Contributor: Bryan Hiatt
Review Date: 23 May 2006
GI Joe is a collection of World War II era comics by Dave Breger published in 1945. Some background on Breger is in order.
Breger began publishing his Private Breger comic strip in the Saturday Evening Post before entering the service. By spring 1942, and a year after his entrance into the Army, Breger was assigned to a truck repair outfit in Louisiana. On the job, Breger found ways to keep refining his art: drawing in the camp bakery where the lights were on all night or inside an ordnance truck while on maneuvers. Luckily for the troops and for contemporary readers, his talent for showing the rules, bureaucracy, and living conditions of the average soldier weren’t lost in a southern garrison motor pool.
Breger eventually joined Yank magazine and began drawing GI Joe, Private Breger’s twin, with the first comic running June 17, 1942. The book GI Joe, then, is a collection of comics penned by Breger that appeared previously in Yank and later in Stars and Stripes. Breger explains:
“While in England, I was commissioned a second lieutenant and this collided head-on with the basic policy of Yank: ‘By Enlisted Men Only.’ However, Stars and Stripes, the Army daily in the ETO, had no similar policy. So GI Joe…continued appearing until the spring of 1944.”
After this time, Breger shifted focus and penned a comic called GI Jerry, found here:http://www.stripes.com/ww2/breger/pages/breger01.html
The comics in GI Joe are organized by theme: Military Courtesy, Articles of War, Inspection, Latrine, General Orders, Girl Friends, among several. Breger draws Joe as a bit of a goldbrick but with a heart of gold. In one comic, we see Joe walking past the PX, the movie house, a crap game, a pub and straight to the war bond officer. In the final panel, an onlooker says to another: “We’ll cite him for conspicuous courage in the face of heavy odds!” In other cartoons, we see Joe as an opportunist, carry packs for money, and in another, collecting dues for the K.P. Union and striding out of the panel with a fist full of dollars.
There is no shortage of cartoons in GI Joe showing a subtle contempt for officers. In one set at a trial, one officer is shown swearing in a chimp as a witness. “He’s loaned by the local zoo,” the officer says. “We simply couldn’t find another officer.” In another from a short series called “I hereby resolve,” Breger lists the things Joe seeks to do better. Among his goals is not complain about the food and to take better care of his rifle. But the cartoon that really shines here is “…to salute officers in public.” Here Joe is shining a flashlight (and saluting) an officer and a W.A.A.C on a bench who were obviously in the in the middle of amorous adventure. The officer has a surprised look on this face, the woman too, and he is struggling to cover up his “battle of the bulge.” It’s an interesting character positioning to be sure, and it shows that Breger is conscious that the real difference between men isn’t all that wide, despite the beating enlisted men sometime take directly from their superiors.
Breger is at his best in paying tribute to soldiers here, and there is plenty of admiration for those who do the fighting. But other groups of men like Chairborne troops and Engineers gain recognition as well. The Chairborne troops section is devoted to the rigors of paperwork. In one cartoon, we see an officer in front of four other soldiers (each with typewriters), all preparing for their zero hour. Their job is to deal with “644 routing slips, 390 buck sheets, 338 201-Files, 1276 vouchers, 881 carrier sheets, 465 memos, 301 general orders, 359 travel orders…” It’s easy to forget that many veterans served in a variety of capacities in the Army, not just as infantry, and handled mountains of papers work in keeping the bureaucratic machine greased. There’s some tongue in cheek humor here, too, and in one cartoon we see a trooper being awarded the “Order of the Purple Bottom” for working 18 days without a chair pad.
In the Engineers section, what really stands out is a four stanza poem that comes before the cartoons, written by S/SGT. Harry Brown. Brown writes:
We lay down all their rolling roads and cut down all their trees,
And if the orders ever we’d forge the rolling seas.
Whenever they want to sleep awhile we put them up a town,
And we build the blasted bridges so the infantry won’t drown.
We get them over rivers and across the mountain streams.
Do everything but tuck them in and wish them pleasant dreams.
And when the going’s really tough and shells burst in their ears,
A while division’s apt to pray, “God send four engineers.”
GI Joe is a gem of book, one that shows life in the wartime Army, both at home and abroad. This is a rare book as well, one that I found in a local college library, so quantities with online booksellers may be limited.
Sources: John Groth in GI Joe Foreward, Stars and Stripes.
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