.' So it becomes literally science against magic as both of these forces collide."

Giffen promises that "Howling Commandos" will be packed with action and doses of humor. "When they're on their missions it's dead serious no-nonsense. They're using Shock-and-Awe tactics against the enemy. But behind the scenes there's a little bit of tongue cheek kind of thing because when things settle down it's like 'What do vampires and werewolves do when they're just hanging out?' How does the dynamic work? How does a guy who spent 100 years looking at human beings as a source of food suddenly react to the fact that he's got to get along with them?"

Eduardo Francisco was given the task of bringing the weird, wild, and grotesque soldiers of the "Howling Commandos" to life and Giffen think he's doing a fantastic job. "Eduardo is just doing this insanely detailed work," he said. "It's spectacular. The book looks different and it feels different."

Like "Drax", Giffen hopes "Howling Commandos" sells well because he has plenty ideas for stories featuring S.H.I.E.L.D.'s monstrous legion. "I'd like to deal with the Mole Man," he said. "They would eventually have to deal with him. He's got all these monsters and they're a monster group. Maybe they would negotiate with him and try to bring him into the fold. Would he be an ally?

"I'd like to explore a lot more of the giant monsters. Where have they been? What happens when their planets start to wonder, 'What ever happened to Groot?'"

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Cover to "Howling Commandos #2"

Area 13's top secret status also creates plenty of story opportunities for Giffen. "J. Jonah Jameson says, 'My god I've found it we have proof that werewolves really exist.' And then, 'Excuse me sir. There's two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents here that would like to talk to you.' How far would Area 13 go to keep this a secret?" And of course down the line you have to deal with what happens when the Avengers find out that this exists? What happens when the X-Men find out that this exists? Should the Blob be abducted? Is a mutant a monster?"

Above all else, Giffen hopes to convey to readers of "Howling Commandos" the same sense of enjoyment that he found while writing the series. "It's a fun book," he stated. "It's not angst and agony and 'Oh I'm a monster woe is me.' It's basically, 'I'm a monster but this might be a place where I can do something and settle back and not worry about the villagers burning down the barn I'm hiding in.'

"Drax" and "Howling Commandos" are part of the fun that Giffen's been having while working with Marvel. He joked, "It's a whole new universe to soil."

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