A cross between National Treasure, The Da Vinci Code, and Road House.
Story: Fred Van Lente
Art: Clayton Henry
Color: Matt Milla
Letters: Dave Lanphear
What They Say:
It’s history in the breaking!
After years of meditation and training, 18-year-old Obadiah Archer has been dispatched to New York City to carry out the sacred mission of his family’s sect—locate and kill the fun-loving, hard-drinking immortal known as Armstrong! But as this naïve teenage assassin stalks his prey, he’ll soon find that both hunter and hunted are just pawns in a centuries-old conspiracy that stretches from the catacombs beneath Wall Street to the heights of the Himalayas. Now Archer & Armstrong will have to work together if the future is to stand any chance of surviving the past’s greatest threat!
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
If Fred Van Lente didn’t create the comic subgenre of hedonistic-strong-guy-teams-up-with-impressionable-boy with Greg Pak, then he certainly has mastered it. Van Lente was half the writing team of one of my favorite Marvel titles in the last ten years—Incredible Hercules. It still stands as one of the funniest series I’ve ever read and the sense of high adventure and character-driven humor that made Hercules so much fun is alive and well in Archer & Armstrong.
Obadiah Archer trained all of his life for the opportunity to be the one to kill “He Who Must Not Be Named,” an immortal whose existence mocks God. Archer’s family sect operates out of the Promised Land creationist amusement park, and after a battle royale against his adopted siblings, Archer is sent to that den of filth and iniquity, New York City, to find He Who Must Not Be Named.
He Who Must Not Be Named typically goes by Armstrong. When Archer finds him, Armstrong is working as a bouncer in a biker bar. The two hit if off in the sense that they punch each other quite a bit, but in their ensuing battle, they are captured by another sect. It turns out that Archer’s family has been lying to him. Although Armstrong is an immortal, he is not the demonic scourge Archer was lead to believe. He does drink, debauch, and debase himself at every chance he gets, but he’s hardly Satan incarnate. The sects want him because he possesses part of The Boon, an artifact that grants immortality. Once Archer learns of his parent’s deception, he joins up with Armstrong to find out the truth.
Archer & Armstrong is a wild, wonderful mix of National Treasure, The Da Vinci Code, and Road House. While the whole mismatched buddy dynamic between Archer and Armstrong is hardly anything new, Van Lente has it down to a science, and it’s so much fun watching the two characters try to interact without letting their character flaws and preconceptions get in the way. Archer has been raised all his life in an ultra-conservative Christian home. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t curse. He doesn’t have any fun—at least according to Armstrong. This could be played in a way that would make Archer annoying, but at heart he’s a good kid who was screwed over by circumstances beyond his control. Although he might be wound up a little too tight, he’s also honest, brave, and compassionate.
As for Armstrong, there’s a good man inside him, but it’s hidden underneath centuries of life. History and experience accumulated like layers of sediment on the man and the only way he can deal with it is by drinking, screwing, and treating life like one big party. There is nobility to his character, but it lies below the frat boy attitude he too often adopts. In his own way, Armstrong could be just as potentially annoying as Archer, but he manages to skirt it, somehow finding a way to be charming in his contrived boorishness.
The two work together so well because of the way they complement each other. Once again, Van Lente isn’t re-inventing the wheel here, but he does show how enjoyable these character types can be when written well. While some writers, such as Isaac Asimov, may disagree with me, I come from the school of thought that believes that the core of a good story lies in its characters. Everything from the plot, the theme, and the conflict stems from the characters. A writer can have one of the greatest plots in the world, but without solid characters to experience that plot, it falls flat. Thankfully, this series has both strong characters and a strong plot.
Aside from the protagonists, the element that makes this comic work so well is the deft way with which it balances genuine moments of drama and emotion with silly moments and over-the-top plot points, such as a militia of ninja nuns underneath the Vatican, Nazi Lamas with Hitler mustaches, and Wall Street investors worshipping the demon Mammon and offering him sacrifices. Again, this comes back to character: it would be hard to imagine going from a scene of fighting “nunjas” to a heartbreaking reunion with a loved one, but that’s exactly what happens here, and it works because it stems from a natural progression of character. The real key is that the ridiculous elements aren’t played for laughs—it’s Archer and Armstrong’s reactions to them, sort of like Leslie Neilsen in the Naked Gun movies.
Of course the writing is only part of the equation here. Van Lente’s script is great, but it’s Clayton Henry who brings it to life. Henry’s style reminds me of Steve Dillon: it tends to be more photo-realistic than cartoon-y, which helps ground the more fantastic elements of the story. This story is ostensibly set in our world and is about its secret history, so a more cartoon-y style full of exaggerated, stylized people and places bristling with Kirby Krackles would go against that conceit. Henry does a great job both with action scenes and smaller dramatic scenes. The panel where Archer discovers the truth about his parents is heartbreaking because of the naked fear and disappointment on the boy’s face. Henry’s panel placement is also very good. He knows how to use them to create a sense of rhythm and to highlight what’s occurring in the script.
Henry’s illustrations are further brought to life by Matt Milla’s colors. Again, this is a comic that strives for realism (at least as much as you can when you have nunjas and Hitler Lamas), so Milla’s colors are subtle. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t effective—in fact, it illustrates the quality of his work, as standing out would take away from the intended effect. However, if you look closely you can see where he uses shadows and light to bring a scene to life and colors to help highlight the tone of the scene.
Archer & Armstrong: The Michelangelo Code is a great start to a series that I’d like to read more of. The interactions between the titular characters are excellent, the story is fun, and the tone strikes the right balance between drama and comedy. It’s not just that this is a fun book, it’s a fun book written and illustrated by artists who know their craft. Highly recommended.
Age Rating: 13+
Released By: Valiant
Release Date: March 19th, 2013