According to Robb Armstrong’s book, “Fearless: A Cartoonist’s Guide to Life,” he believes one should draw a self-portrait in order to achieve a sense of self-awareness – something the God-fearing and multi-published author and cartoonist has done.
“I’m definitely not the guy who draws cartoons, and that’s the end of the story,” he said of himself.
“[The word “Fearless”] speaks to my mother’s fearlessness in raising me, speaks to my brother who was a kind of reckless, fearless kid, and to the people who stepped into my life after my mom passed at a young age,” Armstrong said. “She died at 49, and two white families stepped into my life – one of them, a very strong Christian family, and [the title of my book speaks] to their fearlessness.”
Yet, the West Philly native does not merely define himself as a cartoonist. When he looks in the mirror, he said he sees more than a guy who has been married twice, a public speaker or even a father of two. Armstrong’s portrait has a variety of contoured lines and coloring which help tell his story, which includes losing his social activist mother at a young age and a brother to violence.
Another brother, he claimed, was beaten beyond recognition by policeman in 1970s Philadelphia. His mother, who had met Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and was unfazed also thought nothing of taking her son’s case to court.
“Now, you hear about it every day in the news,” he said of police brutality. “I’m not cavalier about all these things; it’s just this was a part of my daily life for a long time. When I [had] hear[d] about the Trayvon Martin situation and Ferguson, [Missouri, where unarmed teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in 2014], I [wasn’t] as taken aback as some people might be. Some might be stunned to see people abuse their authority, but not for me.”
Following a financial settlement from the Philadelphia Transit system, which was held liable for his other brother’s death, Armstrong and his family moved to a row home. He describes these things in “Fearless…” as tragedies he did not discard because they strengthened him.
“The good things about you aren’t always that useful to everybody,” he said. “My tragedies are the things that connect me to humanity. I don’t want anyone to ever think I’ve been lucky; things went my way, and that’s why I’m here.”
One of those things was being taught by Chris Wagner, an art teacher at The Shipley School – a college preparatory day school in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Although Armstrong said he faced racial backlash from attending a “white school,” at the time, he’d had enough pats on the back to consider himself a great artist.
“Artists are temperamental and don’t want to hear a lot of critique,” he said of himself. “I was on the wrong track. I thought my skill set was that I could look at something and draw it accurately; I thought that’s what art was, actually.”
Wagner, however, had another view. She knew Armstrong hated thinking for himself and that he was running from his own gift.
“She said, ‘You are a painter. You’re definitely a talented person, but until you bring to this planet something that’s not already here, you’re worthless’,” she told him. “The world is depending on the artist to bring something that the world can’t see on its own, not to copy off of somebody else. What are you doing?”
He added that after “breaking his spirit,” she told him his work was “one canvas away from selling velvet paintings of Elvis Presley at a gas station.”
After that humiliation, Armstrong learned to create. From there, according to his website, he graduated from Syracuse and entered his first marriage which formed a pivotal part of “Fearless…” He wrote in Chapter Fifteen, entitled, “My Marriage and My Life Collapse,” I was blind, willfully blind, and I only saw what I wanted to see from my limited perspective. And by the time I woke up to the problems in my marriage, it was too little, too late.
Following his divorce, Armstrong admitted to following a better lifestyle – changing his diet, his wardrobe, and his daily habits – “taking more responsibility day-to-day,” he said.
“It’s as fundamental as waking up in the morning and saying, ‘Today, be a man’,” he said. “It’s a great, great gift. I’ve become much more self-reliant, practicing my Christianity versus just telling people I was a Christian.”
Another pivotal moment took place in his post-graduate life, where he said he’d experienced the financially fruitful side of life, but had alienated his friends and family more than he knew.
“[The success] blinded me to a lot,” he said, “not just my [first] wife’s pain and suffering, but my friends. I didn’t understand what it took to become a gracious man. I started to look at myself and say, ‘Why was it so easy for people to turn their backs on me?’ To this day, I have [former] close friends that won’t speak another word to me again.”
Armstrong gave his life to Christ that night and afterward, he called the white family that had taken him in to tell them the news. Ten years later, across a breakfast table, the family’s father told him what that moment meant to them.
“[He said], ‘You remember that night you called us, told us about becoming a Christian? Earlier that week, we decided we would never talk to you again. We were done with you. You were a mean guy, Rob, prior to that.
“’You were hard-hearted where nothing could change or humble you. Then, we got this phone call that proved you were wrong. You saw the power of God and it changed us and you’. To this day, that just blows my mind. That’s how close I had come being caught up in myself. When things don’t become perfect in your life after being a Christian, it now becomes more important – for me to pray ‘Make me the man You would have me to be’.”
With six novels in print, including his highly-successful science-fiction teen series, Reject High, Brian Thompson continues to shape his career as a storyteller who fuses high-concept plots with down-to-earth characters. Brian formed Great Nation Publishing, LLC. – an independent publishing company aimed at promoting creative projects with integrity. Its published works include historical fiction novels The Lost Testament (2010), and The Revelation Gate (2011), with the latter landing on Amazon’s Top 80 List for Historical Fiction-Africa.
When he is not urging others to pursue their writing passions, Thompson chases his own: preparing for the fall 2016 release of Champion Immortal, the fourth and final installment in the Reject High series, being a full-time high school English/Language Arts teacher, and co-running the day-to-day operations of Great Nation Publishing. A proud graduate of both Morehouse College and Temple University, Thompson and his family live in East Metro Atlanta, Georgia.