Somewhere close by, in a world not unlike your own, two young, African-American parents work to balance career, family and marriage against the never-ending passage of time.
The pulse of the external world never skips a beat as Joe and Marcy Cobb, complete with four children, carry on in spite of the ticking clock. Yet, according to Robb Armstrong– creator of Jump Start– the daily comic strip in which the Cobb Family exists, this fictional family’s journey is all about keeping track of time. “Jump Start runs everyday with or without inspiration,” Robb comments. “Some days I’m inspired, and other days it’s 4am, and if the sun comes up before something’s down on paper, I’m in trouble. And in moments like that, I have to ask myself what is this really about? It’s about life being brief. It’s about maximizing our time here.”
Robb has certainly practiced what he preaches, maximizing his efforts through the syndication of Jump Start in 420 papers nation-wide, including the New York Daily News, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and the Chicago Sun-Times to name a few- making it the most widely syndicated daily strip by an African-American in history. And for nearly two decades, he’s solely and continuously met the challenges of writing, drawing and producing this celebrated comic strip about a black, middle class family, using his own life as a natural source of inspiration.
The character Robb based most after himself, for example, is the father, Joe. A big kid at home while maintaining order in the streets as a police officer, Joe was shocked in 2005 after finding out that Marcy was not only pregnant, but carrying twins. Shortly after, Tommi and Teddy were born. Meanwhile, Marcy maintains order at home as well as in the hospital as a nurse, then almost effortlessly resumes the role of mother to their now four children: Sunny, the oldest- Jojo, Joe’s namesake- and newest additions Tommi and Teddy. “It’s about life and death,” Robb says. “Both of my lead characters have life and death careers, Joe’s a cop, Marcy’s a nurse, so the strip is saying if there’s something you need to do in this world, if spending time with your family is important to you, today would be a good day to do that.”
Robb not only delivers this message through Jump Start, but also through his countless motivational speaking engagements at universities and organizations across the country. So, needless to say, I listen intently as he sits before me, our conversation feeling less like an interview and more like getting caught in a rainstorm where each drop of water contains an ocean of wisdom. But insight certainly hasn’t taken away from his humility, as he couldn’t be more unassuming when talking about Jump Start, his proudest professional accomplishment to date.
A Dream Turned Reality
“By the time Monday rolls around, something has to be sort of written down,” Robb shares. “By the time Tuesday comes around, some visual idea has to be in place; by the time Wednesday rolls around, this thing has to look like a week of strips. Thursday and Friday are sometimes frenzied to get the finishing touches and the photoshop done, and it’s just hours of sitting at a computer. And everything’s turned in by Thursday or Friday, but Thursday, hopefully.” At present, Robb is two weeks ahead of what’s currently in print in the daily papers, and three weeks ahead of what’s in print in the Sunday paper, which he admits is a big shift from his earlier days as a cartoonist where he maintained a six week lead. “And the reason for that is I’m far more self-critical then I was when I was young,” he says. “I thought everything I did was great back then; I was a poor editor. But today, I may not know what’s funny or what’s good, but I do know what’s not funny and what’s not good. In those two areas, I’m actually reaching the level of expert.”
And it’s now this level of care and attention paid to his craft that has representatives at William Morris Endeavor actively looking to turn Jump Start into a television show. Then there’s his affiliation with Literary Agent Celeste Fine of New York-based Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc. who’s looking to turn the life that he typically references during his motivational speeches into a self-help book. “What I typically do when I go on stage is give a one-hour performance that’s uninterrupted, almost like a one-man show. And I’ve been doing it for almost twenty years, so it’s very well rehearsed in its design to sound spontaneous,” he says. “That talk, because it’s so dark, and by dark I’m meaning the high points in my life are tragic points: the death of my brother, the death of my mom, the absence of my father- these things make for dark subject matter. But they’re handled in this light, animated, almost stand-up comedy kind of way.” Robb has already completed his proposal for the book, and he’s shopping it around to publishers now. But make no mistake, whether any of this happens or not, Robb will be okay.
“I’m in a weird position where I’ve already accomplished my dream,” he says. “Jump Start is my dream come true, so I’m pursuing these other opportunities with a peace of mind. And what I see a lot of young, hopeful people out here in L.A. do is attach their own worth to the success of their project. But you can’t do that. You need to understand that your value is what it is. I’m utterly convinced of my own value and my purpose as a human being and the importance of me doing what I’m gifted to do. And if the projects that are born out of that don’t come to fruition, it doesn’t change my assessment of who I am.” One of the ways Robb brings this message to young people through motivational speaking is by being extremely candid about his own journey, which- based on the surrounding circumstances of his childhood- should’ve ended with either a prison sentence or death.
It was Robb’s mother who first noticed his talent, enrolling him in private art classes when he was a kid, then getting him into the private college-preparatory school known as Shipley where he garnered attention creating a comic strip that ran once a month in the school newspaper. “I did regular caricatures of teachers with little blurbs ridiculing them, and they loved it,” he says. “So I’ve had my stuff in print since I was 15, and by the time I was 17, I was selling it to the Philadelphia Tribune. And if I hadn’t done the work for my high-school newspaper, I never would’ve been prepared for what happened at Syracuse.”“I had all the trappings of a kid who was going to end up another statistic,” he admits. “I was a typical black kid from Philadelphia, and everything was in place: the absentee father, the ridiculous violence. My brother was torn in half by a train when he was 13 years old, and my family was traumatized. Then my only living brother, when he was a teen, was in the wrong place at the wrong time and brutally beaten by the cops because of a case of mistaken identity. And, again, my whole family was turned upside down.” Robb’s mother refused to accept this injustice, taking the case as far up the judicial-system ladder as possible, in essence, waging systematic war against the city of Philadelphia. “There were times when I couldn’t go outside the house because my family had death threats against us,” he says, “so my stage presentation is that life. But I never doubted myself. I believed that God put me here and gave me certain gifts for a reason.”
Robb graduated from Shipley and got accepted into Syracuse University with a major in art in 1981. There, he produced a daily comic strip called Hector for campus newspaper The Daily Orange. “And that Hector strip was a direct cousin to Jump Start,” he recalls. “It was getting me in the door, and there was no money associated with that. And I believe that if I hadn’t had that experience, I would never have made it into the business. And because I came into the industry by giving my talents away, I’ve never associated money with success. Success comes when you feel you’ve made a contribution to the world as a result of your being born.”
The person making the biggest contribution to Robb had always been his mother, which is why her death during his freshmen year at Syracuse changed him, nearly sending him down a very different path. “After my mother died, I was terrified and very hard to be around, and it triggered promiscuity in me. I became an unapologetic womanizer. And thank
God for the clinic to remind me that that was not a good idea,” he admits. “But, thankfully, I had really intrusive family members and friends of the family who very generously helped pay for my books in college, and they introduced me to the Bible. And I eventually became more reverent, started paying more attention to God, and I changed my attitude.”
Alignment of Invisible Threads
With his faith having been restored, Robb was practically unstoppable, adopting an almost brazen sense of purpose the day he- still a college student- walked into the offices of the Philadelphia Daily News and asked for the opportunity to do a comic strip for them. “Getting in front of the right people for me was never a problem, and I think it’s because I was oblivious to protocol,” he says. “Ignorance combined with courage helped me. So I ended up sitting in front of this guy, and he says, ‘You want to do a comic strip for this newspaper? No, you don’t want that. That’s a lot of work. What you want is to be a syndicated cartoonist and do one strip and have lots of papers pay you, right?’” This man then handed Robb the name and phone number of Morris “Morrie” Turner, the first nationally syndicated African-American cartoonist, creator of the 1965 comic strip Wee Pals (which reached nationwide success in 1968), and Robb’s childhood hero.
“Mark sat down with me, and I was very excited about the idea of working with Morrie, and Mark basically told me I shouldn’t be involved. He said my own work was ready to be syndicated,” Robb shares. “But I didn’t know how I was going to do that, and I wanted to be involved with Morrie Turner. But Mark said, ‘Trust me, I know a guy named George People, he’s Charles Schulz’s editor at United Media, and I’m going to make sure George sees your work.’” Mark did indeed send over Robb’s work- which consisted of Hector and another transitional work- and, in the meantime, life went on as scheduled. Robb eventually graduated from Syracuse University in 1985, and was already working as an art director for an ad agency when the United Feature Syndicate contacted him, inviting him to meet with them in New York City.
“I made it to New York, and it took two months to get a deal shaped up,” he says, “but they eventually offered me a development deal that resulted in a contract.” It was during this time that he created Jump Start, and his dream of being a syndicated cartoonist had finally stabilized in the real world with his strip being syndicated by the same company that syndicated the legendary Peanuts and Garfield comics. “So that meeting in Ohio with Morrie Turner was this key moment in my life,” he comments. “If I hadn’t gone, or if Morrie was too much of a big shot to talk to me, none of this would’ve happened. The stars aligned, but it also required this courage. And courage also requires you to take the time to talk to someone. Courage is what Morrie Turner displayed when he talked to me, a random kid he’d never heard of.”
And it’s this same courage that drives Robb to reach as many young people as possible through his motivational speeches- in essence- paying homage to Morrie Turner, his mother, and everyone who has supported him up to this point with every presentation he gives.
Yes, if success is truly based on the gifts we leave behind, then Robb Armstrong will remain a major success for as long as we all live. The gift of inspiration he bestows upon our youth, the future of this planet, serving as only part of his legacy. He’s taken a liking to acting as well- appearing in a commercial for Capella University and in an episode of the Nickelodeon hit show Supah Ninjas. He’s also drawn a single panel cartoon for The New Yorker magazine on three separate occasions, which he admits “was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done because they have very discriminating tastes.”
But no matter how many new opportunities present themselves, or what paths his talents might lead him down in the future- for Robb Armstrong- everything has and will always come back to Jump Start. “There are all these threads throughout my life. And when I tell the story about my journey to this point, it’s pretty clear that everything has been connected,” he says. “And I’m trying to integrate similar connections into Jump Start. And the biggest challenge is not making it jokey, but to weave this family’s life through a tapestry that means something so that the people who read this strip see an urgency to love. That is my purpose.”