Life's a Sketch
Armstrong and his wife, Sherry, insist that they—and Tess—have their own lives, separate from those of Joe, Marcy and Sunny, the loving, hardworking family in JumpStart. Still, the lines do blur. Armstrong admits to having modeled Marcy and Sunny on his wife and daughter, and "when things happen to me, they go right into the strip," he says. Adds Sherry: "Sometimes after my mom reads Robb's strip she'll call and say, 'Did that really happen?' "
Whatever the cartoon's source, the daily lives of Joe, a policeman, Marcy, a nurse, and Sunny—along with a supporting cast of family and friends—have helped make Armstrong, 34, one of the country's hottest young newspaper cartoonists. His strip, which runs seven days a week, is syndicated in 200 papers, and HarperPerennial has just published JumpStart: A Love Story, a novel in cartoons. "He does wonderful work," says Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts. "A strip needs good characters—and that's what JumpStart has."
Armstrong also thinks JumpStart, most of whose characters are black, tells an important story. "It flies in the face of racial stereotypes," he says. "Joe and Marcy are such normal, everyday people, committed to doing the jobs they are paid to do."
They weren't always so mainstream. When Armstrong first launched the strip, his characters spoke in street slang. "I was trying to be blacker," says Armstrong. "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."
In fact, Armstrong has always had good luck listening to the women in his life. Growing up in the working-class Wynnefield section of Philadelphia, the youngest of five children, the cartoonist-to-be never knew his father, who abandoned the family soon after Robb's birth. His older brother Billy served as a substitute until he was killed in a subway accident at 13, when Robb was 6. But it was his mother, Dorothy, a seamstress, who always encouraged Robb to develop his talent, enrolling him in private art classes when he was 10. She also got him into Shipley, a prestigious Main Line private school—then refused to accept a full scholarship. "She insisted on paying half even though she didn't have it," Armstrong says. "She was accustomed to providing for our family." Dorothy Armstrong saw her son graduate from Shipley and go on to Syracuse University as an art major, but during his freshman year she died of cancer. "She was 49," he says, "a young, beautiful woman." Though Armstrong, enraged and grieving, wanted to drop out, two families who had known his mother took him under their wing, helped him to get scholarships and persuaded him to stay in school. "They took an extraordinary interest in my life," he says. "They forced me to inherit my mom's drive."
Seeking an outlet for his grief, Armstrong, who had drawn cartoon figures for fun since the age of 3, created a grouchy character named Hector, who became a fixture in The Daily Orange, the campus newspaper. He also met Sherry West, a chemistry major from Philadelphia, and married her in 1986. "I was saved from a hollow existence by a wonderful woman," he says. "Marriage allowed me to achieve my dreams."
After college, while art director at an ad agency, Armstrong tried to have Hector syndicated, only to get a string of rejections. The same thing happened with Cherry Top, a strip about a policeman. "If I had known there were only four black syndicated cartoonists in the country, I would have been really discouraged," he says.
Then, in 1988, an editor at United Media in New York City, who had turned down Cherry Top because she felt the characters lacked life, asked Armstrong, "Why don't you do something more like yourself?" Within a year, JumpStart was off the drawing board and into the funny papers. "I spend all day, every day, thinking about my strip," he says. Twice a month or so, he thinks about it at inner-city schools, where he talks about his unlikely success. "I like giving hope to kids who may be without it," he says.
Working in the studio at his and Sherry's suburban Philadelphia home, Armstrong takes an hour to draw his daily cartoon and three or four to finish his Sunday strip. "He goes through a lot of angst just to get to the point where he can sketch," says Sherry, 31, who designs her own line of sweaters. "These characters," says Armstrong, "really are my kids in a way. I want to treat them right, just like anyone else in my family."
BOB CALANDRA in Philadelphia
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