By Fred Van Lente, Emanuela Lupacchino, and Guillermo Ortego
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Ahh, family. Tossing the ball around the backyard, board games and movie nights, smoking hashish and killing assassins and….um…driving a bus into each other. Boys will be boys? Archer & Armstrong volume 2, “The Wrath of the Eternal Warrior” is all about that familial quirkiness that binds together the people you would like to beat the crap out of most often. Van Lente, Lupacchino and Ortega make the title duo into a quartet this go around and tell what is ostensibly an Eternal Warrior story. Fortunately, it’s a darn good Eternal Warrior story, even if it does shift the focus away from the titular heroes. Moving at a blistering pace that will have the reader feeling much like the breathless Armstrong running from his persistent (and, you know, murderous) brother, this second story arc is a deluge of new characters, big ideas and humor.
Pulling the series into the larger Valiant Universe, the setup is fairly straightforward: the Geomancer was killed in the first arc, Eternal Warrior supposed to protect Geomancer, Eternal Warrior angry, Eternal Warrior smash puny brainwashed child assassin. Okay, it’s slightly more nuanced than that, but essentially the story revolves around the search of a new Geomancer (they’re sort of like Highlanders, apparently), the shared history of the two immortal brothers, and taking down an evil cadre of nihilists named The Null. Say what you will about the tenets of One Percent Capitalism, but at least it’s an ethos.
Van Lente packs a ton into the five issues that comprise this collection without having it feel burdensome as he throws a myriad of different storytelling balls into the air and juggles them all He makes great use of flashbacks to both further develop Armstrong as a genuinely lovable oaf with a big heart in contrast to his more pragmatic brother, as well as progress the present-set narrative by slowly doling out the history of The Null. There’s a good bit of brick-laying future plotlines in addition to giving a thorough origin story to the new Geomancer, Kay who Van Lente deftly introduces. Her learning on the job dilemma, specifically her conversations with the Earth (in the form of a “monkey dressed like ‘Mother Nature’ from the 1970s Chiffon margarine commercials”) are instantly relatable and hilarious. Archer and Armstrong themselves, however, feel a little like guest stars in their own book.
This still nascent team has only had four issues to build a believable bond between its leads and here it feels like we jumped forward in time a little too far to a point where Archer and Armstrong possess the deepest of partnerships. Granted, the shared experiences depicted in the first volume could presumably speed the gestation period for this friendship, but aside from one moment aboard a barge between the two, there just feels like something’s missing. The odd-couple buddy story that was at the heart of the first volume is gently put in the backseat for most of this arc. If this story had come in the third volume, giving the reader just a little more time to get watch the growth of their relationship, it would undoubtedly have felt more natural. It’s a minor quibble, perhaps, because what Van Lente provides instead is more time to understand Gilad and Aram’s shared immortal history and their roles in the larger universe. Their rapport rings as true as any real-world brotherhood relationship with the added fun of timeless adventuring. Throughout the eras, boys will be boys and brothers will be brothers. Seeing their contentious existence with each other smartly serves to contrast Armstrong’s current bond with another younger brother-figure, as well.
Emanuela Lupachino is a great addition to the team as her style is strongly reminiscent of Clayton Henry’s so as not to radically depart from the established tone while still delivering her own unique cartooning ability. Her facial expressions are full of life and absolutely deliver the payoff in the scripted humor. She’s tasked with plethora of locales throughout time, each with their own design challenges, and nails them all seemingly effortlessly. A golf-cart chase sequence, a Matrix-ized room, an Steel and Peele-infused fight atop a double-decker bus, astral plane visitations, the list goes on and on, but Lupacchino takes it all in stride and her tight rendering allows for no detail to go obscured while still knowing when to restrain herself from over-complicating the humor-dependent exasperations of the characters. She’s elaborately sparse when it counts the most and cleanly lays out the page so as to allow the your eye to focus where the story intends. A great deal of this successful approach should be attributed to Oretgo’s rich saturated colors. They’re bold, but never flamboyant and reinforce that while some gruesome happenings occur and the fate of the world is often at stake, this is still primarily a fun and humorous comic. Playing with lighting to great effect, particularly in the flashbacks, Ortego captures the ideal feel for every era from the bright Brit-pop to the somber autumn colored candle-lit fortress hallway.
It may not have the same level of sharp, biting commentary on religion and the nature of faith, nor nearly enough odd-couple moments between the two main protagonists as the opening story, but Van Lente, Lupacchino and Ortego still deliver a wholly original, universe-expanding action adventure story with laughs. Comfortably sitting somewhere between the irreverent wackiness of Quantum and Woody and the grimmer, action-centric Eternal Warrior, Archer and Armstrong again makes the case for being the most universally welcoming Valiant title available. Suffering only an iota of sophomore-slump, it still remains finely crafted throughout. It’s wickedly smart in its construction and beautifully illustrated, “Wrath of the Eternal Warrior” successfully lobbies to be admitted into your comic family. Just don’t be surprised when it tries to run you over with a bus, as this particular family is wont to do.
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