Almost since I first heard of Will Eisner, I’ve been aware that he spent most of the period between the end of The Spirit and his Section and the first appearance of the legendary A Contract with God using his cartooning skills in service to the US Army in its technical magazine, PS – The Preventative Maintenance Monthly.
Aside from occasional features on the series, and the illustrations reprinted to accompany these, I’ve remained ignorant of this part of Eisner’s career. Not any more though: the by now thousands of comics I have on DVD-Rom, in a pile still less than three inches high, now includes 103 copies of that magazine, including a run of the first 100, from 1951 to 1961. And it’s that unusual magazine’s turn to fall under my inquisitive eye.
This is not going to be anything like the kind of review I’ve been writing for those other comics. PS is simply not that kind of magazine. It is what its sub-title says, a technical magazine devoted to a very practical subject, namely the correct and best ways to maintain Army equipment of all kind in a state of readiness for instant use, in the kind of condition best suited to preserve the life and limb of those who work the trucks, bulldozers, vehicles, vessels, bull-dozers and armaments, waiting to be used.
We’re not talking stories here, plotting is of no relevance and the quality of the scripting serves only one fundamental purpose: functionality. This magazine is written for the American soldier who is responsible for maintenance of equipment. It’s tangy, laconic, written from soldier to soldier but this is the veneer that renders the dry facts less dry but no less factual.
The DVD appeared to start from issue 17, in 1954, when the format changed, and when more of the magazine was given over to Eisner. The first sixteen issues are staid and formal, very much the technical magazines, with pages of type in two columns, decorated mostly with photos or straight, practical cartoons.
Eisner’s role is minimised. He contributes header cartons for various sections,. These feature his experts, who provide answers or host suggestions told in a tangy, slangy fashion, speaking the Army’s own language. These are (Master-) Sergeant Half-Mast McAnick, gorgeous specialist Connie Rodd and, not that he lasted long, Captain ‘Windy’ Windsock to answer your air-mail.
But his major contribution is Joe Dope, an eight-page Spirit Section-style story including a pull-out and pin-up poster summarising the month’s point to be made in a five-line poem. As comics go, it’s almost purely technical, with a schizophrenic heart: for the body of the section, Joe, a goofy-looking, round-faced young man with a prominent central tooth, is the guy who instructs and corrects, especially after issue 3 to Private Fogsnoff (and is that not a familiar name from The Spirit?), only to be held up to ridicule as the example of all kinds of bad practice once we reach the poster.
This initial run feels constrained. It reminds me of the early pages of Frank Bellamy’s life-story of Winston Churchill in the Eagle, inhibited by drawing a living person, and so big a national hero. Eisner isn’t sure how far he can go, how playful he’s allowed to become. The magazine is serious, and so is he. Joe gets the best of it, his feature is intended to be character-oriented, but the Dolan-esque Half-Mast and the statuesque cheesecake, Connie, are just figureheads.
Things start to change from issue 9 onwards, as Eisner’s given a freer hand to establish himself in the body of the magazine. Suddenly, pages without illustration are greatly diminished. Photographs are replaced by compact technical drawings. Connie doesn’t, and never will, escape from being cheesecake, a GI’s pin-up of a woman, but she starts to develop a personality, an ultra-competent, stern-face model (in both senses) of expertise, knowledge and professionalism.
‘Windy’ Windsock disappears, unnoticed. He will be replaced, before too long, by Sgt. ‘Bull’ Dozer, a solid, forage-capped hulk of a man, whose speciality is everything. Issue 17 sees a change in format. Joe’s feature is renamed Joe’s Dope, and centralized to make it easier to remove the pull-out. Eisner starts to freewheel in his stories, and he’s contributing more and more art, taking over pages to insert large sketches to dramatise, with tongue firmly in cheek, the importance of whatever aspect of Preventative Maintenance is being covered here.
And Connie, despite spending most of her time in a uniform that includes a firmly below the knee skirt, and incongruous high heels, grows ever more delightful to look at.
Connie’s role is the expert, showing the hapless Joe and Fos how to do things right, and in what, I take on trust, is the right degree of detail for the guys out in front at whom this is aimed. Dope and Fosgnoff are as deliberately dumb, if eager, as Connie Rodd is on top of things, but this just excuses the detail into which the explanations go, laid out for the actual serving man who lies along the spectrum between her and the dummies to follow without assumptions.
Obviously, there’s no narrative and no character development and, as such, the magazine doesn’t have the kind of narrative progression that usually informs one of these posts. But the work is by Will Eisner, which means that it is inherently fascinating to me, and should be to you.
The amount of additional cartooning required varies from issue to issue according to the subjects being covered each months. Sometimes, the equivalent of a full comic is required, if a detailed sequence is called for, whilst more often it’s no more than small spot-cartoons, humourously exaggerating responses to the work in hand, or the effects of not doing it right.
The highlight is always the Joe’s Dope section, with very rare exceptions in full colour and given the full Eisner treatment. This is where the work is at its most comic and serious at the same time. How effective is it? I am perhaps the last person to ask: my skills have always been academic and not practical. Someone with an underlying interest in engineering and electrics would, I imagine, fall upon this as inherently fascinating, and I’m sure that if I had the practical bent of my father, I would get a lot more out of this than cartooning,
As it is, this is not the kind of thing to make me concentrate too heavily, and that’s before taking into account that the issues on this DVD-Rom are from the Fifties, and I would guess myself to be on solid ground in assuming that most of this work is obsolete in detail, and to a lesser extent in principle.
Or if it isn’t, then what has sixty-five years been spent doing with Army equipment?
There was a change made in issue 37, when the Joe’s Dope section ended with Pvt Fosgnoff being discharged to civilian life as a motor mechanic, a long way from his dream girl Connie… and promptly showing just much much – if you can really say ‘much’ – he had learned… And Joe himself was transformed. You couldn’t remove him, his name was over the door, but suddenly he was nearly as competent as the superhuman Connie, and the silly cartoon face came and went between issues and had to be alibied to plastic surgery following one final goof, after which Joe was an ordinary, pleasant-faced young man in uniform, showing the less conscientious how to do it.
It appeared that the Army were not happy with being represented by two standard issue Will Eisner schlubs. Joe’s role would be minimised to the point of his disappearing – not completely, though Eisner teased killing him off in issue 73, December 1958, having him appear to succumb to carbon monoxide poisoning from leaving an engine idling on a winter night, before revealing it as the dreaded dream of cliché (not that I hold Joe in any malice).
Ultimately, Eisner would end up buying back the rights to the characters, though I don’t know that he ever made use of them. Sometimes, as a creator, you have to own your children so as not to see them mistreated.
Several times, the magazine would style its supplemental cartoons round a theme depicted on the cover. There’d be a Civil War theme, a Valentines (in a February issue), a Science Fiction theme, a Medieval one, the Rebellion. This didn’t make the technical information any less up-to-date, but the various demonstrations, advice or corrections would be linked by Eisner cartoons casting the idea of Preventative Maintenance as running throughout history as opposed to some new-fangled 1950s notion. And it gave Eisner the chance of some effective fun.
After the first 100, there were only three other issues on the DVD. That for issue 115, from 1963, was little different from those before, though it did have Windy Windsock back after a hundred or so issues, but the leap to issue 182, in 1968, was instructive. PS had grown much more cartoon-oriented, with Eisner and his team working overtime to produce not merely illustrations but short sequences on practically every page. Windy Windsock was (still?) around but Half-Mast had been reduced to very much a minor character and Connie Rodd was the out-and-out star.
And with it now being the late-Sixties, Connie was not spending all her time in Army Uniform and below knee-length tight skirts. Issue 189 had a western theme to the art so she was mainly depicted in tight bucksins and a cowboy hat, with the usual hairstyle given a softer, sleeker look, to go with the softer expressions she wore. This Connie isn’t looking down quite so much at the inadequacies of the privates and men (dreaming of) being under her.
She even displaced Joe’s Dope in this issue, with her maintenance calendar for the forthcoming year.
The final issue was no. 229, from 1971, in which the process of full-scale cartooning had gone even further, and Connie looked even better: hang the preventative maintenance, I’m happy just to look at a full-on, relaxed, self-contained and gorgeous Eisner babe. Pity there weren’t more for this era. But 229 was Eisner’s last issue as Art Director, though Connie and the gang stayed on. According to Wikipedia, she and her African-American equivalent, Bonnie, were redesigned to be more ‘modest and professional’, and not cheesecake at all. I bet that worked…
So PS – Preventative Maintenance Monthly is a curiosity for being what Will Eisner did for years after leaving the comics business. It’s brilliant work, superb cartooning, and a very effective presentation of a serious subject with the ability to save a lot of lives.
But my response to a hundred issues of it is that it’s comics, Jim, but not as we know it. Despite the presence of recurring characters, and once again, I do admit to a fondness for Connie Rodd, there is no narrative, there are no stories. The object is a technical instruction that, no matter how humanised it is made, is only technical instructions, and what’s more instructions in something for which I have neither aptitude nor empathy.
As to the question of whether or not Eisner was utilising his skills in a purpose worthy of them, I have no definitive opinion. What he was doing was assisting an Army to be more efficient in the deployment of the machinery it operated. The purpose of an Army, if reduced to its utter basics, is to kill the enemies of its country. Many have condemned Eisner for facilitating militarism, and the case can’t be avoided. PS was founded at the start of the Korean War, when there was a crying need for it.
On the other hand, an Army is an objective fact. It may be immoral, it may be unwanted, I may not like it, but it is necessary. PS is pitched at saving the lives of Army members, not merely in combat but in depots at home and overseas where careless, ignorant or neglectful handling of equipment can result in damage, mutilation and even death.
It doesn’t make for enthusing reading, however. I’m glad to have satisfied my curiosity, but it’s not all that likely that I’d want my memories refreshing. Though I’d take another hundred issues of Connie Rodd in the Sixties any day…