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Home Arts and Culture  From the funny page to just off the frontline
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Wednesday, April 29,2009

From the funny page to just off the frontline

Lansing cartoonist takes trip to sketch for wounded soldiers

by Bill Castanier
Bob Hope, the dean of overseas USO tours to entertain troops, was famous for deadpan jokes. A recent USO trip to Germany by eight cartoonists could have been grist for one of the late comedians patented gags, which may have gone something like this: Hope goes on stage, sees a group of nerdy guys and asks who they are. When they tell him they’re cartoonists sent to draw for injured troops, Hope replies, “I thought I asked for a bunch of strippers.”


But even though the seriously injured soldiers they visited are used to seeing the likes of Anna Kournikova and Scarlett Johansson sent in to help boost morale, USO officials say they were just as, if not more, affected by a visit from eight American cartoonists, including Lansing’s own Jef Mallett, creator of the nationally syndicated “Frazz.”

Mallett and the other cartoonists, including friend and fellow Michigander David Coverly, of Ann Arbor, who draws "Speed Bump," and two-time Pulitzer winner Michael Ramirez, spent April 6 through 10 visiting Bethesda Hospital, in Maryland, Walter Reed Hospital, in Washington, and medical facilities for the seriously wounded in Germany. While on the tour, they spent time with soldiers and staff and drew cartoons for them.


None of the cartoonists knew much about their mission going in except the basics: one day at Bethesda and Walter Reed, followed by an overnight flight to Germany, to visit and draw for soldiers who had serious injuries, such as the loss of limbs and severe facial injuries; most of the injuries had been inflicted by roadside bombs.





In Germany, the cartoonists spent 13-hour days drawing personalized cartoon art for the soldiers, many of them just days off the front. “Our job was pretty simple: to listen to them, to draw pictures for them and to say thanks,” Mallett said.


For the tour’s Michigan contingent, the experience was not only dramatic, but one that can almost be described as life changing. “These men had amazing, heroic stories,” Mallett said. “Here are young men whose lives have been changed forever. I was impressed with their sense of devotion. They are very focused individuals.”

Knowing he’d be visiting the most seriously injured, Mallett said he girded himself for the tour, but when they visited the rehabilitation facility in Bethesda, it was still “staggering.” “There is no other way to say it,” Mallett said. “It was the only time I was really knocked on my heels. The room was packed with people working out, all missing a limb or multiple limbs.”

Mallett was drawing for a Navy Corpsman, who matter-of-factly, and with great humor, told him an incredible story of the day he suffered his injury (See sidebar “Keep screaming”).

Coverly expected an intense, rewarding experience going in, but he said, “It was much more intense and much more rewarding. It was
eye opening for me. They all had shockingly good attitudes to a man. No
one is ‘woe is me.’”


He admitted to feeling a lump in his throat at
times.

“They
are so young, and the direction of their lives have changed,” he said.
“Most don’t have a political agenda. It was fascinating to me to hear
their stories of how they got injured. It was as if they were telling
you about a trip to the grocery store.”

But it’s not often on
the way to a grocery store that your “body goes one way, and your leg
the other,” as one soldier told Coverly.

When the question
“What do you want me to draw?” was posed, most soldiers didn’t have a
specific request. Many were happy someone was just paying them a visit.
“It didn’t matter to them,” Mallett said.


Coverly said he often drew
some of his characters, personalizing them by writing the name of the
soldier’s home state on their clothes.

Back in their rooms at
night, Mallett and Coverly admitted to being near tears. Neither served
in the military due to age and timing, but they see soldiers
differently after the visit.

Walt Murren, USO Europe regional
vice president, said the tour was the most well received in terms of
impact on troops of any he’s seen. “And I am talking movie stars and
rock stars,” he said.


Recent tours have included Robin Williams, “The
Colbert Report,” Kid Rock and Miss U.S.A. Murren said country star Toby
Keith is on tour now.


“[The cartoonists] were up close and personal,
going one-on-one with the wounded,” Murren said. “They were able to
create a tremendous relationship with the wounded warriors. When I
visit the units, all I hear about is the cartoonists.”

These
guys are characters themselves. They really are the characters they
draw. There were a lot of smiles on people, and the guys they saw are
our next best generation.”

Part of that success comes from the
cartoonists’ personalities; they’re funny by nature. When he heard
Murren’s comments, Coverly said, “I’d be willing to put that Scarlett
Johannson comparison to a side-by-side test. Literally.”

Mallett,
a man skilled at finding humor, even in serious topics, laughed when he
heard the military now refers to what was once “the front” as
“downrange.” It’s the kind of thing legendary World War II military
cartoonist Bill Maudlin, creator of “Willie and Joe,” would have loved.


Mallett and Coverly had an extra in with the folks they were
drawing for, since their work appears in the military newspaper Stars
and Stripes, so the soldiers were familiar with their oddball,
oftenedgy sense of humor.

Mallett has been drawing “Frazz”
since 1999. The strip, which runs in 150 daily papers, follows the life
and times of his title character, a school janitor who becomes
entangled in the daily drama of a middle school. Frazz is sort of the
resident school psychologist, offering pity and one-line advice to
students. Mallett said he decided to use a janitor as his main
character after doing school tours for his children’s book, “Dangerous
Dan.” “The janitor is the man, and the first strip I tried it was so
obvious,” Mallett said.


Mallett admits to basing some of “Frazz” on his
own life and personality (for example, Frazz, like Mallett, is an avid
bicyclist), but he said, “Fictionally, he’s a lot cooler than I am.”


He
may be cooler, but he’s not in better shape. Mallett has participated
in innumerable triathlons since 1981, and two years ago he swam the
Straits of Mackinac for charity.

Coverly,
who lives near downtown Ann Arbor, can wield the same biting satire as
Mallett, but he uses the single panel approach rather than a strip,
with the goal of creating one big laugh often enabled with a sight gag
as the punch line. "Speed Bump" runs in 250 daily newspapers.

Both
cartoonists have a reputation for lacing their comics with biting humor
that comments on society’s foibles, and they don’t shy away from
controversial issues, whether it’s racism, doting parents or precocious
children.

Although Mallett uses his own life experiences in
cartoons, he doesn’t have any definite plans to incorporate the trip
into his work. “It takes time for life experiences to work their way
into one of my cartoons,” Mallett said. “It’s very rare I have an
experience and put it into a cartoon, but everything in the strip comes
from life.”


Coverly expressed a similar sentiment. “I'd say
it's extremely unlikely that my experience in Germany will find its way
into [‘Speed Bump’],” he said. “Having said that, you never know. Most
experiences in my life need to percolate for a while before I even
decide if they're appropriate. It would be very difficult to
put a humorous spin on anything I saw, though.”


Since the tour was such
a success, the USO is already making plans for another cartoonist tour
this fall, most likely to Iraq or Afghanistan. “I would like them to
come back next week,” Murren said. “I am not thinking about it; I will
definitely be going,” said Mallett, in his typical understated way. “I
will grow so much in one week, just like I did on this trip. I was so
humbled by the experience. You can’t grasp the extent of what is going
on.” “I already agreed to it,” Coverly said. “It changes you so much by
putting a face to the names. It is unbelievable.”


'Our job was pretty simple: to listen to them, to draw pictures for them and to say thanks,' – Jef Mallett Creator of "Frazz"



’Keep screaming’


(Editor’s
note: Cartoonist Jef Mallett tells in his own words one of the stories
he heard while serving on a USO tour visiting injured soldiers.)


This
Navy corpsman was third man in, with two Marines clearing an abandoned
house, when the refrigerator blew up and cut them down. He couldn’t get
to his feet, didn’t even have both of them anymore. So he dragged
himself to the squad leader and applied a tourniquet to what was left
of the sergeant’s leg. Then he gave him orders: “I’m going to save the
other guy. I need you to keep yelling ‘I will not die’ at the top of
your lungs.”

As long as he could hear his leader screaming, he
knew he was clear to attend to his other squad member. Same tourniquet
application, same orders to scream. He dragged himself back and forth
between the two men several times before he took the time to put a
tourniquet on his own leg. He remembers cutting open his squad leader’s
pant leg and watching a shin roll away like a fireplace log, neatly
sheared off at the knee and ankle. He remembers being a little
surprised at the trail of blood-mud that described his path between the
two men. He remembers, just before passing out as he was being hoisted
onto the medevac, being able to see the sun shine clearly between two
perfectly cauterized holes through his feet. Had he had a better angle,
he could have seen the sun shining through most of his lower leg that
way.


A year later, just about all of it spent in the same room on the
same floor at Walter Reed, he was showing a bunch of slack-jawed
cartoonists the scars on that leg. The other leg was gone, and this one
was still touch and go. Somebody called him a hero, but he snorted. He
just did his job, that’s all. Give the Navy credit for training him so
well, he said. But he did allow that he was up for a Silver Star for
valor. Someone else snorted; what does it take to get a gold one, for
crying out loud? “Stay dead,” he said.


He had died, for two minutes,
but his timing was good. His heart stopped while surgeons were already
inside his torso clearing out shrapnel, so it was an easy reach to
massage the heart back to Silver-Star status.

So, what was
next? This guy seemed capable of anything, except what he wanted, which
was to return to the fighting and save more Marines. But he would get
his nursing degree and return to that same floor at Walter Reed. Nobody
knew the floor better than him. Nobody knew what the patients had been
through better than he did. Nobody, but nobody, was going to tell him
no.




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