Jesse Alexander: TV to Comics with the Howling Commandos

Jesse Alexander on Shotgun Opera

Howling Commandos: Shotgun Opera

This May, Marvel takes you back to WWII for an untold tale of Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos. Howling Commandos: Shotgun Opera is a 40-page one-shot by TV writer Jesse Alexander and veteran artist John Paul Leon (most recently seen on Ex Machina Special) that serves as a companion to Captain America: White by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale.

Alexander is a new name to comics, though he’s been associated with some of the most popular genre shows of the last decade. A former co-executive producer on Alias, Lost and most recently Heroes, which he left along with Jeph Loeb late last year. Alexander’s currently filming a new pilot for NBC called Day One, a new apocalyptic drama starring David Lyons (ER), Julie Gonzalo (Veronica Mars and Eli Stone) and Thekla Reuten (In Bruges) among many others.

We called up Alexander during a break from shooting the two-hour pilot to find out what’s going down with the Howlers on this mission. In part one of this two-part convo, one thing becomes apparent: Jesse Alexander loves the Howling Commandos.

Newsarama: Jesse, what’s going down with the Howling Commandos?

Jesse Alexander: Howling Commandos: Shotgun Opera is a story that I’m very excited about. When I worked at Heroes, I got the chance to work with Jeph Loeb. I’ve always loved Jeph’s writing, and I think he’s one of the best storytellers I’ve ever met. He was working on Captain America: White with Tim Sale, and I was so jealous of all the WWII Cap action he was doing that I said, “God, I would sure love to write a war comic.” And he said, “I’ll hook you up right now!”

I came up with this amazing Sgt. Fury adventure that would lead up with how the Howlers come into Jeph’s Captain America: White story. It’s a very balls-to-the-wall, action-packed, hellzapoppin’ war comic that really harkens back to the Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos comics of Kirby and Lee in the early days, when it was very action-packed and fun and adventurous, and just an exciting action comic.

I love war comics like crazy. I feel like a lot of good stuff has been done lately, but I wanted to do something that went back to that very adventure-filled, action-movie mentality of those early Kirby/Lee books.

NRAMA: What’s the storyline?

Shotgun Opera, page 11

JA: The premise has Nick and the Howlers on a mission behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia. It’s in the early days of the war, when the Germans had just invaded the country, and I’ve got Nick, Dum-Dum, Reb, Izzy, Gabe and Pinky as the Howlers I chose to use. They parachute behind enemy lines, and they have very strict orders not to engage and just do reconnaissance, but because it’s Nick Fury and the Howlers, they just get caught up in one insane action set piece after another.

They cross paths with this beautiful Russian spy, and they have an adventure with her, and of course they find a secret Nazi atomic research facility, and they get taken captive by Baron Strucker and have to battle this incredible war machine called “Panzer Max” and fight their way out of it.

I really just wanted to take everything I loved about all the great, fun war movies, and what I loved about the war comics and the villains in those books like Strucker, and try to come up with some fun set pieces. And I wanted to tell a story about Fury and the Howlers as men, chasing this very Teutonic, technocratic Nazi war machine, and how man overcomes machine every time.

NRAMA: How does this overlap with Jeph’s Captain America book?

JA: What’s fun about it is that Shotgun Opera has normal recruits like Fury and the Howlers, who aren’t supermen, they’re just men overcoming odds by working together and being a band of brothers. So then, when they go see someone like Cap, who is a superpowered individual getting all the glory, they don’t put a lot of stock in that. They believe in the power of normal men, in brotherhood, and the belief that one man can’t do it alone, it’s about the group and the team. And this belief is tested when they go on a mission with Cap in Jeph’s book.

NRAMA: What’s it like working with John Paul Leon? He just did that Ex Machina special at Wildstorm…

JA: I saw that! I couldn’t be happier, because I was really looking for an artist who would really capture that bold spirit of Kirby in those early Howler books that I loved.

I’m looking at my wall right now, where I’ve got pages 11, 12 and 13 from the Howler books, the inks that I just got from John Paul that are so spectacular.

Shotgun Opera, page 12

Newsarama Note: Readers, take a look at the inked pages for yourself… Newsarama Note: Readers, take a look at the inked pages for yourself…

Look, I wrote some comics for Heroes that I’m very proud of, and I’m proud of the script I wrote for Shotgun Opera. But at the end of the day, I’m a comic book neophyte, and to have someone like John Paul Leon, who is so experienced, such a tremendous visual storyteller, who really took my script and made it his own and made it so compelling and dynamic…I couldn’t be happier with what he’s done.

NRAMA: Now, the original Sgt. Fury series didn’t come until nearly two decades after the end of WWII. But it has a real cult following among a lot of fans and pros, particularly those who grew up with the book, a following that’s very distinct from the S.H.I.E.L.D. stories. Why do you feel Nick Fury has such resonance?

JA: You know, for me, I responded to the comic books where the heroes were normal men. I’m a huge Batman fan. I always loved that he was just a man who dedicated himself and was driven to become something special. And I love that about Fury. Certainly, later he got the…(dismissive) Infinity Formula or whatever it was, but before then he was just a man hanging out with his friends and going on adventures. I loved that!

The only place where I could get comics in the town where I grew up was a toy store, and they had this rack full of comics that included a lot of reprints. That was where I was first exposed to comic books. I used to buy all these Fury reprints there, and I really fell in love with the character and the mythology.

Shotgun Opera, page 13

NRAMA: What kind of research into WWII did you have to do for this story?

JA: You know what? I didn’t have to do too much, because I’m kind of a WWII nut. I grew up in the 1970s with shows like Baa Baa Black Sheep and The Rat Patrol and movies like A Bridge Too Far playing a big role in my childhood. So it’s something I have a real affinity for, and a lot of knowledge about.

That said, while John Paul and I were pretty meticulous with our weaponry and our Nazi war machines, this is an adventure story. It’s very much a Marvel war comic, in that you deal with Baron Strucker and some other surprises. So it takes it into the realm of fantasy, but what I think is so cool about John Paul’s art is that it keeps it grounded, and helps it feel like a plausible take on some of the Nazi superweapons that could have taken place during this time.

NRAMA: Who are your favorite Howlers to write?

JA: I’m quite fond of the Pinky stuff we came up with, and I really enjoyed the Izzy stuff as well. It was a lot of fun writing those two guys. You know, there’s a couple of panels I’m looking at right now, where we did these big splashes of all the Howlers hanging out and doing fun stuff (laughs). And being able to write dialogue for all the Howlers at once in this big tableau that really showed off the different sides of their characters was one of my favorite moments.

There’s this one big piece that I’m absolutely going to buy from John Paul that I can’t wait to have on my wall. There’s this amazing moment at the beginning of the comic where Fury’s been separated from the Howlers and has a short little adventure on his own, and then he sees some smoke on the horizon, and there’s this two-page spread where Fury’s walking out of the forest and you see the Howlers have just intercepted this German convoy and decimated it!

And they’re all in various states of repose; Izzy’s checking out the 12-cylinder engine on this Hispano-Suiza, and Gabe’s got this huge MG 42 machine gun that he’s trying out, and Dum-Dum’s taking a nap inside a German sidecar, and Pinky’s trying on some new boots, and…(laughs)

Shotgun Opera, pages 6-7

Newsarama Note: And again, we’ve got the art for you…

It’s one of those moments that shows the Howlers were individuals who came together in a common bond of brotherhood in their mission and their belief in each other.

NRAMA: Will the story have any times to modern continuity?

JA: I was careful about that. I’m not a die-hard continuity guy, but I tied to be as careful with that as I could. Because Captain America: White was telling a story in a certain time period, I felt that I had license to tell a certain Howlers story that took place leading right up to that moment.

I don’t think there’s anything that screws with continuity too much, and I was careful of my Strucker dialogue as well, so it could kind of fit within continuity. But I’m sure some people will say, “It’s impossible! They couldn’t have been in Yugoslavia at that time! They were in England!” (laughs) I tried to be as careful as I could with it all. Mark Paniccia at Marvel have been very supportive of it, so I’m sure they’d red-flag anything that didn’t work.

NRAMA: This is a one-shot, but do you have any other stories planned with the Howlers at Marvel?

JA: I would love to do that. It’s just a matter of scheduling! I’m so busy working on my new pilot for NBC, Day One, that it’d be hard to do it. But this was such an amazing experience...there’s so much more I’d love to do. There’s a character who appears in Shotgun Opera, and I would love to tell her side of the story, and try to build out these guys and tell more tales again. Especially if I got to work with John Paul, because that guy is amazing.

Howling Commandos: Shotgun Opera blasts its way into comic shops this May.

Tomorrow at Newsarama: Alexander discusses his new pilot, Day One, and working with Jeph Loeb.


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