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Shadowhawk reviews the first volume of the rebooted Archer and Armstrong series from Valiant Comics.
“A surprise hit full of uniqueness and modern-day relevance to religious politics, this is an absolute must read because of its mythic storyline reminiscent of an Indiana Jones movie and a duo of awesome, misfit characters.” ~The Founding Fields
I don’t recall how I got interested into Archer and Armstrong in the first place. Might have been a passing mention on social media or the like, but I do remember that the series was being praised quite highly. Since I’ve never read a Valiant Comics title before, this looked as good a place to start as any other, and I was like sure, lets get to it. I put the comic up for my March comics reading poll and it came out in one of the top spots, which meant that I would definitely be reading it soon.
From the start, this is a comic that was completely not what I expected, even when I had neglected to even read the official blurb and see what it was really about. The prologue is fantastic, starting off in the dim mists of time when Mesopotamia was still a leading power in the ancient world. Fred van Lente quickly introduces one of the leads, the Mesopotamian Anni-padda hero called Aram, and from that early beginning, the rest of the book is an unrestrained joy that is a full-on high-octane adventure ride. The introduction of the second lead, Archer, feels slightly forced in its impact, but it also helps to unequivocally establish the core of his character.
Archer and Armstrong are characters who have to struggle against some monstrous odds to succeed in their missions. For Archer, his mission is repurposed when he finds out that his entire life has been a lie, that he has been deceived and brainwashed into a particular religious philosophy. For Armstrong (once known as Aram), his mission is to keep the world in balance and safe from anyone who wishes it harm. However, its not quite so simple for either of them since Archer has to fight against a lifetime of indoctrination and lies, while Aram/Armstrong has to contend with the relative boredom of some 5,000-6,000 years of living as an immortal. The two of them are brought together in the most unconventional of places – a New York bar where Armstrong works as a bouncer – and it is really fascinating to see how they team up even though their relationship is fraught with the dangers of rampant ignorance and too much knowledge in equal measure.
Archer is not an easy character to like: he is extremely stubborn in his beliefs and unwilling to even reason with his enemy (due to religious dogma that casts Armstrong as, pretty much, Satan himself). Only when his world is torn down completely does he begin to change and this in turn creates sympathy for the character, although I was still put off by some of his more pig-headed moments in later issues.
Armstrong in comparison is easy to like from the get go. He is immortal and carefree, living life moment to moment and just enjoying himself. Van Lente casts him as somewhat of a mentor character to Archer’s “student”, and this makes him even more likeable. There’s also a sense of inherent righteousness in him that is tempered by his thousands of years of experience and that makes him even more likable. Plus, van Lente went to town with his character and gave him some of the best lines in the entire 4-issue collection. Think Robert Downey Jr.’s excellent Tony Stark/Iron Man from the Marvel movies and you wouldn’t be too far off. Or even Wally West from DC’s The Flash comics.
And to spin off from that point, van Lente’s dialogue is pretty spot on for the characters and the situations they find themselves in. There is a lot of satire built into the comic, going hand in hand with modern religious, social and political commentaries. The most important example of this would be the demon cult known as “The One Percent” who would destroy an entire nation to hell and back just to stabilise a currency. Armstrong’s dialogue with Archer in the first couple of issues (to be specific) hinges a lot on breaking the young man out of his indoctrination and showing him what and how the real world is. He challenges Archer’s religious beliefs continuously (more so since his very presence is anathema to everything that Archer holds dear), and it is in these moments that van Lente appears to be at his best. The satire and wit of the immortal contrasts very well with the stubborn with Archer counters them.
Each of the issues has a set piece sequence that expands on the world that van Lente is creating. There is plenty of action in each issue, and a fair amount of mystery as well. Each new event that the characters come across enhances their (and the reader’s) understanding of this world. In the case of Armstrong, some of these events bring back memories of his past, such as in issues 2 and 3, when he meets with an old friend in Rome. Its pretty clear that van Lente wants to tell a very detailed and immersive story here, whether it is taking place in the catacombs of an ancient church or inside a Tibetan monastery run by Nazi monks (great touch that one by the way!). So yeah, the world-building here is pretty cool and intense, and I give it high praise indeed.
The art in the book is by Clayton Henry, who handled all the interior pencilling and panelling. Mat Milla has done all the interior colours and and Dave Lanphear has done the letters. Together, the entire art is just superb. All the characters are drawn with attention to detail, especially when it comes to the body language and facial expressions. The colours are also pretty much spot on, rich and vibrant when they need to be, dark and gloomy otherwise. Among some of the other visually brilliant graphic novels I’ve read in the last year, Archer and Armstrong Vol.1 doesn’t stand out all that much, but it is pretty up there regardless. It is one of those books that you go through again and again just for the sheer pleasure of the art. There are at least three cover artists on the 4 issues, which means that pretty much easy cover is of a different style. This detracts a bit from the overall style of the interior art, but still, pretty good work. The cover for #3 is easily the best, which I found myself to be quite disappointed with the cover for #4 since it is in a completely different style to the previous three covers, very very different and not all that impressive either.
But still, Archer and Armstrong Vol.1 is easily a visually-great book and I’d recommend it for the alone.
With some superb characters, whether protagonists or antagonists, a continuous thrilling pace, some great mysteries and revelations, with a shocker of a climax, Archer and Armstrong Vol.1 is a book that you definitely should read.