We open as the bright red and blue big-rig U.S. 1 races past Ed "Poppa Wheelie" Wheeler, a retired drag racer who runs the Short Stop rest stop for truckers. Poppa turns to us and tells the story of U.S. 1's driver, Ulysses Solomon Archer.
Ulysses and his brother, Jefferson Hercules Archer, longed to follow in their parents' footsteps as cross-country truckers, but their parents insisted they get a good education first. One day, tragedy strikes, and U.S. and J.H. are orphaned. They're taken in by Poppa and his wife "Wide-Load" Annie Wheeler (herself an accomplished driver and mechanic), and watch as countless truckers gather for a funeral procession.
Years later, J.H. has dropped out of school and become a trucker, while U.S. graduated magnum cum laude, becomes star quarterback of his college team, and gets a degree in computer engineering. One summer, riding shotgun with his brother, U.S. sticks by his dream of one day being a trucker while J.H. pushes him to do something more with his education. They're suddenly set upon by a black big-rig driven by a cackling, shadowed figure J.H. recognizes as the legendary Highwayman. Staying true to the tales, the Highwayman forces the truck off a cliffside road. U.S. is thrown from the wreck and suffers severe head fractures, and J.H.'s body is never found amidst the burning wreckage, which U.S. witnesses being set upon by the Highwayman's demon legions.
Surgeons are forced to replace the majority of U.S.'s skull with a metal helmet of mesh work, and it's not long before he's able to tune into buzzing he now hears and realize he's picking up CB signals. Investigators brush off the accident and his claims of the Highwayman, leaving U.S. eager to seek out the truth. Poppa and Wide-Load give him all the support he needs, helping him to build U.S. 1, a big rig loaded with all sorts of weapons and gadgets, and capable of being steered by a miniature remote U.S. disguises as a silver dollar.
Hitting the road on a stormy night, U.S. is beset upon by the Highwayman. U.S. wins his fight to stay on the road, but sees the Highwayman point to a single-lane bridge they're rapidly approaching. U.S. hops a cliff to get in front of the Highwayman, sending the dark big-rip plunging into the depths of the night. But there's no sound of a crash, no wreckage down below, so he doubts this is the last he'll hear of his foe.
Featuring cigars, headbands and more dangerous curves than a truck stop prostitute, it's U.S. 1, the world's first, and last, comic about the adventures of an over-the-road drivin' super hero!
The brief C.B. craze of the late 70s was just a speck in the rearview mirror by the time this unique blend of The Six Million Dollar Man and B.J. and the Bear debuted in 1983, so it's no wonder it ended up putting the "Short-Lived" in the "Super Saturday Short-Lived Showcase". Tyco, a toy company primarily known for its electric toy train and racing sets - the later of which soared in popularity in the late 70s and early 80s - approached Marvel about creating a tie-in comic for its trucking themed U.S. 1 electric racing set. Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter worked closely with Al Milgrom, who was getting his first full-time writing gig with this project, to develop a concept and backstory for the line that would then be used as the basis for the comic. After Shooter and Milgrom's presentation, Tyco was so enthusiastic about the project that Marvel even put together a presentation for a proposed animated series, but it never went beyond that point. The question is: did U.S. 1 deserve its "sort-lived" fate? Let's find out.
Let me say this right up front. I enjoyed this issue. Like any origin story, it's a little slow out of the gate, but what it sets up is a very basic, very accessible premise that would seem to lend itself perfectly to episodic storytelling. In the larger scope of things, U.S. will search for the Highwayman and try to solve the mystery of his brother's disappearance. But along the way, he'll likely get caught up in the affairs of the other people he encounters. It's sort of like a comic book version of The Fugitive.
One of the aspects I really liked about this first issue was the narration by Papa Wheelie. A) It's something different, and it makes the inevitable info-dump of an origin story a lot less clunky than usual, and B) It's consistent with the sort of tall tales storytelling tradition that often featured a narrator who was himself a participant in the events. I think it was a great choice on writer Al Milgrom's part, and I'm curious to see if it was just a device he used for this first issue, or if it's something he uses going forward.
I'm not going to try and convince you that this is going to be a great comic, because it's probably not. This first issue is all kinds of cheesy and hokey, and our hero is even more flat and two-dimensional than I'd feared, but I'll be honest, I'm curious to find out who this Highwayman is, what happened to U.S. Archer's brother, Jefferson Hercules (and no, I'm not giving a free pass to these names, because they're awful), and see what other dangers lay ahead on the open road.
If the concept of a semi-driving super hero sounds dumb to you, let me ask you this: is it any dumber than a kid being bitten by a radioactive spider and suddenly taking on its attributes, or gamma rays turning a mild-mannered scientist into a giant, marauding green monster? Well, yeah, I suppose that it is, but stick around anyway. I think this is going to be fun.
Before anyone asks, yes, I have seen Linkara's reviews. It's been a while, and I'm not planning to revisit them until we're done with this series. Here's where I agree with him: U.S. 1 is complete nonsense.
A trucker superhero with a metal skull that makes him a human CB radio, who fights a ghost trucker on the road with a souped up big-rig which can be remote controlled by a silver dollar... it's ridiculous. It's absolute silliness.
To which I say, so what?
Is it any sillier than Iron Man or Batman constantly retoolling new, nonsensical gadgets to defeat their foes? Why is applying it to the trappings of truckerdom unbearable, but not applying it to an ever-changing suit of armor or a bright yellow utility belt?
There's nothing wrong with silliness, just bad execution. And the execution here isn't bad. Milgrom and Trimpe know what elements they're working with and play it with exactly the right tone to make it work. This is a fable, a folk tale slice of mid-western Americana, where a man can simultaneously aspire to be a brilliant computer engineer AND the driver of a cross-country big rig. This is a world where the orphan of truckers will be taken in by the rest stop and watch as all the trucks gather for a funeral convoy, and know these are his people, and no matter how far he goes in the world, he'll never hold himself above them. This is a world where phantom truckers and their demon horde will knock trucks from the road solely to bring chaos to an otherwise routine following of the yellow lines. All presented to us with the loving wink and warm sincerity of Poppa Wheelie's narration, and the nice transitional device of the constantly rolling wheels of fate, leading from one chapter of the road to another.
The issue isn't perfect. There's isn't much actual plot beyond a series of flashback infodumps. The silhouetted figure of the Highwayman, caped up and baring fangs like a poor cosplay of Colon's Dracula, is more silly than menacing. Ulysses Solomon Archer himself is underdeveloped as a character, lacking much in the way of personality even as we roll through his rich backstory. His brother is equally undeveloped, so that we don't feel the full weight of his loss. And while Trimpe's a legendary artist for his wonderful page layouts, there's always been a clunkiness to his figures, and as his own inker, his lines are thick and awkward at times, given a heavy, melted plastic look to some of the faces, especially during dramatic night scenes. His trucks are great, though, and the choreography of the final battle works wonderfully.
This is an issue that proudly declares and embraces exactly the type of stories it'll be telling, and I, for one, will gladly sit shotgun for this ride.
A few thoughts:
- Wide-Load Annie is a potentially fun character, blending her motherly ways with the road-worn skills of a mechanic and trucker... but calling a heavy-set woman Wide-Load? That's a bit mean, guys.
- You'd never know this was Al Milgrom's debut as a writer. The pacing of the story is great, the dialogue and narrative captions are wonderful, capturing that laid back, mid-western feel without trying to slip in too many accent marks or slang that other writers can clutter their work with. Has a very natural flow, which makes the folk-tale nature of the story easy to get pulled into.
- So there was a proposal for an animated series. All of Marvel's toons were co-produced with Sunbow at the time. Just one year after the U.S. 1 comic came to a close, Marvel/Sunbow debuted Big Foot and the Muscle Machines, a show which also mixes big-vehicle action spectacle with folk-tale Americana. Hmmmmm. Obviously, the stories, characters, and vehicles aren't the same, but I have to wonder if the former didn't influence the latter.