Issue 11 "Transmissions from Space"
Ulysses stares, stunned at his revealed, raging brother, who turns violent when he sees the aliens arriving. They pull Jeff off Ulysses with a tractor beam and haul both drivers and bigrigs into the air with promises to explain once they're back at the Short Stop.
At the diner, our supporting cast is still reeling from events, surrounded by the statues of the hypno-frozen truckers and Nazis in mid-grapple. When the hero and villain arrive, everyone is equally stunned at the revelation of Jeff as the primary alien joins everyone on the ground. He lifts the hypno freeze off of the others, zapping Baron von Blimp and his Nazis away as the truckers leave, blaming the ill effects on bad food, which is quickly pounced on by LeGreed and his fellow bankers as they get the truckers to start spreading word against the Short Stop.
As our remaining cast gathers around the counter to share explanations over coffee, the alien reveals they came to earth to imbue a chosen hero with the powers of their technology in the hopes that he would usher mankind to the necessary point where we'll be able to join a federation of planets. They chose Ulysses, but because we all look the same to them, they accidentally got Jeff.
Jeff had long been nursing a jealous spite against Ulysses, not because he hated his brother, but because Ulysses was always the favored child, full of success and adoration, while Jeff kept slaving to work and pass classes just so he could support the younger sibling. When he was imbued with the powers, he devised the Highwayman illusion so as to not only allow himself to get away from his brother, but to get back at him a bit. But he mistimed his prank, leaving Ulysses grievously injured in the crash. The demonic figures Ulysses saw and the doctors who patched him back together with the electronic metal skull were all members of the alien race, now aware of their mistake and trying to make right by giving Ulysses equal abilities to match the promise of his potential.
Jeff was forced to maintain the Highwayman ruse as his brother sought revenge, but it stopped being a way to keep his brother away as it evolved into a rivalry, with Jeff eager to prove he was worthier of the powers they were given, eager to show he was the better brother. And Ulysses kept beating him and outsmarting him at every turn, further fueling Jeff's resentment.
Now the alien announces it's time for their final showdown, on an even field of battle, to truly see which brother will be granted the full power to bring humanity to the stars.
We now come to the Scooby Doo portion of the story, where villains are unmasked, plots are revealed and [insert perpetrator(s) here] would've gotten away with it, if it hadn't been for those meddling kids and their dog!
Man, talk about an info dump. There's less action in this issue than on one of my dates. Seriously, it's just twenty some odd pages of Jeff Archer whining about losing a lifetime's worth of dick measuring contests with his younger brother, or an alien using C.B. slang to reveal what has to be the dumbest backstory statistically possible.
The idea that Jeff was jealous of U.S. being used as his motivation here isn't what I take issue with so much as the fact that Jeff was accidentally recruited by aliens, and when he was found out, he decided to fake his own death and take on the persona of a phantom truck driver so that he could prove to the aliens that he was the better Archer. The utter stupidity of that plan is proof positive that Jeff is the lesser Archer. Dude, challenge him to a game of friggin' badminton. Maybe a 40-yard dash or an essay contest. The needless intricacy of this plan would make Dr. Evil jealous. Really, this is the best they could come up with? This is what was behind it all? I'm no Ernest Shakespeare or William Hemingway, but even I could come up with something better than that.
What about Whitey McCapitalist and Mary McGrill you ask? Or maybe you don't, I don't know. Regardless, I have no clue. They're just sort of there. The one good bit in this issue - the single decent thing about it - is when the Nazis are zapped to Tel Aviv by the aliens. I'm not sure that would've connected with kids, but I got a good chuckle out of it.
If the goal here was to double-down on stupid, then congratulations are in order for Al Milgrom and his team. Noel and I fold. Wait, there's one more issue. Son of a...
I.... did they.... but how.... what?
D-did Milgrom actually just take this tangled thread of complete nonsense, and not only brush it into working, but give us answers that actually help the rest of the series make sense? I can't even.
We open strong with the motives of Jeff, the Highwayman, being revealed to be nothing but pure sibling jealousy as he puts all his fancy gadgets aside and just tries to beat Ulysses down then and there. He becomes oddly passive for the middle part of the issue, as all other threads come into play, but by the time he steps forward to elaborate on his origins, it actually felt real to me. The sacrifices he'd made for Ulysses, only for his brother to continue rising and succeed and being the favored one, in areas Jeff kept failing to succeed in. I don't sympathize with the guy much for where he went with it, but it's an understandable frustration to be denied one's own life as everything you have is given in support of another with nobody being there to support you or help you find your own way. That support mutated into jealousy, which evolved into rivalry, and all of the nonsense we've seen is just one brother trying to one up the other, only to be consistently double upped in return, and as any form of potential victory slips further and further away from Jeff's fingers, his desire to just once beat Ulysses, just once have something in his life that he can do better than his brother, becomes increasingly desperate. After all, despite oodles of success and potential before him, what did Ulysses ultimately want to do for a living? Drive a truck. Which was Jeff's job, the one thing he liked doing and could do well, and yet his brother could do it better. And now, Jeff's been gifted with alien technology which could make him a savior of the cosmos, only for his bosses to say it was all a mistake, Ulysses was supposed to have the job, and Ulysses will probably do it even better than Jeff ever could, too. I won't argue every tactic the Highwayman pulled makes any practical sense, but damn it, this motive works for me, and I'm legitimately eager to see if the brothers will be able to bury the hatchet in their final duel, or if they'll remain stuck in opposition.
I'll admit the whole backstory of the aliens being behind everything (even Ulysses's amazing skull) is nothing but quickly chewed gum holding everything together, but I'm kind of beyond caring at this point. It serves its purpose of explaining how things came to be the way they are, while also setting the stage for how things will ultimately be resolved. It's also funnier than this book has been in a while, with CB being just one of many vernaculars the aliens always shift between, and Baron von Blimp and his fully garbed Nazis being brushed away by teleporting them to a town square in the middle of Tel Aviv, Israel. That bit especially got a huge "Whoa!" out of me.
Other threads all come together, too, if not through dramatic or important punches, then at least with the sly sense of amusement this series has been lacking in the Mad magazine one-liners it's fallen back on far too often. While everyone is soaking up backstory, Mary McGrill, still in her full Midnight garb, brews everyone a pot of her famous joe. The rich bankers realize they've taken the wrong route, so they scurry off the zeppelin and hide in the bushes. The trucker patrons come to, brushing off the after effects of the hypnowhip as food poisoning, and fall prey to the bankers' new plan to use this to keep other truckers away from the Short Stop.
And as far as character moments go, one of my favorites is Wide-Load Annie stomping up to the Highwayman's bigrig and ripping open the door, eager to give him a face full of her monkey wrench, only to be stopped in her tracks at the sight of Jeff.
Springer also deserves a lot of credit for the art once again selling, as he pulls off crazy exposition amongst a crowd of people with a totally straight face, using the grounded humanity of everything to balance out the wildness of what they're talking about. And as he gets in on Jeff and Ulysses, the anger of one and the pain and confusion of the other, it hammers home the deeper conflict this entire series has needed, and retroactively anchors back a spine to carry much of it on.
This issue actually did what I thought would be impossible by this point: won me over and resolved many of the messy threads in a way that satisfies me. Yes, it's still pure nonsense on paper. No, it shouldn't work at all. But gosh darn it, it does. For me, at least. As I've said before, I don't mind silly, as long as it's clever silly, and this had just enough inventiveness, and a return of the sly whimsy we'd lost a few issue back, to sell me on where it's going, and honestly sweeps away some of the regret I've had in keeping this series going. Some. Not all, but some. Enough, rather. Yeah, enough is the right word. :)
Issue 12 "The Truck Stops Here"
As the alien (who tells everyone to call him Al) guides Poppa Wheelie and Wide-Load Annie through souping up U.S. 1 with extraterrestrial technology, everyone mulls over the looming race. Ulysses is broken over being unable to get through to Jeff, who's so full of rage he's threatening to kill his brother just to win. Poppa and Wide-Load are devastated over how far these boys they raised together have fallen apart. Taryn and Mary are back to arguing over Ulysses and the quality of Mary's coffee. Retread is trying his best to be there for his buddy, but keeps dozing off. And with the bankers breathing down their necks on the next mortgage payment and the sudden lack of business at the Short Stop, everyone wonders what this all means and where they'll go from here.
The day of the race arrives and the goal is for the siblings to use their now airborne bigrigs to see who can first circle the entirety of the Earth. It doesn't take long before the brothers just start flinging rockets and spurts of oil at one another, and Ulysses decides, because his brother is used to flying his truck through the atmosphere, he'll put them on equal footing by hoisting it out into space. Jeff becomes unnerved by the threat level of their new environment, and when one of Ulysses's maneuvers puts the elder brother on a crash course for the moon, Jeff is unable to pull out.
Jeff is saved at the last minute by Al, but his bigrig and access to alien tech is lost. Ulysses is declared the winner, and learns the federation is actually an interplanetary trucking union, and he now gets to be the first driver to haul cargo between Earth and the cosmos. He's elated at the prospect, especially since the others get to come, too, along with the Short Stop which they can run on some distant planet. Left behind, though, is Taryn, who feels, and I quote, "It's all happening so fast! When I - a woman - became a truck driver, I thought it took all the courage in the world! But this - this takes more! I can't do it! I've got roads to conquer down here, before I think of taking on the skies!"
As she drives off, leaving Ulysses to Mary, the bankers show up with the owners of the condo company at the now cleared stretch of land, but their elation is quickly muted when they all start glowing due to the lingering energy from alien tech, and the condo company voids the deal.
The cover of the final (thank you, God) issue of U.S. 1 promises "An ending you never expected!" So, a good one then, I guess? Unfortunately, no. Not really.
"The Truck Stops Here" is mostly the same lousy, ham-fisted cornball schlock we've gotten for the last several issues, but there are a few nice moments sprinkled in. There's a great split-panel shot of Jeff and U.S. as they're racing, with each half of their face coming together to form a whole. I also thought the stuff with Papa and Wide Load - their disappointment in Jeff, the looming loss of their beloved Short Stop - was handled quite well. But virtually everything else was a very sincere yet ultimately unsatisfying conclusion to this tale.
U.S. wins the contest and saves his brother, but there's not any closure there. Even if you resist the urge to give Jeff a "Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi" moment of last second redemption, at least put some sort of button on it. U.S. saves Jeff, and then we never see him again. This is ultimately what this entire 12 issue series was about and they just shake it off and move on. The battle over "Who will win the love of U.S. Archer?" is also a dud, as the fiery, two-fisted Taryn O'Connell suddenly becomes meek and cedes to Mary McGrill. And Whitey McCapitalist and his cronies? All this time, all this build up, and this is the best *Zing!* they could come up with for them? Of course, in the end, the gang (save for Taryn and Jeff) end up in outer-space. Because, why not?
From U.S.'s too goody-goody for his own good lamentations over his brother's fall from grace, to an honest to God rehash of all of the events that led up to this final issue, "The Truck Stops Here" is just more of the same crap we've had to put up with for the last three months. At least now it's finally over... mostly.
After the build in tension that was the last issue, this finale is the fart noise of that pressure spluttering out of my lips as I deflate into a slump. Don't get me wrong, it's not awful. We've seen awful in this series, and this is not it. It's just bland, the focus and pace is off, and it's ultimately just a big ol' pile of "Well, I guess that's done."
Instead of diving us right into the thick of the race between brothers, over a third of the issue is people just standing around and talking about the pending race between brothers. Worse, it's almost entirely recap, bluntly setting the stage by reminding us who everyone is, what's been going on, why everyone is doing what they're doing. Even the bankers show up again for a FULL PAGE in between all the hammering flashbacks. I know this was an imposition Shooter put on all the books under his reign, but A) he can suck it (I love you, Jim, but you could be an ass at times), and B) there are better ways of doing it than constant refresher dumps going into panel after panel after panel of what we've already seen. It's called suggestion, it called focusing on the key points. Give us a hint of what happened, don't lay it all out and force feed us so we're too stuffed for the main course.
Granted, by the time we reach the race... it's sadly about on par with most every other chase scene and truck battle we've seen in this series. There's no real dramatic sweeps, nor rises and reliefs in the tension. It's instead the typical "he throws a gadget", "it hits him and he throws a gadget back", "ha ha you thought you had me but take this", "you'll have to do better than that en guard" string of stuff just happening, and Jeff's final collision with the moon is flubbed by them clearly saying he could have avoided it were he suddenly not too scared to act. Him choking on fear has never before been established as a character trait, and it has no place suddenly coming up here.
Even setting the battle in space comes off rather ho hum. I doub Springer would have pulled it off any better, but guest penciller Steve Ditko was really phoning it in on this issue. Yes, you heard me: Steve Ditko, the legend behind Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and many other classics of the Silver Age. While still doing great work elsewhere at the time, Ditko's later work for Marvel was largely relegated to tie-in titles like Chuck Norris Karate Kommandos, Phantom 2040, and The Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, and his lack of interest in any of them is evident. Here, he still has a clean polish to his storytelling, but the figures are flat and the action bland, and he does nothing to spice up the fight in and beyond the upper atmosphere of Earth but show a mountain here, a distant moon there. There's never much scale or depth to anything, which is surprising given some of his classic cosmic titles.
Overall, I'm done. This issue left no impression on me and I feel neither elated nor disappointed to be finished. I'm just done. Ulysses and his clan are now bound for the stars, Taryn is given a pretty insulting shaft (really? because, as a woman, she's not strong enough? are you serious, Milgrom?), and the bankers have been screwed out of the land they screwed everyone else out of. And I couldn't be any more disinterested.