Big rigs and C.B. radioe were once a staple of American popular culture, with “Smokey and the Bandit” and “Convoy” thrilling moviegoers, “BJ and the Bear” riding high on NBC and “U.S. 1” taking comic book readers on a cosmic road trip throughout the Marvel Universe. But while the rigs themselves continue to fascinate, as evidenced by the popularity of reality shows like “Ice Road Truckers,” it’s been a while since we’ve had a good, straight-up trucker-fueled adventure to sink our teeth into.
Enter writer Donny Cates and penciller Daniel Warren-Johnson. In their Dark Horse-published ” Ghost Fleet,” the duo bring large land transports back to action sci-fi. When two government agents have to shadow a mysterious truck with unknown contents and an unknown destination across the open road, they soon find out that they are in way over their head — and the world is not as it seems.
Cates spoke with CBR News about his November-debuting series, the conspiracy which fuels the title, the undeniable allure of big rigs and, perhaps most importantly of all, what’s in the truck.
CBR News: What is “Ghost Fleet?”
Donny Cates: Well, “Ghost Fleet” is based on a real thing. Whenever the government wants to transport dangerous or secret cargo, they hire a fleet of big-rigs who can’t be pulled over, who can’t be tracked, and the drivers have no idea what they’re carrying. In real life, it’s pretty boring, but in ours we’ve ramped it up to make it more “X-Files”-y or conspiratorial. It’s kind of like an “X-Files” conspiracy meets “Big Trouble in Little China.”
Who are the POV characters? Who’s the reader experiencing the conspiracy through?
Our two main characters are guys known as handlers. Whenever a ghost fleet goes on a run, it’s flanked by two guys in big Humvee kind of things who protect it. They’re called ‘handlers,’ because if shit goes down, they handle it.
Without getting too spoil-y for the first issue, they see something that they’re not supposed to. They realize very quickly that they’re in over their head. For all they know, they’re hauling helicopter parts or B-52 bombers. It turns out to be a bit more complicated than that, and they have to suffer the consequences of knowing too much.
What about the person driving the truck?
They’re just hired guns. They know even less. They don’t know where they’re going or what the route is. They’re put in a big rig and given instructions along the way.
The big question of the entire thing is “What’s in the truck?” That’s the big mystery that I really hope pays off. It’s like the “Pulp Fiction” briefcase, but we’re actually going to tell you what’s in it. I filled “Buzzkill” with so many in-jokes and clues and hidden things in panels that I don’t think anyone found half of them. Daniel and I are doing the exact same thing with this book. There are little clues in almost every single issue — pay attention! I pretty much tell you what’s in the truck in the first issue if you really, really pay attention. I would love for anyone and everyone out there to send in emails, send in to the letters column, and start asking. Start guessing what’s in the truck. I’m not going to tell you if you’re right or not, but it’s going to be a fun ride.
How much research did you do into real-life ghost fleets in preparation for the series?
It’s damn near impossible. I got the idea watching the show “Modern Marvels” on the Discovery Channel, and they were talking about dangerous cargo. At the end of the show, they mentioned ghost fleets, and all of the truckers that they were talking to in the show basically refused to talk about it.
That’s kind of been the exact same thing that I’ve come up against. I was able to talk to someone who was a real ghost fleet driver, but I was basically told that I couldn’t use a single thing that he told me. He said that I’d be contacted and spoken to [if I did]. Whether that guy is crazy or not is up for anyone to decide.
This is a series about big-action trucking. What’s in the pop culture DNA of “Ghost Fleet?”
I was raised on a steady diet of anything with Stallone, Kurt Russel, Van Damme. Hollywood used to have a big obsession with truckers with things like “Over the Top,” “Black Dog,” “Convoy” and, obviously, “Big Trouble in Little China.” I used to watch that stuff on repeat. “Tango and Cash,” especially — there used to be a genre of action films where it seemed like the guys in the action films were in on the joke and kind of laugh with you, kind of wink at the camera. Not that that’s what “Ghost Fleet” is, but that’s the kind of stuff that’s always gotten my attention. Not to use a cliche, but over the top type films.
I see what you did there.
Where do you see the series going?
As it’s structured right now, it definitely has a beginning, a middle, and an end, [but] I always like to end things with a new beginning. There’s a new status quo that could be its own thing. The scheduled end of “Ghost Fleet” definitely lends itself to bananas sequel. I love writing third acts — [it’s] rare to see someone’s story end in comics. “Ghost Fleet” absolutely opens itself up to a bigger and bolder world in the end that could be a grand finale, or the origin story for a different book. We’ll see how it goes.
What’s your interaction with your artist, Daniel Warren-Johnson, been like?
Daniel is amazing. I’ve never worked with an artist who’s also a writer. Dan’s an artist, and he also has a really, really great storytelling mind. That’s been really, really fun. Honestly, he has changed the story just through our conversations. When I started to pitch “Ghost Fleet,” I had just finished “Buzzkill,” which was an emotionally taxing story. When I set out to write “Ghost Fleet,” I wanted to write a big, dumb action film. Just through talking with Daniel, he challenged me to get to know the characters more, and getting into their psyche has revealed a lot that I didn’t know was there. It’s kind of turned into a bigger, more emotional book, and that’s all because of Daniel.
As far as art, the readers are going to be able to see for themselves. If this book succeeds, it’ll be, in my opinion, 90% because of what Daniel is laying down. I’m getting to trust him so much that I can kind of start writing a bit more Marvel style. It’s a very odd thing to give over that much control.
“Ghost Fleet” debuts November 5.