By Robert Bruce
Why is Small Arms Review featuring cartoons? Well, while doing military weapons photo research in the National Archives, Robert Bruce stumbled across a series of decidedly comical posters with very serious messages for American GIs in WWII.
They were the work of Will Eisner, a talented young soldier/artist in the Army Ordnance Corps, whose goofy, buck-toothed main character Joe Dope showed how stupidity in too many common situations could prove fatal for himself and his fellow fighters. Will and Joe were so effective in this critical mission that the duo continued amusing and educating soldiers for nearly 30 years. A sobering reminder that Joe’s inexperienced descendants continued to find their way into the Army.
Eisner’s audience was the “Soldiers who have busted knuckles, greasy oily grimy hands, worn coveralls and scuffed boots … the Soldiers who keep the Army’s equipment ready. Rarely has art and the written word been so well blended. Will Eisner showed that content and sequential art complement one another.”
—Jonathan Pierce, the current editor (2019) of PS Magazine.
Soon after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, William Erwin Eisner, a 24-year-old artist in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, got his draft notice from Uncle Sam’s U.S. Army. In an initially perplexing but ultimately perfect example of its rare propensity for properly fitting a man’s civilian skills to his military assignment, the Army sent him to the Ordnance Corps, responsible for guns, vehicles and other machinery of war.
There, Private Eisner’s civilian reputation as the creator of The Spirit, a highly successful comic book supplement in major newspapers in 1940, landed him a position as an illustrator for what was at the time a rather bland and technical maintenance newsletter named Army Motors. Equally remarkable, Will was able to persuade the senior officer who was in charge—not to mention enough of the other old-school brass—that his well-proven comic book style would be a much better way to grab and hold the attention of the Army’s tidal wave of brand new draftees and enlistees.
The Dopiest Draftee
It wasn’t long before Eisner headed up the publication’s art department, showcasing his unique drawing style and storytelling. Soon, catching the attention of higher ups, he spent the rest of the war years plying his cartoonish training trade while on the staff of the Chief of Ordnance at the Pentagon. Interestingly, he leaped from Private to Warrant Officer by way of indispensable talent and skirting the arduous Warrant Officer Candidate School ordeal with “a written test.”
Along the way and in the company of stern, square-jawed Master Sgt Half-Mast McCanick and the pneumatically pulchritudinous Connie Rodd, Eisner’s doofus, dogface Joe Dope became the main character in posters and in Army Motors, illustrating what NOT to do in a wide variety of situations on land and in the air.
Mangling Ma Deuce
It was in the particularly unforgiving arena of aerial combat that Joe did most of his damage while assigned to bomber squadrons. Apparently incapable of following maintenance requirements as an armorer, or putting his intense training in air-to-air gunnery to good use, Joe repeatedly imperiled the lives of his fellow airmen.
Interrupting a 5-Year Leave
With unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in 1945, Eisner was mustered out and resumed his artistic and entrepreneurial work in New York City at the top tier of the comics world. He launched American Visuals Company (AVC) in 1948 with a roster of talented artists and prestigious clients like General Motors and U.S. Steel. Then, as fate would have it, AVC was perfectly positioned when war in Korea broke out in 1950.
American soldiers were back in the thick of battle, this time fighting hordes of Communist invaders in a strange land far from home. The pressures of war and another flood of young, inexperienced Joe-Dope-type draftees now manning old and poorly maintained vehicles, weapons and equipment left over from WWII spurred the Ordnance Corps to revive Eisner’s unique cartoon method for quick, effective, basic maintenance instruction.
The “Postscript” Pamphlets
It was perhaps a combination of patriotism and persuasion backed by enough money that brought civilian Eisner back into government service to the job he clearly loved of educating GIs. PS Magazine, The Preventive Maintenance Monthly, his pamphlet-sized, semi-comic magazine, sprang to life from the drawing boards of AVC’s bullpen of artists in June 1951.
PS is short for postscript, indicating that it was intended to be a useful addition and supplement to sagging shelves full of necessarily fat, fact-filled Field and Technical Manuals. In addition to short instructional features on specific subjects, it answered questions and handily included brief maintenance tips and clever “field expedients” from the “busted knuckles … scuffed boots” crowd out there in the real world.
PS Goes PC
PS Magazine came out sporadically over the first 2 years until after most shooting stopped with the Armistice Agreement in July 1953. Then, with the pressures of war somewhat relieved, Eisner began to be put upon by Pentagon Social Justice Warriors to give Joe Dope a cosmetic and conduct makeover. The evolution began gradually but then it sped up.
The brass hats ridiculously ruled that Joe the jerk reflected badly on an idealized “American Fighting Man.” Eisner saved face—literally—in PS Magazine, No. 47, 1956, recounting how Joe blew himself up after bungling headspace adjustment on an M2. Army doctors rebuilt his ugly mug, dentists fixed his buck teeth and from then on he was always properly groomed and uniformed.
Over time, Eisner’s mean old Half-Mast mellowed and most sadly, poor Connie’s appearance, wardrobe and her soldier-stimulating situations gradually became less and less sexy. The emphasis in PS Magazine shifted to more and more detailed info with fewer examples of the wonderfully outlandish cartoon characters drawn by the master himself and his talented minions who specialized in the technical-type illustrations.
Vietnam and After
Eisner had an undeniable sense of duty, as demonstrated in some weeks-long, info-gathering visits to soldiers in the fields including battle zones in Korea as well as Cold War Germany and Japan. Around the time of the Tet Offensive (January 1968) he again made the rounds in Vietnam, gaining insights evident in contemporary issues of PS Magazine and—most notably—the iconic M16A1 Rifle: Operation and Preventive Maintenance comic book.
Eisner eventually tired of fighting the Pentagon’s PC being pushed on PS Magazine, so he gave up the publication contract in 1971, closing out his 227th consecutive issue. But the 54-year-old didn’t goldbrick, and he went on with renewed enthusiasm to write, illustrate and publish a slew of what are now known as “graphic novels.” Among these notables is the very personal A Contract with God and his bittersweet Last Day in Vietnam, with a timeline of real-life vignettes from the three wars he experienced first-hand.
The “New and Improved” PS Magazine
Today’s PS Magazine—steadily moving past issue 800 and now in digital form only—is a far cry from the rollicking, risqué days of Eisner and his team. As more and more women have poured in to the Army, the last traces of testosterone petered out. Perhaps this is understandable on some levels, but we old GIs know what Eisner-style fun the new generation is missing.
See for yourselves now that PS Magazine has gone online and accessible to anyone—friend and foe alike—logsa.army.mil/#/psmag.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
WHNT News 19 video: whnt.com/2016/04/01/defending-america-for-65-years-with-ps-magazine/
PS Magazine issues 1–229 at Virginia Commonwealth University: digital.library.vcu.edu/digital/collection/psm
PS Magazine issues 1951 to 2014 at Radionerds.com: psmag.radionerds.com/index.php/Main_Page
PS Magazine from 1999 to Present: logsa.army.mil/#/psmag
Downloadable M16A1 Rifle: Operation and Preventive Maintenance comic book: oberlandarms.com/pdf/m16a1_rifle_operation_and_preventive_maintenance_1969.pdf PS Magazine: The Best of the Preventive Maintenance Monthly, by Eddie Campbell, 2011
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V24N1 (Jan 2020)