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The Frick and Frack of modern comics — Archer & Armstrong #5

June 27, 2011

I missed out on the Valiant train back in the day. Without a comic shop within a hundred leagues of my house, my comic buying was necessarily newsstand based, and it was rare to see anything but the big titles find their way onto the rack (I can recall being stunned one day to see *gasp* a Spawn mixed in with the usuals). Alas. I do, however, remember reading Wizard at the time and being intrigued about the universe that was being forged on the backs of the old Gold Key books. Valiant was the anti-Image of its day, with story taking precedence over flashy art, something that might have flown over my adolescent head even if they’d been available to me. But they did in comics what Marvel is doing with their Avengers movies, i.e. establishing characters, cross-pollinating with cameos and then throwing everything together in a humongous event (Unity in Valiant’s case). It’s a fun formula.

I wish I could have enjoyed it while it was all new. It’s a small regret, but a regret nonetheless.

I’ve only in recent years had the chance to read the Valiant titles. I’m quite fond of the first arc from Magnus, Robot Fighter, and the caveman in alien armor aspects of X-O Manowar can be a good deal of fun, but I (and others) find the real star of the line to be Barry Windsor-Smith’s Archer & Armstrong.

Windsor-Smith was clearly the artistic heavyweight in the company’s early days. As their art director his covers graced any number of titles, but A&A was his baby and he made it his own. An improbable buddy story, with a huge, slovenly immortal and a slight, shy, crossbow-wielding Buddhist as its stars, it was a literate globe-trotting romp that holds up remarkably well twenty years on.

Perhaps this issue best exemplifies the slow pace that was never languid, the idylls that were never dull, that made the book so wonderfully unique.

“Trouble in Paradise” (inked by Bob Wiacek) has the duo arriving in the Riviera to spend some downtime at one of Armstrong’s long life’s many accumulated estates:

Before they head over to his private island, they stop off at a hotel to freshen up, and the place is most familiar with Mr. Armstrong:

On the row over — freshly clothed and pomaded — Armstrong corrects Archer on the true nature of the “Andy,” one of his many wives, who awaits them:

She ain’t a goddess, but Archer manages to forget this clarification when confronted to Mrs. Armstrong’s stunning nudity:

An aside: Could you say “retarded person” now without the P.C. Police (perhaps justifiably) swarming on you? Maybe only in fiction…

Armstrong cools down his little buddy’s ardor by tossing him into the drink. There Archer comes face to face with one of Armstrong’s “pets,” a dino named Flo:

No, Archer doesn’t get eaten.

The three spend a quiet evening chatting, and Archer manages to put his foot in his mouth when the long-parted couple attempts to retire (to do what long-parted couples are wont to do):

Another aside: In a lesser comic that painting would have been Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, or Munch’s The Scream. Leighton’s Flaming June is a bit more obscure, and that makes its use a bit more gratifying — at least to me.

That night, Archer has another close encounter with that other denizen of the island:

But things take a surprising and far less menacing turn:

Awwww.

I realize Windsor-Smith is a highly regarded name in the comics world, but is it possible that he’s still somehow underrated? Maybe? Just look at this stuff. It’s so distinctive and so well-paced, saying a lot without blaring it out of a megaphone, and it’s still refreshing all these year later. The early issues of A&A were collected a few years ago (First Impressions), and it’s a book I’d recommend picking up for anyone with the slightest interest in the material. It’s worth the price of admission. And it doesn’t look like Windsor-Smith will be making any more any time soon.

I’m not sure when exactly Valiant started coming apart at the seams. Maybe it was when Jim Shooter left. Maybe it was when they started intoducing characters called Ninjak (I mean, really…). Maybe it was when they started catering full-blast to speculators. Maybe it was that Valiant/Image crossover (Deathmate) that had interminably delayed issues, one of which Bob Layton had to force Rob Liefeld to complete at veritable gunpoint.

Or maybe it was when the “BWS” stopped gracing A&A. Yeah, I’ll go with that one.

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