REVIEW: Armstrong

Upon reading Armstrong, the webcomic by cartoonist David Halvorson, the surprising parallel that sprang to mind for me was Rugrats.  Like that fondly-remembered kid’s cartoon, Armstrong is a story about kids playing make-believe, in this case a bunch of 4th grade kids out in the playground during school recess.  Over the course of three chapters (with more on the way), Halvorson creates a mini-mythology for these kids to act out, a fiction within a fiction, where superheroes, cowboys, pirates and zombies co-exist in a world that channels the boundless imagination of a schoolyard game.

This approach has its strengths and failings.  On the plus side, this works great as an all-ages comic.  It’s the kind of light-hearted, gentle fun that will appeal to kids (along with a young cast they can relate to), but also has enough wit and nostalgic nods to appeal to adults and their memory of their own schooldays.  With each passing chapter, the scope gets bigger, and the world these kids have created grows more dense and layered.  From the very beginning, there are nods to future chapters and hidden backstories waiting to be explored.  The cast of characters is well-rounded and likeable.  Lead protagonist Bryce, AKA the masked superhero Scrap, is by equal parts cool and ridiculous, with us encouraged to laugh at his expense almost as often as we are to root for him.  Yoshi is the most badass 10 year old you’re likely to meet, and often seems like a more capable hero than Scrap.  The duplicitous Juliet is by turns vulnerable and scheming, but engaging enough that there’s some uncertainty about who Bryce truly loves.  Yes, it’s a pre-teen love triangle.  One character that proved to be a scene-stealer was the enigmatic cowboy Clinton, who at the ripe old age of 11 seems to carry the world-weary gravitas of Unforgiven-era Clint Eastwood.

The downside is that this world, for all the fun details and quirks contained within it, lacks definition.  I mentioned Rugrats earlier, but what worked so well in that show was that we flipped back and forth from the fantasy realm of their playtime to the real world, and the kids’ creativity became more endearing when compared against what they were actually working with.  There is no such balance here.  Instead, we’re in a kind of muddy in-between place where kids are beating each other up, getting caught in the drama of the weirdness surrounding them, and the occasional arm gets torn off.  But rather than just throw himself into this and say we’re in a crazy world run by kids where anything can happen, Halvorson will make mention of things like detention or having to end a fight because recess is almost over.  If this is the kids just playing make-believe, are they all friends during classtime?  During recess, are they method actors on par with DeNiro?  If Halvorson wants this to just be kids playing a game, doing a little more to show his hand that this is what’s happening could help ground the narrative.

His artwork, however, is pitch perfect.  The highly stylised characters put one in mind of JM Ken Niimura’s work on I Kill Giants, with a bit of the manic, manga-tinged energy of Scott Pilgrim thrown in for good measure.  It looks like a Saturday morning cartoon channeled into webcomic form, which is a good thing.  The character designs may be simple, but they prove to be surprisingly diverse in their range of expression, adding further nuance to the visuals and the “acting” of his ensemble cast.

There are some minor quibbles with the execution, but I still had a lot of fun reading Armstrong.  It’s currently available to view for free as a webcomic, but should David Halvorson decide to release this as a graphic novel once the story is complete, I’m sure there would be a sizeable market for it.

Armstrong is available to read online here.

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