REVIEW: Will Eisner’s P.S. Magazine: The Best of The Preventive Maintenance Monthly
As far back as 1940, during the publicity campaign for the launch of The Spirit Sunday section, Will Eisner spoke of the potential for comic books to do more than entertain but to educate. Within a decade, he got to put theory into practice by winning the contract to package P.S. Magazine: The Preventive Maintenance Monthly for the United States Army. After over 700 issues, the magazine continues to chug along with the likes of Murphy Anderson and Joe Kubert following in his might footsteps.
Anyone reading a biography of Eisner knows that he took on P.S. in part because he wearied of the weekly grind required of The Spirit and because he was restless but unless we’ve enlisted, getting to see the legendary magazine proved problematic. Thanks to Abrams’ ComicArts imprint, that is being readied with this volume, a sampler of Eisner’s work from 1951-1971. Cartoonist Eddie Campbell gleefully took on the herculean task of sifting through thousands of pages to find representative work decade by decade. Apparently, he was contracted for an overview and got deep into the research so what we got to read is based on his enthusiastic efforts.
P.S. was a mix of text and comics material, designed to use illustrations and plain language to encourage soldiers to perform basic routine maintenance on their equipment and vehicles. Army speak can be particularly dense and for those uncomfortable with reading, it was like trying to decipher hieroglyphics. Eisner, instead, created a cast of fun characters to walk the uniformed men and women through the steps. His first noteworthy contribution was the character of everyman Joe Dope, but then quickly added the statuesque Connie Rodd, Sgt. Half-Mast McCanick, Sgt. Bull Dozer, and others. Eisner wound up supervising a team of up to 15 people producing the magazine and other assignments during this largely unexplored portion of his career, before being rediscovered by audiences thanks to Jules Fieffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes and subsequently being reintroduced to comics via Denis Kitchen.
Eisner was no fool and often the magazine’s centerspread was a lovely pinup of Connie, her uniform blouse straining to pop its buttons, giving some timely reminder such as “I’m donning long johns for the spell, Do the same to your fine truck as well, go over it, Joe, Before the first snow, This winter could be coldernell.” She also graced more than a few covers as you might imagine.
Reading through the selections in the book, you find recurring themes such as excess inventory and not tossing out good parts in search of the one bad part. The subject matter can be dry and repetitive as you go through the 272 pages but you can stop and marvel at the effort that went into the magazine month after month, year after year, knowing that the information contained in these colorful stories can mean the difference between a successful mission or failure. Eisner took a lot of heat for working on the magazine during the Vietnam conflict but was bolstered when he met one soldier who said his magazine’s tips saved his life.
Eisner also clashed with the army though the years, as he was told to de-emphasize the characters, and loosen up Connie’s outfits, sticking more to the script. Such growing pains are evident in that the supposed monthly schedule wasn’t met until several years after the magazine debuted during the Koran War.
Original proofs or actual magazines were scanned for this collection (the army never returned the original art to Eisner) and they appear at actual size showing how conveniently packaged the magazine was, allowing the soldiers to stuff it in a pocket or knapsack. The 5 5/8” x 7 7/8” book is on sturdy glossy stock allowing the colors to look their best.
In addition to Campbell’s overview, there is a Preface by Will’s widow Ann, and an Introduction by General Peter J. Schoomaker, USA (Ret.). All three help give the collection a necessary perspective. If there’s anything to quibble with, it’s that material from the latter years is scant but what is here does show that the spark was long gone from the creative team. This is an invaluable addition to not only the Eisner Library but to the library of comics history and is well worth your attention.