Cartoons For Troops: MAD Artist on His USO Tour Experience

Cartoonist Talks USO Tour

Photo by John Read.

Mad Magazine may be better known for lampooning society than it is for supporting it.

But for Sam Viviano, the magazine's art director, this Veteran's Day has a whole new meaning thanks to a trip he just took across the globe to support U.S. troops by drawing the type of crazy cartoons he usually reserves for parodies.

"We were watching the Veterans Day parade go by today, and there's no question that, in a way I can't exactly articulate, I realized that I was looking at it in a different way than I would have in the past," he said of the trip.

Viviano traveled with nine other cartoonists in October to entertain soldiers in Germany, Kuwait and Southeast Asia by drawing caricatures and cartoons. Sometimes, if the solider requested it, the caricatures would be based on a husband, wife, or son or daughter, drawn from a photograph or cell phone.

"We'd spend maybe 10 minutes with them, drawing as we talked to them," Viviano said. "And while the cartoons themselves were appreciated, I think maybe it was more important to just have the opportunity to meet each other and converse for a few minutes. We felt that, in some ways, we had a luckier opportunity than another entertainer would who is just signing autographs."

Sam Viviano. Photo by John Read.

Viviano said he was surprised by the vastness of the military locations, but also by the diversity of the U.S. troops. "I'm very impressed with the fact that, while there were certainly young people who were in the service, there were people with MBAs, there were people who had been 20-year or 30-year lifers in the military, and there were even grandmothers I met who had re-upped after their kids grew up," he said. "So it was a much larger, much more diverse population than I anticipated."

The trip was organized thanks to the long relationship between the USO and the National Cartoonists Society. And while it might seem that the presence of troops in a country might usually prompt a cartoonist to take a politically motivated jab at the situation, Viviano said that isn't the case.

"One of the NCS tours about three years ago included both Gary Trudeau of Doonesbury and Michael Ramirez, who's an editorial cartoonist for Investor's Business Daily," he said. "Gary Trudeau is, of course, a well-known liberal, and Michael Ramirez is very conservative. But they got along spectacularly well, as did the people in our group.

"The people you're talking with exist essentially outside of that political realm," Viviano said. "They're doing a job, and to be honest, we're damned lucky they are."

The cartoonists on this trip included T. Lewis, who draws the newspaper strip Over the Hedge, Bill Janocha, who works on Beetle Bailey, illustrator/firefighter Paul Combs, and six other members of the NCS. They traveled from one base to another, sitting with the soldiers in two-hour shifts, drawing for a grateful bunch of servicemen and women.

It was especially striking to Viviano to see the gratitude and upbeat attitudes when he and the other cartoonists visited patients at the hospital at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, many of whom had sustained injuries in battle. The thanks kept coming as the cartoonists traveled to bases in Kuwait and later to a military base in an undisclosed location in Southeast Asia.

"That was the thing that kind of blew us all away," he said. "Everywhere we went, from the top guy all the way down to the lowest ranked soldier, all they could do was thank us, thank us, thank us. They were just so tickled that we would do this for them. But as far as we were all concerned, we were there to thank them."

As war historians know, the relationship between the military and cartoons has existed for long time. From the "Kilroy Was Here" drawings in World War II to the cartoon-covered ambulance that Walt Disney drove in World War I, soldiers have embraced funny drawings for generations.

And even Viviano's dad was part of the tradition. "My father was a serviceman," the artist said. "He was in the Navy for six years during World War II. And like a lot of people who were in the service, if you had a skill — and in his case, it wasn't that he was in the Special Services, he was a Signalman — but he still could draw and paint.

"So he spent a lot of time painting things on the side of ships and planes and on aircraft carriers," Viviano said. "I heard stories about this as a kid growing up. So there's a romance to that, if nothing else." 

Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!

Twitter activity