Armstrong, Robb 1962–
Robb Armstrong 1962–
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Robb Armstrong, described by People as “one of the country’s hottest young newspaper cartoonists,” is one of just four black syndicated cartoonists in the United States. Armstrong’s comic strip Jump Start, which first appeared in 1988, currently runs in more than 250 newspapers, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Los Angeles Times, Atlanta Journal and Constitution, and Chicago Sun-Times.
Jump Start follows the story of an average, working-class black family, which is closely modelled on Armstrong’s own. “The strip is very autobiographical,” Armstrong was quoted as saying in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I consider myself an authority on only one thing, and that’s being a happily married family man.” When Armstrong began drawing Jump Start, the strip featured Joe Cobb, a cop, and his wife Marcy Cobb, a nurse. Later, after the birth of Armstrong’s daughter Tess, he added the character of Sunny, Joe and Marcy’s baby daughter. “When things happen to me, they go right into the strip,” Armstrong told People magazine.
In addition to his cartooning career, Armstrong is a motivational speaker for young people, delivering lectures in schools, libraries, and churches throughout the country. During the school year, he speaks to about 2000 students a month. In his speeches, Armstrong tells the story of his own success, encouraging students to get an education and work toward their goals. “I like giving hope to kids who may be without it,” he told People.
Robb Armstrong was born on March 4, 1962 in Wynnefield, Philadelphia, the youngest of five children. His father abandoned the family when Armstrong was six, leaving his mother, Dorothy, to support the family by working as a seamstress. “I grew up without knowing my father, “Armstrong was quoted as saying in Philadelphia Magazine. “One Christmas, he gave me a bike with training wheels. And he had a white car. That’s all I remember about my father.” Armstrong’s resentment runs so deep that he refuses to mention his father’s name in interviews. “He made his decision 34 years ago,” he told about... time magazine.
A fan of The Flintstones and Peanuts, Armstrong began drawing comics when he was three years old. His mother encouraged him to keep drawing—sticking up his pieces on the refrigerator—and enrolled him in private art classes when he was ten.
Born Robb Armstrong, March 4, 1962, Wynnef ield, PA; son of Dorothy Armstrong, a seamstress; married Sherry West, a fashion designer from Philadelphia, PA, 1986; one daughter, Tess. Education: B.A. in art, Syracuse Univ. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Christian.
Art dir., various ad agencies in PA; syndicated cartoonist, 1988-present; visiting professor, Savannah Coll.of Art and Design, 1997.
Awards: Nestle’s “Men of Courage” award; Wilbur Award from the Religious PR Council, 1995.
Member: Syracuse Univ. alumni bd.
When he was twelve, Armstrong won a full scholarship to Shipley, a private school near Bryn Mawr, Philadelphia, that was trying to integrate. Though he had been a good student at his previous school, Armstrong found it difficult to adjust socially and academically, and ended up repeating the seventh grade. Nevertheless, his mother insisted that he stay on, and Armstrong eventually graduated from Shipley. Later, he enrolled at Syracuse University in upstate New York, where he majored in art.
While Armstrong was a freshman at Syracuse, his mother died of cancer. Armstrong struggled to finish college, earning money by drawing caricatures on the street in Philadelphia and applying for every scholarship that he could. The encouragement that his mother had given him helped him cope. “She’d instilled an overabundance of confidence in me and I never wanted to drop the ball,” he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “That kept me going even though times were hard.”
At Syracuse, Armstrong started drawing a strip called Hector for the student newspaper, The Daily Orange. Hector was a grouchy character who railed against the world and its injustices, giving Armstrong an outlet for his anger at his mother’s death. While at Syracuse, Armstrong met Sherry West, a chemistry major, who was a big fan of his strip. Armstrong graduated in 1985, and the couple married in 1986.
After graduating, Armstrong worked as an art director at a Philadelphia ad agency, while submitting Hector to the syndicates. None of the syndicates was interested in the strip, which they said was too negative. In response to the editors’ criticism, Armstrong created a more light-hearted strip called Cherry Top, about a policeman, but again had no success. An editor at United Media, who had turned down Cherry Top because she said it lacked life, encouraged him to concentrate on characters that were closer to home. To help the process, the syndicate gave him development money for a year.
Syndicated cartooning is extremely competitive: of the 5000 submissions United Media receives every year, it accepts two or three. For African-American cartoonists, the odds are even worse. “If I had known there were only four black syndicated cartoonists in the country, I would have been really discouraged,” Armstrong told People.
Armstrong eventually came up with From the Hipp, about a young black couple: Joe, a cop, and Marcy, a nurse. The material for the strip was based on his own marriage, and the characters copied after himself and Sherry. “Because I had to study my wife’s every nuance to write for Marcy, I fell in love with Sherry all over again,” he was quoted as saying in a United Media press release.
United Media was happy with Armstrong’s strip, but disliked the name From the Hipp. “I wanted to call the strip Off Duty” Armstrong told about... time magazine. “That got an equally numb reaction. They said, ’We like the name Jump Start. But I didn’t know what that means. They said ’Nobody knows what it means. It doesn’t mean anything. Your work is good and eventually people will like it.’”
Armstrong creates his strip in a studio in his home in Dresher, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. “I spend all day, every day, thinking about my strip,” he told People. While the actual drawing is a very quick process—the daily strip takes about an hour, the Sunday strip three or four—thinking up the ideas takes unlimited time. Armstrong continually takes notes about things that strike him as funny, from the behavior of shoppers in the grocery store to stories on the news. “He goes through a lot of angst to get to the point where he can sketch,” his wife Sherry told People.
Many readers like the strip because it represents an average African-American family in a positive light. “I’m thrilled when people say that,” Armstrong told the Republican-American (Waterbury, Connecticut). “Nearly every married couple I know is very much like Joe and Marcy. The image of young blacks is so skewed, so false. I don’t know anybody who’s carjacking, playing basketball, rapping. I don’t know anybody named Snoop Doggy Dogg.”
While Jump Start features a black family, Armstrong wants the strip to appeal to readers of all ethnic backgrounds. The strip includes white and Asian characters, who are friends of the Cobbs; Joe’s best friend is his white partner, Crunchy. However, Armstrong is sometimes criticized by African-American readers. “I’ve had people say, ’Yeah, your characters are not black enough,’” he told about... time.
When Armstrong first started drawing the strip, he tried to make it less mainstream; for example, the characters often used street slang. “I was trying to be blacker,” Armstrong told People. “Then a black woman wrote me, and she was just irate. I said, ’You know, she’s right, I don’t use this slang.’ I was feeding into all those stereotypes.”
Armstrong is extremely pleased that Charles Schultz, the creator of Peanuts and Armstrong’s boyhood hero, is a fan of Jump Start. “He does wonderful work,” Schultz was quoted as saying in People magazine. “A strip needs good characters—and that’s what Jump Start has.”
Like Jump Start, Peanuts is distributed by United Media. Ironically, United was the same syndicate that balked when Schultz introduced Franklin, a black boy, into Peanuts in the late sixties. Schultz had to threaten to quit in order to get the strips published.
Building on the success of his strip, Armstrong has started his own line of Jump Start greeting cards, which are distributed through Gibson Greetings. His characters also appeared, in animated form, on The Fabulous Funnies, a CBS television special tracing the history of comics. In 1996, HarperPerennial published Jump Start: A Love Story, a collection of published and unpublished strips, which told the story of how Joe and Marcy met, married, and had a family.
In 1996, Armstrong signed a four-book deal with HarperCollins to write and illustrate a series of books for young readers. The series’ main character, Drew, is modelled after Armstrong, and the stories are based on his experiences growing up in Wynnefield and attending Shipley. The first installment, Drew and the Bub Daddy Showdown, about neighborhood bullies, was published in 1996. The next book, Drew and the Homeboy Question, planned for 1997’, is about a black boy who loses his neighborhood friends when he goes to an all-white school. The third book in the series will be Drew and the Filthy Rich Kid.
In January of 1997, Armstrong spent ten weeks as a visiting professor in the sequential art department at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Savannah, Georgia. In Armstrong’s class, “Newspaper Comic Strip Syndication,” students created four weeks’ worth of comic strips and produced a promotional press kit, so that they could submit their work to syndicates as Armstrong had done. While the appointment at SCAD was Armstrong’s first visiting professorship, he had previously delivered lectures at Syracuse University, Moore College of Art and Design and the University of Pennsylvania.
Despite the demands of his cartooning career, Armstrong gives motivational speeches to groups of young people in Philadelphia and throughout the United States. Armstrong begins his lectures by drawing cartoons on the spot, while explaining how he was able to succeed in his career. Once the students are interested, he gets to the point: the only way for them to duplicate his success is to stay in school and work toward their dreams. “It is possible,” he was quoted as saying in Philadelphia Magazine. “I can’t say it loud enough or strong enough. Go to college, go to college, GO TO COLLEGE.”
In addition to his personal lectures, Armstrong also appears with his characters and Wynton Marsalis in a Scholastic video and book, which are used in classrooms to help motivate young people. Armstrong has lent his characters to several public service campaigns, such as the American Diabetes Association’s campaign to encourage people to take the Diabetes Risk Test, and the American Cancer Society’s “Great American Smokeout.”
In recognition of his service to the community, Armstrong was honored with Nestle’s “Men of Courage” award. In 1995, the Religious Public Relations Council chose Jump Start to receive a Wilbur Award, for excellence in the communication of religious issues, values, and themes. “The Wilbur award was absolutely the pinnacle, so far, of my cartooning career,” Armstrong told the Republican-American. “It’s clear that they (the characters) have a spiritual side and are not ignoring their souls.”
about... time, September 1996.
Flint Journal, October 1, 1995.
Georgia Guardian, December 20-26, 1996, p. 4A.
People, April 29, 1996.
Philadelphia Inquirer, March 17, 1996.
Philadelphia Magazine, January 1993.
Republican-American (Westbury, Connecticut), 1995.
Richmond Times-Dispatch, January 1997.
Syracuse Herald-Journal, October 1996.
United Media press releases: “Jump Start by Robb
Armstrong, ““Cartoonist Robb Armstrong Publishes First
Graphic Novel: Jump Start: A Love Story/’u Jump
Start Cartoonist Robb Armstrong Kicks Off the New
Year at The Savannah College of Art and Design.”
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