Donny Cates is a born-and-bred Texan and, like a lot of folks from down around those parts, he’s got a gift for telling tall-tales. His latest is called “The Ghost Fleet,” a 12-issue graphic novel that drew its inspiration from one of truck driving’s most mysterious legends – the so-called “ghost fleets” that transport classified or other high-security loads across our nation’s highways. The first issue, issue, which is being published by Dark Horse Comics, goes on sale Wednesday, Nov. 5.
Cates said in a phone interview with Land Line that there’s an “urban legend” quality about the actual ghost fleets.
“Everyone has their story about how they’ve seen them on the highway,” he said.
Cates operated comic book stores in Austin, Texas, until breaking into the publishing side of the business five years ago with his critically acclaimed debut “Buzzkill”– a graphic novel about a superhero who gets his powers from abusing drugs and alcohol. He said he first heard about the ghost fleet in an episode of History Channel’s “Modern Marvels” called “Dangerous Cargo.”
“It was an episode about the big rigs that haul the most massive cargo,” he said. “At the end of the episode, they brought up the ghost fleet. And what I found so compelling about it was as soon as they brought it up, all of the drivers that they were talking to – all of them one by one – refused to talk about it. And I was like ‘What is that?’ It’s like a weird X-Files trucker thing. That’s amazing. It captured my imagination.”
While most truckers have heard about or maybe even know somebody who has driven for the ghost fleet, at some point the first rule of being a ghost fleet driver seems to be “You do not talk about the job.” Cates said he attempted to interview several drivers when researching his story, but all the interview requests were rebuffed.
“I tried so hard to find someone affiliated or a driver to talk to me about it, and they just weren’t having it at all,” he said. “Not being able to talk to any of the ghost fleet people about it, I just kind of made up my own thing.”
Just like in real life, the ghost fleet of Cates’ novel has its own rules of the road. Violating the rules can have deadly consequences.
“Basically in my (graphic novel), the biggest rule of Ghost Fleet is you never look at what you’re hauling,” he said. “And someone breaks that rule in the first issue. The rest of the series spells out the grim consequences of that action. “
In the first issue, readers are introduced to two characters who work security for a ghost fleet rig and have to thwart an attempted hijacking.
“They say there are two things that don’t work in comic books – car chases and gun fights,” he said. “And I guess subconsciously there’s a bit of punk rock in me because I did an entire book that’s just those two things.”
Cates teamed up with artist Daniel Warren Johnson to illustrate the book. In coming up with the image of the actual “Ghost Fleet” truck for the novel, Cates said he wanted something that looked almost, but not quite, inconspicuous.
“In designing the actual ghost fleet rig itself, I’ve seen some pictures of what supposedly the actual ghost fleet rigs look like,” he said. “They’re not too sexy. They’re big and green. So we wanted to design a truck that while it looked a bit unusual, a bit badass, you wouldn’t really notice it on the open road.”
While he’s not a trucker, Cates said his family has deep connections to the industry in Texas. His grandfather, W.C. Cates, was a wildcatter in the oil fields, and his dad also did some trucking for an airfreight company before getting a job with Southwest Airlines.
“My grandfather was not, by all accounts, what you would call a good man, but legend has it he was the best trucker who ever lived,” Cates said. “He had an old Mack truck, or maybe a Kenworth. … It was just the talk of the town, the biggest sweetest rig. My dad said it was like he pulled up in a dragon. And he’d take my dad on all these runs.”
In addition to “The Ghost Fleet,” Cates said a sequel to “Buzzkill” is slated for release next September. Another project in the works is a graphic novel based on “tall tales” of Cates’ home state of Texas.
He also said he will be giving away free “Ghost Fleet” bumper stickers to any trucker who requests one. Simply contact him on Twitter at @Doncates and provide him with a shipping address.
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