Monday, August 20, 2012

Charming & troubling: Archer & Armstrong#1

I confess, there's something comforting about Valiant's new Archer & Armstrong#1. I haven't read anything of (or about) the original series, but since I stopped reading Marvel & DC earlier this year, this is the first I've seen of familiar "Big Two" talent like writer Fred Van Lente, artist Clayton Henry and colourist Matt Milla in some time. With the book's evident mismatched buddy comedy setup, it even seems like a natural substitute for fans of Van Lente's Incredible Hercules. However... well, first let's discuss the premise.

Obadiah Archer was raised in a creationist amusement park (that is, a park which depicts humans and dinosaurs side-by-side as young Earth creationists maintain) along with more than a dozen foster brothers and sisters. Having been trained as an expert fighter, Obadiah is chosen to seek out his parents' greatest enemy: a mysterious man called Armstrong who could be thousands of years old, but these days is a drunken poetry-quoting bouncer (at an establishment which apparently can't afford sober security). By the climax of the tale, Archer learns his parents are allies of the 1%, a secret cabal who literally worship Mammon and seek to destroy Greece.

One hopes the first issue of an ongoing series will give you some idea of what to expect on a regular basis. Based on this first issue, I can only assume what the series will be like; Archer & Armstrong will surely become allies at some point, but they aren't such by the end of the issue. We'll eventually learn who and what Armstrong is, but for the purposes of the introduction, he's an old drunken poet. Archer will probably learn to acclimate to the world outside his parents' amusement park with hilarious, tragic and/or tragi-hilarious results. Archer is somewhat appealing as a naive sort as his point of view directs this issue's narrative, but at best he's a right-wing caricature like a Saturday Night Live Sarah Palin sketch.

My summary can't adequately describe the humour in this book. Beyond creationism (including the Great Flood) and the 1%, there are also jokes about obesity ("You can do the educational rides after second lunch!" get it? the joke refers to how overweight the average American is) and homeschooling, but every gag feels too entirely on the nose. It's essentially a one-joke premise: what if the exaggerated version of reality as seen on Fox News and ridiculed by the Colbert Report were the setting of a super hero comic?

I don't really identify with the fundamentalist Christian movement of the USA, so I'm game for a few good jokes about a creationist amusement park (in the real world, Kentucky's governor is trying to make this a reality). But the "joke" is as toothless as a 21st-century Simpsons episode: look! A creationist amusement park! That's it! That's the joke! Similarly, I thought the concept of the 1% would be very funny when I first heard of it, but when they finally emerge (on the last page), it's just to make the most obvious jokes about uber-privileged Americans (such as referencing Wall Street). The only moment I found genuinely amusing was the 1%'s plot to destroy Greece in order to save the Euro, but it belongs in a panel from Van Lente's Action Philosophers! or Comic Book comics - it's too ridiculous for the rest of the book.

Since the humourous (quasi-satirical) premise of this series is presumably what will set it apart from other super hero books on the rack, I wish the comedy had been a little looser, less grounded in reality (just as the premise is exaggerated from reality). Henry is perfectly suited for a super hero comedy (he already has the comedy version of Alpha Flight on his resume), but he doesn't even sell the visual of the creationist amusement park as a comedic effect. His work here looks too entirely like Salvador Larroca or Greg Land, bereft of most backgrounds and relying on the colourist to fill in the details.

I'm willing to try the second issue of Archer & Armstrong out of interest in Van Lente's work, but if none of my concerns are addressed, it will be my last issue. At one point I thought, "what this comic needs to be more like Barack the Barbarian!" Then I thought, "...we're doomed."

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