`Jump Start' finds a home

Comics: The syndicated strip about a middle-class black family maintains a broad focus on the issues that concern everyone.

September 06, 1999|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

Robb Armstrong and his wife were in Baltimore earlier this year, just visiting, staying at the Marriott Inner Harbor, doing the crab thing. Then Armstrong, the 37-year-old cartoonist and creator of the strip "Jump Start," picked up The Sun. He wasn't in it.

"It broke my heart," says Armstrong, who has depicted its characters Joe and Marcy Cobb for more than a decade. The Cobbs, one of the first middle-class black couples to be featured in a nationally syndicated comic strip, now appear in 375 newspapers across the country.

Beginning today, Armstrong's "Jump Start" becomes a permanent Sun comic after a month-long tryout.

Armstrong -- who has two children, Tess and Rex, in keeping with his fondness for short names -- was born and reared in West Philadelphia and lives outside Philly to this day.

He grew up reading comic strips, none of which featured a black couple of any income bracket. With this void in mind, the Syracuse University graduate launched "Jump Start" featuring Joe Cobb, a policeman, and Marcy Cobb, a nurse. Their daily struggles, interests and observations seem universal.

"I hope I'm speaking on broad issues and not at the expense of ethnicity. Blacks have told me, `This strip is not black,' and `Do something black,' " Armstrong says. "But I don't know any blacks who sit around talking about black issues or sit around brooding all day about discrimination."

The people he knows talk about wanting a raise, wanting to spend a week in the Cayman Islands or lowering their golf handicap, Armstrong says. Not every black person, he says, raps, plays basketball or car-jacks.

In its subtle way, "Jump Start" attempts to send a message, the cartoonist says. "Joe and Marcy live a responsible life. They are hard not to like. You would welcome them as friends," he says. "By saying, `Look at us,' why would you discriminate against them?"

Armstrong has made a name for himself elsewhere on the comics page. At 5, he began sketching Charlie Brown and, years later, met his hero, "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz.

So impressed with "Jump Start" was Schulz that he gave his own black character Franklin the last name of Armstrong. The honor still feels fresh.

"That," Armstrong says, "is maybe the coolest thing going."

To our readers

Today, "Non Sequitur" returns to our comics pages after taking a month's vacation, "Jump Start" has been holding down the sport in its absence and, at the request of readers, will be sticking around. "Jump Start" will now appear in the lower, right-hand crner of the comics package, replacing "The Piranha Club."

Pub Date: 9/06/99

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