I wandered into Rutgers University’s Zimmerli Art Museum recently and was pleased to see the work of Marine Iraq veteran-turned-cartoonist-and-graphic-novelist Maximilian Uriarte unexpectedly featured. Part of an exhibit titled Self-Confessed! The Inappropriately Intimate Comics of Alison Bechdel, Uriarte is grouped with two other artists in support of the main attraction, Bechdel, a graphic-novel pioneer whose work explores the difficulty of growing up gay in small-town America. Alongside Bechdel and Uriarte are Thi Bui, who writes about her experience as a second-generation American, and Elle Forney, whose subjects grow out of her own life-wrestle with disability and a medical profession that struggles to help her.
That’s an odd grouping on the face of it—Uriarte might be an alienated, disgruntled, and traumatized vet, but I don’t think of the politics of his Terminal Lance comic strips and his graphic novel The White Donkey as radically left-progressive as Bechdel’s, Bui’s, and Forney’s clearly are. Still, there’s no denying his skill or his influence, more so based on the achievement of Terminal Lance than The White Donkey. While The White Donkey portrays in-service disillusionment and post-deployment despair in relatively conventional melodramatic and moralistic tones, Terminal Lance practically invented the snarky “view-from-below” humor that dominates soldier and veteran online rhetoric today. Where the Terminal Lance character of The White Donkey is a hapless victim of the Marines’ dehumanizing processes, the Terminal Lance in the cartoon strips is a wily counterpuncher against the Corps’ assaults on his intelligence and his dignity, with slacking, shamming, and acts of petty insubordination his primary tactics. Taking aim at a bloated, outdated military culture and an officer corps stuck on auto-pilot, the raunchy-and-blasphemous Terminal Lance first-and-most-cleverly expressed the contempt of junior enlisted soldiers for a military machinery badly in need of not just a tune-up, but a complete overhaul. And yet, it’s not entirely clear that Uriarte, or Terminal Lance, hates the Marines. It’s as if he loves the Corps most when it shows its warts, when it deviates from its stated ideals and goals, and he feels fortunate, not unfortunate, that he is there to witness or endure it, because at some level it strikes him as funny.
Uriarte was the pioneering original, and those in his wake continue to score many direct hits, but zinging military absurdities can be a little like shooting fish in a barrel: taking pot-shots at guppies in a tank is not quite the same thing as landing a marlin in the open sea. In other words, the modern brand of “GI humor” launched by Terminal Lance and now finding its fullest expression on Twitter often settles for knocking down easy targets, not in good fun but as if its aggrieved outrage and witty hot-takes were beyond reproach and really accomplishing something. Whether a similar sense of inflated achievement might also be true of graphic novels is open for discussion, but there’s little denying their popularity and synchronicity with the times. Whatever the message, it’s probably more about the artwork and the medium, and Self-Confessed! offers great opportunity to view full-scale versions and blow-ups of Uriarte’s work, rough drafts, and storyboards and outlines for longer works. The Self-Confessed! exhibit prospectus had some neat things to say about graphic novels as a genre:
In recent decades, comics and graphic novels have embraced history, medical and self-help literature, stories of war and history…. Each revisits the past to re-imagine not only what occurred, but also how it looked as it was happening. The process of remembering and reconstructing the past is well-served by the graphic narrative in that the structure of comics—the framing of moments, the breaks between panels, the rhythm and pacing that creates the flow of the book—are all part of remembering and telling. And for the reader, the combination of words and pictures slows down the process of reading, complicates the structure of time, and provides an opportunity to linger.
Randy Brown, better known as the gifted military humorist and poet “Charlie Sherpa,” offers his own musings about graphic novels in a recent review published in Army magazine titled “Graphic Novels Present War Panel by Panel.” Examining two graphic novels about war in Afghanistan, Brown notes that the genre’s name is often a misnomer: “Despite the … inclusion of the term ‘novel,’ these are works of nonfiction–memoirs–and are based on factual events and reporting, or at least personal recollections”–i.e., “Self-Confessed!” That basic-but-necessary point made, Brown reminds us that “American military history is full of cartoons and comic books–from Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe to Sgt. Rock to PS, The Preventive Maintenance Monthly” and that “Comics are more than pictures and words: Intangibles can be communicated via color palette choices, in character facial expressions, in dialogue, and even in the number and shapes of panels on the page.” Combined with the ease with which graphic novels can present scenes “flashing between memories and present-day conversations,” Brown notes the form “delivers immediate rapport and opportunities for empathy.”
Theorizing aside, Brown makes the two graphic novels he reviews (their covers pictured below) sound well-worth checking out. Here’s to the progeny of Uriarte, Terminal Lance, and The White Donkey.
Self-Confessed! The Inappropriately Intimate Comics of Alison Bechdel is on display at the Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey through Saturday, December 30.