Cartoonist Kayfabe on the US Army’s Guide to Cartooning

Face front, true believers, as Stan ‘the Man’ Lee used to say at Marvel. Here’s a bit of fun I found on the Cartoonist Kayfabe channel on YouTube. In it, comics creators Ed Piskor and Jim Rugg look at a little curiosity from the past. Back in the middle of World War II, the US army produced a booklet intended to teach squaddies the basics of cartooning.

The booklet was part of a series of such manuals intended to teach basic craft skills to wounded and shell-shocked troopers when they were recovering in hospital. It was also to give them skills that would help them find a job when they were finally demobilised. These booklets weren’t long. They were deliberately made short enough so that a trooper could have one in a pocket or in his kit bag. Other manuals in the series included leatherwork, knot-making and carpentry.

Although short, the booklet does cover all the basics of cartooning, such as proportion, perspectives, drawing action, the need to observe the wrinkles in clothes and so on, including tips on drawing noses and ears. Unfortunately, it also contains a section on ‘racial symbols’ – basically drawing national stereotypes, which includes two racist caricatures. One of these is of a Jew, which is especially distasteful given the nature of the regimes the US and its allies were fighting at the time.

The booklet’s own artwork is very fine and is stylistically similar to many of the great comics’ artists who were emerging at the time. The two speculate whether it was done by Art Spiegelman, the creator of Maus, a metaphor about the Nazi persecution of the Jews, or Stan Lee. Although both were in the army at the time, both were actually occupied on other projects. In the case of Lee, it was working on pamphlets about the VD. The pair also note that the booklet doesn’t say anything about sequential storytelling. It’s intended to teach single panel cartooning, the type published in newspapers at the time and which was massively popular.

I’ve got a feeling it was US army course on cartooning that produced the great American SF novelist, Harry Harrison. I think he trained as a cartoonist and started working in comics and from there found his way into writing SF short stories and novels. Harrison is probably best known for his comic SF novel, The Stainless Steel Rat, about a reformed criminal, ‘Slippery’ Jim diGriz, who works for a galactic detective bureau staffed with similar ex-crims to catch the villains, tyrants, murderers and general menaces to society that the ordinary police can’t. One of his other novels is Bill the Galactic Hero, which is a satire on the army and militarism, as well as spoofing Asimov and some of the other leading SF authors of the time. It was written, along with a number of other novels by various SF writers, as a reply to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and its glorification of war and the armed forces. In the book, the captains of the space navy aren’t the six-foot good-looking guys that appear in the films. Those are all actors. They’re members of the galactic aristocracy, and so are terribly inbred with low IQs. The aliens they are fighting against aren’t the aggressors as portrayed in the army’s propaganda, but are an otherwise peaceful race, the victims of human attack. When Bill finally meets one, who explains this to him shortly before it escapes, he asks it why they’re fighting them then. The alien replies that it doesn’t know, but ‘we think you like it’. When Bill is finally allowed some leave, he travels down to the nearest planet with a group of other squaddies. One of them is a man, who has had half of his face shot away and replaced with cybernetics. Another man wires himself into a saline drip that feeds him a mixture of alcohol and glucose so he can be flat out unconscious drunk for the duration. And at the end of the book Bill meets the Biblical Cain, here described as the first soldier, who gives him tips on how to be successful and survive as a squaddie.

Bill the Galactic Hero isn’t biting satire. It’s tone, like the Stainless Steel Rat, is largely light. But that doesn’t stop it making some very serious points about the lunacy of the armed forces and the hell of war amongst the jokes. I think it’s significant that Harrison had served in the war, while Heinlein was rejected as unfit for active service. It’s been said that the people who are least likely to start a war are those, who have actually fought in one.

And if Harrison did come into literature through the US’ army training on cartooning, there’s an irony in that it launched the career of one of SF’s great satirists of the military, along with just about everything else.

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4 Responses to “Cartoonist Kayfabe on the US Army’s Guide to Cartooning”

  1. Brian Burden Says:

    My favourite comic book artist was Frank Hampson who created Dan Dare, Pilot Of The Future for Eagle. Hampson drew the Venus Story, the Red Moon Mystery, and the first third of Operation Saturn, before succumbing to a breakdown from overwork. After that, the series (IMO) went to pot. Originally aimed at the Biggles readership, Hampson’s successors, went for a lower age group, introducing pubescent space cadets (all male) as role models, and cuddly alien animals. The original adventures tapped into the unconscious, and several sequences from Operation Saturn feature as clients’ dreams in Jung’s Flying Saucers, A Modern Myth Of Things Seen In The Sky; my suspicion being that Jung, recognising their “archetypal” qualities, looted them from European editions of Eagle!

    • beastrabban Says:

      That’s really interesting! I’ve read Jung’s books on flying saucers and didn’t realise that some of his material may have been purloined from the awesome Dare. Dan Dare is, of course, the classic space hero, and Frank Hampson one of the giants of British comics. there were plans to launch a Dan Dare TV series in the 1980s starring Edward Fox, but it didn’t come to anything. There have been several attempts to relaunch the strip. The first was in 2000AD in the 1970s, when it was supposed to be the main strip, only to lose out to Judge Dredd. The look of the ’70s Dare was based on David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, apparently, as it’s creators thought that would be more relevant to modern yoof. Pat Mills, one of the main creators of 2000 AD and its heroes, has said that it’s impossible to revive Dare for today, though he thought they’d done the best they could with his last incarnation.
      As for Jung’s book on flying saucers, I wondered if it had any influence on Babylon 5. One of the dreams in the book is of a spider flying past a building in which some kind of international conference is taking place. Babylon 5 was about a space colony founded as a kind of UN centre in space. The villains were the Shadows, ancient beings like giant spiders, and their ships were similarly spider shaped.

      • Brian Burden Says:

        I refer you to Dreams 3 and 2 in Chapert Two of Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth. In Operation Saturn, Dan & Co are preparing to set off for Saturn in a giant spaceship, called the Valiant, if I remember rightly, which happens to be parked outside the “large administrative building” of the Interplanet Space Fleet HQ, when a purring sound is heard in the sky and a Black Cat from Saturn, a tiny spaceship, appears and starts cutting into the Valiant’s fuel tanks. Dan, accompanied by his batman, Digby, takes off in a helicopter to lure the Cat away. Digby takes aim with a machine gun, and the Cat responds with a puff of matter-destroying green gas which takes out the side of the chopper and leaves Digby gunless and completely naked. Dan pushes him out in the only parachute aboard, but the Cat has by now set fire to the chopper. The final frame shows Dan crashing in flames in the background, and, in the foreground, a frontal view of the departing Cat, its front window almost filled by the huge eyes of the Saturnian pilot. The next episode begins with Dan waking up in hospital with his head swathed in bandages. In retrospect, I think it more likely that Jung’s patients had seen European editions of Eagle, than that Jung directly plagiarised Hampson’s imagery. However, considering that Hampson was on the verge of a breakdown, Jung’s analysis may have some relevance to his condition!

      • beastrabban Says:

        That is very interesting, Brian. The psycho-social view of ufology is that the UFO experience is an internal, psychological one, which takes its imagery from modern Science Fiction population culture. This suggests that some of the analysts have been strongly influenced by it too!

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