Interview: Legendary Writer J.M. DeMatteis Talks CREATURE COMMANDOS

Late last year, DC Studios’ newly minted Co-CEOs and Co-Chairmen — James Gunn and Peter Safran — announced their upcoming slate of DCU movies and TV shows. The first project on their list is none other than Creature Commandos, an animated TV show that will pull from the Weird War Tales stories by writer J.M. DeMatteis, artist Pat Broderick, and artist Fred Carrillo. Mr. DeMatteis, also one of the creative minds behind classics like Justice League InternationalKraven’s Last Hunt, and episodes of Justice League Unlimited, was kind enough to answer some of our questions about what it was like to see his weird creations pop back up after all this time.

Monkeys Fighting Robots: When you heard that James Gunn was starting the DCU off with Creature Commandos, what was your reaction?

J.M. DeMatteis: Absolute astonishment. This was an idea I cooked up at the very beginning of my career—and to have it resurface in such a big way, all these years later, was a complete surprise.

MFR: Where did the idea of the Creature Commandos come from? Do you remember how much of it came straight from you versus editorial or from your partners like artists Pat Broderick and Fred Carrillo?

JMD: When I started at DC, new writers broke in on the so-called “mystery” books (they weren’t allowed to say “horror” back then): five-to-eight-page stories for titles like House of Mystery, House of Secrets, Weird War Tales, etc. I was selling stories to Paul Levitz—who edited most of those books (Paul was around twenty at the time and already one of the smartest, most skilled editors in the business)—and always scrambling for the next idea. It was about six months into my DC career when I came up with the Creature Commandos idea (although I didn’t have the title, that came later). For a book called Weird War, it seemed like a no-brainer to have classic monsters fighting in World War II. Looking back, I’m amazed no one else thought of it. I wrote up some notes but, before I could pitch it to Paul, the infamous DC implosion happened and I was out of work for something like ten months.

After the DC doors reopened, I began working with the late, great Len Wein—who became both my mentor and good friend. Len was looking for ongoing series for both House of Mystery and Weird War. For HoM, Len gave me a title—I…Vampire—and I created the saga of Andrew Bennett. For Weird War I dusted off the “monsters in WW II” idea I’d hatched the year before and he loved it. I think we came up with the name Creature Commandos together, but it’s been so long that I honestly don’t recall.

MFR: Are you or were you a big fan of Universal Monster movies/Hammer Horror flicks and how much of an influence were they on Creature Commandos?

JMD: When I was growing up, those classic Universal monster movies were always on television. Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolf Man… they were part of the pop culture fabric. I wasn’t a fanatic about them… I was more into science-fiction and fantasy than horror—but I did enjoy them all and watched them whenever they were on. (I have a special fondness for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, still my favorite horror-comedy ever.)

MFR: I could go through each character — Vincent Velcro the vampire, Warren Griffith the Werewolf, “Lucky” Taylor the Frankenstein-esque Patchwork Man, and Lieutenant Shrieve, the most monstrous of them all (yet the only true “human”) — and talk about what each of them brings to the group. Each really represents a response to war – selling your soul but hating that you had to (Velcro), becoming an animal and reveling in the bloodshed (Griffith), or being utterly traumatized by everything around you (Taylor). Did you have a favorite to write, or one you resonated with the most?

JMD: If memory serves, it was “Lucky” Taylor I connected with the most: he was the classic monster with a heart of gold. The disconnect between the grotesque exterior and the sensitive interior made for a fascinating character. I was also fascinated with Shrieve, because he really was the true monster on the team: brutal, cold-hearted. But even he had a deep well of humanity, it was just hidden beneath layers of war-born trauma. 

Truth is, I enjoyed writing them all. I was a young writer just starting out and there I was, working with, and learning from, Len Wein, creating my own characters. It was a great time.

MFR: If the Creature Commandos stories had been written in the last few years, I would have thought this is a great spiritual successor to something like Inglourious Basterds. But instead, I’d almost think Tarantino had gotten ahold of your comics. You, Broderick and Carrillo use violence in such an effectively satirical way. (I think of Griffith and the pack of wolves.) What do you think makes for effective satire?

JMD: I honestly wasn’t thinking of the Commandos as satire—although it clearly works that way. And maybe that answers your question: To do effective satire, you have to take the subject matter seriously, but just… tilt it a little. The very premise of the Commandos was absurd… and yet it works as a powerful metaphor for the experience of war. Both those elements pull at each other and create something heightened and yet, I hope, grounded in emotional reality.

MFR: You have written screenplays where you hold source material lightly, in things like DC’s Red Son movie or some of your episodes for Justice League Unlimited, being willing to change things up for an adaptation – which I love. It means this iteration isn’t just a carbon copy for a new medium, it’s something new. How do you feel about the changes you can already see in this upcoming adaptation of Creature Commandos? It’s a new cast of characters for the most part. Are you excited to see changes? Is there something you hope those adapting it don’t miss from your comics?

JMD: It’s an adaptation, so they should feel free to adapt! As I’ve learned from working in television and film, you can’t translate these things directly, there are always changes that need to be made for another medium. That said, I hope we get to see the originals in Gunn’s series… perhaps in flashbacks… and that some nod is made to the origins and history of the characters.

I also want to add that I never hold the source material “lightly”; you have to have a deep respect for, and understanding of, the source material before you can even think about making changes to it.

MFR: You’re one of the creators behind such amazing teams and characters as the Justice League International, I… Vampire, Maxwell Lord, Frog-Man, and the White Rabbit. You redefined characters like Kraven and the Spectre. What other characters or works would you like to see adapted?

JMD: I’d love to see an adaptation of Kraven’s Last Hunt. Our Justice League International run would make for a wonderful TV series or film. And I’d love to see any of my creator- owned material—from Moonshadow to the recent DeMultiverse titles—make the jump to the screen.

MFR: Your writing creates such an interesting dynamic between levity/silliness and introspective depth. JLI threw the grimdark landscape of the 80s on its head, while something like Creature Commandos takes the campy monster movie characters and adds in a layer of humanity and philosophizing about death. How do you strike that balance? Is there an extreme you feel most comfortable in?

JMD: No, not really. I just follow the story and the characters where they lead. In the end, it doesn’t matter what the tone or genre of the story is, you have to believe in the characters, in the world you’re creating. The more the story takes on a life of its own, the better the story will be. 

Also, working in diverse genres—as well as jumping from comics to TV to film to prose—keeps my perspective fresh and keeps me interested. If I was locked into one genre or medium, I would get very bored very quickly.

MFR: You’ve co-created classic works like Kraven’s Last Hunt, Justice League International, Batman: Going Sane, and Superman: Speeding Bullets, and you’re still very much involved in comics. Among the works you’re doing for the Big Two, you have also launched the DeMultiverse. Can you tell us more about that and what your plans are for it?

JMD: The DeMultiverse is one of the most exciting creative endeavors of my entire career.  Late last year, via Kickstarter and my pal David Baldy of Spellbound Comics, we launched five new titles (four core titles and a bonus book): five first issues, each one in a different style and genre, with five of my favorite artists. These were ideas I’d been nursing for years and it was a real joy to unleash them all on the world simultaneously.

The Kickstarter was a huge success and, as a result, I’m already at work on volume two of the DeMultiverse, creating second chapters of Anyman (with David Baldeon), Godsend (with Matthew Dow Smith), Layla in the Lands of After (with Shawn McManus), and Wisdom (with Tom Mandrake). With a little luck, next year will also see the continuation of our bonus book, The Edward Gloom Mysteries (with Vassilis Gogtzilas).

Very exciting projects and I hope to keep working on all these titles for a long time to come.

Check Out Creature Commandos and J.M. DeMatteis’ Other Works!

If you haven’t read any of the Creature Commandos stories, DC has collected all of the old Weird War Tales chapters into one volume, available at some comic shops and through Amazon. DeMatteis is also hard at work on his DeMultiverse books. Check out Spellbound’s website on how you can get ahold of those! There’s still no firm release date for the DCU’s Creature Commandos show, but it’s set to come out some time in 2024. If it’s anything like the strange comics that it’s based on, you don’t want to miss it.

Zac Owens
Zac Owens
I'm a world traveler. I've lived in Australia, Canada, Tanzania, Kenya, and the United States. I studied theology in Switzerland and did humanitarian work in Egypt. I first got into the medium through DC Comics, but now I read everything under the sun. Some of my favorite works include HELLBOY, FRIDAY, ON A SUNBEAM and THE GOON. I currently live in Reykjavik, Iceland. That is, until my Green Lantern ring comes in...