Museum Celebrates Will Eisner, Who Used Comics To Teach Soldiers
Will Eisner's comic characters in P.S. magazine, the military’s monthly preventive maintenance supplement, offered tips essential for troubleshooting Army equipment that Army Command Sgt. Maj. Toese J. Tia Jr. has never forgotten.
Tia, the senior enlisted leader at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, shared his memories of Eisner's artwork and its impact on soldiers during a March 5 museum launch of an exhibit at Geppi's Entertainment Museum here that focuses on the famous cartoonist's contribution to the Army.
"We had a very important spot for our P.S. magazines, and it was part of our battle rhythm monthly as we received the new P.S. magazine," Tia said, recalling his service as a young mechanic at Fort Riley, Kansas, in the late 1980s. "We had to familiarize ourselves and use it as a reference. We found it to be very effective."
Informing, Educating Soldiers
The "Will's War" exhibit honors Eisner's use of comics to educate and inform soldiers. The exhibit includes 21 framed pieces of Eisner's work, much of it part of Benjamin Herzberg's collection. Herzberg, a Will Eisner expert who once worked with the artist, organized the panel discussion.
Creator of "The Spirit," a comic superhero, Eisner was drafted in 1942 and went to Aberdeen Proving Ground for basic training, Herzberg said.
"He was already very well known. He was in the Baltimore Sun," Herzberg said. "So they put him on the post newspaper, ‘The Flaming Bomb.’"
At Aberdeen, Eisner created characters Private Dog Tag and Joe Dope. And he came up with a novel idea -- use comics to teach soldiers about preventive maintenance. Eisner developed "Army Motors" magazine in World War II and later "P.S., The Preventive Maintenance Monthly."
Army 1st Sgt. Richard Bernard, the Aberdeen Proving Ground garrison first sergeant, recalled how researchers from P.S. once asked him how to maintain protective masks, a topic later featured in comic form. Bernard said he has turned to P.S. for tips for 22 years.
"It's captivated me enough to retain a lot of information that would not have been gained from a boring [technical manual]," Bernard said. "This targets the audience it needs to target."
Eisner's audience included the "soldiers who have busted knuckles, greasy oily grimy hands, worn coveralls and scuffed boots … the soldiers who keep the Army's equipment ready," said Jonathan Pierce, the current editor of P.S. magazine.
"Rarely has art and the written word been so well blended," Pierce said. "Will Eisner showed that content and sequential art complement one another."
Today’s Mobile App With Interactive Features
Now, P.S. will become a mobile app with interactive features, Pierce said. The conversion is rooted in the same principle as when Eisner created the magazine in the early 1950s.
"Get soldiers where they are at. Deliver to it to them in a format that they find interesting," Pierce said. "We'll continue to have our contract artists draw the magazine; it's just going to be on the mobile app."
Daniel Boehm, a government civilian with the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense at Aberdeen, recalled always reading P.S. at the motor pool when he served in uniform.
A self-proclaimed comics nerd, Boehm and his son attended the exhibit launch. He said learning about the Eisner legacy was interesting, as was hearing about the new P.S. app.
"They are trying to remain on the cutting edge with technology, where it seems the trends are going," Boehm said.
The museum's collection includes more than 6,000 items from the 19th century to the present day. There are toys, posters, unique art and memorabilia. More than 1,000 comic books on display include the first Superman and the first Batman comics and several original Eisner Spirit comics.
The Eisner exhibit opened the same day as the museum's Batman exhibit, according to Michael Solof, the museum's exhibits and collections manager.
"Will Eisner only drew Batman two times," Solof said. "So it's amazing that we got one to show."
This year is Aberdeen Proving Ground's centennial year and would also be Will Eisner's 100th birthday, Tia said. He added that the Army's priority of readiness sparked Eisner's efforts, and he leaves a legacy in the generations of soldiers who benefited.
"Down the road, when I reflect, I can say I served where Will Eisner was, walked the same [path]. I'm part of the P.S. magazine development," Tia said. "At one time, a young soldier like me read that magazine. Now, I'm here as a command sergeant major looking at the same magazine 27 years later. That's pretty remarkable."