52 weeks. 52 different writers. 2 trade paperbacks or hardcovers a week. Each week I’ll take a look at a different writer and read two different collected editions from within that person’s repertoire to help in the examination of their work.
Fred Van Lente is the type of writer you can’t help but love due to the charm and humour he puts into his scripts. Just to hammer that point home, back in 2014 Van Lente was nominated for a Harvey Award in the category of “Special Award for Humour in Comics”. Van Lente has worked for a plethora of publishers but is perhaps most well-known for the work he has done for the recently revived Valiant Entertainment, bringing to life one of the best buddy cop comics of all time in Archer and Armstrong. The two characters are even in the talks to have their own feature film produced at some point in the next few years.
Archer And Armstrong Vol 1: The Michelangelo Code
On a Tuesday in ancient Mesopotamia two brothers, Ivar and Aram, argue over the powers of a great machine called The Boon. A universal machine of unspeakable powers, Ivar seeks to use The Boon revive their deceased brother Gilad, while Aram objects knowing that neither of them truly understand the power of The Boon or what it is capable of. Ivar foolishly ignores Aram and activates the machine while Aram dives at it to stop it but is too late as a bright flash of light eradicates all life from Earth. Ten thousand years later (and still on a Tuesday), we are brought up to the present day inside an amusement park in Adam’s County, Ohio. Inside the amusement park is a fundamentalist compound that trains young, adopted, would-be assassins for an important mission in the outside world. Archer, the only member of the compound who is related its leaders, was born with the exceptional skill to allow him to mimic any physical skill without having actually learned it, making him perfect for the mission his parents have trained him for since his birth. Completing his training, Archer is set out into the world to assassinate a target for his parents, with his target being a man named Armstrong. Little does Archer realize that Armstrong is a supposedly immortal warrior and is actually Aram, having survived The Boon and travelled the world for centuries in hopes of keeping pieces of The Boon out of the hands of a secret sect. Armstrong brings the truth crashing down around Archer when he reveals that his parents are part of this sect that seek to use The Boon for evil purposes, creating an uneasy and unlikely alliance between the two heroes who race against time to prevent the world from getting destroyed yet again.
Fred Van Lente is a genius. It all shows with the stupidly addicting and wildly entertaining Archer and Armstrong. A crazy, buddy-cop-like adventure, Archer and Armstrong might be the most fun you’ll have had reading a comic in years. Van Lente is hilarious, witty, and thoroughly entertaining throughout in a series that will wildly exceed anything you expect of it coming into this first volume. I’ve begun to read more Valiant comics over the last few months, with Archer and Armstrong being an instant classic and runaway favourite in my opinion. Fred Van Lente takes characters you won’t be familiar with and makes them fully functioning and believable humans who you will be immediately enamoured of.
Let’s start with the story, which is so simple that it becomes brilliant because of how Van Lente executes it. An evil religious sect wants an unspeakable power for the sake of immortality. Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s literally Raiders of the Lost Ark…but how is that a bad thing considering it’s one of the greatest action flicks of all time? The distinct difference between Raiders and this first volume of Archer and Armstrong is that there’s no Indian Jones, but there are still two amazing lead characters that balance each other out perfectly. Archer and Armstrong are reluctantly thrown together when Archer discovers his family is actually the very force of evil Armstrong is fighting against, creating a personal wedge between the two characters immediately. From there, it’s a race against time to find the remaining pieces of The Boon that the Sect is in search of, with the adventures that come with it being a driving narrative force. Fred Van Lente draws from history, making the artist Michelangelo a key figure in this first volume, largely due to the friendship he shared with Armstrong. An action mystery that’s a race against time is the type of plot that’s been done before, but the humour Fred Van Lente puts into the story is a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart. There’s nothing about this that feels cliché, which is surprising consider half of the stuff in here has been done before, but that is definitely the reason why this story is as good as it is!
This story, as entertaining as it is, owes all of its success to the title characters of Archer and Armstrong. I’ve noted the humour as the strong point to this entire collection but all that humour comes from the contrast between your two leads as they are at the centre of the central conflict thanks to Archer’s personal tie to everything. With Archer you get a character who is capable of being a legendary action hero but his character is only heightened by the interactions he has with Armstrong. Archer is capable of learning any physical skill, allowing him to be a master martial artist with absolute ease. The interesting wrinkle to his character is how serious and disciplined it makes him, strongly opposing the laid-back nature of Armstrong. With Armstrong, you have a drunk brute who is the comedic backbone of this story. He’s deathly serious about the mission at hand but also can’t resist the sweet taste of wine or a pint, especially if it’s put in front of him during a moment where he needs to roll up his sleeves and save the day. The conflicting nature of the characters, with Armstrong’s experience balancing out Archer’s sheltered life will bring you about as much enjoyment as you can find in a comic book. There’s no moment you won’t enjoy yourself after these characters come together for the first time and continue to bring the hits your way. Trust me when I say, Archer and Armstrong is one of the most entertaining action comics I’ve read in years. There’s no doubt in my mind that I’m going to promptly go out and buy the other six volumes to keep up with these guys and their over-the-top adventures.
Collects: Archer and Armstrong #1-4
Best Character: Armstrong
Best Line Of Dialogue/Caption: “We came up with a special move during the siege of La Rochelle–we called it “The Cannonball Special”.” – Armstrong
Best Scene/Moment: Archer and Armstrong solve the Michelangelo code – Issue 2
Best Issue: Issue 3. A lot of dramatic moments crop up in issue 3. Archer has a conflict of interest in his mission to stop his parents, there is tragedy that befalls the heroes, and of course there is tons of that comedy I’ve been talking about for the whole post. Better to read it for yourself and just nod in agreement on this one.
Why You Should Read It: The Raiders of the Lost Ark comparison feels like an apt one to come back to as Archer and Armstrong is just like Indian Jones but with two compelling leads instead of just one. The comedy, action, and everything in between is nearly on par with good ol’Indy and you’re sure to fall in love with this series if you love anything that’s good in the world. It’s ridiculous but in a great way with some fun ideas underneath all the awesome humour and tight action that you can sink your teeth into. Archer and Armstrong is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year for the challenge and considering the amount of reading I’ve done, I don’t say that lightly. This book won me over with four too short issues and I want more right now.
Fred Van Lente, along with artist Ryan Dunlavey, co-founded Evil Twin Comics, producing their non-fiction comics and Van Lente’s most notable work, Action Philosophers. This is the key project that launched Van Lente up the ranks that allowed him to work on titles like Marvel Zombies, The Incredible Hercules, and X-Men Noir to name a few. More recently, Van Lente has worked with Dark Horse to produce the comic series Resurrectionists. During its initial run, Resurrectionists actually switched over to a digital only series along with a few other titles under Dark Horse. Now with a full six issues, the series has a chance to reach another audience of readers who only buy collected editions of stories instead of single issues.
Jericho Way was an ambitious architect whose career was cut short by the tragic failing of one of his projects for Soujorn Corporation. Greg Lennox, the head of Soujorn Corporation, testified against Jericho which resulted in his incarceration for a few years. Jericho knew the entire thing was an accident and felt as though he was set up to fail but was never able to prove it. Now, years later, Jericho is a professional thief, working alongside his former cellmate, Mac, to procure mysterious ancient objects for a mysterious benefactor. Little does Jericho realize that his present life is tightly intertwined with a past life he lived as a man named Tao, a tomb maker from Ancient Egyptian times. After Tao experiences a betrayal at the hands of Lord Herihor, Tao sets out to take revenge on the man who ruined his life. With both Jericho’s present and past lives so tightly linked together, he must find his reincarnated former allies and use them to help free himself from other groups that have come baring down on him for his unique services. All this plus Jericho realizes all but too late how important the objects he was stealing for his mysterious buyer are, as they hold key pieces to his past.
Fred Van Lente takes you on a stroll down memory lane with Resurrectionists. Set both in the past and the present day, Van Lente plays with the idea of reincarnation and how it can lead to a person having lived multiple lives across different time periods. As such, we are given a backdrop of Ancient Egypt and modern day America for the story to unfold in as we follow the character of Tao in the past and Jericho Way in the present. The dual storyline of Resurrectionists is a widely appealing idea as we get two wildly different stories that still intersect with each other in multiple ways, forcing the reader to always be attentive for any sort of critical story element even if it happened thousands of years ago. Van Lente finds most of his success with this story by translating character traits unique to characters like Jericho Way into the characters that he is a reincarnation of like Tao, resulting in a story where, even if it lacked visual cues, you’d still be able to understand which characters were connected to each other in intimate ways because of how they act.
When you look at the plot, you get two stories for the price of one, but when you look more closely at the comic you realize that there is potential for thousands of stories that all interconnect with each other, even if the connection is as basic as past versus present. In reading this volume I found that your present day plot experienced plenty of dips in quality whilst the past storyline remained consistent, with this fact most likely due to the truth that the past is already set in stone while the present is fluid and ever-changing. As such, in the past storyline you’re watching predetermined events that are all leading to an inevitable end you’re informed of from the present timeline, you start at Point A and clearly know where Point B is going to land, with everything that happens in between enhancing the journey. You know Tao will fight for survival, develop a bond with pivotal characters and seek to take revenge on Lord Herihor or die trying. This means you get to watch the building of these characters’ relationships in the past, which in turn enhances how you see them in their reincarnated forms in the present, with this fluidity between reincarnated character across the past and present being the emotional strike Van Lente needs to unleash to keep you invested all the way through.
It’s when you get to the present day narrative that things get a little dicey as the freedom Van Lente is afforded causes some jumpy plot moments. Some of the dots you’re forced to connect can be missed and then this results in areas of the plot feeling rushed. This comic starts as a heist comic, becomes a history comic, and then decides it might be a heist comic again but seems unsure of that decision. The muddying of genres gets in the way as you already have to juggle the past storyline of survival and revenge, with the coy nature of “this is and isn’t a heist” proving to be a rather testing aspect the further you get into the story. This is especially disappointing as you clearly see Van Lente has the chops to make compelling heist scenarios from the opening moments of the series. From there Van Lente tries to sprinkle in some solid plot twists but they’re moments you can predict from a mile away and don’t do much to dramatically alter the course of the plot. You basically have to rely on the strength of the reincarnated characters translating cleanly from the past to the present as a means to keep you hooked while the present day plot just feels iffy at times.
Circling back to your characters, as I’ve mentioned numerous times now the strongest aspect of this comic lives and dies with the idea of reincarnation. How well Van Lente translates character traits back and forth between the dual storylines is impressive, as you clearly know who each character is supposed to be even if there hasn’t necessarily been a proper character introduction between allies or enemies in one time period or the other. It’s fun to see where your strongest and weakest characters fall as, in this case, your primary protagonist isn’t necessarily your most enjoyable or interesting character whilst your primary antagonist is incredibly vanilla. When it comes to your lead in Jericho Way, the man feels wildly all over the place. At times he ranges from feeling like a weasel to being brilliant, with this largely due to the shock of realizing how many more lives he’s lived across different time periods. Before being “awakened” to his past lives, Jericho is a rather bland man, filled with heartache and sadness, making him your average white male that isn’t overly compelling. It’s that pivotal moment when the truth is revealed to him that his character seems to skip a beat and hit a stage of development that just doesn’t feel deserved. He goes from sorrow filled to brave and confident at the drop of a hat in a way that just feels and seems unnatural. It’s not even as if his past incarnation of Tao does anything in his time period to justify the change in character trait but one could argue that the transferral of a desire for revenge across a time period might be a strong argument for Jericho Way to experience some sudden character development.
To me, Mac Gardner was one of the more compelling characters in this story as he brought some reality to a story that knows it’s out there. Mac was the former cellmate of Jericho when they were both incarcerated, bringing Jericho into his current line of work as a thief. In the past time period, Mac was a tomb robber named Bahati, going into tombs to steal treasures from kings and pharaohs alike. A jovial but greedy man, Bahati actually seems to sharply contrast the character of Mac, who seems cold and calculated on the surface but passionate when no one is looking. The juxtaposing nature of the shared reincarnation is an element that this story sorely needed, as Mac is unreceptive of the idea of reincarnation for nearly the entirety of the story, grounding out the fantastical element of everything you see these characters experience. To sharply contrast of how powerful a character Mac was, Van Lente presented a villain in Greg Lennox who is disgustingly paper-thin. Your prototypical “evil, rich white guy”, Lennox is a sore disappointment in regards to the other character work that Van Lente does, as he is nothing more than your average villain archetype. His villainous motivations are predictable, albeit believable, but they do nothing to convince you that this man is compelling or tragic. He’s maniacal, selfish, and pure evil in a way that is off-putting but not to a degree that you feel like you can’t help but stare on even if you want to look away. In a world where we’ve had complex villains like Walter White develop over time into brilliant and evil characters, Greg Lennox hardly registers as a blip on the radar of infamous evil doers.
Collects: Resurrectionists #1-6.
Best Character: Mac Gardner.
Best Line Of Dialogue/Caption: “Maybe if you eased up on your finder’s fees I could finally afford that Settee from IKEA.” – Jericho Way.
Best Scene/Moment: Quinn helps Jericho not get hypothermia – Issue 3.
Best Issue: Issue 3. This is the issue where you start to see characters making sense of the whole reincarnation angle. Jericho finally starts to understand who he really is and shares a slow beat moment with Quinn that is a silent highlight of not only the issue but of the entire volume as well. From there you also learn some fascinating things about some of the other key players in the story as everything gets kicked into the preparation stages to head towards the finale.
Why You Should Read It: This is a great read for people who like weird history fiction. The two storylines that you follow are fun to see unfold although your past is far more entertaining than the present. The dialogue during the past scenes is a fair bit wonky considering characters from Ancient Egypt would never talk like that but that’s a minor grievance in comparison to the shaky present day plot. All in all, Resurrectionists is a fun history story that plays around with what it wants to be throughout, something that can serve as a satisfying decision to readers who always like to read comics that don’t settle themselves into one particular genre.