The Marine Corps' Graphic Novel Hero

Credit: Photograph by Ian Allen

Maximilian Uriarte went to Iraq in 2007 hoping for the worst. "I wanted to come home with the thousand-yard stare," he says. But instead of kinetic firefights straight out of The Hurt Locker, his two tours with the Marine Infantry in Iraq were shockingly dull – less about combat than about cleaning the barracks. Aside from a few moments of genuine terror, his war consisted of riding around in a convoy, standing post, bored out of his skull, and playing endless games of Mario Kart. He started to wonder: Where was that image of war? "There was nothing that told the real journey of a Marine," he says, drinking a beer at a sidewalk cafe near his home in Petaluma, California, about an hour north of San Francisco Bay. "And I thought, 'Well, maybe I could do something.' "

So in 2010, while on base in Hawaii, Uriarte launched a Web comic called Terminal Lance (slang for a Marine who won't advance beyond the lowly rank of lance corporal). The story follows the everyday grunt's struggle against boredom and is cheerfully obscene, with running jokes about, say, the difficulty of finding a good place to jack off in Iraq. After beginning the series, Uriarte expected the Corps to come down hard on him. "I thought I was going to get in trouble," he says. "But I figured I was getting out soon anyway."


(Courtesy Maximilian Uiarte)

Not only did he not get in trouble, but four years later Uriarte has become a Marine institution. His Facebook posts immediately hit hundreds of thousands of military personnel, and the Marines' top brass now turn to him whenever they need to reach active-duty troops. "You can't ignore his kind of impact," says Staff Sergeant Mark Fayloga, who runs the Corps' social media. Last year, when Uriarte began a Kickstarter campaign to fund a graphic novel called The White Donkey, he raised his target of $20,000 in the first 13 hours; by the end of the 30-day fundraising period, he had earned more than $160,000. 

At 27, Uriarte is quiet and lanky, with short black hair. After growing up in the sleepy college town of Corvallis, Oregon, he wanted to become an artist – but thought he first needed a major life experience. "I felt like I had to do something crazy so that people would take me seriously," he says about joining the Marines. "I really wanted to experience something that would be kind of terrible."

On one of his first convoys in Iraq, Uriarte was riding shotgun in a Humvee, scared out of his mind, when they suddenly stopped. "I was sure I was going to die," he says. Uriarte walked out with his M16 to establish a perimeter – and found the culprit. A single white donkey, no saddle, was walking slowly in the same direction as the vehicles. They couldn't get it to move out of the way, so the convoy crawled behind it until the donkey finally peeled off. For Uriarte, the experience crystallized the absurdity of war: the concentrated firepower of the United States Marine Corps rendered useless by a single donkey.

Terminal Lance plays on that sense of futility. The strip is deeply observed: Uriarte spent his second tour in Iraq as a combat artist and photographer, traveling around the country, photographing Marines in their daily lives. The most surprising part is how familiar it all feels: Behind the in-jokes and cultural peculiarities, a lot of the strip is recognizable to anyone who has worked in a large, dehumanizing institution. The strip is like Catch-22 by way of Office Space – M*A*S*H for the millennial generation. Kyle McDaniel, a member of Uriarte's platoon and one of his close friends in the Marines, suggests that Terminal Lance may seem like clever mess-hall bitching because it is. "Max was always looking at things, saying, 'Hey, why is it like that?' " McDaniel says. "All he did with the comic was put it to paper."

Uriarte lives with his dog, Charlie, in a low-slung garage apartment a few blocks from downtown Petaluma. It's sparsely decorated – pictures of Charlie, a few Terminal Lance and Captain America posters – and feels like a visual representation of the way Uriarte is between two worlds. The front half is generic 20-something male (futon, gaming consoles), while the back is all business, a hyper-professional studio with a sleek digital tablet and a wall covered in proof pages from The White Donkey. This is Uriarte's control room, the place where he puts out the comic that has transformed how the military interacts with its troops.

Last February, Fayloga contacted Uriarte. General James Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, was facing bitter criticism following official allegations that he had abused his power by overdisciplining the Marines who videotaped themselves urinating on Taliban corpses in July 2011. (The Marine inspector general cleared him of the charge last August.)

So Fayloga came up with the idea for an online town-hall meeting in which Amos would address general concerns in the Marine community. But there was one hitch: The Corps had no easy way to target active-duty Marines online to get them to attend. He turned to Uriarte. Would he promote the town hall on his Facebook page? Sure, Uriarte said. But he had one condition: Amos had to share his favorite Terminal Lance strip.

The commandant did. For Uriarte, it was an intensely significant moment. "It felt very redeeming," he says. "It was the first time the brass had acknowledged it on any official level. It was them saying that it was a real thing that demands respect."