Former Marine Maximilian Uriarte began self-publishing his irreverent and often not-safe-for-work online comic strip on life in the Marine Corps infantry, “Terminal Lance,” in 2010. Uriarte’s sharp wit strikes a chord with service members of every branch by highlighting the trials, idiosyncrasies and absurdities of military life.
Similar to Pulitzer Prize-winning Army cartoonist Bill Mauldin’s “Willie and Joe,” a World War II comic strip about Army infantrymen, Uriarte’s Abe and Garcia mock their leaders, dodge their duties and generally speak in the authentic voices of junior enlisted Marines.
Uriarte’s modern-day comic strip is popular with online audiences – currently the strip has more than 472,000 followers on Facebook. Dedicated followers even flash the “Terminal Lance hand signal” to show support of the strip.
Terminal Lance #10 “Lance Corporal Hand-Signal”
In 2013, Uriarte wanted to try something new and set out to fund a much larger project: a graphic novel called “The White Donkey.” He launched an online-funding campaign and exceeded his goal of $20,000. Perhaps because of the success of his comic strip, he received more than $160,000.
Although the book contains Uriarte’s sarcastic humor, it is a new departure for the cartoonist. Uriarte places Abe and Garcia in unfamiliar situations and replaces the comic strip’s four-panel sprints to a punchline with thoughtful character development and a nuanced-look at the costs of service and loss.
In this Q&A, Uriarte talks about the comic strip, the book and the need for veterans to admit when they might need help.
‘Terminal Lance’: The Beginning
WELCH: “Terminal Lance” just hit its six-year anniversary. Tell me about this journey.
URIARTE: I started “Terminal Lance” in 2010; I was still on active duty at the time. I actually came up with the idea in 2008 – it was a lot different back then. It was going to be a full-page thing, maybe a comic book or something. I was talking to the “Hawaii Marine,” the base newspaper, to maybe put it in there, but that didn’t pan out. After I came back from my second deployment to Iraq in 2009, I decided that I wanted to do it and no one was going to help me with it, so I decided to stay up late on my own time. On Jan. 5, 2010, I put the comic up. It started out small. I did everything myself: I built the website, drew the comic, and wrote everything. I did all the small advertising in the beginning too. I printed out some fliers and business cards and just planted them around the barracks in Hawaii — strategically in the laundry room, the lounges and stuff — and that was how it took off. It started as a real underground, insider thing.
WELCH: You actually had a comic evolve from a few Marines’ dirty little secret, to a strip that had offices crowding around screens waiting for an update.
URIARTE: What is really great is that in the beginning, “Terminal Lance” was a taboo, ‘should-we-read-it?’ kind of thing. I think it’s won a lot of people because it’s consistently had an honest point of view and it’s been consistently funny. At its root, “Terminal Lance” is an original, hand-drawn comic strip I produce three times a week. There’s a lot of work that goes into it and I think that’s how it’s won a lot of people over, by being consistently good over the last six years.
WELCH: The perspective of the strip is one that most who have served in uniform may recognize.
URIARTE: It does seem to transcend branch. I hear from people from every branch: ‘Yeah, I’m in the Air Force, but I love your comic.’ Keeping it centered on the Marine Corps infantry, which I think is sort of a quintessential version of the military, makes it really applicable to everybody.
‘The White Donkey’: What’s Different?
WELCH: So you have this following that is familiar with your take on things and now, with “The White Donkey,” you’re going to ask those people to come onboard for another type of experience. What would you say to those folks who think, “Man, I just want to laugh”?
URIARTE: “The White Donkey” is in the same voice and uses the same characters as “Terminal Lance.” There is a lot of humor in the book and I believe that it carries the same honesty that the comic strip does. I am telling a story that is not only funny, but also entertaining and dramatic. The book also makes you feel and think more than the comic strip has done. It is a different type of adventure, but I think that anyone who enjoys the comic strip will also enjoy this.
WELCH: In an article you wrote for “The Marine Corps Times,” you mentioned the conflict between trying to protect veterans from the stigma of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and making sure people notice that we are losing so many to suicide. Do you think the book will help people talk about this in a more open, honest way?
URIARTE: I do, and that is why I wanted to make this book. It offers a weird sort of contrast in the veteran community where, on one hand, we want to dismiss anything that shows veterans with issues like PTSD, depression and suicide as being cliché or not representing that community. On the other hand, veterans have the highest suicide rate in the country – that’s a very serious problem. I think the book shows how that journey might happen, from beginning to end. People who don’t identify with this issue may have a better understanding of the problem after reading it. If anyone does identify with it, they may feel better realizing they are not alone and perhaps this will make it OK for them to seek treatment.
WELCH: A portion of a post-deployment health assessment appears in your book. What made you want to highlight that part of the veteran experience?
URIARTE: The health assessment part of the book was added because I wanted to show that it is so empty and soulless and Marines don’t really connect with it — at least I didn’t when I came back from Iraq. I wanted to show that someone can click all of the right things, but still not be OK.
WELCH: It seems there are many people who don’t want to be seen as someone who needs help. A friend from my unit who committed suicide was the most outgoing, most hard-charging person of us all. I often wonder if he felt there was no way to tell others how he was actually feeling, fearing it would taint our opinions of him, and maybe even his own opinion of himself. I know you’ve lost someone to suicide; does that ring true to you?
URIARTE: I agree with that. A close friend of mine killed himself while he was still on active duty. No one can explain it or knows what to do about it. It is a serious problem because we have the highest demographic rate for suicide in the country. It really is a weird thing to own. People have been more open to talking about suicide than PTSD. I still run into veterans who are offended by movies that feature veterans with PTSD or a drinking problem. They’ll say, “Why would they show that? That’s not all of us!”, but I say it is a percentage of us and it’s worth talking about. If the civilian community sees us as that stereotype, there has to be a reason. I think “The White Donkey” talks about these issues very openly.
If you are suicidal (or know someone who is), immediately go to your nearest emergency room or call the Military Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 (press 1), or text 838255. Take those thoughts seriously and know that there is help available.
The interview transcript was edited for length and clarity.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury or Family and Employer Programs and Policy. The “Terminal Lance” series does contain foul language; adult discretion advised.