2000AD: The Ultimate Collection #17. Originally serialised in 2000 AD Progs 232-236 & 244-278.
It’s October 1981. Time for another stellar John Wagner and Alan Grant creation with the first of two Ace Trucking Co. collections. We get yet another example of an impressive trick that Wagner and Grant (writing as Grant Grover for this series) manage to pull off several times in 2000 AD: a series that in broad strokes doesn’t seem that different from other things they’ve done, but somehow looks and feels totally unique. The madcap sci-fi antics feel adjacent to some Strontium Dog stories, or even The Judge Child sequence from Judge Dredd, but Ace Trucking carves out its own space effectively.
2000 AD is of course no stranger to comedic sci-fi, but while most series use comedy to lighten action-heavy storylines, Ace Trucking flips that approach with the comedy as the main driving point. In that way it feels like a real forerunner to a series like Red Dwarf with its focus on a “just a day job” approach to space, or even movies like Guardians of the Galaxy with its “this is fun” attitude. It’s also borrowing from previous stories, with more than a dash of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy sprinkled through the pages of this collection.
For Ace Garp, G.B.H. and Feek their exploits aboard the “Space Ghost” lugging freight through the stars are just their work, and most of the complications they face are to do with paying the next bill or getting the next job. They aren’t heroes out to save the day, or take down the evil-doers, and that’s actually pretty refreshing. The adventures are often life or death, but they usually start with a challenge, or a bet, or a bad idea in a bar. In “The Great Mush Run (1982)”, we see the Ace Trucking trio battle it out with other “luggers” in a competition to see who will win a lucrative contract; while “Joobaloo! (1982)” finds us at a space truckers convention where Ace quickly ends up losing his business. In contrast to the endless battles, wars and fights of most other 2000 AD series, there’s a nice sense of camaraderie developed with the space truckers – even the main enemy of our heroes, Jago Cain, is just trying to undermine Ace’s business, not violently kill him.
The stories themselves are pretty light, adventurous fare. The highlight of the collection for me from a writing perspective is “Last Lug to Abbo Dabbo (1982)”, where the gang try and claim a ship filled with treasure as salvage and end up being driven mad by a vengeful ex-lugger. But the series isn’t really asking us to worry too much about the individual plots, but just enjoy spending time in this little corner of the universe with the main characters.
Wagner and Grant have already demonstrated their ability to develop characters in broad brush strokes, allowing space for the artists to add their own voice, and allowing the characters to inhabit the story in an outsized way. Ace Trucking is no exception – Ace Garp is a more optimistic and fun leader than most other 2000AD stories, and his obsession with always finding the next big thing that could set him and his friends up is an excellent story driver. Feek the Freek is one of the more bizarre lead characters to emerge from a 2000 AD strip (and that’s some stiff competition) – a “skeletoid” engineer with a taste for bugs and little time for Ace’s shenanigans. But my favourite of the three is G.B.H., a gentle giant of a creature who believes himself to be dead – another casually brilliant conceit from Wagner and Grant. G.B.H. largely serves as a plot-problem solver as he can thump his way out of any situation, but he sits as the reasonable centre between the obsessive Ace and the mad Feek – plus he has the most glorious mane of hair ever to grace the pages of a magazine.
Wagner and Grant also succeed in creating an utterly alien world, just like Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill did with Nemesis the Warlock. While Nemesis created an alien world through visual overload and almost no identifiable human elements, Wagner and Grant do it through language. Inspired by the CB radio craze of the time, Ace and the gang speak in a mixture of actual CB codes and similarly made-up words. There’s a reprint of the fantastic “Space Trucker’s Dictionary” which defines a lot of the invented words used. I chose to not use it while reading through, and actually just enjoyed being immersed in the use of language. There’s a real rhythm to the dialogue throughout, particularly from Ace, that pulls you along and somehow doesn’t confuse you.
The other star here is of course artist Massimo Belardinelli, who provides a wonderfully alien but graceful world for the characters to inhabit. In the behind-the-scenes material, it’s made clear that by this stage at their time with 2000 AD, Wagner and Grant were making more of an effort to tailor their ideas and writing to the particular strengths of artists. Belardinelli’s style doesn’t suit grounded stories with lots of realistic people, but is note-perfect for the comedy sci-fi here. Belardinelli is one of those artists where something is going on in every panel – I even spent most of the collection looking closely at Ace’s scarf on every page, as it does some wild movements that made me think it’s actually alive! I think Belardinelli’s best work in here is in the final story “Too Many Bams (1982)”, where he takes Wagner and Grant’s mad story about tiny, large-headed aliens that reproduce far too quickly and easily and somehow makes it even crazier. I’ve still got his renderings of human-like heads on tiny bodies running around stuck in my brain.
Ace Trucking was apparently pretty popular pretty quickly, and this collection covers a solid run from 1981-1982 where it was a pretty regular feature (although it is frustrating that the second story “Hell’s Pocket ” isn’t included). The stakes are nowhere near as high here as in other stories of the time, and as the background material points out that actually makes a nice counterpoint to the dramatic series around it such as Dredd, Nemesis and Rogue Trooper. The series continues to expand what the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic was (and is) capable of, and builds on previous comedic approaches to sci-fi while also laying the groundwork for future attempts. I’m looking forward to Volume Two, so “ten-ten till we do it again”!
Next time: We reach a stone-cold Dredd classic, and a turning point for the entire series, with The Apocalypse War.