Even if you're just the occasional reader of Jump Start, West Philadelphia native Robb Armstrong's 27-year-old award-winning comic strip, you're likely to assume Armstrong lived quite the charmed life.
At the heart of the daily strip, the largest ever syndicated by an African American, is the perfectly nuclear Cobb family, helmed by Philly cop Joe and wife Marcy, an emergency-room nurse.
Marcy and Joe have four children: nature-loving daughter Sunny, snarky son Jo-Jo, and a set of fraternal twins.
The Cobbs - named after Cobbs Creek - are surrounded by a cast of witty, diverse characters who deliver perfect punch lines to 80 million readers - in the Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News - in speech bubbles.
Yet the reality is Armstrong's personal life is nothing at all like the pleasantly Technicolor world of his fictional Cobbs.
Armstrong recounts his somewhat tumultuous coming of age in Fearless: A Cartoonist's Guide to Life (Reader's Digest, 2015), part self-help book, part memoir. The self-help is delivered in 20 drawing lessons, one at the start of each chapter. Through sketching self-portraits or outdoor scenes and even practicing their lettering, readers (Armstrong hopes) can get in touch with their inner artist and embrace their mistakes.
At the end of each chapter, Armstrong presents found-on-Instagram feel-good quotes - "Pay attention," "Try every day to be better" - that urge the reader to move forward with joy.
The reason you will whiz through Fearless' 219 pages is you will be absorbed in the painful stories of the cartoonist's life. Armstrong, 54, tells them with humor, aplomb, and at times an ego as big as Kanye West's, but not nearly as obnoxious.
"If you are stuck in a dark underground labyrinth, you don't want someone to show up and say, 'Hey, man, it's dark,' " Armstrong said from his home in Burbank, Calif. "You want someone to show up with a flashlight and help you. I want my book to be that flashlight."
We learn from the jump that things aren't easy for the young Robbin Armstrong, youngest of five children coming up at 56th and Walnut. Their father seemingly has abandoned the family, and Robbin's mom, Dorothy, works tirelessly by herself at a cleaners in Wynnefield. The family is always broke.
Armstrong likes to draw. His first attempts are awkward sketches of Fred Flintstone. And he looks up to his older, adventurous brother Billy.
In 1968, misfortune: The Market Street train closes its doors on 13-year-old Billy's leg, dragging him across the elevated train tracks. Billy later dies of his injuries.
The Armstrongs win a settlement from the city and rent a house in Wynnefield the next year. There, Dorothy becomes a respected community activist. That, however, does not end the bad times. On a walk home one summer night in 1969, brother Mark encounters police and, in a case of mistaken identity, his face is beaten to a pulp.
Dot Armstrong has had enough. She decides to try to save her last son through education, so she insists Armstrong apply to private school. He fails a series of private-school entrance exams, but is eventually awarded a scholarship to the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, becoming one of the first boys to attend the former all-girls school.
More struggle. Armstrong must repeat the seventh grade, and his friends in Wynnefield start to ignore him because he's "too white to hang out with." He focuses on his art and realizes he wants to be a cartoonist.
"He's had such a remarkable range of experiences, and he's used them to write such a terrific comic strip and do such good work," said Steve Piltch, head of school at Shipley.
(Piltch on Friday will present Armstrong with the Shipley School's Distinguished Alumni Award.)
Dorothy Armstrong died of cancer during Armstrong's freshman year at Syracuse University. After graduating, he took a job at a local advertising agency and drew his way into syndication with Jump Start. But he hardly had it made.
Life kept clocking him. He married, raised one child who had sickle-cell anemia and another who had a club foot, watched close friends go to jail, lived above his means, and divorced his first wife. Through it all, Armstrong said, he drew and drew and never gave up.
In the mid-1990s, when he began speaking to children at Philadelphia schools and libraries, Armstrong realized he had a story to tell that went beyond the comics. Three years ago, after a few TV opportunities failed, he decided to write a book. He called it Fearless in memory of his mother. "I wasn't the one out there slaying dragons," Armstrong said. "She was the one doing that . . . for us."
Armstrong hopes Fearless will inspire those who just can't seem to get it together no matter how hard they try. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, he says. And one day, who knows? Maybe his readers will be able to enjoy lives as idyllic and full of love as Marcy and Joe Cobb's.
Maybe one day Armstrong will, too.