I don’t know how to start this column in a way that isn’t self-defeatingly dull. How do you dissect how fun something is, and why it’s fun, without spoiling the fun of that thing, even just a little bit? Fun is inherently visceral, an in-the-moment feeling that’s either present or isn’t during any given activity. To look back on past fun and examine its causes is an intellectual pursuit, but fun doesn’t come from the mind so much as the gut.
For my gut’s money, Archer & Armstrong is about the most monthly fun you can bring home from your local comicbook shop these days. It prioritizes peculiarity and has stable enough main characters to support its wackiest impulses. It still takes itself seriously enough to be effectively dramatic and/or tragic when its narrative threads hit their peaks, but it’s a comedy first, reliably funny and sincere. The title characters are a sheltered teen genius and an alcoholic immortal buffoon, so between their respective naiveté and immaturity, there’s ample humor to be found in how they interact with the rest of the world. Not to mention that the world they happen to live in is a mishmash of different genres’ concepts and clichés, stitched together so that they seem to naturally fit with each other. It gives Archer and Armstrong both a lot to play off of, and their rapport with one another ain’t half bad, neither.
At first, Armstrong is quite literally Archer’s sworn enemy. Archer was raised by members of The Sect, a cult-like organization seeking eternal life that has been working against Armstrong for ages. Archer’s parents train him from birth for the sole purpose of assassinating Armstrong, so their initial encounter is not at all a friendly one. Armstrong soon shows his young would-be murderer that The Sect has been feeding him lies all his life, and the two of them subsequently partner up to battle the forces of evil. Archer appreciates Armstrong’s honesty, and Armstrong finds in Archer someone truly goodhearted enough to rekindle his faith in people. Beyond that mutual respect, though, they tend to be at odds about everything. It’s an ideal buddy comedy relationship.
This series isn’t all laughs, and the laughs it does have aren’t the only thing that make it such a blast to read. There is a spirit of adventure and wonder that the story is built on that keeps Archer & Armstrong from ever becoming boring. The heroes are constantly learning about new locations, secrets, and enemies, and anytime this happens, the comic takes a minute to impress upon its audience how magnificent these freshly discovered details really are. The book is always excited about what’s coming, about what reveal lies just around the next corner. It’s eager to show us as many wonderful, entertaining things as it can, but careful not to rush through them so quickly that none can sink in.
There’s also a steady supply of new characters, major and minor, good and evil, all of whom have their own voices, secrets, and skills. In a relatively short span of time, there have been three main enemies introduced and defeated, and they’ve all been vanquished with the help of different allies. Armstrong’s brothers, Archer’s adopted sister/love of his life, a freedom fighter nun, a twentysomething PR expert turned magical defender of the planet, and even Amelia Earhart are among the many people who assist Archer and Armstrong along their way. At first, of course, they fight against The Sect, which is run by a smaller group called The One Percent who wear golden bull and bear masks and discuss all of their supervillain schemes in business jargon. Then there’s The Null, another even more insane shadowy quasi-religious outfit, this one worshipping nothingness and aiming to unmake reality. Most recently (best for last) was General Redacted, a grizzled old military extremist who’s been trapped for decades in the Faraway, a world that exist outside of time of space. Also living there are the Roanoke Native Americans, who Redacted hates, and a whole mess of tiny grey alien-looking creatures that Redacted is in charge of and, he claims, are actually highly advanced humans. He’s a fantastically clownish bad guy, so full of misguided patriotic passion that it gets him killed. All of this is to say that neither the plot nor cast of this comic ever stay put, with new threats also meaning new settings and supporting players.
That constant rotation also leads to frequent narrative reinvigoration, since every introduction brings with it a million questions that the story gets right to work answering. On the other hand, Archer and Armstrong themselves act as constants, tethering all the other people and things together. Their relationship isn’t immune to evolution, however, so while they are the most consistent part of the series, even then you can never be sure what to expect. Recently, things between the duo have gone from rocky to flat-out broken, but at other times they’ve had a teacher-student dynamic, sparred philosophically, and bickered like siblings and/or an old married couple. While they’re always true to the cores of their individual characters, their opinions of and need for each other shift all the time. This keeps thing interesting and hard to predict, because really they haven’t even been friends for that long, so their bond is still pretty fragile, and their friendship could grow in any number of possible directions.
Fred Van Lente has written the full series since the recently reborn Valiant launched it last August. The solidity of the main characters and the variety to be found in the rest of the cast should largely be credited to him, since he provides their many contrasting viewpoints. He’s also a smart enough storyteller to mix some profound sadness, danger, and urgency into his comedy. And he’s got relevant things to say, about family and religion and greed and civilization and truth and mortality and…he says it all without weighing down the title’s overlying goofiness. His good guys, and even many of his villains, are fun people to be around, the kind of personalities that you want more of even if you don’t agree with everything they do or say. Nobody’s perfect, and nobody’s the same, but they’re all admirably earnest.
Numerous talented artists have collaborated with Van Lente on this project. Clayton Henry, Emanuela Lupacchino, and Peré Perez have each penciled one arc, with Lupacchino inked by Guillermo Ortego and the other two inking themselves. What they all share is an adeptness at combining the zany with the subdued, the exaggerated with the reined in. Exactly where they land on that spectrum varies from artist to artist, but all three strike an even enough balance that the book’s tone has never dramatically turned because of a stark new aesthetic suddenly taking over. Matt Milla colored the first eight issues and David Baron has been colorst since then, and what I dig about both of them is that their palettes have wide ranges of bold, flat shades that are never used in a way that distracts from the rest of the page. They provide not-too-flashy yet always-super-polished work that’s content to highlight the lines and not overpower them. They’re the rhythm section, crazy impressive and important but not desperate for the spotlight.
Archer & Armstrong is not my favorite current comicbook. It’s rare, in fact, that a given issue will be the best in its week. It doesn’t have my all-time favorite characters or creators, it isn’t breaking the mold of the medium or challenging my comprehension skills or anything mind-warping like that. What it is, what is has been for more than a year, is the series I most look forward to. It’s more often than not the first thing I choose to read in a stack of new comics, because what better way to kick off a session of new-comics reading than with something I know for sure I’ll enjoy? I’ve never been let down by this title, never lost interest, and never figured out what it was going to do next. It’s surprising in ways that are surprising, able to beat expectations you didn’t know you had.
Basically, above all else (and like I already said), this book is fun. Comics have been so anxious to grow up that they often seem overly adult as an industry now, too severe for their own good, disconnected from the experimental and, perhaps, childish creative energy that made them popular to begin with. Archer & Armstrong has energy to spare. It’s about two kids, one literal and one emotional, who between them barely manage to summon the right amount of maturity to continue saving the world. As long as they keep succeeding at that, the stumbles and screw-ups they make getting there will be a regular source of amusement, for their foes and the audience alike. We get to laugh at their failures and cheer at their victories, so that no matter where they’re at or what they’re up to, we’re having a good time watching them.