“Dude, Watch me Light My Pubes on Fire”: Marines at Work in ‘Terminal Lance’

*** TW – This comic contains references to sexual violence, emotional abuse, physical abuse, and in general is about the US Marine Corp***

Why is Ad Astra Comix reviewing a webcomic about the marines? It’s a fair question. I’m not going to tell you that ‘Terminal Lance’ has good politics – indeed, I think the author and artist, Lance Corporal Maximilian Uriarte (USMC) would be bothered if he thought we agreed on much. ‘Terminal Lance’ is unapologetic in its defense of American militarism, relies often on jokes at the expense of oppressed groups and has a fan base composed largely of active-duty and since-retired soldiers (with nearly 400,000 likes on Facebook, those of us on the Left can but feebly struggle and flail to comprehend TL’s popularity).
On the strength of its politics, I can only really recommend Sun Tzu, who advises that “if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles.”

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And that is reason enough to recommend it. ‘Terminal Lance’ offers us an excellent opportunity to understand the mentality of militarism and of rank and file soldiers in the army. When compared to comics on the Left, it offers an equally important insight into our own efforts at making art that captures our experiences: comparatively, that is, we suck.

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There are some outstanding radical comics, of course, or we wouldn’t be in the business. But as my partner is fond of saying, she got into the business in part because she looked around the scene and said to herself, ‘Is this all there is?’ Lazy writing, cliché visuals and inaccessible language plague radical scenes, and radical comics are no exception. Even many of the best cater to folks who are already radicalized – for every accessible ‘V for Vendetta’, there are several ‘Great Moments in Leftism’ which relies heavily on sectarian in-jokes. (Scratch that, there can never be enough ‘Great Moments in Leftism’. But the larger point stands.)

‘Terminal Lance’ is, at its root, a comic written by a worker speaking about his experience of his workplace. Like any gag-a-strip comic, it hits and misses in equal measure. It relies to a certain degree on familiarity with workplace culture. But that is where I perceive its relevance: ‘Terminal Lance’ is the best comic I have ever read about a worker’s experience in their workplace. While its politics are often reprehensible, it shows a level of craftsmanship that we could all stand to learn from.

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Anyone familiar with old IWW comics doesn’t need to be told how effective comics can be as a tool for workplace organizing. They help develop culture and collective consciousness among workers. In an era of part-time, no-contract positions and rampant union busting, it can be difficult for healthy workplace culture to develop organically. Overworked and underpaid, many workers end up showing solidarity by working harder for their bosses to avoid fucking over their coworkers. Building a true culture of workplace solidarity means clearly identifying the privileges of the bosses, the injustices and outrages of the workplaces, and the common experiences of the workers. Comics can help do that.

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This is where ‘Terminal Lance’ excels. It sneers at the enthusiasm of the ‘moto-boner’, marines who buy into the motivational propaganda of the Corps. It walks us through the Kafkaesque labyrinth of the military bureaucracy with its maddening regulations seemingly designed to punish marines for having independent thoughts. It explores the ways in which military marriage policies impel young men into ill-considered marriages just to escape the perpetual adolescence of barracks life. It even calls out predatory lenders who lurk near bases and exploit cash-flush but inexperienced young marines.

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But it has a lighter side to it, as well. It shows a real affection for the boredom and shenanigans of marines forced to work ridiculous hours under unreasonable conditions. It speculates that since port-a-potties are full of penis scribbles even with the integration of women into the marine corp, that female marines must also doodle dicks on bathroom walls. In short, it has its finger on the pulse of what is funny and essential to the marine experience – or so it seems to me as an outsider.

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What makes this so important? Workplace solidarity has always depended on identification as a worker. Our current economic order has conspired to break down that identification and make it harder to build ties between workers. In an era of multiple career changes, part-time hours and patronizing corporate dress policies, it can be difficult to develop an attachment to your identity as a worker. The army is a special case in this regard – it is often a long-term career path that offers a high degree of stability. Taking pride in your work and identifying with your workplace it not only encouraged by management, but by society at large.

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No one has ever let me walk into a restaurant and eat free because I used to work at a Subway!

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So ‘Terminal Lance’ has some things working in its favour when it comes to developing a shared imagination of a worker identity. But because that identity is already in place, it puts the artist in a better place to articulate and riff on it. Maybe the challenge for aspiring comics artists in most modern workplaces is to develop that identity rather than satirize it. But in identifying what is frustrating and rewarding to marines as workers, `Terminal Lance`offers important cues for anyone looking to do that.

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