One of my favorite things about the military is the monthly publication of PS: The Preventative Maintenance Monthly. I may be alone in this enthusiasm. If so, it’s a shame: read with a certain frame of mind*, PS is literally the most absolute batshit lunatic nonsense ever produced by the US Army.
It may be the best military-themed comic ever produced, with the possible exception of the long-censored Beetle Bailey strip of November 13, 1966, in which Sergeant Snorkel wakes up in a screaming sweat from a nightmare about the time he called in napalm on a house full of Okinawan children. It’s certainly a more accurate portrayal of life in the US Army than FX’s atrocious 2004 “Over There” miniseries. Taken as a whole, over its 60+ years of publication, it’s a valuable historical and cultural document in its own right; much as Vegetius’ De Re Militari tells us more about the ancient Roman Army by the problems that its frustrated author is trying to persuade readers to correct than a more grandiose straight history piece ever would.
Fact: right this very minute, somewhere in the world, a Soldier is either breaking a door hinge on an armored vehicle or being screamed at by an NCO for almost breaking or having already broken said door hinge.
PS was developed by the now-famous Will Eisner in 1951, based on official-themed comics that Eisner had drawn when he was in the Army during World War Two. Then as now, its purpose was to succinctly illustrate common problems, questions and tips on equipment maintenance in order to supplement the Soldier’s usual training program of “on the job” trial and error and rumors. Lest I convey the wrong impression, I can assure you that 90-95% of the content in PS is completely legitimate and helpful maintenance advice, like this section on the LMTV, a light truck, which suggests with adorable earnestness that one “secure the tire with the chain and padlock from your truck’s BII.” As if any BII kit anywhere still has both a chain and a padlock.
There are various recurring characters in PS, but as far as I can tell they’re used more or less interchangeably throughout each issue. Some take the form of uniformed military personnel, while others are DA civilians, like the woman below, who is helpfully pointing out how to order parts for a rifle sight.
Based on the actual size of the ACOG, which fits in my hand, I would say that this woman is about 3’9” tall.
The woman in this example, like the others in the October 2008 issue that I scanned most of these images from, is dressed in a very professional and conservative Hilary Clintonesque pantsuit of a style often described in the comics world as “Mary Worth Chic.” She is actually more frumpily dressed than most real DA civilians, which is saying something.
It was not always thus. Well into the 1980s, the Army, correctly and very perceptively reasoning that Joe would not be interested in any problem that didn’t involve tits and dynamite, had illustrators such as Eisner depict scantily clad women explaining various maintenance problems in the hopes that during five to ten minutes of frenzied late night reading in the TC seat of a darkened armored personnel carrier, the reader might subconsciously pick up some helpful hints about helicopter door gun spring tension gauging or whatnot.
The juxtaposition of graphic cartoon sexuality with dry and indirectly violence-themed maintenance information can be jarring and also hilarious when you read it, especially given that they often didn’t even try to offer any context to explain why this woman was there at all, much less why reading about flamethrower maintenance got her so hot and bothered. Overall the whole scene tends to give you a bizarre and disorienting set of mixed messages that the brain can only resolve by laughing at the extreme absurdity of it all. And that’s what makes it great. Great and insane.
Imagine for a minute that you went up to David Lynch and proposed that he make a short movie in which two guys are fixing a tank, when out of nowhere, un-noticed by them and oblivious to everything, a leggy blonde dressed in a thong and pasties strides into the garage and talks for minutes on end about the proper way to clean the battery leads. He would tell you to get the hell off his property. Now imagine that the US government approached YOU and offered to pay you money to make that thing on purpose, using tax dollars. That’s right.
The 70s, of course, were the golden age of badly-written porn, which is why I was delighted to discover that the woman explaining about ACOG parts above was actually named Connie Rodd when she was first introduced. You may think that you can come up with a better porn star name for a female mechanic than Connie Rodd, but I assure you that you can not. Nowadays, of course, her cartoon co-workers don’t address her by her full name, most likely to keep from laughing uncontrollably.
Although PS has been illustrated in a fairly consistent style by a variety of artists over the years, they have occasionally attempted to reflect contemporary styles in their artwork, as with this issue from 1971.
Gasoline is not for cleaning. Well said, flower child, although the central premise in PS, that weapons of war designed to kill and horribly maim people are themselves conscious beings with easily hurt feelings and very human wants and needs, is pretty far out in its own right. Overall, PS is awesome, and in its own way totally unlike any other artwork that’s ever been produced. How many Brooklynites can say that about the last gallery opening that they went to?
The Army also uses PS to send subtle messages:
*or stoned, if you prefer.