The Delinquents: A Beginner’s Guide To ‘Archer & Armstrong’
Valiant Comics' shared superhero universe is smaller and less familiar than those of its major rivals, but even a small shared universe can offer a lot to learn about. To help those readers looking to take the plunge into the Valiant Universe, we’ve assembled our own team of delinquents to break things down. Steve Morris knows Valiant inside out; J.A. Micheline is new to the universe. Micheline has the questions, and Morris has the answers.
In December, JAM and Steve delved into the sci-fi corner of Valiant with X-O Manowar and got spy-savvy with Ninjak. After a (too) long holiday, the two have returned to discuss JAM's latest assignment: the comedic adventures of Archer & Armstrong.
Steve: Archer! Armstrong! Ampersand! JAM, it's 2016, and that means we've literally time-travelled since the Delinquents last appeared on ComicsAlliance. We've moved from 2015 to 2016! H.G. Wells would be amazed.
And time-travelling is apt, because Archer & Armstrong do more than a small amount of it during the course of this series. What did you know about the comic before the first three trades of the Fred Van Lente / Clayton Henry-started run were bundled into your arms?
JAM: Pretty much nothing. I knew that Archer & Armstrong and Quantum & Woody are Valiant's two comedy series, but that's pretty much it. This was also my first time reading anything by Van Lente --- and pretty much Henry too, who I only saw on the Harbinger Wars issues.
I'm not sure what I was expecting. Comedies always makes me wary because I tend to find them pretty hit or miss, regardless of the medium. I tend not to see movies that are explicitly comedy, for example, just because I've mostly found that they aren't for me. So I guess I was a little bit worried when it came to Archer & Armstrong.
Steve: We're different, because I immediately race towards comedic series ahead of anything else --- thin on the ground though they may be at times. Fred Van Lente has a reputation as someone who mixes high and low-brow comedy together in his comics, such as in one of his breakout books, Herc. He knows a lot about a lot, and he tends to go for very high concept plots wrapped up in simple narrative threads for his characters. His characters have simple needs, but are blocked from achieving them due to constant interruptions from the ridiculous.
I think this might not be a series that works for you, but even if it doesn't work overall, I wonder if there'll be particular elements which do stand out for you. Having read these first three trades, I want to start with the general premise: What is Archer & Armstrong about, and was that concept something that you liked from the get-go?
JAM: Archer & Armstrong is an adventure-comedy book about Obadiah Archer, a young assassin raised by a sect of evangelical Christians who want to kill Armstrong, a super-strong immortal who holds the keys to a powerful item that The Sect (that's what they're called) wants. Archer is sent to kill Armstrong and hi-jinks ensue such that the two eventually team up. The first trade is very much The Da Vinci Code but humorous --- so much so that its title is The Michelangelo Code.
Most of the concept did not thrill me, I admit. The evangelical assassin thing was played for laughs in a way that didn't really make me laugh --- and Armstrong is not all that endearing of a character in the beginning. I don't think I'm at a place in my life where I can laugh at or with a male character who's known for boozing and chasing after women. It wasn't until the second and third trades, where he's shown to have greater dimension, that I found him more interesting.
Armstrong is actually a poet and, despite how messy he is, has relatively strong convictions when it comes to the sanctity of life. He has this undercurrent of peacefulness that's at odds with how most characters of his ilk are portrayed. It's a unique portrayal that I like quite a bit, though I'm not sure if it's enough to make me continue on.
Archer didn't do much for me. He's young and is learning a lot about the world and who he might be (yes, that's right, he's got powers that he doesn't understand!) but he's not really a compelling character. Where Armstrong kind of leans on his unexpected depths, Archer leans more on his unknown backstory --- and that's almost never something that I find to be enough.
Steve: I think what's interesting about Archer & Armstrong is that it relies a little (not totally) on you having read Herc, because Armstrong and Herc at least initially seem to be variations on the same type of character. Whereas that book was about Greek myth, though, here you have three brothers from Sumer with a different mythology... one they created themselves, partially.
JAM: Yeah --- you know? Even though I've never read any Hercules comics I still kind of found myself conflating the two a little bit, just purely on their physical nature and what I know about Hercules as a character. They seem really similar, just at a quick glance. Big guys with nice, broad, enthusiastic grins.
Steve: How did you feel about the artwork from Clayton Henry, who kicks off the series and returns from time to time? His artwork, to my mind, is perfectly suited for comedy. Even though you're not a fan of the tone of the series, what did you think of the storytelling? I really enjoy someone like Clayton Henry when they find a niche they really nicely fit into (like when Steve Dillon came to Preacher, for example), so did it come across to you like he was a good fit for this one?
JAM: Yeah, Henry is great for really expressive faces, which is a lot of what this style of comedy trades on. It's a lot of really clear lines and effort put into gestures that contribute to the bright and clear feel.
The colors and character design add something as well. There's a lean towards primary colors, and Archer has a very uncomplicated look to him --- a star (sometimes grey, sometimes blue) on blue shirt and jeans. Armstrong brings in the reds with the occasional brown. With these elements, you can tell just by looking at them that these are our protagonists and that they're the unambiguous good guys. It's well done.
Steve: Having Henry's big and bold approach to art, design, and and Matt Milla's eye for color (although the characters were actually first designed by David Aja, you know!) really helps sell this title as something similar to superhero comics... but different. I think that helps set it out as something comparable but different to Marvel/DC work, and gives Archer & Armstrong a bit of a boost that, say, Bloodshot doesn't receive. You get a similar effect with Quantum & Woody, too, which has living comics thunderstorm Tom Fowler as artist.
JAM: Yeah, I think you're right about the art style. It seems like it would lure young kids in a way that maybe more of the Marvel/DC books should be looking to emulate. It seems really friendly and shiny. I'd like to see him on something like an Archie comic. I've never read any Archie, but I get the impression that it's supposed to be very pleasant and sunshine-y. Even though there's "adult" humor in Archer & Armstrong, that style is still definitely in there
Steve: Lordy, don't say you've never read an Archie Comic, or next thing you'll be reading those from the beginning too.....
JAM: Uh-uh. I have enough on my plate with Valiant.
Steve: So there's this clash of tones between Armstrong, the big drinking poet; and Archer, the earnest to a fault religious-brainwashed weapon who (this is a slight spoiler) is a psiot like the kids from Harbinger. The success of the comic, and if you enjoy it, depends quite a bit on if you buy them both as individuals, and then as a pair. It seems Armstrong grew on you more than Archer did --- but how about them as a pairing? Did you enjoy that culture-clash that anchors the comic?
JAM: Spoilers indeed! (Although, I suppose it can be inferred from the mention of Rising Spirit in the third trade.)
The culture clash isn't that funny to me. I think that's part of why Archer isn't all that amusing or compelling to me. A lot of the humor relies on his being super-conservative/naive and being shocked by the real world and a lot of that was just... maybe too close to reality for me to find funny --- in an American context, anyway. (Though, I admit, I did laugh when he was shocked that evolution was real because damn if I don't continually forget that's a thing some people believe.)
I guess it's supposed to be even more shocking since Armstrong has leaned pretty heavily into hedonism, but the contrast never moved me. I wonder if it's because the contrast didn't actually say anything about either of the characters. Their differences don't really seem to mean anything other than something played for laughs. I wish there was another layer beyond what's already there. Although it's possible I'm missing it?
I'm glad you brought up the three brothers, though, because I'm actually way more interested in Armstrong's brothers --- The Timewalker (Ivar) and The Eternal Warrior (Gilad). I feel like this is a constant problem with a lot of the stuff I've read from Valiant lately. I get invested in peripheral characters rather than the protagonist/deuteragonists. When The Eternal Warrior showed up in the Vol 2, I was really invested in his background and his personality. That went double for Ivar's appearance in Vol 3 --- I loved him pretty much immediately. I wish I'd felt that way about Archer, Armstrong, or both.
Steve: See, it's weird because I didn't feel too much for either of them as they first appeared in the series. I like them both okay, but Archer was the appealing part of the comic for me when things start off. I've never seen him as being close to reality, but I do live in Britain, a country where the most extreme thing the Christians do is egg rolling at Easter. I enjoy Archer as someone learning that religion can be passive rather than active, and you don't need to go around shooting your enemies with a crossbow just to prove to Jesus that you respect him. He spends these issues learning that there's more than just what he's been told, and that's a moral I've always enjoyed watching play out.
With Gilad showing up in the second trade, then Ivar in the third, did you feel like either of them brought something out of Armstrong as a character that made him more interesting for you? Or was it mostly the feeling that you wished Armstrong would leave so his brothers could take the stage full-time? What was it about the brothers which you liked so much?
JAM: I think Gilad absolutely did. Armstrong's respect for life didn't really come out until it was put in contrast with Gilad's relative bloodthirst. His affection for his brothers also became extraordinarily clear. He seemed to have a lot more dimension once Gilad was involved.
This is less true for Ivar, who I just find interesting as a concept/character. I like how he responds to situations --- and I was actually pretty surprised by how warm he was. In the first issue you get this impression that he's harsh and unyielding, but he's absolutely jubilant when he sees Armstrong for the first time.
I really dig time travel though, and cause-and-effect concepts. So I love that he's not quite sure where in time he is, that he's seen everything happen already but can't really interfere. That has to be difficult, and can lead to a lot of great stories.
But then, Gilad also seems like he has a lot of potential for story. As someone who's all about the fight but is also grappling with the exhaustion that will eventually overtake you --- an Eternal Warrior, as a concept, 100% speaks to me. (I doubt that the Eternal Warrior is being used as a metaphor to talk about the struggle of marginalized people, but --- you know, Valiant, call me, because how dope would that be?) It sounds like a pretty sad and tiring existence, regardless of whether that's what Gilad "lives for." I see myself in him and want to read more.
Steve:That's really interesting, then, because Gilad's had two series as part of the new Valiant --- and the second one in particular might be exactly the sort of thing you're interested in. Minus, I believe, the metaphor bit. He's also been featured in some of their big event storylines --- so there's plenty of Eternal Warrior around for you!
And Ivar gets his own series too, which is going on right now and is also written by Fred Van Lente. That's all about time-travel... as is the third trade of Archer & Armstrong, which is where things go off-the-rails in a surprisingly controlled fashion. Did you like the series more for moving off into weirdness, as it really does by the time we reach the third trade, or did that just make the book feel more throwaway and disposable?
JAM: It's hard to say whether I liked the series more for moving off into weirdness. I felt it was kind of throwaway from the very beginning, to be honest. But the third series started to dip more into the --- can we call it the legendarium of Archer & Armstrong? You get the sense that Archer has a larger significance in the universe and that element was interesting to me --- as, of course, was the time travel. There was a sense of stakes and mystery that was much less obvious than, say, his being a psiot. I'm interested in what The Faraway is, and I can dig the dinosaurs, but the weird general and the aliens? Eh.
A lot of the stuff in Archer & Armstrong was too ham-fisted for my personal tastes, but I can tell it's something others would find funny.
Also, as an aside, since we're talking about weirdness and time travel: did you feel like there were some issues where Archer looked like he was getting older? There was definitely one where his hair was longer, he seemed a bit older, right? But then he'd go back to being young again.
Steve: Yes! Which, in a book with time-travel, did make me wonder if we were being tricked somehow. One thing that did make me happy was that there wasn't some kind of long-con going on in the book, like you tend to get on shows like Doctor Who. Things don't get timey-wimey in any huge or conspiratorial way, which was a bit of a relief! I get anxious in a story when I feel like it's tricking me, which I know might be a bit strange - I found the Dirk Gently novels hard going for that reason, it just tenses me up for some reason --- so I appreciated Archer & Armstrong not trying to catch me out like that.
JAM: Ah, see, I like that aspect of a story. It keeps you on your toes, makes you pay attention. You're constantly wondering about the significance of certain details and --- in the hands of a clever creative team --- it's thrilling when those details pay off. So I'm disappointed that his aging doesn't seem to mean anything! I wonder what that was about, though...
Is the Ivar series also comedy, or is it more serious? I'd be interested in a slightly less comedic take on Ivar and I'd also like to see what Van Lente's non-comedic writing is like.
Steve: It's semi-comedic, but the emphasis is on a time-travelling, paradox-weaving romance and drama foremost, from what I've read of it. Maybe we should try that one out next, if that's the main thing you've taken away from this series? The Ivar-centric issue of Archer & Armstrong, where they drink their way through time (and Europe) is probably the best-known one, and there's a similar mixed-in sadness flowing through Ivar, Timewalker. Gilad, meanwhile, has all sorts of things going on in his life, and the current Eternal Warrior series really throws a curve at us regarding the way we view him.
Overall, it seems Archer & Armstrong has served better as a gateway into possible other books you might like to read; rather than as a series which you liked itself. This... possibly does not bode well for Quantum & Woody, my most treasured of Valiant's books.
JAM: Paradox-weaving romance, you say? Sign me up. I'd love to try that out next (even if 'semi-comedic' makes me a bit wary.)
Steve: Can we do a check-in for where you are with Valiant as a whole, right now? I split their universe into four sections: the political, the sci-fi, the comedic, and the supernatural. Which titles and characters have stuck out to you most so far --- considering you've now read a hefty number of Valiant comics now (at least 13 trades, by my count!)
JAM: Wow, has it been 13? Okay, I think the sector in which I've had the most interest is definitely the supernatural: Shadowman and Doctor Mirage were enjoyable concepts, even if the execution of the former was a bit off. I really dug Harbinger and Ninjak, which I think are our political books? I read Ninjak with X-O Manowar, which I think you'd classed as sci-fi, but Ninjak is more politics than science-fiction for sure.
And yeah, my difficulty with comedy might make Quantum & Woody a slightly harder sell, especially if it's in a similar vein to Archer & Armstrong. You're the boss, though! Assign me some Q&W trades and I'll read 'em.
Steve: It'd be silly at this point to ignore what's obviously getting you excited in order to look at Quantum & Woody, even though they are the best ever. So no! We'll move on in the direction you already have one foot turned to, and go take a closer look at The Eternal Warrior and The Timewalker.
For the sake of clarity, though, there are two Eternal Warrior comics, the second of which launched only recently. We'll be leaving that one aside for the moment, as it takes place after a few "event" comics at Valiant which I don't want to spoil you on quite yet. So it's going to be the Greg Pak/Trevor Hairsine run on Eternal Warrior --- eight issues as it ran --- as well as the first two trades of Ivar, Timewalker. And if my predictions are RAIght.... this may lead us to another one of Valiant's biggest titles...
JAM: Sounds good! Let's do it!
Make sure to pick up Eternal Warrior, Vol 1 & 2 as well as Ivar, Timewalker, Vol 1 & 2 and follow along for when we return in two weeks time!