May 18, 2016
BE Modern Man: Meet ‘The Cartoonist,’ Robb Armstrong
Name: Robb Armstrong
Profession: Nationally-Syndicated Cartoonist
One word to describe you: Fearless
What does being one of the BEMM 100 Men of Distinction mean to you?
Armstrong: Black Enterprise is committed to socially-conscious entrepreneurship, therefore I consider this much more than an honor, it’s a responsibility. Truly life-affirming! This is what success is really all about. Success is actually greater than prosperity. Prosperity only speaks to ‘the bottom line.’ Success goes much deeper and is a reflection of the contribution one is able to make while creating a legacy. This consideration is quite a benchmark along my journey! Thank you for your consideration.
What are some examples of how you turned struggle into success?
Struggle isn’t the enemy; surrender is. A blessed life is one with obstacles to overcome. An easy life, free of burdens, is somewhat of a curse. Suffering is what we all have in common. I have suffered and survived. It gives me empathy and keeps me humble and relevant. Through suffering and overcoming adversity I have discovered my purpose. It is not enough to make it out of a dark place. A person lost in a pitch-dark underground labyrinth doesn’t want advice. That person wants you to come back with a flashlight! That is what my purpose is.
Abandoned by my father at birth, I knew only the self-sacrificial love of my mother, Dorothy Armstrong. She saw something in me and called me an artist. She mailed off my crude drawings to Random House, Scholastic books, and Simon and Schuster. When they, understandably, rejected my 5th grade scribbles, she enrolled me in formal weekend classes and told me to never doubt my own potential. She enrolled me in private school at 12. I attended classes with the children of wealthy families. She refused full scholarships and scraped together the means to keep me there. I knew early on that life could be frighteningly short. My oldest brother, who I practically worshiped, was killed at 13. He was caught in the doors of a subway train, and torn in two.
I was 6, and traumatized. But I had something of an epiphany: I decided to live urgently. To take my life and my dreams quite seriously. This kept me out of trouble, and was an effective means of avoiding peer pressure. Simply put, I was a little boy on a serious, grown-up mission to become a ‘real artist.’ As a result, I realized my life-goals at a young age. In 1989, when I signed my syndication deal to do JumpStart at 26, I was the youngest nationally-syndicated cartoonist in America. My book, FEARLESS: A Cartoonist’s Guide to Life, is distributed by Simon and Schuster. It is my flashlight. It can help others out of a dark place.
What is an important quality you look for in your relationships with others?
Relationships call for a lifetime of trial and error (A LOT of error!). Nobody can boast of being better than anyone else at the science. What we can work towards is having a good report given about us by our loved ones. I always look for an opportunity to pay close attention to those around me and learn something. Because I am a writer with constant deadlines, I must resist the temptation to treat people as fodder for my work. This requires being sensitive, and understanding that I am being studied and learned from as well! In my experience, nothing has been as challenging as relationships. Nothing has been as rewarding, either. I can tell you who taught me grace, who taught me generosity; who taught me punctuality and patience. I am grateful to those examples. I also have failed relationships and associations with friends doing life sentences for murder. I am equally grateful for those examples, too. By treating relationships well, with the respect they deserve, I am what I am. If I am considered to be a man of character, a debt is owed to those around me.
What are some immediate projects you are working on?
Right now, I am sitting at my drawing table working on JumpStart, the comic strip I have written and drawn every day for 27 years. As one of the first African Americans in my industry, I am an ambassador, and I’ve tried to make the most of the role. I have accepted invitations to speak around the country at more than 300 venues, including The Smithsonian Institute, The Library of Congress, Tedex Drexel University, and 20th Century Fox. I always pay homage to Morrie Turner when I speak. He was the first African American syndicated cartoonist, creating Wee Pals in 1968. I was honored to be his friend, and he helped open doors for me when I was just starting out.
Currently, most of my speaking dates are related to the promotion of Fearless: A Cartoonist’s Guide to Life, that is published by Reader’s Digest and distributed by Simon and Schuster. I want my book to inspire as many people as possible. It is not easy to do a daily strip and go on the road to promote a book. My deadlines are relentless, but such is life! Life, itself, carries a deadline etched in stone. For this reason, I attack my deadlines before they have a chance to attack me!
What is the best advice you ever received?
The best advice I ever received was to be original and think for myself. Never imitate. That advice came from my high school art teacher who was tough and expected the best out of her students. My peers would praise me when I mimicked the artwork in comic books, but my teacher Chris Wagner would press me toward true creativity.
What is some advice you have for other men who want to make a difference?
If any man truly aspires to make a difference in the world, he must first take full responsibility for who he is. There is too much finger-pointing in today’s world, and it is childish. We reward a man/child with our votes at the polls who engages in this? Unacceptable! As men, we are an example to our children. We have to be a strong example, which means accepting responsibility for our mistakes as well as our successes. Our loved ones and those who look up to us to accomplish that task first. If we take that seriously, I believe the social contribution will happen where we see a need and are willing to humble ourselves to serve. No man is perfect, but we must still strive for excellence even in our imperfection. I am in my second marriage, but I never blame my first wife for anything. I proposed to her, she didn’t propose to me. No man can make a difference without being a difference.
How do you prep for an important business meeting and/or event?
Living in a constant state of readiness is important to me. Why go to a karaoke bar without a song you are willing to belt out? Be ready! Sometimes I am asked to do something that requires some time and research to prepare for. To do a TEDex talk at Drexel University, I watched a lot of TED talks! Sometimes, I’m asked to speak on a pre-determined topic. One such opportunity came from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I had to speak at The State Capital about Women of the Civil Rights Movement. For that, I hit the bookstore, as well as Google. I was prepared with tons of facts and learned a lot in the process, which was great. However, I also used the venue to talk about the first civil rights activist I’d ever met: my mother, Dorothy Armstrong. She was a fearless advocate for human rights and once met Dr. King! The room was warmed up by my decision to build the speech around her, instead of cold facts from a book. I was touched by the enthusiastic response from the capacity crowd.
As a busy Modern Man, how do you unwind on vacation? Share a story about your best vacation.
I’ll never forget my trip to West Africa. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit stunning cities and exotic places such as Paris, London, Hawaii, Riviera Maya and the tropical paradise called, Vieques (off the coast of Puerto Rico), but nothing can compare to an African American from Philly going back to Africa! Those other places, as terrific as they are, are what you’d expect, not so for Africa. Very little of it resembles the images I was fed through history books and mainstream media. The thing that I felt immediately was the size of the place. Like visiting The Grand Canyon, my first thought was, ‘I’m so tiny!’ Each country is so distinct on the continent. Morocco is nothing like Senegal, which is nothing like The Gambia. Art is everywhere, but a tourist must be careful not to be swindled.
Crooks are all over this world! I got suckered into buying a worthless trinket and paid ten times its value! But I also got a hand-carved chess set and all it cost were my Air Jordans! I walked back to the hotel barefoot with a beautiful keepsake! Of the experience in Africa, most note-worthy was my excursion to Goree Island, off the coast of Senegal. Centuries ago, Africans were held there as prisoners, then dragged aboard ships to be sold into slavery. It was a gut-wrenching experience to see this place, frozen in time, and almost feel the inhumanity of being snatched from home into bondage; each African American on that excursion left tears on the sand in Africa.
Anything else you’d like to say?
Thank you, Black Enterprise. To even be considered for inclusion in BE Modern Man 100 is quite rewarding in and of itself! It’s our normal to be extraordinary.
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