Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Peter Byrne - 1950s

sgPeter Byrne In the mid-1950s, as an army draftee killing time in a motor pool near Stuttgart, I stumbled upon a relatively little known piece of cartoon art history. Left lying on a work bench was an Army publication, a digest format titled P*S The Preventive Maintenance Monthly. With a title like that, it just had to be almost as exciting as all the other mind-numbing, bureaucratic crap the Army was then producing.

Picking up the October, 1956 copy of P*S, I experienced a shock of recognition. It was unmistakably the work of the great Will Eisner. I knew the Eisner signature and style from his wonderfully drawn superhero crime-fighter strip, The Spirit, that ran in the comics section of the Sunday paper back home. Could this be, could somebody with the stature of an Eisner be illustrating a monthly Army "How-To" publication on the care and maintenance of military equipment?

Eisner, who had served in the Army during WW II as an illustrator, had been asked by the Department of Defense in 1951, the start of the Korean War, to take on the monthly publication of P*S. He did and continued to do so for two decades, right up into the Vietnam War, finally dropping out in 1971. I've learned that the magazine is still in publication.

sgThe quality of Eisner's draftsmanship and his sense of graphic style lifted the delivery of a modest "nuts and bolts" digest into a much-anticipated monthly event. "Connie Rod," the provocative babe of a mechanic was pure Eisner, worthy of the best molls and dames that filled the frames of The Spirit.

M/Sgt. Half-Mast, the old Motor Sgt. is a ringer for The Spirit's Commissioner Dolan. And Eisner's technical skills were on display in his renderings of all sorts of complicated military hardware; tanks, guns, vehicles and their component parts. I was impressed. Still am.

Over my time in Germany, I had accumulated several dozen editions of P*S, current and back issues. But like my collection of EC originals, somewhere along the way to becoming a so-called grown-up, they sort of wandered away. And as much as I read or scanned Eisner's fine work in P*S, I never felt the slightest inclination to lift the hood of my jeep or deuce-and-a-half (two-and-a-half ton, six-by-six wheel Army truck) and perform any of the much vaunted preventive maintenance so well advocated by Eisner.


Anonymous said...

Great first-hand story, Peter - thanks!

I think most of us comic book heads somehow look at this stuff as lesser work, or as somehow a comedown for Will...

But when I saw him speak at the grand old castle-on-the-hill Museum of Cartoon Art, the man himself seemed - justifiably - proud of that very large body of work.

I think the Master's perspective is likely better than his Followers'.

-Craig W.

Grears said...

I first discovered comics in Germany, when my Dad was in the Army. One day he took me into his office, and there was a bunch of PS Magazines there, and I started reading them. At the time (8 or 9 years old) I had no idea who Will Eisner was, but the art was really appealing. However, the humor,and the maintenance tips, were both way above my head. I didn't discover the Spirit until almost 30 years later!