Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Archer & Armstrong #1 Review

The summer of Valiant is barreling towards its conclusion with this week's release of Archer & Armstrong #1.  The fourth new ongoing book book that leverages the company's old properties from the 1990s.  When speaking with the Weekly Crisis just over a month ago, Fred Van Lente boasted that "Valiant saved the best for last".  Does this bold claim hold true?  Hit the jump to find out!

Written by Fred Van Lente
Art by Clayton Henry

As I've said before, I was not reading comics when Valiant first entered the industry back in the late eighties, so I've been coming into all of their relaunches cold.  Fortunately, my lack of knowledge has yet to prevent me from enjoying the stories of any of these books, as the creative teams have been vigilant when it comes to making approachable comics for readers both old and new.  Thankfully, Fred Van Lente and Clayton Henry also choose to subscribe to such a model, providing us with an opening issue that acts as a solid introduction to our titular heroes and some of the problems that they will be facing.

The book opens with a five page prologue set 10,000 years ago in the  that focus on our long-living friend Armstrong (then known simply as Aram).  This is an excellent choice by Van Lente and Henry, as the prologue sets the tone for the remainder of the book, displaying hints of the comic's humour, scenes of violence, and a might striking glimpse at the big ol' artifact / machine that looks to be the crucible for the book's opening arc (if not more than that).

Called The Boon, there's a slight disagreement between Armstrong and his older brother, Ivar, as to what it actually does.  Ivar is under the impression that it can be used to bring their younger brother Gilad back to life, while Armstrong isn't quite so confident about that.  Things seem to fall closer to Armstrong's interpretation, as activating the Boon has some consequences that, as the accompanying pages indicate, are pretty Biblical in nature.

Speaking of Biblical, whatever destruction that may or may not have occurred couldn't have been that permanent, because the book segues into the present day, taking us to Adams County, Ohio or, more specifically, the Promised Land Supervised Fun Center and Learning Park, a Christianity-infused amusement park.  The setting is relevant because it's where the book's other lead, Obadiah Archer, was born and raised by the owners of the park, his rather peculiar parents, Reverend and Mrs. Congresswoman Archer.

The setting allows Van Lente to unleash a little bit of satire, providing a somewhat amusing parody of evangelistic Christians, including riding the dinosaurs "like they did in Caveman times" and "Darwin the Chimp".  The jokes feel a bit like low-hanging fruit (especially the ignorant, overweight American family), but they do provide a quick shorthand for the kind of upbringing Archer and his many foster brothers and sisters would have had, explaining the naive half of his personality.  The other half of the young man's identity, that of a soldier on a holy quest, comes from the final testing we see him go through shortly after arriving at this theme park.  His quest?  To destroy He Who Is Not To Be Named who just so happens to be in New York (I bet you'll never guess who it is).  Of course, it helps that Archer has the amazing ability to do pretty much anything that he observes (ala Marvel's Taskmaster, which Van Lente also wrote once upon a time).

This mission, which he immediately departs to accomplish, sets up an enjoyable fish out of water situation, where Archer discovers the "rat's nest of Liberal Marxist Atheist Nazis" that is New York City.  However, while I really liked the strange mixture of country bumpkin and holy crusader that is Obadiah Archer, I feel like this contradiction of character wasn't pushed quite as far as it could have been.  There are definitely some funny moments that come from it, but I feel like if the concept had been pushed a little further it could have been far more memorable.  Archer is almost too dry for my taste.  Regardless, he soon finds the man he's searching for, reintroducing us to the 10,000 year older Armstrong, who still sports the same hair and beard for ease of identification.

For my money, this is where the book really gets going.

Simply put, Armstrong is a lot of fun to read.  I didn't read much of Fred Van Lente's work on The Incredible Hercules, but Armstrong really reminds me of his portrayal of Zeus' demigod son.  He doesn't quite fit in to modern day society, has a off-kitler kind of wisdom to him, and above all, is pretty danged funny.  Whereas Archer's humour potential is underutilized, I feel like Armstrong hits his comedic notes with a far higher frequency.  I'm also just a big fan of the sheer size of Armstrong: the guy's huge.  It makes for a nice visual contrast between the two characters that is reflective of their clashing personalities, which is a nice touch by Henry.

It certainly seems as if these two characters will have a nice and dysfunctionally hilarious relationship in time, but their back and forth doesn't quite hit its mark in this issue.  Archer is too busy being serious and dour, and Armstrong's offerings aren't enough to overcome that here.  It's like Archer is written too straight to be a satisfying straight-man at the moment, which is too bad.

Perhaps part of that is that the two characters spend most of their time exchanging plots details instead of quips, as Van Lente still has a lot of background information to get through as the issue nears its conclusion.  There's a lot of somewhat generic elements being bandied around that we've all seen before, such as Freemasons and double-crossings.  From all the foundation work that Van Lente is doing here, I'm sure that it will build to something more satisfying, but for the moment, I was a little underwhelmed with the overarching scheme that we're presented with.

Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with plot, but I would have liked a balance between plot and humour weighed slightly more in humour's favour, especially since the critical pieces of plot that we get here aren't terribly engaging.  That being said, I am a huge fan of the One Percent.  There's little better in my estimation than a group of evil white businessmen who wear golden bear and bull masks.  Genius.

While I've focused heavily on Van Lente's contributions to this issue, that is by no means meant to be a slight on Henry's work.  Quite the opposite, in fact, as he knocks this issue out of the park.  Seriously, he does it all, jumping from Ancient Mesopotamia to the American Midwest to the seedy parts of New York to secret sect hideouts with ease.  And all the while he fills the page with gorgeous panels rife with impressive details.  As you know if you've read any of his previous work, he has a very complete style that fits quite well with the story Van Lente is presenting here.

He also does a bang up job of the fight scenes, which is a good thing considering how many there are throughout the issue.  He manages to differentiate the many different fighting styles the characters use, which is already impress in and of itself, but he also has a nice little visual trick of representing the talents that Archer has picked up.  It's a small thing, but it actually goes a long way in emphasizing how cool that ability is, which is obviously a nice touch.

I'd also like to take a moment to praise Henry's work on the many different characters that we see over the course of this book.  Comics books have a definite problem of every single man and every single woman being made from the same mold, and Henry does a pretty good job of bucking that trend.  While there are the stereotypical body types that you'll see elsewhere, there's quite a lot of variety in the type of people that we see in this issue, which is a really nice change of pace.  So kudos on that.

Verdict - Check It.  Archer & Armstrong #1 is a decent opener for the new series, but it stumbles a little bit in places.  Although the art hits all the right notes, the plot is a little ho-hum as it stands.  There's a lot of promising elements here, but the different pieces don't quite mesh yet.  I feel as if it will all come together in the end, but that doesn't really help this issue unfortunately.  Also, we need a lot more Armstrong, but I have no doubt that that's coming.

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Nathan Aaron said...

I thought it was a great start! Believe it or not, that Christian Park is a real life park which plans to open in 2014, in Kentucky (complete with dinosaurs and a life size Ark.) Art imitates life, in this case.

Ryan said...

I read the original Archer & Airmstrong and it was one of the books that got me hooked on Valiant. I just finished reading this new rendition and loved it. I found the story flowed well and the art allowed me to feel the story. I especially liked the page with Archer's "foster-sister" running away. I found it was a very poignant moment.

One last thought, this issue to me was about setting events in motion for the next year or two. Best part of that was at the beginning with the exchange between Ivar & Aram. I believe Van Lente is a worthy successor to Archer & Armstrong!

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