What a night. What the hell even happened? One minute you’re stealing the most prized cargo on the road by way of one heck of an explosive Checkpoint Charlie, chilling with your new-found canine pal, tripping your mercenary balls off and hearing the dead squawk through your box, and the next thing you know you’re waking up in a bathroom with tampons up your nose and swilling gasoline. Man, good f’ing times. It really is as Donny Cates, Daniel Warren Johnson and Lauren Affe continue to throttle The Ghost Fleet forward with a reckless abandon that belies the finer, skilled craft each of them ardently bring to the table. Issue #5 (now available solely through the Dark Horse digital storefront) is a harrowing, invigorating look at one man’s tenacious drive to assail any and all of this world’s speed bumps, look at the cards he’s dealt and upend the table rather than accept them. However, unbeknownst to Trace, the machinations of powerful and deadly foes and friends are taking shape just out of his sight. Dude just wants his truck. And his dog. Unfortunately, it just might be a mountain of ass pain to get them back. Let’s do this.
Framed by the *muffled laughter* diary entry of professional shooter-of-all-things-until-blood-is-all-there-is, Mickey Reno, Cates provides a nice recap of the first arc’s barrage of events. The focus shifts almost entirely to Trace and Cates allows the issue to serve as a quasi-character study into what drives him and what the myriad aspects of his person have shaped him into being. Perhaps the greatest feat here is Cates’ economy of storytelling, how he can allow for the requisite outbursts of raw emotion to delicately balance and dance with the understated quiet beats of a head buried into arms atop a bar or the crushing moment of devastating recognition accompanied by a whispered “fuck.” Like everything else about The Ghost Fleet, this issue and the character of Trace are so much more than what they would appear to be on the surface. There complexities are dropped like subtle bombs and tease at a much grander dynamic for what lies ahead. Cates, through sharp, earnest dialogue and clever pacing is simultaneously clearing the table of the robust meal already served up, wiping the blood and tears from the cloth, and prepping for an even heartier serving of the action and drama that lies ahead. If you’re looking for some good ol’ fashion brawling, that’s here to of course, but issue #5’s real heart lies in how it examines what it means to take the hard way even when that’s the only road you’ve been on for what seems like years.
With all due respect to Donny Cates, this issue almost doesn’t even need dialogue because Johnson is so much more than just the artist; he’s a storyteller through and through. His sinewy, detailed line presented in its signature exaggerated style is easy to get lost in, specifically a one page splash depicting a bar fight that should heretofore be required to hang behind ever bar, pub and truck stop from here to Albuquerque. But beyond just the rendering ability we’ve become accustomed to (if one can stop being delighted by it at all) DWJ also maintains the ability to convey all the wrath, anguish and despair the story calls for via a skilled utilization of angled shots and panel fluidity. It’s cinematic in how it frames the close-up intimacy and vulnerability only to cut away to a single chopper wheel pulling up out front or a pan out of a roadside sign. Easy Rider meets Walking Tall with a Western tilt, Johnson is a director who dazzles and manipulates .Rarely is there a barren background, save for when the focus need be on a single object or person for maximum impact. No, the level of detail incorporated into a trashed bar or the Texan landscape or a bloodied bathroom (yes, ewww) is evident and crucial to the tone and grounded themes found throughout. He also draws a mean motorcycle, which is like horse-level difficult to do. It’ll be nice to see him bust out the explosive, rapid-fire action again, but this issue reasserts his ability to render seemingly anything he wishes with the same deft skill as a thousand flaming 18-wheelers.
Lauren Affe might be a witch of some sort, you guys. For the first few pages the colors are appropriately earthen as we watch events unfold on the interiors of a roadside bar, but then a motorcycle pulls up and you’ll begin to ask when someone turned the black light on and the euphoric color trip began amidst the setting Texan sky. For a solid ten pages, Affe lights the sky aflame with hot pinks and electric blues and vaporous greens that are near dream like. It’s evocative and soothing at the same time and absolutely prevents you from looking away while striking a sharp contrast to the framing scenes. Affe is a large part to this book’s feel and she’s unquestionably doing killer work, but she absolutely owns the aforementioned ten pages here. We’re talking all Affe, all the time. If you’ve enjoyed recent high-frequency color palettes on other titles (Spider-Gwen for instance) this is right up your alley.
The Ghost Fleet hasn’t gone anywhere and Cates, Johnson and Affe are making sure you know it by delivering the next punch of their deceivingly deep slobber-knocker. This issue certainly quiets things down and sets the stage for a new conflict, but the character development bombs (no, not literally, though confusion is understandable) hit as hard as anything that’s come before. It cannot be stressed enough that this series isn’t simply “Supernatural Trucker Stuff!” or anything quite so banal. No, it’s a revenge tale rife with visceral heartbreak and intricacies found both in script and in art that isn’t afraid to have fun along the way. A much needed “take a breath” issue that still has no qualms about kicking you in the balls, The Ghost Fleet #5 remains a perpetual must-read. Unless something happens to that dog, in which case let’s burn everything to the ground. Man, what a night.