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Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide

March 24,2017

This WWII-Era Cartoonist’s Legacy Still Helps Soldiers Today

By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
March 21, 2017
From DoDLive, the official blog of the Department of Defense

All comic book fans have heard of ComicCon, the giant convention held in San Diego every year that celebrates the contributions of comics to art and culture. And most of them have probably heard of the Will Eisner award, which is basically the Oscars of the comic world that’s handed out there.

What you might not know, however, is that Eisner was drafted into the Army during World War II, and his creativity made a lasting impact on how soldiers learned the do’s and don’ts of their trades. He was so influential that a military comic magazine he created, “P.S. Monthly,” is still being published today.

That was just one of the cartooning genius’ accomplishments, though. Before the war, he created “The Spirit,” a comic superhero that was published innewspapers and comic books for more than a decade. Eisner is also known as one of the fathers of the graphic novel, and he even got to draw Batman once.

A Unique Training Perspective

For anyone in the military who operates any kind of machinery – a tank, a rifle or whatever – you’ve likely been told to read a clunky, boring technical manual to figure out how it works. The language in those manuals can be daunting for many, especially during Eisner’s day.

“Back in the 1940 and ‘50s, when soldiers enlisted into the Army or were drafted, they barely had a fifth grade reading level,” said Army 1st Sgt. Richard Bernard, the garrison first sergeant at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

A photo of Will Eisner in uniform, along with his Aberdeen Proving Ground identification button. DoD photo by Katie Lange

During World War II, Eisner was stationed at APG. He worked for the post newspaper and drew comics for training. After a promotion to warrant officer, he helped develop a preventative maintenance magazine called “Army Motors” and drew characters that helped soldiers take better care of their equipment. He was then assigned to the Pentagon, where he worked until 1945. After WWII ended, Eisner formed the American Visuals Corporation to produce educational materials for the government and military.

But during the Korean War, the Army wanted an even simpler way to explain maintenance issues to the troops. Leaders needed something to grab soldiers’ attention.

“Everybody read comics back in the day. It was actually the highest form of reading at that time,” Bernard said.

Left: a copy of a 1968 issue of PS Monthly; Right: The popular character Joe Dope from "Army Motors."

So in 1951, Eisner stepped up to the challenge, and P.S. Monthly was born.

“He understood that maintenance wasn’t being done like it should have been done, and he figured out the reason why – soldiers who were coming into the Army didn’t understand what the manual said,” Bernard explained. “So, he chose to break it down on their level.”

P.S. Monthly is called that because it’s considered a “postscript” to official Army publications. It was the first of its kind and quickly became the most distributed comic magazine worldwide, providing entertainment to a captive audience, as well as helping soldiers maintain their equipment and retain information on a higher level. Eisner was even sent into combat zones like Korea and Vietnam to research material for the magazine.

A copy of a more recent version of P.S. Monthly. DoD photo by Katie Lange

Eisner eventually moved on from his Army work to write graphic novels and pursue other interests, but P.S. Monthly continued to be produced by the Army Materiel Command.

“I remember reading it when I first came in in 1995,” Bernard said. “I looked forward to that P.S. Monthly Magazine coming out.”

Eisner died in 2005 at age 87. He would have turned 100 this month. Coincidentally, Aberdeen Proving Ground is also celebrating its centennial this year, so post leaders decided to set up an exhibit in honor of Eisner’s work at Geppi’s Entertainment Museum in Baltimore. Along with P.S. Monthly covers, there are photos of Eisner in uniform and several pieces of his rarely-seen art.

Some of Will Eisner's work and personal items are on display at Geppi's Entertainment Museum in Baltimore through October 2017.

Going Digital

While P.S. Monthly’s aesthetics have largely gone unchanged over the decades, the magazine’s current editor just announced a major shift — the magazine will be going digital in June, complete with a mobile app that will include videos and other resources.

And while P.S. Monthly is aimed at an Army audience, all service branches may find it useful.

PS Monthly in its current form. DoD photo by Katie Lange

“There is a lot of equipment that we kind of co-cross, like the weapons systems we use – the M-16, A4 – it’s the same. They use the same rifle, the same pistol. … A majority of the equipment is relatively the same,” Bernard said.

By the end of his career, Eisner had written more than two-dozen graphic novels, including his first, “A Contract With God,” and a retelling of “Moby Dick.” “The Spirit” was recreated over the years, too, and is even part of a new DC Comics series.

And of course, there’s still P.S. Monthly. So if you’re struggling with that big technical manual you were handed, maybe check out some of the magazine’s archives or the new digital editions. You might find that Eisner’s legacy can help you master your trade!

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