Black History Month

Posted by on February 26th, 2010 at 7:39 PM

The month set aside for recognizing the roles that African Americans have played in U.S. history is about to pass over the horizon for another year. While some black cartoonists celebrated the occasion of the month in one way or another, no one did it more than Robb Armstrong in his strip JumpStart, a lively chronicle about the Cobbs, a close-knit African American family.

For a week, Marcy Cobb, his nurse heroine, wondered whether a patient in her care was actually Frederick Douglass. He looked like him, but Douglass, as Marcy pointed out, died in 1895. “But I come back every February,” the guy said, “for Black History Month.” Marcy mutters to herself: “Dream sequence. This is obviously a dream sequence.”

Eventually, the guy confesses that he’s just an actor who looks powerfully like Frederick Douglass.

And in the nursery the next week, the Cobb twins discuss Black History Month. At mid-month, Armstrong produced this commemorative Sunday strip (click to enlarge if you are so moved):

Nice twist, and just the sort of thing that happens in JumpStart.. Last fall, October 2 marked the 20th anniversary of JumpStart. Armstrong has had good luck listening to the women in his life. He and his brother and his mother were abandoned by his father soon after he was born, but his mother, a seamstress, insisted that he develop his talent, paying for private art classes and getting him into a prestigious private school. She died during his freshman year at Syracuse University, but her friends kept young Armstrong at his studies when, angry and grieving, he threatened to drop out. Still angry, he drew a comic strip for the campus paper about a grouchy character named Hector.

And he met Sherry West, a chemistry major. “I was saved from a hollow existence by a wonderful woman,” he said; they married in 1986 and had a daughter and then a son.

After college, Armstrong became art director of an ad agency and submitted Hector for syndication; when that didn’t sell, he tried a strip about a policeman called Cherry Top. After receiving a string of rejection slips, Armstrong put his comic aspirations strip aside—until his wife urged him to show a strip to his friend Mark Cohen, and Cohen, a passionate comics fan and agent for cartoonists’ selling their originals, took the strip to United Media. An editor there saw promise in the strip but felt Armstrong would do better if he wrote more out of his own experience.

So he did, creating JumpStart (which began October 2, 1989), a strip about Joe Cobb, a policeman, and his wife Marcy, a nurse, and their daughter Sunny. At first, they spoke street slang, but when Armstrong realized he was perpetuating stereotypes, he stopped. “I don’t talk like that,” he said. He realized that “the closer the strip is to your own life, the easier it is to write.”

Now, he says, the strip “flies in the face of racial stereotypes. Joe and Marcy are just normal, everyday people, committed to doing the jobs they are paid to do.” And his fan mail tells him his readers identify with the Cobbs. “I’m thrilled when people say that,” he said, “because I’m drawing about my life—about a black couple because I’m black. It’s wonderful to know that people respond to these characters.” JumpStart runs in about 400 newspapers.

In the strip, the anniversary celebrated is the 20th of the opening of the hospital where Marcy works. “Words cannot express my gratitude for JumpStart,” Armstrong, 47, told Editor & Publisher. “I would call it a dream come true, but I never dreamed of this phenomenon, never imagined this kind of longevity.”

In addition to his cartooning, E&P noted, Armstrong works as a motivational speaker, especially for children in crisis. He speaks regularly to groups such as Congress’ Government Outreach, and has also given speeches to such institutions as the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institute and the University of Pennsylvania.

Armstrong has a long history of community service, as well, having been recognized by the Governor of Pennsylvania, the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives, the Department of Justice and Nestle’s “Men of Courage” program. Armstrong recently moved from his native Philadelphia to Los Angeles so that he could focus on additional creative pursuits, including painting. He credits his daughter Tess and son Rex with being the biggest inspirations for his comic strip’s characters and stories.

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