Cartoonist Robb Armstrong translated the lessons of a traumatic childhood into a successful comic strip that’s considered the most-widely syndicated comic strip from an African-American author in history.
The creator of the “JumpStart” comic strip and author of “Fearless A Cartoonist’s Guide to Life,” will be the featured speaker at Safe Harbour’s 10th annual “Night Without A Tux” fundraising gala on Feb. 24 at the Carlisle Country Club.
“JumpStart” started in 1988, and features the Cobb family in Philadelphia. The heads of the family are Joseph “Joe” Cobb Sr., a city police officer, and Marcy Cobb, a nurse. Their children, daughter Sunny, son JoJo, and twins Tommi and Teddy, round out the rest of the cast. The basic theme of “JumpStart” is the trials and tribulations of a regular middle-class black family.
“Night Without A Tux” raises funds to support Safe Harbour’s mission of providing housing and supportive services for homeless and nearly homeless individuals and families to help them achieve independent living by increasing their basic life skills. The event also features dinner, music and dancing with Jazz Me, and a silent auction. Tickets are $75 per person for the event and may be purchased online at www.safeharbour.org, by calling Safe Harbour at 717-249-2200 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q. How has your background shaped your cartoon, “JumpStart” — without giving away anything you plan to share at the gala?
A. To answer this question, Armstrong referred to an interview that first appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News. In that interview, he said he started drawing when he was young by recreating the characters he saw on television.
His childhood had its share of difficulty. His mother worked as a seamstress to raise five children before dying of cancer at the age of 49. His oldest brother was killed in a subway accident. Even though he won a scholarship to a prestigious school, he struggled academically and faced isolation from neighborhood children who taunted him by calling him “white” for attending the school.
In those years, Armstrong said in the interview, art was his outlet.
Q. How did you come to start including homeless characters in the strip?
A. “Homeless characters began appearing in ‘JumpStart’ many years ago, but only as panhandlers.
“In 2009, I decided to look at people who are homeless differently. I chose to portray them with more nuance and dignity. That year, a homeless family is fed a Thanksgiving meal by my main characters, the Cobb family. To thank Joe and his family, the homeless character, Ray, gives a handmade metal medallion to Joe engraved with the word, ‘hero.’ Marcy, Joe’s wife, talks him into wearing the big, thick medallion to work. At first, Joe protests. He decides to wear it for only one day. That day he is shot in the chest by a suspect. The bullet is lodged into the medallion, saving his life.
“The homeless man, Ray, appears in my strip eight years later. He has by then become a wanted man, guilty of a long list of crimes. His worst crime is attempted murder. His mother, Sarah, is still homeless, and living in a Dumpster. Ray catches a man assaulting her and nearly kills her attacker.
“Joe happens to be the officer who catches Ray after years on the run. Ray receives a long prison sentence, and Joe never realizes this same man saved his life. Joe saves Ray’s dog, Mortimer, from being put down, assuming that Ray is going away for decades. Ray gets out of jail early, and wants his dog back. Joe obliges, but the dog runs back to Joe’s family, becoming a regular cast-member of ‘JumpStart’ as does Ray and Sarah.
“Both Sarah and Ray fully evolve in the strip and become redemptive characters with lush storylines in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Sarah even marries into the ‘JumpStart’ family, and is no longer homeless.
“Even though ‘JumpStart’ is a ‘humor strip,’ I try to not shy away from serious subject matter. Because it runs everyday, I am able to infuse humor into this ‘serious stuff’ on an ongoing basis. The mood is lightened so much, that the reader is surprised by the realness of ‘JumpStart.’”
Q. That brings us to services for the homeless and potentially homeless in Carlisle. How did you make the connection to Safe Harbour?
A. “The homeless storylines involving Sarah and Ray caught the eye of Scott Shewell at Safe Harbour, and he contacted me to invite me to speak. It’s quite an honor.”
Q. In general terms, what do you plan to share with the gathering at A Night Without A Tux?
A. “I plan to share my truth: That we all benefit when we treat homeless folks with dignity, and not as ‘panhandlers’ or some sort of burden on society. God put us here to help each other.”
Q. Do you have any encouragement to offer a young artist or a young person going through difficult times?
A. “In my book, ‘Fearless: A Cartoonist’s Guide to Life,’ a theme is evident from beginning to end: Adversity is a strengthening tool. I offer readers a litany of ways to use adversity to gain perspective in life, and to achieve lofty goals.
“An easy life, I believe, is a strange curse. Luxury softens a person. It dulls the human resolve. It interferes with empathy. Adversity, especially for a young artist, sharpens the vision and forges the resolve in extreme heat. It’s like boot camp: You can’t go straight into battle without it. My challenges are well-documented in my book. My family tragedies and humble beginnings make my current successes seem nearly impossible to believe. I am glad the struggle was always there, or I would not be where I am. I thank God for adversity.”