Armstrong: JumpStart's positive depiction of African American life is refreshing

RobbArmstrong
Philly guy Robb Armstrong, creator of the comic strip JumpStart.

JOE AND Marcy Cobb are like the folks you see pushing carts through Acme on Saturdays.

Joe is a Philly cop; Marcy's a nurse at a local hospital. They are married and have four kids, including a set of fraternal twins. They are a loving, hardworking family with all the usual ups and downs.

In other words, they're like a whole lot of middle-class African Americans - except that they're characters in a nationally syndicated cartoon strip called JumpStart that makes its debut in the Daily News on Monday. The daily cartoon is the brainchild of Philly-born cartoonist Robb Armstrong, who grew up in West Philly before moving to Wynnefield.

If you've never checked it out before, you should.

I like JumpStart because of the normalcy of Armstrong's depiction of African American life. It's light and mostly noncontroversial. It's like Beyoncé before she hipped us to her hot sauce-in-her-bag swag. It's The Cosby Show before dozens of women accused Bill Cosby of being nothing like the congenial Dr. Huxtable. It's the Obamas - minus the political wrangling that surrounds their every move.

Armstrong - no relation - started drawing as a youngster. He would recreate characters from The Flintstones and other cartoons he saw on TV. His mother, the late Dorothy Armstrong, worked as a seamstress and struggled to raise five kids on her own in a rough neighborhood. She always praised Armstrong's creations and made a point of enrolling him in private art classes.

After a subway accident that killed his oldest brother at age 13, Dorothy moved her family to Wynnefield. Armstrong won a scholarship to attend the Shipley School, a prestigious, college-prep institution in Bryn Mawr that at the time was transitioning from its roots as an all-female school to enrolling boys. It was a huge culture shock for Armstrong academically and culturally.

Neighborhood kids shunned him and called him white for attending Shipley, where he struggled academically, even failed the seventh grade. Art was his outlet. The other kids praised his work, and he knew he was talented.

He credits a former art teacher, Chris Wagner, for helping him to grow artistically. At the time, he was recreating superheroes such as the Incredible Hulk and copying other artists. Wagner, who has since retired, wouldn't accept that. She pushed him to come up with his own concepts instead of following.

"She got to me, and I started to understand the creative process at a young age," Armstrong last week.

During a break from school, he met then-budding newspaper political cartoonist Signe Wilkinson, who allowed him to shadow her as she worked. She encouraged him to be more expressive and helped him develop.

"I was a few years older than he was," Wilkinson recalled. "He was adorable. I knew he'd be great and he was."

At 17, Armstrong took some of his creations to the Philadelphia Tribune, where he said, " 'Look, I've been reading the Tribune and unlike the Bulletin, you have no cartoons.' " An editor there listened and became his first client.

After graduating from Shipley in 1981, Armstrong enrolled at Syracuse University, where he majored in advertising design. His mother died of cancer at the age of 49 while he was a freshman. Armstrong funneled his energy into a well-received comic strip called Hector that he created for the student newspaper.

Between semesters, Cobb would go to South Street. where he'd sell caricatures for $5. Degree in hand, Armstrong began working at local advertising agencies. He worked on accounts for Scott toilet paper and Alpo dog food, traveled to New York City, met fashion models and brought in a good salary. He was doing well, but he wasn't satisfied.

"I had actually started sending out my work to syndicates when I was still in college but getting a comic strip syndicated is extremely difficult. It's like becoming a poet. It's like really crazy to aspire toward making a living in this particular way," he said ruefully. "It's tough. Tough is not even the word. There is no word to describe it. You're not going to do it. I don't care who you are. I do a lot of speaking at schools and colleges. I never stand onstage and encourage kids to pursue this."

But Armstrong kept at it, staying up all night to create comic strips that he would send out only to be rejected.

His luck changed after meeting with former editorial page editor Richard Aregood, who gave him the number for the late Morris Turner, an African American cartoonist who created Wee Pals, the first racially integrated cartoon strip. One thing lead to another and by 1989, Armstrong had his first syndication deal.

Today, JumpStart appears in more than 300 newspapers nationwide, including the Los Angeles Times, New York Daily News, Boston Globe, the Atlanta Constitution, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Inquirer.

The Cobbs, around whom the strip is built, are regular folk. It's interesting that they get their surname from Cobbs Creek. Daughter Sunny is a mac-and-cheese fan. Joe Cobb Jr. is an up-and-coming leader.

"I wanted to draw and write an aspirational version of life," explained Armstrong, who is married with two kids and lives in Los Angeles. "In the beginning, it was aspirational but I eventually became that. I eventually became this guy with a wife and two kids and all that.

"It was important to show a black family that had their act together," he added. "This was the early years of Cosby . . . and it was something that I thought was a positive portrayal that the world needed and, frankly, something newspapers would publish."

Wilkinson, now a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Daily News and Inquirer, said:, "He doesn't avoid issues. But it's not about issues. It's really a comic strip about life."

"That's why people turn to the comic section as opposed to the editorial section. It's a shared humanity and he helped widen the humanity that got shared. He widened the lens about who appears in comic strips."

Jump Start creator Robb Armstrong will be at the Free Library of Philadelphia at 7:30 p.m. on April 26 to discuss his forthcoming book, "Fearless: A Cartoonist's Guide to Life." The event is free and open to the public.

 

@JeniceArmstrong

Blog: ph.ly/HeyJen

armstrj@phillynews.com