Friday, February 7, 2014

Recommended Reading for 2/7: Archer & Armstrong

When I started reading comics, I wasn't reading Valiant Comics. I was a DC guy, with a little Marvel, and my only experience with Valiant was reading about the company in Wizard (remember Wizard?). The comics were supposed to be great, but the early issues were supposed to be really expensive, and I didn't have that kind of money. Over the intervening years, I picked up some of the back issues after the bottom dropped out of the speculator market, and found that they were really good comics. When Valiant relaunched a couple years ago, I figured I'd give one of the titles a shot, and I decided on Archer & Armstrong, and I was glad I did, as it has been consistently one of the best books on the market. So this recommendation is for the current series, but have no fear old school Valiant fans, I think a discussion of the classic series isn't too far off.

Archer & Armstrong is a book in the classic Odd Couple mold; two characters who have no logical reason to work well together prove to be better as a team than they are on their own. Obadiah Archer is the son of right wing Christian Evangelists, who has been trained as an assassin to do, what he believes anyway, God's work. He is naive, seemingly even tempered, and always willing to help; he also has the ability to channel any form of combat or physical skill, a power we're still learning about. Aram Anni-Pada, also called Armstrong, is one of the oldest beings on Earth, one of three immortal brothers, who is nigh-indestructible and super strong, and who has spent thousands of years enjoying wine, women, and song. Archer sees the world as debauched and horrible; Aram sees it as a wonderful place to write poetry about. They're a mismatched pair, no doubt, but that's the fun of it.

When our two title characters meet, it's when Archer is sent to kill The Great Satan, who turns out to be Armstrong. Archer's parents turn out to be leaders of a branch of The Sect, a secret organization that's branches have their hands in finance, religion, the military, and anything else that allows them to control the world, and The Sect has a long standing grudge against Aram. But Archer's parents indoctrination about good and evil has worked too well, and when he realizes that they're the ones who are actually evil, Archer sides with Aram against The Sect. This sets up a buddy comedy that travels around most of the world and onto others, not to mention across time.

One of the things that makes these kind of stories work is the way the characters differences compliment each other. You can put two mismatched characters together, and a story can just fall flat if they don't click right. Archer is learning things about the world from Armstrong, being shown that things aren't quite as black and white as he has been led to believe his entire life. Archer is growing throughout the series, although he still has quite a ways to go. Aram had no purpose for millennia, and is finding that Archer, his "little buddy," is getting him to do things other than drink, even if it's grudgingly at times.

Frankly, writer Fred Van Lente does more in the first four issue arc, The Michelangelo Code,  than a lot of writers do in the first year of their titles. He crams every page with snappy dialogue, character development, action, and plenty of humor. That humor is one of the things that helps this book really stand out; in a world where most of the comics out there are grim, Archer & Armstrong face threats with a wonderful tongue in cheek.

In that first arc, we not only establish Archer and Armstrong's relationship to each other and The Sect, we start to meet the rest of the cast of the book. With Archer having fallen away from his parents, they start using his siblings, the other children they've raised, as their army, and we meet Mary-Maria, Archer's foster sister and seeming love interest. She remains initially loyal to his parents, and winds up in conflict with Archer and Aram. Mary-Maria is a great character because you're never exactly sure whose side she's going to fall on. She clearly cares for Archer, but maybe not the same way he does for her, and as the first arc wraps, things don't work out for our young hero. While he believes Mary-Maria is dead, something more sinister has occurred.

Things gets much worse for our heroes with the second arc, Wrath of The Eternal Warrior, as they remain on the run from The Sect, plus encounter an immortal hunter who is chasing them because of the fallout from the confrontation at the end of volume one. Worse yet, that immortal hunter is Gilad, Aram's baby brother, the Eternal Warrior. While Aram is a party animal and usually does his best to try to talk his way out of a situation, Gilad lets his fist and steel do the talking. The parallels between Aram's relationship with Gilad and his relationship with Archer are pretty clear, but it's interesting to see the differences between Gild and Archer, and how things turn out for Aram with this particular family reunion. We also meet Kay McHenry, the most recent in a long line of Geomancers, the beings who speak with the voice of the Earth. Kay is another strong female character, one who is coming into her power as Geomancer, and it's interesting to see all the madness of the world of immortals and assassins through the eye of someone who is thrust right into the middle of it. I'm hoping we see Kay again in the future.

Far Faraway, the next arc, takes Archer and Armstrong into a whole new world literally; the time lost Faraway. It's a land with grey aliens, dinosaurs, timelost grizzled generals preparing to fight commies, and a sect of monks from the future. It's a wild story, with all sorts of crazy angles. I love this arc because of just how many elements pop up and how they fit together. General Redacted, whose speech features those black bars that the government uses to redact documents, Mary-Maria, and Ivar, the final of the Anni-Pada brothers are all in Faraway with Archer and Aram, all appear. There's battles between tribesmen and aliens in spaceships. The monks from the future have a very interesting messiah, one that leaves Archer in a bit of a snit, which is hilarious in its own right. Oh, and Ambrose Bierce is lost in the Faraway too; if you don't know who that is, look him up, trust me. The story ends with a falling out between the title characters, which I think is a good piece of character work; two such different people aren't going to work seamlessly together, and Aram is actually a pretty thoughtless hedonist who isn't used to having people around him he needs to think about, so it makes sense he's going to screw up.

The most recent arc, The Sect Civil War, is exactly what it sounds like. All the different cults that make up The Sect start going at each other. We had already met The One Percent, the gold bull wearing Wall Street moguls, and the Sisters of Perpetual Darkness, an order of ninja murder nuns, and had hints that Project Rising Spirit, the group that fellow Valiant hero Bloodshot works for, are part of The Sect, but we also get to meet more branches, and they're all wonderfully crazy. There are the Master Builders, evil masons out of Alan Moore's wildest From Hell dreams; The Hashish Eaters, who are pretty much what they sound like; and the Black Block, anarchists who wear black blocks on their heads. Again, there's so many ideas crammed into an issue that you pity other comics trying to keep up, and it never feels rushed. Of course, Archer and Armstrong and trapped in the middle of this mess, and they have to work through their issues while everyone is trying to kill them. The second issue also features some time travel, as Aram and Ivar go on a pub crawl through time, and the sight gag for the meter of Aram getting drunker is one of those things that you read in a comic and just makes you laugh out loud. The issue ends with a major shift in the status quo, with Archer and Armstrong seemingly safe from much of The Sect. Yeah, I don't think that's going to last either...

Archer & Armstrong is a great comic. It's clever, quick, funny, and packed with action and is a story that is character driven. Both of the protagonists are characters that you come to care about quickly. Fred Van Lente is one of the best writers in comics, and this is him working at the top of his game. Each arc further builds the world that Van Lente has been crafting since issue one, and it fits seamlessly into the overall Valiant Universe without feeling like you need to read any of those other books. If you're sick of comics where your heroes are full of angst and don't seem to know how to crack a smile, then pick up Archer & Armstrong.

The first three trades of Archer & Armstrong are currently available, with the fourth on the way next month.  If you want to try out a single, this month's #0 issue, which was released on Wednesday, gives you more details about Archer's past, is a good start, and helps set up next month's crossover with Bloodshot and H.A.R.D. Corps, Mission: Improbable.

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