On a ridge in the fiery pits of Hell, U.S. and his truck are being battered mercilessly by the Highwayman and Midnight. U.S. shoots up in his bed, crying out. Poppa Wheelie, Wide-Load Annie, and Mary McGrill are quickly at his side, comforting him until he can clean up and join them at the Short Stop counter for a cup of coffee. As they fill Mary in on the events of the first issue, an old trucker at the end of the counter locks onto their mention of the Highwayman, and tells them a story he heard long ago. Back when semi-trucking began in the 1910s, one rider quickly rose out of the then meager ranks as the top of the pack. As the years went by and he and his truck grew older, they found themselves left behind by the emerging industry. He scoured the world, seeking mystical figures who could restore his youth (cameos from the Ancient One and Genghis) ultimately selling his soul to a dark spectre (implied but not confirmed to be Mephisto). "Now he travels the road at night, hunting for souls to send his evil master."
And with that, the old man leaves, driving off before U.S. can ask him anything more. Taryn shows up, telling U.S. he should hire a private investigator to look into things, and introduces him to Retread, a young driver pulling big rigs as a means to look for his place in the world. And wouldn't you know it, one of his old gigs was as a P.I. Learning Taryn and Retread passed the old man on the road, U.S. drags the other man along in the hopes of finding some more answers. It doesn't take them long to catch up, only to discover the old man is being pursued by multiple semis full of the Highwayman's men, fully armed with weapons and aided by an attack blimp hidden by the night sky. Retread is flabbergasted by the high tech gadgets and weaponry installed in U.S. 1, but doesn't have time for any questions as the fight rages on.
U.S. decides to fake a crippling of his truck to see what the others will do, and when they pass him and surround the old man, he tries to sneak in to help. Retread is left on a ledge with a flare gun should anything go wrong, but quickly slips off the ledge, firing off the gun and setting his pants on fire with the extra flares. He and U.S. are forced to fight and fight they do, even though the old man seems to want to go with the goons instead of escape. Just as forces overwhelm our heroes, U.S. accidentally rips off the old man's face, revealing him to be the Highwayman in disguise.
As the Highwayman laughs and drives off into the night, his goons in his wake, U.S. is left wondering how much of the origin story was true.
At some point, even the most powerful hero needs a little help. Enter: The Sidekick. Batman has Robin. Captain America has Bucky Barnes. And now, U.S. Archer has... Retread. Looking like a cross between Prince Valiant and an extra from The Dukes of Hazzard, he makes up for his lack of appreciable skills with his selfless desire to help complete strangers track down deadly, soul-stealing highway demons. To be honest, I'm on the fence about Retread. I definitely feel that U.S. needs a partner that he can riff with, but I'm not sure if the bumbling Retread is the guy for the job. There's no chemistry between them, and he certainly doesn't add any comic relief, unless you count his hair.
The issue itself is a bit of a step back from the previous two. The light-touch humor that was the highlight of "After Midnight!" is more or less MIA here, replaced by a more somber tone. That would be fine if the story warranted it, but honestly, this is all a bit silly, and looks even more so with everyone playing it with a straight face. Even if the Highwayman's origin tale is just a bit of misdirection: Really? Really? Speaking of the tale, what was the Highwayman's reason for pulling a Scooby Doo "It's old man Smithers!" here? And why in the Hell did he and his men flee at the end? They had Archer and Retread on the ropes. I get that maybe the Highwayman didn't want his true identity revealed, but once he's unmasked, he and his henchmen just hop in their rigs and blimp (that's not a type-o - dude has a blimp) and haul ass. The fist-shaking retreat was a staple of 80s villains, but they were usually losing at the time. If anyone has Skeletor's cell number, see if he can stop by and give the Highwayman a few lessons before next week's Showcase.
The main thing I took away from "Rhyme of the Ancient Highwayman!" is that the writer doesn't seem to have a roadmap for this series. A lot of this stuff just seems like a spit-balling of ideas with very little in terms of a long-term game plan. It's time to widen the scope. I like the Short Stop and its colorful cast of characters, but thus far, we've seen the inside of the diner and the same stretch of dark, rocky highway, and that's about it. U.S. Archer is a trucker, and it's time he hit the open road.
"Watch out, U.S.! We're not out of the woods yet!"
"In that case, I guess we'll just have to knock over a few of the trees!"
The main problem I have with this issue is that it doesn't move us forward all that much. Yes, we get a potential origin story for the Highwayman, and I like how it slips in some Marvel cameos as it covers a compelling if typical story of an aging man questing to recover his spent youth. It goes by pretty quickly, though, and half the issue is one big chase/action scene. Don't get me wrong, it's a decently choreographed action scene, but it runs on a little long to keep up the energy, and despite all the gun-toting semis and bomb-dropping blimps, it falls a bit flat for me. Partially because we don't get to see a villain for us to focus the conflict against, just shadowy guys in trucks who have almost no lines. Partially because new series artist Frank Springer keep much of it in wide shots that lack dynamism and don't pull us into the action.
Frank Springer is a solid artist. I quite enjoyed his largely ignored run of Nick Fury after having taken the reins from the mindblowing Jim Steranko, as well as some of his other work. Springer (here inked by Mike Esposito, who largely sticks to what pencillers give him) reminds me a lot of Don Heck in that he's a great figure artist, with realistic, cleanly detailed characters with expressive looks that sell the moment, and is also great at keeping vehicles and locations on model, but there's a clumsiness that can flatten things out. He has similarities to Gene Colon, especially in moments of shaded drama, but whereas Colon started experimenting with wild, lush page layouts, Springer stuck to simple block tiers which keep his stories feeling a bit old-fashioned. The individual panels can be nice, but on the page, they're just a series of static images flatly placed side by side with no real flow from one to the next. And as I said, he keeps pulling back on the action moments, never allowing us to get swept up in the thick of the fight as we watch from a distance.
Still, I like his art more than I dislike it, and his pros vs cons aren't really on a different range than Trimpe's were, so welcome to the team, Frank!
The first half of the story is nice as all our main players get to swing into the scene: Poppa worrying about U.S., Wide-Load keeping everyone calm, Mary and Taryn trying to help (and get the attentions of) U.S. in their own ways. I even like the opening dream scene of the Highwayman and Midnight. I usually hate dream scenes, but they didn't drag this one out and made it obvious from the beginning what it was, so it worked.
The big addition this issue is Retread, the wandering comic relief who will hopefully stick around in some sidekick capacity. I'm glad they don't make him a fool, as he's a sharp guy who just hasn't found his place in the world yet, and much of his bumbling during the fight scene comes more from being overwhelmed by the events he's been thrust into than it does him being a goof. And I love how, even with his pants literally on fire, he's still kicking ass alongside U.S. and holding his own. I really hope to see more of him.
Overall, it's an okay issue. Neither particularly bad nor all that great. I wish they'd done something more with the story to give it more momentum - dragging out the reveal of the old-man's identity does not qualify as an adquate mystery - but I still had fun. U.S. still brings the quips, Retread is a nice addition, the family at the Short Stop is still a great group I enjoy visiting each week, and Milgrom still knows just the right notes to play in his oddball Americana pulp hero tale.