Archer & Armstrong, one of comics’ great odd couples, first appeared 24 years ago. They debuted in grand 90s fashion: a zero issue which lead directly into the Unity crossover event. (In this respect they managed better than Aram’s brother Gilad whose solo series began with an event tie-in). The characters were created by Jim Shooter and Bob Layton, who shared story credits on #0 and Barry Windsor-Smith who handled the pencils. With #3 Windsor-Smith would assume writing duties along with art. Under his tenure he would refine the book into the greatest achievement of 90s era Valiant.
First though, Shooter and Layton laid the groundwork with their #0 origin issue. Readers meet Obadiah Archer as a young teenager living in Topeka, Kansas. His parents, who run a local church with a sizable following, have given Archer a sheltered childhood. Archer, despite his uncanny physical abilities, is rather naïve about the workings of the world, caving to bullies out the spirit of turning the other cheek. In fact, he is so proud of his compassion he excitedly runs home to tell his parents, who proceed to show little interest in their son’s achievements.
Honestly, Archer’s parents are one aspect of the series that have not held up so well over the years. Religious hypocrites who happen to be child murderers (a sexual element is heavily implied as well) they already felt cliché in the 90s, let alone now. However, their role in Archer’s evolution still works. Having discovered their crimes, he escapes their attempt to kill him, and runs off to Asia, There he finds a monastery willing to take him in and train him. The discipline focuses his energies, yet leaves his anger burning not far from the surface. This tension between calm idealism and bitter indignation would provide an interesting edge to the character.
Archer meets Armstrong in Los Angeles, where the latter is panhandling. After a series of events, Archer ends up employed by the mysterious Sect to assassinate their arch-nemesis, evil incarnate, Armstrong. Yep that disheveled bum who claims to be a few millennia old. This conflict is just heating up, when Aram’s brother Gilad recruits them to help save all existence. So, the next two issues see Archer and Armstrong thrust into the midst of Unity. #0-2 are enjoyable comics which establish the characters’ voices, though, they do not have quite the punch of later installments. Part of this comes from the hectic nature of jumping straight from setting the stage to participating in a line-wide event. Shooter, Layton and Windsor-Smith (who co-wrote #1 & #2) do some nice things with Turok’s divided loyalties and the Erica/Albert relationship (which remains one of the most ^^^^^^^^^ mother/son dynamics in comics). Once the dust settles from Unity, though, Windsor-Smith assumes full writing duties and raises the book to new heights.
Windsor-Smith takes the comic undertones of the initial installments and brings them to the foreground. He fully embraces the absurdity of the concept (wino immortal meets clean-cut sheltered do-gooder) and runs with it. #3 features the duo kidnapped by the Sect, spirited away to Rome, where they escape, sneak through the Pope’s bedroom (where His Holiness has fallen asleep watching TV) and end up being chased through St Peter’s Square by nuns brandishing semi-automatics. Oh and later it turns out those Sisters of Doom were men dressed in nuns’ habits. Go figure, right?
Once they get free from that mess they travel down the Rivera to meet Aram’s wife Andy, the Greek goddess Andromeda, and their pet dinosaur Flo. Throughout all these madcap escapades, Windsor-Smith never loses the thread of character development. Where Archer and Armstrong came off as rather arbitrarily tossed together in #0, Windsor-Smith really makes their bonding natural. The reader feels that these two are sticking with each other for reasons other than plot convenience. There are also charming beats involving Archer’s flustered interactions with Andy. At the same time, Windsor-Smith mixes in the right amount of action to keep the story rolling along.
All of these strengths are on full display for the iconic #8, considered by many the greatest single issue the original incarnation of Valiant produced. It was a doubled-sized issue that also served as the eighth issue of Eternal Warrior, which Windsor-Smith had a brief stint on as writer/artist as well. The story was a flashback to Christmas season, 1661 and the true tale behind Alexander Dumas’ Musketeers. (There is a bit of The Man in the Iron Mask added for good measure). In Aram’s recounting, three of the famous swashbucklers were the Anni-Padda brothers while the fourth was a young man who bore a striking resemblance to a present-day Obadiah. Windsor-Smith spins a rocklin’ narrative full of twists which playfully evokes the spirit of the era. At the same time, the plot takes darker turns as the heroes face a string of unintended consequences. Throughout Windsor-Smith is able to keep the characters both true to their period and the personalities which fans recognize from their 20th Century exploits. Gilad is cold and arrogant, while Aram comes off as oblivious while arguably being the most levelheaded of the bunch. D’Artagnan, the Archer stand-in, is naïve and honorable. Only Ivar is rendered a bit more loosely. This was his first appearance, however; in later issues Windsor-Smith would further flesh out The Timewalker.
Ivar next pops up in the present day, where he is kidnapped by an odd assortment of characters. Snatched from their various time periods, they blame Ivar for stranding them in their 1990s. (This tale is where the concept of time-arcs get introduced and tied to Ivar’s character). Ivar is a laid-back guy who is carrying a torch for the love of his life, the Egyptian Queen Nefretete. The larger cast of supporting players gives Windsor-Smith plenty of quirky material; the exchange between Jimi Hendrix and a robot from the 41st Century is particularly delightful. This is also where readers learn the secret of Stonehenge. Sorry conspiracy buffs, but it was built in a night by Armstrong while drunk off his ass.
What makes Archer & Armstrong stand out so strongly from the rest of its peers at Valiant is not just the fine writing, but also the excellent art. Many of Valiant’s books had a house style which, as house styles go, was comfortably poised between bland and exciting. Windsor-Smith, on the other hand, was already a veteran talent when he joined Valiant and it shows. His art has a dynamic energy to it which truly pops off the page. He renders all the outrageous events with a matter-of-factness which only highlights their absurdity. There is a great page from the Rivera idle where the huge dinosaur Flo curls up beside Archer like a lap dog. It is a tender expression of the universality of pets’ desire for human companionship. By the same token, Windsor-Smith excels at facial expressions, capturing various moods from the serious to the comedic. In such a way, he renders the quieter moments as memorable as the frantic ones. Also, he captures Solar like few others ever have.
Windsor-Smith’s time on the title only lasted for a year. His final issue as writer/artist was #12. In it he takes a long-running subplot involving Armstrong’s misplaced satchel and uses it as a means to bring his story full-circle. The climax occurs in a bar, The End of the World, which was also featured in #0. Archer faces his emotions about his parents, making peace with some of the anger inside him. There are gags involving a martini and a rampaging pig. Then the book ends with a quiet off-beat moment between Archer and Armstrong which perfectly distills the charm of not only their pairing but the whole tone of Windsor-Smith’s time on the property.
And then Windsor-Smith was gone, one of the causalities of the staffing shake-up that followed Shooter’s departure from the publisher. In general, the 90s Valiant never recovered from Shooter’s ouster. Archer & Armstrong, however, was particularly hard hit, showing just how essential Windsor-Smith’s voice was to its success. The title floundered and was canceled at #26. Unlike other Valiant properties, it was not revived during the Acclaim years. Instead, it lay dormant until 2012 when Fred Van Lente demonstrated there was life for the characters past Windsor-Smith.
Still, for a brief period in the early 90s, Barry Windsor-Smith made Archer & Armstrong one of the best comics on the stands.