PS Magazine, the Army’s soon-shuttering preventive maintenance magazine, has taught American soldiers how to maintain the service’s massive inventory of equipment for over seventy-three years. Via engaging comics it has dispensed lessons to millions of soldiers on a staggering array of mechanical topics.
Before closing it down, the Army must ask whether PS Magazine and Master Sergeant Half-Mast have one more lesson to teach us—that the Army can embrace unconventional, new media to reach and hold the attention of the scrolling soldier, be she a literal or metaphorical wrench-turner. Rather than shutter PS Magazine, the Army can adapt it for social media. The audience of PS Magazine has not disappeared. It has simply leapt to a new medium, and the magazine can make that leap too. Indeed, it once was that leap. To understand how, one must recall how PS got started.
The Origins of PS
PS Magazine founder Will Eisner’s artistry predated his Army service. In the 1930s a young Eisner created “The Spirit,” a comic about a crime-busting “costumed character,” for newspapers concerned about losing readers to the insurgent comic books. “The Spirit” was a massive success. But then, in 1941, the Army drafted Eisner. He shortly found himself at Aberdeen Proving Ground, where his identity as the comic’s creator won him instant celebrity.
News of Eisner’s talents reached the nearby Army Ordnance Corps, which scooped him up to work for Army Motors, its instructional maintenance newsletter. Eisner quickly assessed that Army Motors failed to reach its audience because it was text-heavy and dry despite printing valuable information. As a fix he created its cartoon mascot, a walking cautionary tale named Private Joe Dope. Joe was a hit with the GIs.
Eisner left the Army after the war but did not stay away long. In the early ‘50s the Army asked him and his new company, American Visuals, to create a successor to Army Motors. This time, Eisner fully embraced comics. Rather than serve as a complementary illustration to longer text, Eisner and his team’s drawings took center stage. PS Magazine was born. The Ordnance Corps heralded “The Return of Joe Dope,” and so began a legendary seventy-year run.
The Lessons of PS
The parallels with the present day are clear. Like social media today, comic books were a dominant medium among young people in the 1950s. Nine out of ten high schoolers consumed comics regularly. Like social media today, concern about comics grew so great that Congress investigated their “delinquency producing effect” in 1954. And like the Army that invited Eisner back, today’s Army is much concerned with reaching soldiers. So what can we learn?
It is worth noting first that PS Magazine’s cartoon-centric approach was not without controversy. In a laudatory 1954 piece, not long after that congressional investigation into horror comics, the Ordnance Corps’s chief of preventive maintenance acknowledged that “twenty years ago it is unlikely that approval or even consideration would have been a given to an official publication written in an informal style, using humor and cartoons.”
But PS Magazine’s runaway success vindicated that “informal style.” The Ordnance Corps explained in the same 1954 piece that PS writers maintained “a knowledge of military idioms, slang, and lapses into the vernacular.” The writers also avoided the deadening paragraphs of definitions and references that plagued Army prose elsewhere, “a frequent malpractice noted in formal documents.”
Its carefully cultivated connection with soldiers also explained PS’s success. Comics, which the editorial staff called “articles,” began with an inquiry soldiers sent to PS regarding a maintenance issue. Even if a given edition did not have space to print the resultant comic, the editorial staff sent an informed answer to the inquiring soldier. In this way PS averaged over a hundred answered inquiries each month. It sustains the practice today.
For PS to survive it must do as the Army did in 1951. PS’s underlying model is thus a good one, both for readiness and for the American soldier. But PS was born a print publication, and like many print publications, it has recently struggled, even after going all digital with an app in 2017. To get important information to a young audience, it met the soldiers where they were in 1951. Today, that place is on social media. This leap would not be a difficult one.
Platforms such as Instagram (where PS’s present account has posted twice in the past year) are ready venues. Anyone who has walked an Army maintenance bay today knows phones are at hand, and social media apps are already on them, unlike Army apps. Instagram’s very interface, with paneled galleries, lends itself to PS’s comics. With only a little work, historical PS comics on equipment still in service may find a ready audience in the scrolling soldier.
Social media platforms also offer PS a chance to experiment with video or reels as a format for its vital maintenance lessons. Like comics once upon a time, video and particularly reel engagement are surging by several measures across most popular social media platforms. It is not hard to imagine engaging content wherein a maintainer walks through a tricky but important service on a common platform.
There are undiscovered Will Eisners in today’s Army, in motor pools and clerks’ offices and armament shops. The Army should heed the example of its own Ordnance Corps circa 1941 by going out and finding them. In many cases they have already announced themselves, gaining millions of views with their creativity on platforms such as Instagram and TikTok. Their help, should they grant it as Eisner did, would make a transition to a social media–borne PS smoother.
The Pitfalls of Social Media
Social media is not without risks particular to the military. This has been argued elsewhere, including by this author. Social media flattens communication but does a poor job of systematically revealing truth. At its worst it can incentivize its users to undermine institutions for illusory, short-term gratification that does not solve problems but does addict those who engage. That said, PS Magazine is precisely the sort of publication postured to circumvent these issues.
The key differences are twofold. First, the dialogue that social media most degrades is fundamentally different than that which PS Magazine hosts. Social media can wreak havoc on intraprofessional dialogue and threaten civil-military relations. But PS is concerned with technical information far less likely to suffer cross contamination from greater online discourse and far more immediately useful to the average soldier and officer.
Second, though PS Magazine employed an informal medium and it solicited inquiries, its content was not crowdsourced. Comic manuscripts were written in coordination with ordnance professionals at Aberdeen Proving Ground. A draft manuscript was reviewed by manufacturers, relevant schools, as well as research and design agencies. Final drafts required the approval of, among others, the responsible ordnance national maintenance point before publication.
In this way PS achieved the best of both worlds. Unlike a lot of social media content, and despite its youthful comics, PS content was and is far from uncontrolled. An impressive array of stakeholders vet it and so it is highly reliable. A 1964 article described this approach as “hard-core technical articles overlaid with a thin veneer of deliberate and studied spontaneity.” The Army can migrate to social media while honoring this tradition if it takes care to do so.
PS Magazine and the Scrolling Soldier
Maintenance matters. In 1950, the Army painfully relearned the consequences of low equipment readiness in the opening battles of the Korean War. In response, the Army took a risk with a controversial new medium, the comic, and gave a brilliant former soldier named Will Eisner the editorial license he needed to teach soldiers about their equipment in their own language. Through PS’s success, the magazine, Eisner, and Master Sergeant Half-mast taught us all a lesson.
That lesson is worth heeding now. Amid once-every-forty-year material modernization, a Department of Defense–wide problem of information inaccessiblility, and an epidemic of information overload, reliable and relatable content is essential. The Army needs PS Magazine more than ever. Rather than close PS, the Army should take inspiration from its founder, Will Eisner, and modernize it for the scrolling soldier.
Theo Lipsky is an active duty US Army captain. He holds a BS from the United States Military Academy.
The views expressed above are his and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: US Army Sustainment Command