The Marine Corps likes to present itself with dutiful seriousness. “Terminal Lance” is a counterpoint to that. It is a tribute to the service’s permanent underclass, the young grunts who are too weary to feign enthusiasm anymore. (The strip’s title is derived from slang for the holder of a junior rank — lance corporal — who will never be promoted and thus will depart the corps as a terminal lance.)
The Pentagon speaks of duty, commitment and national defense. Mr. Uriarte’s troops seem to have boarded the wrong bus. They are anxious, lonely and bored. Sick of slogans and tired of being casually hazed and verbally abused, they take refuge in drawing penises inside the porta-potties that dot their bases and outposts. They find chaplains creepy and lifers tiresome. Their corps is a bizarre professional ecosystem where the working caste masturbates, binge-drinks, watches porn and plays video games in the barracks and then reports to work hung over.
In art as in life, it is not that these lance corporals are unwilling to train or to fight. It’s that America’s wars give them little opportunity to train and fight smart. Much of their deployed time is spent on duties that accomplish little, or worse, cause harm to others and themselves. In this dispiriting system the only privilege many of them can claim is the power to look down on even newer Marines — the “boots,” a clueless population subject to harassment and ridicule.
If this sounds like a hard sell to a proud service, “Terminal Lance” fans have rewarded Mr. Uriarte’s unflinching take and reportage with a full embrace. The nearly 691,000 followers of the “Terminal Lance” Facebook page are almost four times the number of active-duty Marines. In just three years, its newer Instagram account has swelled to 287,000 fans, the largest proportion of whom are 18- to-24-year-olds. The strip’s own website averages about one million unique visitors a month, and its reach is further boosted by the publication of a less offensive version in The Marine Corps Times, an independent biweekly newspaper.
Mr. Uriarte, formerly a terminal lance himself, attributes the success to an unusual trait for a comic strip: accuracy. “I think ‘Terminal Lance’ has done very well because while it has been critical, it’s been honest,” he said.
That’s not to say the strip has not generated complaints. Senior Marines often contact Mr. Uriarte to grouse about unflattering portrayals, including his characters’ excessive drinking. Some try to root out his sources. But the corps and its illustrator have found a measure of peace.
“If you are a grunt and can’t laugh at this stuff, you’d go crazy,” Gen. Robert Neller, the Marine commandant, said in a telephone interview last week. “Every time I see his comic I read it. If nothing else it makes you ponder his point, or just laugh out loud.”
In hindsight Mr. Uriarte’s success looks like a plan. He enlisted in the Marines in 2006, when he was 19, hoping to become a professional artist with time. He had been drawing and sketching since he was kid and was seeking a challenge and the rich story lines he expected to find in grunt life.
“I consider myself an artist before anything else,” he said. “This whole thing was really to inform my artwork, from a weird 19-year-old perspective.”
He spent his first combat tour, in 2007, as a machine-gunner in the turret of an armored truck, escorting his company commander around. By his second tour, in 2009, he had talked himself into a job as an official photographer.
The next year, with only a few months left on active duty and no promotion in sight, Mr. Uriarte started “Terminal Lance,” publishing under his own name. He had a smartphone, a website and a subject: his fellow disgruntled Marines, who had almost no voice of their own. He channeled it.
“They essentially created a monster,” he said, of the corps. “I wonder if they regret not promoting me.”
“Terminal Lance” immediately attracted attention, including from a sergeant major who summoned Lance Corporal Uriarte to his office and sent him to see a Marine lawyer. The lawyer told him not to use real names — a warning he did not always heed.
When Mr. Uriarte left the corps, he enrolled at the California College of the Arts on the G.I. Bill. He became part of a growing network of Marines attuned to problems plaguing their cohort: cycles of deployments leading to despair, post-traumatic stress disorder and difficulties readjusting to civilian life. Two members of his former infantry company committed suicide.
All of this informed “Terminal Lance.” Staff Sgt. Kevin T. Hoffman, a Marine based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., was drawn to Mr. Uriarte’s strip as it launched, when he was a lance corporal recovering in a hospital from wounds suffered in a bomb attack in Afghanistan.
He recognized it as real. The strip resonated with him, he said, because it “made me reflect and miss the barracks and my friends.” He reads it still, even as a supervisor himself. Mr. Uriarte has “been able to remain a figurehead because his experiences are timeless,” Staff Sergeant Hoffman said.
Over the years the strip has come to focus on the experiences of two main characters, Abe and Garcia, who in many ways are foul-mouthed millennial updates on Willie and Joe, Bill Mauldin’s comic-strip characters of World War II.
Garcia is likable and reasonable, a Marine who accepts the corps’ absurdities, indignities and tedium
in stride. Abe is often selfish, unimpressed and eager for the weekend. He seems born not to fight, but to complain, and is not even sure why he volunteered.
But Mr. Uriarte’s work has evolved past Abe’s brief and often one-sided episodes of venting. In “The White Donkey,” his graphic novel, he used the characters to venture into more serious themes, confronting the violence at the center of the infantry’s purpose and presenting a grim view of Marines eager for war.
Set in 2007 during the occupation of Iraq, it includes a scene where an Iraqi police officer stands silently beside Abe and Garcia as they talk and smoke cigarettes. Abe is disgusted. Violence has declined. He has seen little action — except for an unarmed civilian he mistook for a suicide bomber and shot. He finds Iraq ugly. He admits he hates the place.
The Iraqi officer startles the Americans by revealing he speaks English and understood everything Abe said. “Would it make you feel better to kill someone?” he asks. “You came here to kill brown people like me, yes? Why not kill me now?”
He spares no disgust for the occupier’s journey. “I have met many of your type over the last few years, coming here to fulfill some personal conquest, but you never stop to think about how arrogant you are,” he says. “You seek some enlightenment at the expense of my people.”
For Mr. Uriarte, who modeled Abe in part on his younger self, the scene is both self-lacerating and a hint of perspective gained. It is also a challenge to his core readership, as are his occasional statements on personal social media standing up for gays in the military, women in the corps and gun control.
As Mr. Uriarte works on a second graphic novel, he acknowledges that he is growing older than his subjects. He said he expects his work will eventually leave the corps behind.
“I don’t want to keep doing this forever,” he said. “At some point I’ll stop.”
That day does not seem soon. For now, Mr. Uriarte remains fully engaged with the corps and his illustrated version.
When an annoyed Marine wrote to Mr. Uriarte demanding that he reveal a source behind a recent video, Mr. Uriarte did not drift into a discussion about the First Amendment or the role of anonymous sources in keeping the public informed.
Like a proper terminal lance, his reply was dismissive and defiant, in keeping with what his fans might expect. “Your mother,” he shot back.