In 1983, the world cried out for a trucking-based comic book hero. Marvel answered that call… – U.S. 1 #1
Yes, there was a truck driver superhero. A real, honest to God, fighting evil and protecting good out on the open road superhero. INCREDIBLE. And this wasn’t some rarely seen D-list guest star, like Razorback and his Big Pig truck, searching for his lost sister and battling Spider-Man. No, this was a character who had his very own comic book. He was the star. The big cheese. Let’s reiterate here: THERE WAS A TRUCK DRIVER SUPERHERO.
U.S. 1 was born in the licensing mad days of the 1980s, that most goofy of decades, when expanding a property’s brand and thereby expanding its moneymaking potential was the name of the game. In this instance, TYCO, maker of many fine models and toys, had a line of electric slot racing trucks under the U.S. 1 banner. So they knocked on Marvel’s door, the Marvel people looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders and said “Why the hell not?” And a comic series was born (and more on that inception in a moment).
U.S. 1 had a solid twelve issue run, which is roughly 11 more than you’d normally imagine such a thing getting. The first, written by Al Milgrom with art from Herb Trimpe, laid out the foundation for the main character — real name Ulysses Solomon Archer. Indeed, his complete senses-shattering origin could be found in this very issue. The book is narrated from the perspective of Ed Wheeler, a porky older gentleman who’s both U.S.’s surrogate father and cigar-chomping, overalls-wearing Obi-Wan Kenobi:
U.S. grew up in a trucking family, with both of his parents riding the roads, and he himself dreamed of a living on the highway:
Tragedy strikes, however, when both parents are killed in an accident. Ed and Wideload Annie (!) take both U.S. and his older brother Jeff (Jefferson Hercules Archer) in, and raise them over at the Short Stop diner. U.S.’s bro grows up and starts driving his truck, while U.S. (reluctantly, since he wants to have his own rig) heads to college, where he excels academically and athletically. Cruel fate once again steps in though, as U.S. is riding along with his brother during one of his summer breaks. A black tractor-trailer runs them off the road, and that’s when U.S. gets his first look at the man who’s going to be his Lex Luthor/Joker/Red Skull:
The Highwayman escapes into the night as U.S. succumbs to his injuries. He’s whisked away to the hospital, where the doctors turn to an experimental procedure to save his poor shattered noggin:
What a marvellous health care fantasy land the ’80’s were, what with random truckers getting the tops of their skulls bandsawed off and space-age craniums bolted on in their place. Is this going to be our lives under Obamacare?
The new skull is just supposed to be that: a replacement skull. This isn’t a Six Million Dollar Man upgrade. But U.S. soon discovers that there’s a new power that comes with it:
So basically he has trucker telepathy, in a twist that’s like dental fillings picking up radio stations, but on steroids.
Armed with this new ability, U.S. resolves to seek justice both for himself and his dead brother by hunting down the Highwayman. His first and last item on this hero checklist is acquiring and outfitting his own rig, the eponymous U.S. 1. With his own semi-genius know-how and Ed’s and Annie’s help, he stocks it with all the lethal gizmos that you can imagine, so much so that even Batman would peak in the cab, whistle and shake his head admiringly:
So armed, U.S. heads out onto the roads, where he in no time runs across the hideous laughter of the Highwayman:
Their rain-slicked nighttime duel ends in the Highwayman’s apparent demise, but anyone who’s ever read a comic series in their lives knows it’s really a stalemate, and his cackling silhouette will return.
And there you have it. The big premier of U.S. 1, with the marquee fully lit, the red carpet rolled out and the big lights throwing their beams up to the sky.
Your first inclination going into this comic is “THIS IS GOING TO BE STUPID, AWFUL AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN.” Indeed, the fine folks at Cracked, noted arbiters of all things terrible, once ranked U.S. #5 on their list of the seven worst comic superheroes ever. I’m not going to stand before you and say that this is high literature, or a crafty new (old) spin on the costumed crimefighter genre. My fingers would burst into flame if I tried. But I will say that you can detect a certain degree of mirth in the efforts of both Milgrom and Trimpe, as if they both fully grasped the siliness of the premise and decided to just run with it, Wideload Annies and cape-wearing Highwaymen and all. Indeed, Trimpe’s art here seems more inspired and engaging than art what he turned in on a number of other off-beat properties, whether Shogun Warriors or Robotix. It’s for this reason that I can’t completely consign U.S. 1 to the worst of the comic book refuse pile. The silliness is a tongue-in-cheek part of the show.
At the end of this issue, Milgrom penned a little piece about how U.S. 1 got off the ground — or pulled out of the weighing station, as it were. I though people might find it interesting, so here it is — I’m most curious about the potential U.S. 1 cartoon, and wonder if there are any unused storyboards floating around out there:
The meeting with the TYCO people went a tad better than Shooter’s meeting with the Oxfam America rep. To say the least.
Milgrom rode the book to its bitter 12th issue end, along the way partnering with a variety of artists, including Steve Ditko on the finale (which saw U.S. in outer space — RIGS! IN! SPACE!). The series offered up a rainbow of recurring villains, from a hot chick with a whip to a resurrected (surprise!) Highwayman, who was intertwined even more with U.S.’s dear departed bro. The series wasn’t great (though the covers were usualy quite nice), but it could have been a whole lot worse, and Milgrom’s scripting energy should get much of the credit for that.
When I was little my folks and I used to take the car on all of our vacation trips, including a cross-country trek from New York to California and back again. Along the way we ate at a few trucker dives, and one I remember clearly had vending machines in the (filthy beyond words) restroom, which dispensed condoms and pornographic trading cards. These are the things I’ve long associated with the trucking industry. And now, thanks to writing this post, I’ll have a comic to go along with all that. Thank you, 1980s Marvel.
Next time you’re out on the highway and a big rig roars past you going down a long, steep incline, give it a wave and pantomime yanking on the horn. In U.S.’s memory.