Tony and Brendan have very different tastes in comics. Tony loves his capes, super powers, and sci-fi. Brendan tends to stick to horror, noir, and weird indies. Occasionally, their paths cross, but like most readers, they tend to stay in their own lanes.
New To You Comics is here to break up the pattern a little. Tony will throw some of his favorites at Brendan, and Brendan will hit Tony with some of his. Every NTYC title is brand new to one of them. Every once in a while a title will land with both of them. Most of the time they can find some common ground, but even when they don’t, it’s fun to watch them go at it. Brendan fights dirty. Tony kicks like a mule.
After a week off in the woods with his family last week, Brendan is back to introduce Tony to one of Donny Cates’ earlier works, The Ghost Fleet, with Daniel Warren Johnson on art. This one started out at Dark Horse back in 2014, and then Image picked up the printing rights to it in 2017. The version we’ll be looking at is the most recent Image printing, The Ghost Fleet: The Whole Goddamned Thing.
Here’s what Image says about the book:
‘For the world’s most valuable, dangerous, or secretive cargo, you don’t call just any trucking service…you call The Ghost Fleet. When one of the world’s most elite combat-trained truckers takes a forbidden peek at his payload, he uncovers a conspiracy that will change his life, and the world, forever! The critically acclaimed eight-issue miniseries is collected for the very first time in one deluxe, over-the-top volume.’
Brendan Allen: We’re throwing this thing way back to when I was a baby comics journalist again. Donny Cates was my second ever interview after Cullen Bunn. We were doing pre-release press stuff for Redneck. I hit him up again for Babyteeth when it was about to release, and he mentioned some callbacks he dropped to The Ghost Fleet. Made me want to go back and read this one.
Dark Horse originally had it broken up into two volumes, but I really like this Image printing better, with the whole story in one place. It has a much better flow without the hard stop in the middle.
Tony Thornley: If we’ve learned anything in the last 70 columns, it’s that these stories read WAY better when they’re presented as a single chunk, rather than splitting it up. There’s been a half dozen or so that we’ve covered that have benefited from presenting in one volume, or have suffered from splitting it.
Brendan: And every writer I’ve spoken to about it for these columns has said in retrospect, they would have held out for the complete book, instead of trying to do the arc splits with these shorter collections. I totally get it with the longer stories, splitting it up, but these little eight bangers belong in single collections, almost exclusively.
Tony: Yeah, honestly, if the story is less than 12 issues for a single story, it should probably be one collected volume unless there’s a good firm “beginning, middle, end” structure to the different parts.
Brendan: The story centers on an organization of combat trained truckers who are charged with carrying the world’s most valuable, top secret cargo. According to my sources (this book and an old Donny Cates interview), The Ghost Fleet really exists on some level. The government, on occasion, transports secret, dangerous stuff from one place to another. They’d like to attract as little attention to these moves as possible, while safely getting the cargo from point A to B.
That’s when they use The Ghost Fleet. Nondescript rigs, driven by ordinary looking, greasy guys, flanked by heavily armed, highly trained ninjas or something. The drivers and the security details have no idea what they’re hauling. They just know it needs to get to its destination whole, and will do whatever it takes to make that happen. This story is Donny Cates’ Indiana Jones/Fast and Furious/X-Files/Pulp Fiction/conspiracy/action/occult take on the whole idea. So many explosions. Also guns, and betrayal, and mystery, and blood spatter, and a giant owl…
What did you think?
Tony: So I think this story was so clearly early in the team’s careers. There’s a lot to like here, but I’ve probably struggled with this one more than most just from a technical standpoint. It’s got some great concepts, and interesting characters but it really had some issues.
The biggest was in the pacing. Yes, it was balls-to-the-wall action the entire time. The problem with that though was so little action in the first half was in service to the plot. A lot of it was just there to be cool, and not in service of the plot. Hell, we knew there was something supernatural to the story halfway through the first issue, yet there’s not a HINT of supernatural again until the… sixth issue?
Brendan: It’s definitely an early work. No argument there. The further I got into it, the more I realized it’s rougher than I remember. I do still like it, though. There are so many pieces you can see here that are the seeds of things that come further down the line in Cates’ catalog.
You know he loved that cave, and the owl, and the super secret men’s club pulling the strings. He used almost all of that imagery and structure again in Babyteeth. If I recall correctly, it’s actually the same group, down to the name.
The roughness actually may add a little to it for me? You go into a theater to watch a good grinder, and you don’t necessarily want to see all the edges polished off and everything wrap up real nicely. Sometimes you just want to see a bunch of shit get blown up and some blood spatter the camera lens.
Tony: And that’s fair. It’s a lot of fun and does a lot of that. It’s all the better for it. I’m not saying I disliked it.
Here’s my other thing though, and this is tied to the first. Because it was so preoccupied with all the cool stuff, there was little foreshadowing to where things were going. I mean, the ending of the story was one of the Four Horsemen fighting a demon, and there wasn’t a HINT of what the cargo was outside of “weird” until a page or two before it was revealed as Death.
Brendan: I actually probably would have been satisfied if we never even learned what the cargo was. Leave it open for interpretation. Let it end up being Marsellus Wallace’s bandaid. That demon battle didn’t even need to happen. But yes, agreed. Out of left. A hundred percent.
Tony: However, we do become invested in the characters, there’s a TON of fun action and the concepts are incredible. Naturally I know this is a seven-plus year old story, but I think it’s worth pointing out because it’s still a problem in Cates’ work. Look at his recent (and still ongoing) Thor series at Marvel. The first arc was A MESS pacing wise, and it also had an out-of-nowhere ending.
I still liked that, just like I liked this one, but it’s a trend in Cates’ stories.
Brendan: Donny has a knack for picking artists for his indie stories that compliment his scripts. The grit and grime of long-haul trucking, the horrific beauty of smashing a human body between a loaded 18-wheeler and a parked armored car, the creepy vibe of a shadowy super-secret Illuminati cave with a big ass owl. That’s what Daniel Warren Johnson brings to the table. “Beautifully insane and frenetic,” says Cates of Johnson’s work in this story, and that sums it up reasonably.
One of the things I really remembered about this book is the diegetic effects. In that scene where the unlucky fellow got sandwiched between the speeding big rig and another car, the rig’s engine noise follows the trajectory of the truck, while the sounds of the bone crushing impact in the same frame look like part of the body of the car that’s being instantly crumpled. It’s a really cool touch.
Tony: Holy crap, if there’s something in this book that I had no reservations about, it’s Johnson’s art. Though he doesn’t quite have the polish of the stuff he’s doing right now, he’s largely fully formed here. This is just a fantastic artistic showcase, and you can see all the hallmarks of Johnson’s future work here.
There’s tons of detail. It’s exploding with energy. Everything is kinetic, no matter what’s going on. I would LOVE to see someone try to animate his work. He’s got such a fantastic style, and I really need to read more of it. Maybe after it wraps, you and I can look at his Beta Ray Bill series at Marvel.
Brendan: So, it’s not perfect, by any means, and it’s a little clunkier than I remember with the pacing and exposition, but I’m still here for it. I still prefer this earlier work to most of the newer stuff Donny Cates is putting out these days. Just a quick, dirty little grindhouse bang ‘em up. Where’d you land?
Tony: Even with its issues, I enjoyed it. I don’t know if I’ve even mentioned it to you but I come from a family of truckers. Let me tell you, that culture isn’t used enough in fiction, and this was just a blast to read thanks to that.
Brendan: Word. What’s up next week?
Tony: We are ironing out some scheduling with a special guest, so we’re going to do Afterlife with Archie with special guest David Pepose, writer of Spencer & Locke, Scout’s Honor, and The O.Z.!