THIS IS THE LAST ONE, I SWEAR.
Unless a few more appearances accumulate in the future, in which case, I'll be back.
Ghost Rider #34 "Trials and Tribulations, Part 2: On the Road Again"
According to the "previously on" page at the start of the issue (which I'm so glad Marvel started using instead of Jim Shooter's annoying insistence on cramming recaps into each story itself, as chronicled in previous posts) the angel Zadkiel, the one truly responsible for turning Johnny Blaze into Ghost Rider, tricked Blaze's brother, Danny Ketch, into gathering the power of Ghost Riders from around the world, which the Angel used to conquer Heaven. Wow, I've missed some big happenings in Marvel.
Our story opens on a fun callback to U.S. 1 #2, where an old man in a truck stop diner is telling drivers about the Highwayman, one of the earliest truckers, who, when age started catching up to him and newer, younger drivers started passing him by in their newer, faster rigs, sold his soul to a demon to become the best rider of the road, an immortal losing more and more of his humanity with each haul. As the drivers laugh at the old man, they see the rig of a friend approaching, but can't tell if it's him behind the wheel. Mostly because the person driving is a decapitated corpse, as the truck slams into the diner and everything explodes. Watching from a hilltop is the Highwayman, laughing with mad glee, the driver's severed head as his hood ornament.
Okay, so this isn't entirely in canon with what we've gotten from U.S. 1, where the Highwayman was all a sham put on by Jeff Archer using alien technology to mess with his brother. I have a feeling this is not Jeff, this is some unnamed dude with an eyepatch and a stetson, whose backstory just so happens to match the "fake" one, and who has a black big rig that's made of fleshy demon parts inside - eye socket key socket, toothed 8-track player, etc - and he feeds the severed heads of his victims to writhing demon arms inside the trailer. I can imagine a scenario where this guy had long ridden the road before Jeff came about, and Jeff just co-opted the origin story when he needed a cover, but they never clarify either way.
Anyways, Danny Ketch comes across the burning diner and, later, a bus full of freshly decapitated corpses, and all the Ghost Rider power in him flares to life as he and the Highwayman duke it out. Writer Jeff Aaron and artist Tony Moore are both talents I enjoy, as they're great with slick, badass action with a sharp, expressive sense of humor, but they both can also have a bit of a nasty streak, as with all the decapitated innocents, icky truck interior, and Highwayman's trucker lingo insults. It still works, though, as they race up and down cliffsides and over rotted bridges, and Ghost Rider gets run over a few times.
It ends with Ghost Rider ripping off Highwayman's head and torching it with his flame breath (after it tries crawling away, The Thing style, in a nice touch), and the demons in the rig shouting their insults after him in ways that likely tie in with ongoing events. In an epilogue, a driver at another stop returns to his rig, only to be hoisted up by his neck by the now whole, yet dessicated, Highwayman, who asks if his truck has an 8-track player.
Overall, a fun issue, and I like how, even thought it has little to do with U.S. 1, it does a nice job of building off one of the more striking moments of that series and giving it a new life all its own. Also, when the truckers are laughing off the old man's story, there's the line "That's almost as crazy as the one you told about the guy who could pick up CB signals on the metal plate in his skull."
Deadpool Team-Up #896 "Good Buddies"
We open on Ulysses Solomon Archer! Yes, he's back. A little older and gruffer, dressed in yellows and purples instead of his Americana red, white, and blues for some reason, and with a cap on his head instead of the headband, and now going by the name U.S. Ace. But he's back! And he's driving a rig again here on Earth (we find out why in a second), with a partner joining him for a double haul. His partner of course being Deadpool, who's giddily practicing through a dictionary of C.B. lingo on radio channels U.S. can't shut off in his metal skull as he tells Deadpool to just use a damn cellphone. Deapool ignores him and starts singing "Convoy".
A raccoon suddenly crosses their path, only to be flattened beneath one of Deadpool's tires. Another raccoon shakes his fist after them in fury, whips out a cellphone, and is quickly joined by a bruiser biker gang of raccoons.
We flash back, learning that U.S. is back on Earth because the Shi'ar Empire repo'd his space truck, and Mary McGrill ran off with "an alien with plush velvet fur an' eight vibrating hands." (!?!) Needing cash to pay off his newest rig, he's had no choice but to turn to the trucking agency run by his brother Jeff, the Highwayman, and... wait, so that WAS Jeff in the Ghost Rider issue above? He's got the exact same design, makes mention of hell and demons, and U.S. ribs him about decapitations, but we otherwise see none of the supernatural tendencies he demonstrated there, nor how he's set up a reputable trucking agency during all of that. And I guess this means, instead of stealing the legend of an earlier Highwayman, Jeff instead made his fantasy story a reality after being left behind on Earth over two decades ago? They never clarify it.
Anyways, Jeff hooks U.S. up with the double haul, cross country, which'll pay out a million bucks, if U.S. can find a partner... which is when Deadpool, naked except for his mask, boots, and tighty whities, drops through the ceiling after a woman in a passing helicopter flies off with his wallet. Needing money, he asks for a job.
Back in the present, Deadpool is making up a song about U.S.'s life through the C.B. radio, when the raccoon biker gang catches up to them, opening fire with uzis. U.S. spits out an oil slick and Deadpool leaps into the gang for some high velocity hand-to-hand, with a flustered U.S. now fighting to keep the other driverless rig from going off the road by knocking it side-to-side with his own. Deadpool gets back behind the wheel as U.S. finishes off the last of the raccoons with heat-seekers from his exhaust pipes.
Deadpool is delighted as a mysterious voice finally hails him on the C.B. Hoping it's a new friend, he instead meets Big Rac, a massive raccoon behind the wheel of its own semi, who collides head first with with Deadpool's rig. U.S. squeals to a stop, running back to check on the scene. There's diesel fuel everywhere and he figures Deadpool didn't make it, so U.S. checks the cargo. He's shocked to find the trailer is full of Hyperspace Combustion Manifolds, any one of which alone could make his rig space worthy again and reunite him with the loved ones he left behind in the stars. He realizes this was a trick of ultimate revenge played on him by his brother Jeff, and decides to just say screw it and sail off, when Deadpool reveals he's still alive... by lighting a match. U.S. jumps away as the rig goes up, and can't race back to his own rig in time before it, too, erupts in flames, destroying the cargo within and any chance of again trucking the cosmos.
Returning to the agency, he gives Jeff hell, and also works out that the raccoons where hired by Jeff to hijack the cargo so he could collect the insurance. Jeff freely admits all this, but offers to make up for it by giving U.S. a job trucking souls along an ice road in Hell. When Deadpool tries to rally U.S., that they can team up and conquer the roads together, U.S. decides he'd rather drive in Hell and takes the gig. Deadpool drives off, alone and singing into his C.B.
Well, if we're going to have a big, zany story that wraps up all threads of where our characters left off (She-Hulk is referenced, and the raccoons are tied to Rocket through his brief appearance in my last post), this is certainly a way to do it. Deadpool schtick can sometimes go on much longer than it needs to, and Shawn Crystal's art is pretty clunky and awkward at times (especially when U.S. is thinking on his life among the stars as he debates now returning to them), but along with Stuart Moore's script, everything moves along so briskly and smoothly that it's still a very entertaining read. It doesn't feel entirely right, as it requires U.S. to be fully sapped of all his colorful, squared-jawed do goodery and he's now older and beaten by life, and their attempts to line up Jeff's Highwayman with that Highwayman we saw in Ghost Rider is off, but I'll take it. It's not a happy ending for these characters, but it does settle them into a believable, middle-age period of their lives where all the old idealization has faded and they're just chugging along, hoping a new opportunity will arise for them to again find greatness. And Deadpool, of course, screws it all up in his way.
This is the end for now. There is an additional appearance by U.S. in New Avengers #7, in a pair of panels during a two-page spread where Luke Cage and Jessica Jones are going through a series of interviews to find a super-powered nanny to watch their baby at the Avenger's mansion, which they now own. Among the candidates (along with Deadpool, Groot, She-Hulk and a humorous handful of others) is Ulysses; still older, but now back to his classic look with red headband and jacket.
They hire Squirrel Girl.