Review: Archer and Armstrong Vol. 1: The Michelangelo Code trade paperback (Valiant Entertainment)

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

[Review by Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at '80s Marvel Rocks!]

For about the last year or so, I’ve been railing on DC for rebooting its characters and focusing on retelling origin stories. As a result, I feel a little hypocritical for enjoying the relaunch of Valiant Comics (now Valiant Entertainment) to the point of near-addiction. The key difference is that DC keeps throwing away potentially great concepts and titles while Valiant is using its comparatively limited resources to put together the best line-ups possible. That’s not taking purely business-related factors into account, of course. Valiant’s titles had to be rebooted due to the original company’s messy end, a situation I’ll be looking into over the next few weeks.

When assembling the initial line-up for the relaunch, the Valiant's editorial and marketing teams made some interesting choices. It was logical to bring back three of the old publisher’s biggest titles: the flagship book Harbinger, popular vigilante Bloodshot, and the one with perhaps the highest level of visibility, X-O Manowar. Putting Archer & Armstrong in as the fourth title was a bold move. While the original book was well-regarded, it was also launched later in the publisher’s life and often relied on crossovers (in fact, it launched during the first Valiant crossover, Unity). This decision has paid off as the series' first collection, Archer & Armstrong Vol. 1: The Michelangelo Code, is easily the best book of the new Valiant, followed closely by X-O Manowar and Quantum and Woody.

Much of the success in Michelangelo Code rests in writer Fred Van Lente, who brings both his comedic sensibilities and his superhero-writing talents to Archer & Armstrong. There’s no doubt that this book wouldn’t have worked if it wasn’t funny, and while Van Lente occasionally goes a little too broad with the comedy, it eventually evens out as the book goes on. It’s fairly obvious that Van Lente was chosen because he worked on another book in which an immortal party animal teams up with a gifted but awkward young man. Archer & Armstrong is essentially a stealth revival of the much-missed Incredible Hercules, which in turn might have been influenced by the original run of A&A.

The fundamentals of this reboot are the same: Armstrong (real name “Aram”), a Babylonian imbued with immortality and healing from his brother’s experiments, has stumbled through history interacting with famous people and earning the ire of the Sect, a collection of conspiracies. The Sect, in turn, are hunting him, believing him to be the greatest evil in the world. Exactly why they believe this won’t be explained until the recently-released fourth trade, and despite some of the oddities present in this book, it all fits together. For now, they want Armstrong because he holds the key to finding and reassembling the Boon, the alien machine which gave him his powers. Very little has been changed with Armstrong physically; most notably, he now has a beard, which makes him look more like Hercules (and like Silent Bob, for that matter).

Obadiah Archer has gone through a lot more revision. Both versions were the sons of Sect members masquerading as evangelical Christians, but while the original went through extensive Buddhist training to become a monk, the new one is just leaving the Sect for the "real world" as The Michelangelo Code begins. The most striking visual change is that Archer now has blonde hair while the original wass bald. As it turns out, this becomes part of a plot point related to Archer’s origins, but again, that’s in a later volume. Fred Van Lente hits against fundamentalist Christianity pretty hard in this volume. It got a little too silly at one point ... and then I read about how some Creationists deny the validity of an ancient version of the Noah narrative because the shape of it is different than what’s written in the Bible. At that point, I decided that Van Lente might have been too gentle.

It’s not that Van Lente has is only mocking Creationists, either. The Sect’s member cults include the One Percent, who worship and manipulate the stock market while wearing bear and bull masks, and the Green Dragon Lamas, who ... Actually, I’m not going to spoil what makes the Green Dragon Lamas so great, apart from them possibly being a reference to the Golden Age superhero. As the title implies, The Michelangelo Code is a take on The Da Vinci Code, with Archer and Armstrong going around the world to find the pieces of the Boon and keep them out of the hands of the Sect. Michelangelo does come into play; it turns out that Armstrong was the model for his Moses (and thus partially responsible in this story for the myth that Jews have horns).

Assisting in all of the fun is artist Clayton Henry, whose clean and crisp art is incredibly kinetic. Colorist Matt Milla knew what kind of book he was working on and he keeps the color palette bright. Letterer Dave Lanphear contributes one of the book’s most unique touches. Because Archer knows every martial arts skill -- and is capable of learning new ones instantly -- each skill is called out with a dictionary-style definition. This is an inventive way to use narrative captions without making them feel like they take up too much of the page.

The new Valiant definitely lives up to the potential of the old one. They’ve kept the same standards of continuity and tight scheduling, to the point where the next trade in a series is already solicited on the final page of the current trade. Archer & Armstrong Vol. 1: The Michaelangelo Code was my entry point into this fantastic publisher, and like all first trades for Valiant, it’s priced at $9.99. Valiant is taking the Image approach of producing cheap first trades to draw the reader in, and it certainly worked for me. Even as the later trades are locked in at $14.99, it's a price I’m willing to pay for four to six issues depending on the title, especially for books of this quality.
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  1. What amazes me about the re launch of Valiant is how smoothly it has gone. You have a brand new company buy the rights to these characters and instead of trying to make a big splash by getting the highest profile creators they can instead they hire industry professionals who may not have the biggest names but were great fits. They concentrated on the quality of the books. Everything from the creators to the editorial direction to the production quality has been first class. In my opinion they should be used as the textbook example of how to start a comic company. Any alternative to the big two is welcome for not only the buying public but for the creators too. More options is never a bad thing, and it is easy to get behind a company when the quality has been so high. I have purchased every tpb for every title they have released and if you haven't given them a try I strongly recommend you do so. This isn't a knock on Marvel and DC, I enjoy their work as well. I don't care where my comics come from as long as they are good.

  2. I simply love Valiant, they put a lot of care in their comics. This series in particular is one of my favourites, it has so much fun and action in it, is a joy to read.

  3. Excellent review - picked up the book and I thoroughly enjoyed it (along with the first XO Manowar trade). Which other trades from the Valiant relaunch should I also check out? Looking forward to move Valiant reviews in the future.