World War II-era U.S. Army comics on display at Geppi's Entertainment Museum

The most widely circulated comic of all time? Batman? Superman? Nope. Joe Dope.

During World War II, the Army had a problem: Many troops weren't reading the preventative maintenance manuals — long, boring instructions on keeping guns, tanks and other equipment clean and battle-ready.

Army officials turned to newly drafted Pvt. Will Eisner, who arrived at Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1942 as something of a celebrity because of his success as the comic artist who created "The Spirit," a popular strip that ran in dozens of newspapers, including The Baltimore Sun.

Eisner transformed the manuals into comics, in which Sgt. Half-Mast and Connie Rodd would remind the hapless Joe Dope of the dangers of improperly oiling artillery, recklessly driving tanks and otherwise acting foolishly with equipment.

To celebrate the centennials of both Aberdeen Proving Ground and the late Eisner's birth, Geppi's Entertainment Museum in Baltimore has opened a new exhibit featuring Eisner's military comics. The comics, which were printed and distributed to all troops, remain the most widely circulated of all time, said Benjamin Herzberg, a former assistant to Eisner who lent them to the museum.

"He had a monthly distribution of hundreds of thousands," Herzberg said in introducing the exhibit during a panel discussion Sunday.

The exhibit, "Will's War: Will Eisner's WWII and Military Comic Work," will be on display until Oct. 1.

It opened Sunday, the last day of the museum's annual "Eisner Week," which celebrates his work as a pioneering comic artist and the father of the graphic novel. The display is in the foyer of the museum, which also features rare original Batman, Superman and Spider-Man comics alongside roughly 6,000 entertainment artifacts from throughout history, according to Michael Solof, the collections and exhibits manager.

Under Eisner, the maintenance manuals were made into a monthly comic magazine that became known as The Preventative Maintenance Monthly, or PS Magazine, which is still published today. The Army dictates the subject matter by interviewing troops stationed around the world about their most frequent equipment hiccups and what tips they need.

In the early years, the comics were heavy with sexual innuendo to hold the troops' attention. A 32-page booklet on M-16 maintenance distributed to every soldier in Vietnam was entitled "Treat Your Rifle Like a Lady." Connie Rodd, a buxom blonde pin-up girl, was regularly depicted in various states of undress.

Many soldiers at the time barely had a high school education; some couldn't read at a fifth-grade level, said 1st Sgt. Richard Bernard, a panel member.

"So what's the best way for you to reach somebody who can't read the technical manual itself or understand some of the words, but to make a comic strip that grabs their attention?" Bernard said.

The magazine's supervisory editor, Jonathan Pierce, said the comics have become more politically correct, but no less necessary.

"It's an interesting confluence of time right now, because with all the deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, so many of the maintenance soldiers were taken out of their maintenance responsibilities and put into infantry support roles so they could expand the number of combat patrols, and then maintenance was left to contractors," Pierce said. "So now we have soldiers coming back to their maintenance duties that they haven't done for the past 10 years. We're in the same position we were in at the beginning of the Korean War."

"Now we're back with a group of soldiers who don't know maintenance, and we're having to reintroduce not only the idea of maintenance but the idea of the magazine itself," he said.

The February 2017 edition of the magazine, its 771st issue, will be its last in print. The Army has developed a PS Magazine app, which displays the cartoons on soldiers' smartphones.

Command Sgt. Maj. Toese Tia Jr., another panel member, thanked Geppi's Museum on behalf of Aberdeen Proving Ground. He said he remembered having to read the magazines when he was going through mechanics training.

"As a mechanic coming up, I am a product of Mr. Will Eisner's PS Magazine," he said. "It has a legacy that will go well beyond my time."

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

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