Before World War II, cartoons with war themes attempted to use humor or satire to sway public opinion. The spread of military newspapers and the inclusion of cartoons as a feature designed to boost morale changed all that.
Arguably the most well-known of the World War II cartoonists, Bill Mauldin created the characters Willie and Joe, who were depicted as rank-and-file soldiers dealing with the realities of war without sugarcoating that some leaders, including General George S. Patton, would have preferred to see. Mauldin's caricatures, which began in 1940 when he was an 18-year-old in the U.S. Army's 45th Infantry Division, were initially published in the division's newsletter and soon became hugely popular with the soldiers on the front lines. In 1943 Mauldin's cartoon was picked up by Stars and Stripes and was then distributed domestically by United Features Syndicate as Up Front, thanks in part to the war correspondent Ernie Pyle, who helped bring the cartoons to the attention of the general public.
Bill Mauldin did not attempt to glorify the fighting in any manner; rather, he used wry humor to demonstrate the absurdities of war. For example, to make an exaggerated commentary on the practice of sending increasingly younger soldiers to the front lines, Mauldin showed Willie and Joe in a bunker, reading a notice handed to them by an adolescent dressed in a soldier's uniform. One says to the other, "I guess it's okay. The replacement center says he comes from a long line of infantrymen."
At the time that he was drafted in the U.S. Army in June 1941, George Baker was a struggling animator on the verge of losing his job with the Walt Disney Company in Los Angeles. Although the war in Europe had been raging for several years, the possibility of the United States entering the war seemed remote to many at the time. Baker and other soldiers went through the motions of their training with little sense of purpose, waiting for their one-year enlistment to be up so they could get on with their lives.
To break up the monotony of Army life, Baker began to create drawings on his own time, attempting to explain pictorially what life was like in the armed forces. After taking his drawings to several New York publishers and being rejected, a despondent Baker put his cartoons away and tried to forget about them. However, a few months later, the armed forces sponsored a cartoon contest for servicemen. Baker decided to enter one of his drawing into the contest -and won first prize. This caught the attention of the editor of the Army's Yank magazine, Major Hartzell Spence, who secured Baker a position on the Yank's staff. Baker worked for Yank for the duration of World War II, moving from one training camp to another as a salesman for the magazine while also being exposed to the many facets of Army life, which he then used for the basis of his cartoons.
Baker's character, named the Sad Sack, was a stumbling, bumbling soldier trying to fit in an Army comprised of stereotypes: trim and well-dressed men in perfect marching lines, belligerent drill sergeants, and unsympathetic cooks, doctors, and barbers. The Sack represented the common man trying to live up to the perceived ideal of what a soldier should be, and usually without success. Baker tried to show situations that troops in all branches of the service -situated in any theater or at any training base- would recognize. One famous cartoon, titled "Drill," showed the Sack in a marching drill, repeatedly bumping into taller, neatly-groomed men lined up in perfect formations, and then getting trampled and carted off in a stretcher. (Neither the Sack nor anyone else in the cartoons spoke a word.) Baker took a more lighthearted approach with his illustrations than did Bill Mauldin, which may be why Baker didn't get into much trouble with his superiors.
After the war, Baker returned to civilian life and continued to draw Sad Sack until 1958, but Sack the civilian was not as popular as Sack the soldier, in part due to the younger audience for comic books. Baker had to use entirely new settings and use less suggestive material -and in the comic books, the Sack engaged in conversations, which changed the style of the cartoon considerably. Although Sad Sack (illustrated by other artists after 1958 and distributed by Harvey Comics) lasted into the 1990s and produced several spin-offs, it never matched the popularity of the cartoons done by Baker during World War II.
Prior to World War II, Terry and the Pirates, produced by Milton Caniff, was one of the most popular comic strips in American newspapers. The serial comic followed the exploits of a young boy, Terry, and his adult sidekick, Pat Ryan, in the Far East, and the supporting cast included a beautiful blonde woman named Burma. When war broke out, Caniff, who was unable to enlist due to a childhood illness that damaged his lungs, wanted to contribute in his own way to the war effort. He created a special version of Terry and the Pirates, with Burma as the star, for the military's newspapers. When civilian newspapers complained about not having access to the "unauthorized" version of the comic strip, Caniff changed it completely (including revising the material from a serial to a stand-alone) and renamed it Male Call. The new star was Miss Lace, a dark-haired woman who visited men on military bases and addressed everyone as "General." Male Call's intended audience was comprised exclusively of men in the military, so it was raunchier than what would appear in civilian newspapers, and contained numerous double entendres of a sexual nature. One of the strip's notable features is that it showed injured soldiers in a genuine manner, including those who had been blinded or had lost a limb. Male Call last appeared in military newspapers in 1947.
Another of Caniff's creations was the serial comic Steve Canyon, which he began in 1947 and continued until his death in 1988. The title character started out as a civilian pilot but joined the Air Force during the Korean War. Steve Canyon did not reach the heights of popularity seen by Terry and the Pirates and contained less-suggestive material than Male Call to appease the general public, but it achieved a wide circulation and lasted four decades, much longer than a typical comic strip.
Before Hasbro created the G.I. Joe action figure in 1964, Dave Breger introduced the original G.I. Joe to his comic strips in 1942. Begun upon Breger's enlistment in 1941 and originally entitled Private Breger, it was distributed domestically by King Features Syndicate. In order to have the strip published in military newspapers, Breger had to rename his character. Joe was an ordinary private who attempted to be respectful of his superiors but often ended up doing something that was good for a chuckle. By no measure was the boyish-looking Joe even close to being the gruff hero idealized by the more well-known Hasbro action figures. G.I. Joe caught on with the troops so much that it became a name given to the common foot soldier. The 1945 movie The Story of G.I. Joe was about correspondent Ernie Pyle, and Habro's action figures simply pirated the name. After the war, Breger -both the cartoonist and the character- returned to civilian life. The new comic, Mister Breger, began to appear in newspaper, and continued until 1969.
TODAY'S MILITARY COMICS
As the World War II-era comic were phased out and others that had a military theme, such as Sgt. Rock, came and went, more comic books focused on the exploits of superheroes, and newspapers tried to make their funny pages, well, funnier. The unpopularity of the Vietnam War was another contributing factor in the decline of military-themed comics in the public eye. One exception was Beetle Bailey, which debuted in 1951 and has continued to this day, seemingly stuck in time and never engaged in combat (which may help explain its long tenure), but still good for a laugh.
Does that mean that military comics are becoming extinct? Not at all -they have simply become modernized via the internet, and continue to be printed in newspapers wherever U.S. troops are stationed. Today's military comics aren't just for the soldiers, either -one of the more popular is Julie Negron's Jenny the Military Spouse, which revolves entirely around the lives of Air Force spouses and makes little mention of the enlisted men and women. Other comic strips focus on a certain service branch, as the ease of distributing a comic through the web means that any artist with a bit of skill and a computer can be successful without the direct support of the armed forces. Reading the funnies has long been a means for soldiers to share a daily laugh, to relieve a bit of the stress that comes with a military lifestyle, and to realize that they are not the only ones who want to roll their eyes when the red tape becomes almost overwhelming.
__________The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Salutes the Armed Forces.
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