The Army’s Comics

In 1951, Will Eisner stopped doing work on The Spirit, which had been appearing for twelve years, and took up a new gig — writing comics for the Army. Before 1955, comics were everywhere in the United States and everyone, young and old, read them. The Army wanted to get certain messages to its soldiers and decided to use comics as a medium.

Eisner was drafted in 1942 and did layout and illustration work for several Army publications, including Army Motors, aimed at instructing mechanics in preventative maintenance. Eisner had farmed out The Spirit during his stint in the military. After his 1945 discharge, he returned to work on The Spirit but retained an interest in educational comics. In 1948, he began American Visuals Corporation, which produced materials for government, schools, and private enterprise. 

P*S magazine had stories about doofus mechanics learning the proper way to keep equipment in shape and lots of sexy women as only Eisner could draw them. It also had  illustrated articles about problems with specific pieces of equipment. The Korean War had the Army recycling a lot of WWII materiel that wasn’t always combat ready. Mechanics would write up their own tips from the field and Eisner and his crew would illustrate and publish them.

Muffler fall off? You better replace it before you attract North Korean snipers!

The magazine worked well enough so that it still exists sixty years and more than 700 issues since Eisner started it, now giving instructions on cleaning rocket-tubes or properly installing helicopter gear (“Save yourself a headache and possible aircraft damage by lifting the weapon and stowing it in the up position before you install the GHW.”  That’s Ground Handling Wheels, folks.) And it still publishes tips from the field.

Don't damage the SSU when you yank the seat.

Joe Kubert (Sgt. Rock artist for many years) has been in charge at P*S since 2001. Other well-known comics artists — Mike Ploog, Murphy Anderson, Alfred Alcala, Dan Spiegle — have worked there since 1971 when Eisner retired to write graphic novels. There have been a few changes: The doofus mechanic has been eliminated — the Army does not insult its soldiers, it only lets Drill Instructors do that — and there are no more scantilly-clad sex objects prancing through the pages of P*S.

Aside from its immediate value to Army mechanics, P*S is of great interest to educators and comics professionals interested in the medium as a teaching tool. In Comics And Sequential Art, Eisner notes two ways that comics can be successfully employed for education. First, technical instruction:

A purely “technical” comic, in which the procedure to be learned is shown from the reader’s point of view, gives instruction in procedure, process, and task performance generally associated with such things as assemblies of devices or their repair.

Eisner notes that these tasks are sequential in nature and, thus, well-adapted to sequential art. The procedure should be shown from the reader’s perspective and layout, balloon placement, and so on should be handled in a way that directly involves the reader.

ID that machine gun barrel.

The second educational application that Eisner gives is attitudinal instruction. He suggests the dramatization of a specific situation. “People learn by imitation…” The reader can supply personal context for the situation and imitate the proper attitude for, say, applying for a job. Humor is used to “…attract the reader’s attention, convey relevance, and set up visual analogies and recognizable life situations.” So these teaching devices contain entertainment.

Joe Kubert tells what happens when a knight neglects medieval maintenance.

There are different kinds of educational comics, of course, but people interested in producing them often seem not to understand what they are doing. Eisner’s approach deserves study.

Eisner’s complete run of P*S is online here.
The most recent issue is here. (Internet Explorer warns that the site lacks a security certificate. An Army site insecure? How could that… Well, click at your own risk.)
This post was occasioned by the publication of PS Magazine: The Best of The Preventive Maintenance Monthly, a collection of Eisner’s P*S work. You can read a review here.