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Archer and Armstrong Volume 1: The Michelangelo Code

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by Fred Van Lente, Clayton Henry and Matt Milla

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but a naïve highly trained child assassin walks into a bar and befriends an immortal brute with a drinking problem only to find himself fighting a cadre of demon worshiping Wall Street bankers, lethally devout nuns and psychic Tibetan monks with Hitler mustaches. Oh yeah, and they need to save the world too. Chances are that’s not your typical superhero pitch, but that brilliant blend of humor and action has been fantastically compiled into this first volume of Archer and Armstrong titled “The Michelangelo Code” by Fred Van Lente, Clayton Henry and Matt Milla.

Having never read the original run of the series from the 90’s I was initially concerned about the barrier to entry, but those fears were quickly assuaged as the characters and basic conceit of the story were clearly laid out within the first few pages. We’re first shown an ancient Mesopotamian society (on a Tuesday, to be specific) where a trio of brothers has discovered a device of tremendous and unknown power that brings about a devastating culling. Fast forward several thousand years to a religiously themed amusement park where the son of a conservative US Congresswoman and a reverend, Obadiah Archer, is utilizing his near-superhuman fighting prowess to train for his final mission to eliminate “He Who Is Not to Be Named.” Having passed with flying colors, namely beating the crap out of his adopted and equally lethal siblings, Obadiah is sent off to the real world to fulfill his quest only to almost immediately find his target, who is of course the aforementioned drunken immortal Armstrong. The story quickly turns into a globe hopping adventure, à la the Da Vinci Code (see, the title makes more sense now), and fighting one ridiculous evil sect after another in an effort to find pieces of the ancient destructive device we saw in the opening. That’s the basic conceit of the plot, but the real heart of this first story arc lies in the relationship between the titular protagonists. Obadiah is a sincere and believable character in his deadly innocence, someone who is easy to root for as he holds true to his moral core even in the face of betrayal. On the complete other end of this buddy cop spectrum is Armstrong, whose thousands of years of living life to the fullest has left him both cynical and big-hearted. Together they form a tandem that is at times charming and at others utterly devilishly hilarious.

Like Laurel & Hardy, but deadlier and drunker

Like Laurel & Hardy, but deadlier and drunker

If you’re not familiar with some of his other work, it becomes rapidly apparent just how smart of a writer Fred Van Lente is. While the story works really well on the surface as a straightforward adventure, it is also loaded with satire. There are plenty of jabs at Wall Street, traditional American conservatism, and the world’s self-indulgent modern society, but there’s also great commentary on religion and the nature of belief. Archer is steadfast in his beliefs even when betrayed by the very same people who taught them those beliefs and in the face of a 10,000 year-old “sinner” who shows him a wealth of evidence to the contrary on their journey. At the same time there are great supporting characters, specifically a one-eyed, tough as nails former Italian resistance fighter turned woman of the cloth named Sister Thomas Aquinas. She’s a terrific counter point to Archer, someone who has dedicated themselves to a belief system and allowing that belief to be strong enough not to allow the voice of a dissenter shake it. She also wields a Tommy gun, so that’s worth about 10 awesome point’s right there.

You’ll be hard pressed not to finish this collection in one sitting. At about 115 pages (the first four issues and some bonus material) the pacing is to be commended. Van Lente and Henry work phenomenally together keeping the story moving at a great clip without letting up even when exposition is required, largely due to the great blending of humor to add levity to even the tensest situations. Henry’s art is very tight, but not busy and he really excels at character expressions. Every face is full of life and underscores their respective personalities to a tee. From catacombs to mountaintops to the streets of New York’s meat packing district, Henry lets us know we’re rooted in a familiar real world setting, albeit one rife with nun assassins. On top of those pencils and inks we have Matt Milla absolutely killing it on colors. From the get-go, Milla’s vibrant colors help set the tone of the book and continue to add a rich sheen to the multitude of environments.  Even when things seem dire, the colors stay perfectly saturated and remind us we’re never in a dark, gritty world. Take a look at the bonus material and you’ll see some uncolored pages if you need an example of just what Milla’s colors bring to this book. This is a great trio of creators running on all collaborative cylinders.

This collection is a gem and even consisting of only four issues, I promise you you’ll get your money’s worth with a full story.  The end certainly hints at further developments and I’m already voraciously waiting to dig into the next volume. If you read the first issue and decided to switch to trades on Archer and Armstrong, stop what you are doing and go get this first one right away.

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