In which the blogger fears that he reveals some considerable spoilers;
Fred Van Lente and Clayton Henry cover a heroic amount of ground in the first issue of the rebooted Archer & Armstrong, though they really shouldn't have bothered. In the space of just 24 pages, they carry the reader through a disastrous experiment in Ancient Mesopotamia, an Evangelical theme park harbouring a secret martial arts tournament, a cross-country bus journey, a naif's arrival in New York City, a bar-room punch-up, a dungeon under the control of a fiendish cult, a partial breakout, and a somewhat dramatic end-of-tale reversal featuring the massed, mask-wearing ranks of the One Percent. It all sounds rather madcap and enticing, but it's actually a somewhat diffident and unhelpfully restrained book. Though Van Lente and Henry present us with a whole range of fascinating situations, their work is fundamentally predictable, and there's a sense that they feel compelled to hit one beat after another in their drive to hit the tale's inciting incident on the book's final page. If only more had been made out of some promising situations, but, no, there's an incident-heavy schedule to be fulfilled and a particular cliff-hanger to reach. With so much set-up and so little pay-off, this version of Archer & Armstrong feels as if
it's nothing more than a bowdlerised description of a far more vigorous and
daring take on the characters. To begin with what feels like a catch-up session is not the most enticing way to kick off a new take on a well-loved, if sadly little-lauded, title.
No matter how efficiently we're ushered from one plot-beat to another, the point-of-view character of Archer himself is still new to us. Though we're witness to a great deal that's happening around him, there's little as yet to convince us that he really is a persuasively interesting lead. There's a great deal of promise on the page about what how this peculiar mix of religious zealotry, martial arts bad-assery and small-town civic-mindedness might play out. And yet the assumption seems to be that the reader will hang around in order to discover why they're hanging round. Indeed, the only moment in Archer & Armstrong which truly matters, which really threatens to bite, is that in which Archer discovers that his parents are not only utterly unconcerned about his welfare, but desperately keen to barter away his life in return for a single piece of fortean tech. It's a theoretically shocking climax to the book, and yet it's played out in a single closing panel, which means that the first moment of considerable emotion in what's effectively an Archer & Armstrong primer is regrettably thrown away. Having persevered with two dozen pages of status quo and scenery-moving, the reader's reward is to be informed that the real story will actually begin in the next issue. As such, a sense of affable under-achievement is what's carried away from the comic, along with the suspicion that everything's been delivered except the emotional intensity and distinctly individual tone which would've made the whole experience worthwhile.
Still, this lack of what ultimately feels like conviction shouldn't be
allowed to obscure the care that's been taken with a great many of the book's
page. Despite the presence of all of that content, each scene largely
succeeds in avoiding feeling either ludicrously rushed or weighed-down
with exposition, and that's generally true despite the fact that almost a
third of the comic has been allocated to enervatingly unremarkable
fight-scenes. The lead characters are clearly established, the major
protagonists introduced, and the book's fundamental themes and conflicts
sketched in. There's even some heavy-handed, Occupy-friendly satire
threaded through the story, which thickens - even if doesn't exactly
enliven - the brew. A measure of credit is surely due to Archer & Armstrong's
creators, since they've produced a premiere issue that's very
much not a typically thin and decompressed debut. Compelling and
noteworthy the book may not be, but it does contain a pleasant enough
mass of content.
The scene of May-Maria's farewell to Archer as he leaves the Promised Land Fun Centre and its cult devotees for the very first time, for example, is a genuinely touching moment. He's never passed beyond the amusement park's boundaries before, and she's an escapee who deeply regrets her decision to return. As is typical, it's a moment that's underplayed, and yet this time it's also an undeniably moving one too. It may not be a moment of intensity, but it as a breath of both affection and despair. Similarly, Henry's panel presenting a worms-eye view of Archer's arrival in New York, to take but one instance, works as an enticing framed and suitably uncertain view. Yet there's always a sense that what's on the page is just a touch too restrained and literal. Even the scene of Armstrong vomiting on a threatening biker passes with a minimum of feeling and effect. At first sight, it's almost as if this version of Armstrong has some fire-breathing super-power, a matter of confusion which leaves the reader looking again to uncover the truth of what's happening when they ought to be simply shocked, appalled and convulsed with laughter. In this, the new take on Archer & Armstrong is an essentially timid endeavour, which hints at a degree of daring and ambition that it never displays. Even its relatively outspoken political content feels blunt-edged and facile, smug in its contempt and hollow in its lack of insight. Creationism and obesity are, after all, hardly difficult targets, and the way in which they're attacked here comes closer to lazy sneering than sharp-minded social comment.
In the end, this new version of a fine and unfairly forgotten property fails to suggest that it really matters. It's a nice, safe comic book, and even its satirical edge seems rather smug and self-regarding simply because it's been pursued with so little conviction. As the first issue of a new comic arriving in an improbably crowded marketplace, "ordinary" and "adequate" simply aren't just good enough. A carefully pruned summary of the book's contents might make Archer & Armstrong sound like an intriguingly daring comic-book. But it isn't, or at least, it isn't yet.
We'll be returning to the new Valiant books to take a look at the worrying lack of attention to matters of sex and gender in certain of the company's new books ....