Did you know that the U.S. Army produces a monthly “comic book” and has been doing so for more than 65 years?
And did you know that several of the artists responsible for creating the comic over the years are considered legends in the industry?
My first experience with “PS, The Preventive Maintenance Monthly” dates to 1977 while I was 8 years old and living at a military base in Schwäebisch Hall, Germany.
I loved comic books, but new issues cost money, and finding popular titles became hit-and-miss during the three years I spent as a guest of the German people. But this “graphic novel dry spell” ended during a spring break trip to visit my father at work.
Dad spent his military career either turning wrenches on various Army helicopters – or leading those who do. Growing up around those whirly-birds was an amazing experience, but the fear of me getting smashed or sliced by a spinning rotor blade usually kept me confined to the main office area.
I was stuck in that office for several hours before I started digging through the extensive technical manual library found on a large bookshelf behind his desk. These manuals were written so soldiers with varying degrees of reading skills could follow along and work on the equipment as needed.
In between a guide to replacing the transmission coupling on a CH-47 Chinook and a pamphlet explaining how to balance a rotor blade on a UH-1A Huey helicopter, I found “PS Magazine.” It was a full-color guide, about the size of an Archie Digest, and featured art by a comic artist I recognized, but couldn’t think of his name.
The comic format for PS Magazine was created in 1951 by the U.S. Army when it “enlisted” the help of a young soldier named Will Eisner to make a guide for preventative maintenance for soldiers in the field – and in the garrison environment. It used humor combined with life-like art to help the troops keep their equipment fighting-ready in a 25-65 page guide that could be taken anywhere. The going price for this artistic gem? It was free…!
I was simply amazed. I read through the 6-months worth of back-issues on my father’s shelf and was hungry for more. A few days later, dad brought home boxes full of PS Magazine back issues for me to enjoy. It turns out that the Army suggested that offices only keep the last 12 issues or so on hand.
Each issue came with a central theme that resonated throughout that month’s offering. The best issues are the ones that incorporated current trends from the “outside world.” The creators of the magazine also borrow heavily from pop culture, and evidence of this practice can be found in many covers including a Spider-Man issue and issues with Star Trek themes. Yes, even Commander Montgomery Scott had to perform preventative maintenance on the 1701 Enterprise…!
The art was amazing. After digesting about 200 issues of PS that next summer, I finally realized that the comic book artist who brought life to the its pages was Joe Kubert, who was responsible for two of my favorite comic books, “Haunted Tank” and “The Unknown Soldier.” Years later, while I was an editor for a military newspaper, I had a phone interview with Kubert about the time he spent on the maintenance guide for the army.
Each issue is full of anthropomorphism with M1-A1 Abrams tanks talking to an AH-1 helicopter at the motor pools with smiles on their faces if an oil change was performed correctly.
The artwork had been co-created over the years by students at his New York art school, but his influence can still be felt today – more than four years after Kubert’s death.
There is a core of characters in the magazine that have lasted – and not aged – for more than 50 years. However, hair styles, fashion and attitudes toward women and other minorities changed through the years in the U.S. military, and these updates can been seen throughout the run of the magazine.
If you want to take a peek at these gems for yourself, a nearly compete list of issues broken down by years and cover art is available at PS Magazine Archive
There is also a free iTunes Store and Android app available to view new issues and an archive for a couple years back.
Download a few examples from each decade and imagine yourself being 8 years old and stepping into a whole new world…