While all of Valiant’s comics are wonderful and imaginative stories, within their central premise there is a small piece that seems like it came from somewhere else. X-O Manowar is similar in some ways to Iron Man. Harbinger is similar in some ways to the X-men or Batman Inc. Bloodshot is like Wolverine or the Punisher. Of course, all of these books explore very different ideas and are unique (and arguably better) in their own ways, but the skeptical fan can easily make some connections to other books on the stands with Valiant characters… except for Archer and Armstrong.
The premise of Archer and Armstrong sounds like the setup to a really weird joke; a religious zealot has been raised to kill an immortal and they become friends instead. It’s a premise that leaves the possibilities for stories wide open as neither character is bound to a specific superhero archetype. Obadiah Archer is naïve after being raised and trained in a religious-themed amusement park to one day kill “He Who Is Not To Be Named” and bring the Earth into a new paradise which is unique in and of itself, but the pairing with the world-weary, hard-drinking immortal Armstrong makes the book work. Series artist Clayton Henry does a phenomenal job with portraying the differences in physicality between the two protagonists and writer Fred Van Lente gives both characters distinct, unique voices that give the comic a playful tone that is a joy to read.
But this book is more than just a feel-good buddy adventure comic. It’s a comic that takes constant potshots at the absurdity of political and religious hegemony and the fear that permeates our culture. Archer was raised in the Promised Land theme park – a thinly-veiled Christian parody complete with exhibits on “Heathen Cultures” and a giant ark that doubles as a martial arts training center. And later, as Archer goes out into the world for the first time, he explains, “Mom and Pop always taught us Manhattan is a rat’s nest of Liberal Marxist Atheist Nazis who want to rob our freedom by making us dependent of government handouts. And that is 100% true.” Of course, Archer later learns that his parents aren’t as pious as they seem and are actually part of an evil cult known as “The One Percent” who want to resurrect the demon Mammon.
The One Percent is a delightful group of villainous businessmen in gold animal masks who speak in business puns. In the second issue, after Archer defeats a number of security guards, a member of the One Percent mentions that they have been ‘downsized’ to which another replies, “Capital! We can replace them with temporary workers with no benefits then pocket their pension contributions.” It’s a scene that is delightful in its absurdity and while some may groan at the heavy-handed nature of the symbolism, there is a sense of self-parody in it. The One Percent is not a group of villains because rich people are evil; the One Percent are rich villains because we have demonized them. Yes, it may be campy, but if so, then it is the highest form of “camp” (and I hope that is taken for the compliment that it is meant to be).
Archer’s journey in the first arc explores the universal theme of learning that a person is not defined by his or her parents. Rather than explore the darker implications that lie within the idea that everything Archer has been taught is a lie, Van Lente presents the situation as Archer’s moment to embrace his own personality as an individual. Archer embraces the ideas of uniqueness and beauty in the world around him that he has learned from his faith, but rejects the hegemony that would trap his ideology. And ultimately, this is a perfect metaphor for the series itself.
Yes, Archer and Armstrong is fairly standard comic book and the adventure itself may feel a little familiar (the first arc is a fairly typical “fetch the Macguffin” story), but the experience is still absolutely unique. Fred Van Lente gives Archer and Armstrong charisma that creates a unique duo with great chemistry and Clayton Henry’s art features wonderfully expressive faces and kinetic action sequences. What more could you want from a comic book?