By Donny Cates, Daniel Warren Johnson, Lauren Affe, and Crank!
Endings are always bittersweet, and The Ghost Fleet #8 is nothing if not a menagerie of exuberance, sadness, and pride. This title has been on quite a journey, both within its pages and out, as it found itself transitioning to a monthly digital platform half-way through its run with the promise of expedited trade releases to come. At the time, writer Donny Cates made a promise: “we will give the fans what they deserve: an awesome ending to an awesome comic.” Now here we are and say what you will about Mr. Cates (don’t be a jerk, he seems pretty cool) but you cannot call him a liar. What started as a supernatural tale of betrayal, revenge, friendship, explosions, a dog, some solid jokes, and about doing the thing we all struggle with, moving on. For the fans of this series and undoubtedly for the creators themselves, The Ghost Fleet #8 isn’t so much a send off as it is the ushering in of the next leg in a journey that will constantly be moving forward with one hand on the wheel and the other raised high in a triumphant fist out that big rig window.
This finale certainly reads like it’s jamming years of ideas into a mere 22 pages, but Cates matches that explosive outpouring with sharp pacing that delivers the “holy balls!” moments with the quiet character-driven closure that has been running through the story since that first double-page splash in issue #1. He incorporates a little bit of everything we’ve come to expect, from the hilarious henchman dialogue to some self-aware commentary (you’re damn right the dog was too far, Cates) to the genuinely moving look at the bond between Trace and Ward. It’s complicated and sincere, filled with a myriad of guilt about things that happened and things that couldn’t happen and things that are still to happen. For the first time, Cates puts it all on the table and succinctly spells out the stakes that were only glimpsed lo those many issues ago; and then he puts a devilishly clever twist on it. It’s a slugfest in both content and delivery, with a forceful and direct structure that, given the real-world twists and turns, could have made for a choppy experience. No, Cates ensures you’ll laugh and jubilantly scream “what the fuck?!?” as the narrative ebbs and flows from chaos to acceptance and back around again. His passion for this project is evident and the fun he had getting to tell it is contagious; The Ghost Fleet as a whole, and especially this issue, reads like an apocalyptic celebration of the types of stories that only comics can properly convey. Cates’ end captions mirror the ones found at the beginning of it all when he promised this wasn’t how our story began and here now he assures us that though this is how that same story ends, it’s hardly the last story to be told.
For many previously unfamiliar with his webcomic, Space-Mullet, The Ghost Fleet was more than just a coming out party for Daniel Warren Johnson; it was an extinction-level event. He balances the unyielding assault of trucks, gore, fire and the demonic with a skilled eye for the sincerest human emotions. Beyond the constant sense of forceful velocity, ravaged faces, monstrous design work, and careful attention to textured detail, Johnson goes all out here as he makes every page feel monumental in scale. Forget over the top (no, not the Stallone movie-never forget that) DWJ goes so far above and beyond in crafting what has quickly become an epic tale between good and evil. The drawn sound effects are appropriately bombastic and used extensively throughout this issue creating an added level of extremity with just a tinge of homage camp. He turns the ultimate battle for the fate of the world into a damned street fight that blends kaiju action with the joyous grit of Road House. You feel the blows leveled and when the rain comes, it’s every bit as disarmingly peaceful as the newfound truth that Trace utters. The rigid structures with their pristine sense of perspective give way to craggy ruins give away to a whole new world courtesy of DWJ’s signature sinewy line that lets loose strands of wild hair, weathered fabrics and cracking earth. At the end of the day (or world) it’s that sense of motion and frenzy that forces its way to the forefront of Johnson’s work on The Ghost Fleet because how could it not? Oftentimes we’ll describe an artist’s ability by heralding how easy they make it look, but here he makes it look hard as the grill of an eighteen wheeler. It’s impossible to replicate the degree of passion and pleasure DWJ clearly poured into this work and here, at the literal end of it all, that enthusiasm is palpable. I’m still feeling the Meta-Boom from page one and I doubt it’ll ever really dissipate.
Throughout it all, Lauren Affe’s colors have tied it all together and issue #8 is a perfect swansong for all that she’s done. Working in lockstep with Cates and DWJ, Affe has had to match the intensity of the exponentially elevated sequence of events from the haunting to the morose to the apocalyptic and she’s done so with a palette and application that go beyond merely complementing the art. What’s the end of the world look like? If we’re lucky, it’ll look half as beautiful as what Affe delivers in this issue. Rich and vibrant, but with a controlled shading that prevents any moments of flatness while never once overtaking the inks, Affe incorporates an electric palette that hums when necessary and sings as forcefully as possible when the stakes reach their apex. The sharp contrast of the aqua truck atop the warm, splattered glow of the blood filled explosions of a human turned inside out gives way to the more subtle use warms throughout Trace and Cohle’s confrontation. The lighting is restrained, indicating source without ever subjecting the reader to a digitized flare effect and the chromatic blend of a blood rain reflected Las Vegas street is sublime. Like any of today’s top colorists, Lauren Affe is as much a storyteller as her collaborators; instilling emotion and ambiance that defines this world and the joyful chaos that inhabits it.
From the beginning The Ghost Fleet has always been about more than just the action tropes and eighteen-wheeler spectacle; it focused on the revenge-fueled journey of one multi-dimensional protagonist trying to come to terms with doing what he thinks is the right thing in the fallout of an ultimate, intimate betrayal while the fate of the world hung in the balance allowed for a deep look at what it meant to be close to someone and coming to terms with what one’s purpose is when that gets shaken. Trace spent a lifetime doing what others told him and it took a catastrophic event to take his life into his own hands as he attempted to wash away his guilt and accept the guilt of others. If this review seems a tad too general for this specific issue, it’s only because one need to experience the whole to appreciate its impact. Issue #8 is a glorious coda to a series that reveled in upping the ante with each installment and one where the individual contributions culminate in an explosive and assertive conclusion. Yes, there were ridiculous levels of satisfying action and yes, there were moments of sardonic self-aware humor and it all synthesized in a story that was far greater than one might have expected. In the end, it exceeded all expectations while delivering on every one; friends, the Devil, the end of the world, and a story that never once took its foot off the pedal as it roared forward to what was still to come. Don’t let what you’re hauling ever slow you down and get behind the wheel of your life no matter how scary it is or how insurmountable it might seem. Don’t be a passenger to your past: drive! To Donny Cates, to Daniel Warren Johnson, to Laruen Affe, to Crank! and to Dark Horse: thanks for the ride.