The Unlikely Historical Connection between Comic Books and Preventative Maintenance

The Unlikely Historical Connection between Comic Books and Preventative Maintenance


Jul 29, 2021


By most measures, Facilities Management is not the most exciting industry. But even in that context, surely Preventative Maintenance (PM) is the least blood-pumping aspect of the job – scheduled, routine checking of equipment and assets to nip any (potentially exciting) disasters in the bud. Preventative Maintenance as a standard practice in civilian asset management was popularized in the 1980’s, culminating in its addition to ISO 9000/9001 Quality Management certification schemes in 1987. ISO 9000 was a direct descendant of US Dept of Defence MIL-Q-9858 standard, issued in 1959.

Comic Books, by contrast, are quite exciting. Statuesque men and women in form-fitting latex, punching aliens and sequestering mystical McGuffins while making sophisticated jokes and asides! Surely there can’t be a link between the two, right??

Well, of course there is, and like most things, the links go back to World War 2.

Army Motors and Firepower

By the time the US got into the war, Comics were near the height of their popularity in the United States. What started as an adjunct to daily newspapers became a bonafide American art form by 1941, with Action Comics (Superman) and Whiz Comics (Captain Marvel) regularly selling over a million copies a month- a figure that isn’t even duplicated by titles in 2019, with global reach and an American market more than double the size.

Almost all of the pioneers of the industry served in the war. Stan Lee (Spiderman, The Avengers, The Hulk, etc) found a way to parlay his storytelling and artistic skills into a job in the Signal Corps, and later as a designated ‘playwright’ (a military designation shared by Dr Seuss, Charles Addams and Frank Capra). Jerry Siegel, one of Superman’s creators, also shared that designation after serving as an airplane mechanic and film editor. A notable exception was Jack Kirby (The Fantastic Four, Hulk, Avengers, X-Men, etc etc etc) who served as a grunt and didn’t realize he could use his skills to get out of the foxholes until after he landed in Normandy (just after D-Day). Even then, Battlin’ Jack was relegated to the dangerous role of reconnaissance scout.

Will Eisner, the creator of popular newspaper strip The Spirit and arguably the only comic book pioneer more deified than Kirby, had a more direct route to using his skills in the war effort. The US Army had transformed overnight from a volunteer force, mostly made up of well-educated legacies, to the world’s largest army made up of draftees from every corner of a vast nation. The need to transmit knowledge in training manuals to a not-completely-literate corps was pressing; the use of comic art to reach the average GI was initiated by Eisner, who had been editing his local base’s newspaper. And so, Army Motors was born, and later at the Pentagon Eisner oversaw the creation of Firepower. Both magazines used comics and mimeograph (a precursor to photocopiers which could reproduce stencil outlines of photographs) for training and entertaining the troops, using the protagonist Joe Dope as a genial, American enlisted man who would do everything wrong, until the guiding hand of Uncle Sam would show him how to properly check engine ventilation.

After the war, Eisner created a civilian contractor called American Visuals Corporation (AVC), which would continue to supply comic-style storytelling to US armed forces agencies and businesses.

Preventative Maintenance Monthly

By the start of the Korean War in 1951, attention in the US Army Ordnance Corps had shifted from repair to Preventative Maintenance. AVC was tapped to provide training materials in comics-storytelling format, which by then Eisner had perfected. PS – Preventative Maintenance Monthly was the result (the PS here being the idea that this comic was a postscript to the more straightforward training manuals).

The format was so successful that some have credited it with turning around the disastrous integration of the fault-prone M16 rifle during Vietnam, by showing grunts how to properly clean and maintain the M16A1. The manual (which was published separately, but in the same style as PS-PMM) was considered a highpoint of demonstrating both the value of visual storytelling and Preventative Maintenance on a wide scale.

PS – Preventative Maintenance Monthly is still in publication today, focusing as much on guiding soldiers to online reading materials and resources as it does on providing maintenance manuals.

The author does not authorize the use of comic sans in any context other than the one provided above.