July 19, 2014

U.S. 1 - Final Thoughts


My first draft for this post simply read "It sucked." But this is a final thoughts piece, so I grabbed my trusty thesaurus and set about finding how many different ways I could express this particular sentiment without being too redundant. Let's see how I did.

I suppose it would be easy to give U.S. 1 a free pass solely because it's based on a line of electric toy trucks with no premise whatsoever. What could they possibly do with that? Plenty. Or, at least, more than they do here. While it may not be leaping tall buildings in a single bound, over-the-road trucking is, if you'll pardon the pun, a pretty good vehicle for action and adventure. An ordinary mortal man in a standard, off the assembly line semi truck could find him self swept up into all kinds of excitement out there on the open road. Bandits. Crazed truckers. Corrupt law enforcement officers. Truck stop prostitutes. If written well, this could've been a refreshing change of pace from the all too common costumed superheroes that populate the comic book world. Would it have been more successful? That's debatable. Kids read comic books to see things and go to places they can't in the ordinary world. The characters that would've populated a more down to earth U.S. 1 could've been found at their nearest Waffle House. Not exactly the stuff of wish fulfillment, unless you're a kid who really likes high cholesterol food.

That said, the more fantastical approach they ultimately took could've worked just as well had it been more thoughtfully crafted. What began as a semi truck driving version of The Six Million Dollar Man quickly morphed into a pastiche of every trope, stereotype, and batshit crazy whim Al Milgrom and company could think of. At times, it felt like these issues were based on ideas pulled out of a hat: "And then... a portly baron in a zeppelin filled with Nazis lands in the parking lot of a truck stop..." By the midway point, they were just throwing shit against the wall to see what would stick. Unfortunately, none of it did.

Were there mitigating circumstances here? Undoubtedly so. I wasn't able to find any interviews with Milgrom about his experiences with U.S. 1, but I have little doubt that he and his team were likely working under less than ideal creative circumstances. Editorial meddling? I'd guarantee it. Toy company meddling? Possibly, though the latter seems less likely to me, as I'm not convinced that Nazis and aliens are what Tyco had in mind when they approached Marvel about this venture.

From bad writing and increasingly bizarre stories, to the inconsistent quality of its art, there's just not anything for me to recommend to you about U.S. 1. Should you ever happen upon an issue, my advice would be "Keep on truckin'."


I'm really not sure what went wrong with this book. It did open well, that should be remembered. It was silly as all get out, sure, but I was pretty quickly hooked by the world of Ulysses Archer, his wonder truck, and the cast of colorful characters anchored at his home of the Short Stop. That's all good stuff and can set up a promising series... in the right hands. I'm not going to come out and say Al Milgrom is a shit writer, because he has since gone on to do more work I have yet to read (but probably will some day as I'm burning through a lot of Marvel's past of late) and this was a rookie effort for him, where he first came out of the gate and tripped over the same stumbles many writers face before they can really gear up and hone their craft. So don't hold this as a reflection of what the man did down the road, nor against his many years as a successful editor and inker. That said, it's still pretty shit.

The main problem is it lacked direction. There's limits to what you can do with a semi truck, because it's a massive, rooted thing that doesn't move very well and can't fit in cramped spaces. Having bigrigs just take off in the sky and battle in the atmosphere and around the moon is not how you get around this. Maybe later, but the way they went there feels like it came out of desperation brought about by the tedium of samey action scenes. Instead, they should have realized the tedium was mostly due to them anchoring the story in one spot and making the Short Stop much more of an element than it ever needed to be. Yes, it's great giving our hero a home to emotionally anchor himself to, and a cast of friends he can interact and occasionally share adventures with. But by keeping him there, you're A) stagnating the setting of your book, and B) ignoring the entire point of making your hero a trucker by not having him on the road.

They seemed to realize this, too, as after misfires with Baron von Blimp and the alien maze, we had that wonderful issue where Wide-Load Annie jumps in the cab alongside Ulysses, and they roll off, doing a cargo haul and punching some crime in the face along the way. No, Iron Mike wasn't a great villain, but the issue as a whole was such a breath of fresh air because it felt like the comic was finally figuring out what it should be and where it needed to go. The open road lay before it and it finally kicked on its turn signal and pulled onto the lane of freedom!

For an issue. And then it turned right back on home as we fell into more of the same, then everything we hated was called back to as they felt a need to treat this random flailing as though it had been one massive, planned event that needed to have all threads intertwine for a multi-issue climax. Sorry, but no. No, it did not. It really, REALLY did not need that. Revealing the Highwayman is Ulysses' brother, sure, go for it. That's a nice angle, and could make for a poignant note to end things on. Even the reveal of Midnight, just so that isn't hanging in the air. But there's not a single reason in all of existence why they needed to bring Baron von Blimp back into play. Nor the insidious mastermind plot by LeGreed and his fellow bankers. Nor the alien. What the hell were you thinking with the alien. Early issues established this as existing within the Marvel Universe, so guess what: aliens are already a thing! They're on Earth, humans have met them and have mostly come to peace with their existence. We have humans going back and forth from the cosmos all the time, some even staying out in space and fighting alongside their extraterrestrial buddies. But now, we're just going to ignore all of that so we can have the clumsily designed Al show up again, reveal every single plot thread has been the result of him and his kind, and have them be the arbiters of how humanity progresses into the stars. No. You do not get to do that. You want to do the plot of making Ulysses a space trucker, fine, there's dozens and dozens of alien beings in the Marvel Universe you can make this work with. We don't need Al. We've never needed Al.

This series had an ability to work. They started well, then actually nailed a retooled formula half way in, but instead of picking up what golden threads it had and running with them, they just kept knitting with air and throwing nonsensical crap around, and treated it all with a level of importance it never earned, and even as they did so, often wrote it off with weak Mad Magazine level quips and gag writing. This series was never going to be a classic, but in their lack of direction, they don't even allow it to just be a fun thing for people to look back on and smile. It has built a reputation, it has been reintroduced to new generations (Linkara plug), but you know what face people make when they look back on it? A wince. And it's a deserved wince as the grand majority of this book was an insulting slog to wade through. It's like they stopped trying, not even caring to notice what this could have been as they saw the sales numbers drop off, but still had a contract to honor and additional issues to grind out, so there you go.

I don't know. I've seen others blame editor-in-chief Shooter or TYCO for the lack of direction, but I won't. You honestly think TYCO insisted on Baron von Blimp's Nazis or everything that happened with Al? I doubt it. As for Shooter, while, even by his own admission, he had a very heavy editorial hand during his reign (the constant recaps which annoyed Tony and I to no end are one result) and could be an ass to work for, he was a much more talented storyteller than what we see here. Say what you will about him, Shooter was a very ordered and meticulous guy, and I credit those qualities for how those first couple of issue turned out. They weren't great stories, but they were very crisp and cleanly told. After those issues, the series falls apart, so no, I'd say it wasn't an issue of his editorial oversight, I'd suggest the opposite, that when the series debuted weak and failed to catch fire, he turned his attention away from it, leaving it to figure things out on its own until the contracted allotment of issues expired. As further evidence, I'd point to Herb Trimpe suddenly being removed from the title, with a completely out-of-place Frank Springer slipped in for the remainder of it. Yes, there's still editor Ralph Macchio, who's gone on to do good work since, so I have no idea how he factors in here. Though we know from the letters pages that there are a few times where Ralph's assistant, Bob Harras, ran solo while Ralph had to step off and do other things, and I've clearly said where I stand on Bob Harras.

This is all speculation, mind, and could very well not be the case. But I'd love to believe U.S. 1 is all Bob Harras's fault. :)

In the end, it's just a plain bad book. They had an odd idea that could have become something really fun and memorable, but they went about executing it in all the wrong ways and crashing the entire thing off a cliff, a few of its own heat-seeking missiles popping out and raining back down on its mangled carcass, adding further insult to injury.

1 comment:

Tony Williams said...

I'll tell you when I knew we were in trouble. It was somewhere around issue #6 or #7, and I breathed a sigh of relief for the brief respite provided by one of those "Sell Grit!" ads. I think I re-read the thing two or three times before grudgingly moving on.

I do think that at its best, U.S. 1 was better--or at least more inspired--than the tie-in comics we've read for Visionaries and Sectaurs, but that's a pretty low bar.