With “Archer & Armstrong” #1, Fred Van Lente and Clayton Henry have a high pedigree to live up to. The original series’ first year back in the ’90s was helmed by comics legend Barry Windsor-Smith (with Jim Shooter and Bob Layton collaborating on writing duties for the first couple issues) and it’s one of the Valiant comics people still talk about two decades later. With this debut issue, Van Lente and Henry might not be at the Windsor-Smith level of fantastic, but it’s not a shabby start either.
Van Lente and Henry (along with co-writer Greg Pak) worked together on “The Incredible Hercules” a few years ago, and their familiarity works to their advantage. Right from the very first page they’re on a roll; the opening panel with Armstrong’s face has such anger blazing out of his eyes that Henry has you almost hear the frustration in his voice as he speaks to his brother Ivar. Set in the dawn of civilization before the Great Cataclysm, the opening scene sets up everything that’s still to come; not only Armstrong has a character, but the central thrust for the first storyline (at least) with a mysterious artifact called the Boon.
By giving us something extremely dangerous that needs to be tracked down in the present day, Van Lente establishes a reason for Armstrong to eventually team up with Archer. In this first issue, though, we start with the more familiar territory of an eventual buddy pairing starting at odds with one another. Van Lente sticks with Archer’s origin of being raised by a crazy religious cult, but takes it much further in the new “Archer & Armstrong” #1. Here it’s not just a suburban preacher and his wife, but an actual movement that’s housed inside a religious-themed amusement part with cavemen riding dinosaurs and a massive model of Noah’s Ark next to a roller coaster. Archer himself comes across as misguided but sympathetic; readers see almost instantly how he’s being duped and used by the cult, and his naÃ¯ve nature feels much more realistic than the original incarnation of the character. Van Lente is careful to not make naÃ¯ve equal stupid, though; he wants us to care about the character and Archer seems less befuddled and more frustrated this time around. He clearly wants everything to be just so as it was promised, but the reality of the world outside the Promised Land park is anything but that.
Another important change to “Archer & Armstrong” is that readers get less of the “alcoholic bum” route for Armstrong this time through with more of the florid poet who packs a mean punch when necessary. It’s funny because this Armstrong feels very similar to the original incarnation of the character, but the more you think about him, the more you realize what a better character he’s turned out to be right off the bat. The same major personality tics are present, but he’s instantly palatable and understandable instead of someone with a rather bad image problem.
Henry’s art in “Archer & Armstrong” #1 is good, and a reminder that I’ve been hoping to see him on a regular series again. His expressions, as mentioned earlier, are great; Henry’s able to show all sorts of emotions with great ease. The final page has drawings of not only Archer but his parents reacting to different pieces of news, and the panic and overall crumbling of their hopes is portrayed wonderfully; terror for the parents and sadness for Archer. It’s a fine distinction between the two different types of panic that the characters are going through, but Henry nails those moments perfectly. Henry’s also just as good at the more action-oriented scenes, too. When Archer uses his various martial arts skills early on, his leaping and kicking feels energetic and explosive. (The taekwondo panel in particular is great, with Archer’s lift up into the air feeling extremely believable.) Henry’s a good choice for “Archer & Armstrong,” and it’s a joy to see him working with Van Lente again.
“Archer & Armstrong” #1 gives us an extremely strong debut for the series; it’s funny, it’s got action and there’s even a fun new spin on the ultra-rich “1%” powerbrokers and what they’d do with a superhuman weapon in order to control the economy. In short, it’s exactly how a series from twenty years ago should be updated for a relaunch today. I’m sold on the new “Archer & Armstrong.” If you were a fan twenty years ago, definitely take a look. If you’ve only heard about how fun the original was, this is a good way to get a sample of what you were missing. It’s not the same as the Windsor-Smith issues, but it’s still quite enjoyable in its own right.