After using his metal skull to break up yet another bar brawl at the Short Stop, U.S. Archer is shocked to see a giant dirigible descending over the establishment. Within is the rotund and flamboyantly European Baron Von Blimp, who has heard of U.S.'s wonder truck and, with a slap of his glove across the young man's cheek, challenges him to a competition: blimp vs. semi.
The Baron says he wants to once again establish the dominance of dirigibles as haulers of loads across the country, but U.S. is suspicious, wondering if this is the same blimp which attacked him during his last battle with the Highwaymay. He agrees to the competition, hoping it'll ferret his foe out.
Both score sponsorship for their race from Colonel Chicken of Finger-Lickin' Chickens, and the duel is on. It doesn't take long for the Baron to start lobbing bombs down at U.S. 1, but U.S. has made a few additions to his truck and starts shelling the sky with anti-aircraft artillery. Sure enough, the Baron is totally in the pocket of the Highwayman, but with his ego bruised, he waves off all orders to leave U.S. alive.
Retread has stowed away on the semi, and uses his past job as a crummy meteorologist to lure the Baron's blimp into a storm cloud, which fouls up its navigation. U.S. uses the distraction to board the blimp, duking it out with the Baron and sending the other man into the cargo of live chickens.
I hate to say it, but this issue is the first full-on dud in the series for me, and I'm starting to worry it's a reflection on the series as a whole and where it may fail to take us. So much focus is being put on the feud with the Highwayman that we just aren't getting out on that road and exploring anything, as everything has to loop back to him, whether it feels like a natural fit to do so or not. A baron suddenly shows up wanting to pit his vehicle against U.S.'s truck, okay, I'll go with that. Having him be yet another pawn of the Highwayman, no, that's getting tired and predictable. I do like how the baron is so full of ego that he keeps ignoring orders, and that they tie him to the mystery dirigible of the last installment, but it largely doesn't work as a story.
Another big part of it is Frank Springer's art. As I said in the last issue, I think he's a fine illustrator and can be good at setting a mood, but it's not the right mood for this particular book. There's a lot of joviality and wit to the writing, but the art keeps playing it straight, with Frank's static realism lacking the zany energy needed to make a story like this come alive and delight. It's just a flat series of images, with no life to moments like the reveal of the baron dropping the first bomb on U.S., or his multiple prat falls, or the running gag of people cracking their hands on U.S.'s skull. Frank is not a bad artist, he's just the wrong match for this book, and I'll be curious to see if they realize this and swap him out before we reach the end, or if we're stuck with this mismatch. Because if we're stuck with him, I can see why readers didn't stick around.
There are some fun bits here and there. I like the Foghorn Leghorn style speech of the chicken company CEO, though it did drag on more than a bit. I like seeing Wide-Load Annie really cut loose and kick some ass. And I still like the sidekick shenanigans of Retread. Instead of just being a goofball, I love how he's picked up loads of useful knowledge and trivia from his lifetime of failed careers. It lets him contribute to situations without just deus ex machina-ing day savers out of his ass.
Over all, though, this one didn't work for me. The story had a fun setup but didn't build on it, Springer just plain isn't working as the artist, and they really need to sort out where they want this series to go in the long run, because we're only four issues in and my enthusiasm has started to wane.
Past experience has taught me that, at some point, each one of these Showcases is going to have a moment where you either decide to strap your self in and hang on tight, or hit the emotional eject button. This issue is such a moment. Specifically, it was when a portly German Baron descended from his blimp and challenged our hero to a race under the guise of transforming America's views on dirigibles and their viability as shipping vehicles, but was secretly trying to lure him into a trap for his faceless, thus far agenda-deficient, Master.
Wow, where to begin? The problems that have plagued previous issues remain. Archer is still hanging around the diner waiting for the action to come to him. U.S., you're a hero, not a friggin' Venus Flytrap! If all you planned to do was sit around, maybe you should've scrapped the super-semi idea and built a heavily modified recliner instead. We also don't learn or solve anything, and the larger story isn't fleshed out in any way. In fact, the issue spends more time recapping previous "events" than it does advancing the story. U.S. 1 is plagued by a case of dramatic inertia, and it's slowly bleeding the joy right out of it. The once humorous gags now seem like cheap spackle being used to cover the cracks. Writer Al Milgrom is a rookie, and it shows.
As you know by now, the premise of this issue is flat-out ridiculous. Up to this point, Milgrom and co. had walked a pretty fine line tonally, but here they veer right over it. The Baron is kinda fun in a goofy sort of way, but he just doesn't belong in this particular rogue's gallery. This is a world of truckers, fast cars, tall tales, and Americana. And as I mentioned before, all of the hijinks are starting to wear a bit thin because they're not supported by any sort of dramatic substance.
So, all of this begs the question: "What did you do? Strap in or eject?" Let's just say that these straps really chafe. U.S. 1 has managed to build up a lot of good will with me, and I still found myself chuckling at things like Wide-Load decking a customer during the brawl at the Short Stop. In the comments section last week, Noel mentioned one of our previous Showcases, Bigfoot and the Muscle Machines, and how it did so much more with a comparable premise and aesthetic. My frustration is due mostly to the fact that I think the potential here is being wasted. I really hope the issues to come break out of this repetitive, Groundhog Day-style funk and hit the open road, because I truly believe there's a Hell of a fun comic book in U.S. 1 just waiting to drop the hammer.