Review: Archer & Armstrong #1

A comic review article by: Nick Hanover

The 2006 documentary Jesus Camp is a film full of startling, powerful moments, but one in particular stands out more than the others. It comes towards the end of the film, after an especially vitriolic sermon from Becky Fischer, who states that were Harry Potter around during the Old Testament, he would have been put to death. Afterwards, the film focuses entirely on the kids, who are gathered in the cafeteria for lunch and they discuss the sermon. Some of the children spout off regurgitated information about the demonic influence of the books but one kid is clearly a little confused. Eventually this kid admits that he doesn't think the books are so bad. And what follows is the film's most disturbing scene, as you see every other child's face reveal their instant distrust of their peer, who moments ago they appeared to be entirely happy to hang out with. What makes it all the scarier is that we, the viewer, literally have no idea what happened to that kid after, what kind of torment he faced or whether that moment radically altered his perception of everyone else around him, too.

The sect of evangelical Christiandom that Jesus Camp follows is of course more extreme than many other iterations of the religion. But it's also less extreme than many, many others. And its overarching mission, aggressive as it may seem, grows more and more common throughout the American version of Christianity. That mission, as described in the film, is to "take back America for Christ," and that's more or less the same mission statement that the cult in Fred Van Lente and Clayton Henry's revival of Archer & Armstrong ostensibly possess. Jesus Camp is of course a journalistic exercise, a work that does its best to remain impartial and simply present its subject as is. Fred Van Lente and Clayton Henry, by contrast, have no interest whatsoever in impartiality. 

Archer & Armstrong's first issue opens on an apocalyptic scenario, brought on by faith. On opposite ends of the conflict are the brothers Aram and Ivar; the former is reason (though, interestingly enough, not scientific reason) while the latter believes in the potency of artifacts and idolatry. In the center is the dead Gilad, the youngest sibling, ready for, though not necessarily in favor of, his resurrection. Long story short, reason loses out and faith wins, but only in the sense that it, too, loses since everybody dies. Or at least it would seem that way.

From there we're brought to the present and there's a seismic shift both in location (we are now in Ohio instead of ancient Mesopotamia) and tone (seriousness is out, giddy satire is in). It's at this point that Van Lente and Henry's skills more properly align. Henry's art is much better suited to goofiness and mockery; given the grimacing and mystical hi-tech genocide of the introduction, Henry falters but given the obese American pilgrims and hi-tech religious theme parks of what follows, Henry more than pulls his weight. Which is for the best, since it's this latter artistry that Van Lente's script requires most.

Because, you see, Van Lente's interpretation of taking back America for Christ is quite a bit more explicitly militant than anything suggested in Jesus Camp. This is Jesus Camp with martial arts training instead of arts and crafts projects involving plastic fetus models, of ancient weaponry studies instead of prayer circles at the Supreme Court. And so it makes sense for both Van Lente and Henry to aim broad, to skew towards caricature rather than intimate, personal moments. But even so, the issue's greatest achievements come from those personal moments, as our quasi-protagonist Obadiah Archer is forced to reconsider his particular brand of faith after several instances poke holes in the shield of his naivety. 

The first comes as Obadiah is leaving the arc of orphans he's been raised and educated in, deep within the fundamentalist theme park that serves as the setting for the issue's first half. Obadiah has triumphed and has been chosen to serve as the "chosen one" of the orphans, the figure who will be sent off into the wicked world to seek out their greatest enemy. But as Obadiah is leaving, another orphan, Mary-Maria, is revealed to be the first of the group to experience the outside world, after she ran away. As they embrace and share their goodbyes, Mary-Maria forces Obadiah to silently promise that he won't be like her and when he leaves, he'll stay gone. As it was with Jesus Camp, this is a scene that begins with a wave of confusion rising on an innocent child's face. The seed of doubt has been planted, but it hasn't yet blossomed.

That comes later, as Obadiah heads to New York to pursue his target and heads into a den of sin, a bar where bras are mounted on the walls instead of deer heads, where a biker gang sharing his target's title are wreaking havoc. Obadiah interferes and nearly gets beat up for it, until Armstrong appears to intervene. But soon they too are fighting, as a device Obadiah was given has identified Armstrong as his actual target and they wind up exhausting one another, leading to their capture at the hands of a shadowy organization.

It's in this final portion of the issue that Archer & Armstrong has its own Harry Potter moment. It comes when Obadiah looks down and sees that his religious family was just a front for some kind of One Percenter death cult (yes, really). Henry perfectly captures the heartbreak and frustration that comes with a shattering of preconceived notions, even though Matt Milla's overly garish coloring somewhat dampens the effect. The rest of Archer & Armstrong may aim broad, but in that single panel, you can feel the emotional apocalypse Obadiah is going through, and the domino effect it is having on the rest of the identity he has built around the faith he's been immersed in all his life. 

While Jesus Camp ends without letting us know what happened to the Harry Potter supporter, Archer & Armstrong could be viewed as a glimpse at what could happen to the kid, if he also happened to be an immortal Christ-like figure with mysterious abilities and resources. While Archer & Armstrong under Van Lente and Henry's direction is currently poised to be The Sword for the Christopher Hitchens set, an acidic, clever take on religion that leaves no target unskewered and happens to also prominently feature a fantastic journey through time, it also possesses the ability to evolve into something more heartfelt and real, a work that steps away from vitriol and potshots and gets at a deeper truth about the philosophical divisions between the various followers of a faith that's theoretically all about forgiveness. Balancing those two ends of the series' pursuits may be tricky, but it'd make for an all too rare form of pop comic, one which makes you laugh and ask questions.

 


 

When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set and functioning as the Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and has contributed to No Tofu Magazine, Performer Magazine, Port City Lights and various other international publications. By which he means Canadian rags you have no reason to know anything about. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon.

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