Robb Armstrong tackles racism, classism, homelessness and bullying, and he does it quite deftly — in a comic strip.
But "Jump Start," which is celebrating its 30th year of syndication, isn't a polemic. Instead, the strip — which revolves around Joe and Marcy Cobb and their middle-class Black family — is by turns heartwarming, silly and laugh-out-loud funny.
"Jump Start" has run in the Star Tribune's weekday comics pages for years. It's now part of the Sunday lineup. We took this opportunity to talk to Armstrong about being a cartoonist, dealing with racial disparity in comics and the "Peanuts" character that bears his name.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You got "Jump Start" syndicated shortly after you graduated from college. It was one of the first strips by a Black man about a Black family. Now you've reached a big milestone. What's it like?
A: I have wanted to get to this point since I was 3. I remember being asked what I wanted to do, and I said, "I want to be in the papers just like Snoopy."
Q: I've read that Charles Schulz, the creator of "Peanuts," was a friend and a supporter of yours.
A: I met him after I'd been in syndication for about a year. I sent him an original strip and flew out to California to see him. He told me, "You're onto something. What you have here are great characters, characters who stand for something, characters who can stand the test of time."
Q: Looks like he was right. Your strip is running in more than 300 newspapers. But "Jump Start" isn't a remake of "Peanuts," is it?
A: Charles Schulz was an inspiration to me and an icon. But I had to do what I had to do. I didn't want the strip to be saccharine or glowing. I wanted it to be as close to reality as the form allows. It gets very real.
Q: How so?
A: Both of my main characters are on the front lines. Joe is a cop and a Black man. His wife, Marcy, is a very dedicated nurse and a mom. These are not costumes just slapped on them. I have a connection to these characters that makes me test them, push them, find their failures.
Q: How do you show their failures?
A: Joe is narrow-minded when it comes to criminals. He takes the "once a criminal, always a criminal" approach. Because of his looks, his [older white] partner Crunchy is profiled as being a racist cop.
Q: The strip is based in real life, and partly on your life. But it's often, well, funny. There isn't a sense of anger, of outrage.
A: That's not what this world needs. My friends don't need to hear how outraged I am. I have to be part of the cure. I created a cop who actually believes in protecting and serving others. I can make this happen [in a comic strip] even if I never see it in real life.
Q: Have the protests over the death of George Floyd affected the strip?
A: This is a flash point that I have to handle correctly. I didn't want to go all crazy, but I knew I would deal with police reform. In early August, the department will be going through police reform. Joe is going to be way more disgruntled under the reform than Crunchy.
Q: That's a bit unexpected.
A: You see prejudice in "Jump Start," but when you do, it's Joe being prejudiced against an ex-con.
Q: As a fan of the strip, I admire your multiracial cast of characters. But it's so large, I can't keep their names straight.
A: I'm probably the only one who can. There are over 30 characters in "Jump Start." In my new book ["On a Roll!: A Jump Start Treasury"] that's coming out in October, I put in a family tree.
Q: You feature a lot of kids, including Joe and Marcy's four. How do they function in the strip?
A: They represent not just childhood, but the hopefulness that comes with being a child. They have their own dreams, their own hopes, their own ideas of how the world they live in should be.
Q: You have some tough-kid characters as well, Willarbee, Percival and Cross, who are often foiled in their attempts to bully. What's their role?
A: Bullying is a hovering menace, and that's why I show them as shadows, not as cartoon characters. We're not afraid of what happens to us, we're afraid of what could happen to us.
Q: Oh, and that "Peanuts" character? Which one is named after you?
A: The Black dude, Franklin. He didn't have a last name. One time, Charles Schulz called me up and asked if Franklin could have my last name.
I didn't think about it at the time. But when Franklin turned 50, I did an interview about it, and it made me realize what an honor it was.