Who Is 'JumpStart' Character Ray Ramsey?by Lucas Wetzel
Robb Armstrong has been writing and illustrating his daily comic strip, JumpStart, for over 25 years now. In that time, readers have come to expect a refreshing, funny, light-hearted family comic strip that also addresses serious life events, social issues and internal dilemmas. One thing I love about JumpStart is that the characters feel like "real" people — how they talk, how they make decisions, their personality quirks, and the many details that make them who they are. As Armstrong’s 2016 memoir Fearless: A Cartoonist’s Guide To Life illustrates, the characters in JumpStart are often based on his real-life friends and family members. So as the "redeemed career criminal" figure Ray Ramsey went from a guest star to a mainstay of the strip, I simply had to find out more about where this unusual character came from. I’m sure JumpStart readers are curious as well. Read on to learn more…
Robb Armstrong: Ray Ramsey" is the solution to a problem.
My characters, generally speaking, are all "good" people. There is nothing wrong with that because they have always been far from perfect. I've used their imperfections for years to create humor. If the reader cannot relate to a character, they simply will not laugh along with them. So Joe forgets to charge his phone so often, Marcy resorts to sending smoke signals to reach him (insert laugh track here). The problem I was facing, though, is that the flaws in my characters were too minimal. If I could dig deeper, I could tap into a flesh-and-blood authenticity rarely seen in comic strips. Simply put, I needed to show a darker side to Joe, for example. I needed to show the way he feels toward people who have been found guilty of committing crimes.
More importantly, I wanted to reveal to the reader that, perhaps THEY, the reader of my strip has harsh feelings and unforgiveness toward certain types of human beings: criminals, homeless people, ex-cons, deadbeat dads, and foreigners. This, I realized, would require a slow, year-long introduction to a character who starts off as "the worst of the worst" and charms his way into a permanent part of the cast. His name is "Ray Ramsey".
Ray is an amalgam of many people I've known. I have close friends doing serious life sentences in prison, and other friends who did their time and are now fully-functioning members of society. I know a little about all their struggles. Like Joe, I had to learn forgiveness over a long period of time. Ray's father, the deadbeat dad, is based on my real-life father, who abandoned me when I was a baby. I have written about my father in great detail in my memoir, Fearless: A Cartoonist’s Guide To Life.
GC: How has this redemptive man affected the existing cast? And what has the response been like from readers?
RA: The addition of Ray has been very effective in revealing shortcomings in my cast. He has also allowed me to bring in new characters quite organically, like Lynn Chang, his first parole officer. Ray nearly marries her and she flies off to another planet. George Crunchy is his replacement PO. I'm having a LOT of fun with Crunchy's brother and using him as "glue" to tie Ray to the actual family structure of JS. I love it when the readers on GoComics leap to Ray's defense and chastise Joe for the way he constantly tells people that Ray "is a career criminal! Don't be fooled by him! His rap sheet is so long, you have to read it on Kindle!" and the like. Readers are often smitten by Ray, and his earnest desire to live a better life. Some readers do NOT like Ray and want me to kill him off, or simply stop writing about him. Obviously, that is unlikely to happen. He is a very strong character. I enjoy revealing the complex layers of his life. As a cartoonist, I truly feel he is groundbreaking.
Ray is about redemption, for sure. Early in his development, I introduced his dog, Mortimer (in real life based on my friend's cat by the same name). Ray was a very responsible, loving pet owner, despite being a career criminal. This was deliberate. It knocked the reader off-balance showing this tender side to the man right away. As a result, Ray was given that all-too-rare benefit of the doubt we all need in life. Mortimer is the adhesive character linking Joe, Marcy, Sunny, Jojo, and the twins Teddy and Tommi to the ex-con Ray Ramsey. Without Mortimer, ongoing communication with Ray would be stilted and forced. Later, I'd show Ray inheriting a small fortune and putting needy children through summer camp with it. I showed him buying his homeless mother a beautiful villa. Ray even gets his "big break" and lands a cush job in The NFL. Now, Joe begins to soften and self-reflect. It is revealed that Ray was the homeless man who saved Joe's life in 2009 by giving him a medallion that stopped a bullet! It was tricky to rewrite existing JS history, but I think I pulled off a neat trick.
Yes, Ray Ramsey is a man who has found redemption, but don't get too comfortable. This, after all, is JumpStart.