Drawing on experience and moles for gritty portrayal of the US Marines

Since 2010, Maximilian Uriarte has illustrated more than 800 comic strips under the Terminal Lance brand.
Since 2010, Maximilian Uriarte has illustrated more than 800 comic strips under the Terminal Lance brand.PHOTO: NYTIMES

SAN DIEGO • Maximilian Uriarte, the illustrator behind Terminal Lance, a comic strip with a loyal following among United States Marines, has his own "moles" in the military.

Take a recent Friday, when he switched on his computer in the apartment where he lives and works. He needed to publish a new strip by the afternoon.

The inboxes of his Instagram and Facebook accounts held 82 amateur videos his fans had sent overnight.

This was his morning harvest: clips of Marines sparring, singing, dancing, sleeping, griping and making obscene gestures. One had caught a live rat in a rations pouch. Another threw a tray of dark mush to the ground, stomped on his meal and uttered three unprintable words.

A third lit a Cheeto on fire and tossed the flaming orange snack into his mouth.

Uriarte was pleased. His muses had spoken. "All my stuff is organic, home-grown, real lance corporals from the actual corps," he said.

Since 2010, Uriarte has illustrated more than 800 comic strips under the Terminal Lance brand, along with a self-published graphic novel, The White Donkey, which hit the bestseller list after it was acquired by Little Brown in 2016.

Last week, Little Brown released a collection, Terminal Lance: Ultimate Omnibus, spanning nearly a decade of work.

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 the 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.

Fans have rewarded Uriarte's unflinching take 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.

Uriarte, formerly a terminal lance, attributes the success to an unusual trait for a comic strip: accuracy. "I think (it) has done very well because while it has been critical, it's been honest," he said.

That is not to say the strip has not generated complaints. Senior Marines often contact Uriarte to grouse about unflattering portrayals. 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," General Robert Neller, the Marine commandant, said. "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, Uriarte's success looks like a plan. He enlisted in the Marines in 2006 when he was 19. He had been drawing and sketching since he was a kid and was seeking a challenge - and expecting to find rich storylines 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 armoured truck, escorting his company commander.

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, 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.

Terminal Lance immediately attracted attention, including from a sergeant major who summoned Uriarte to his office and sent him to see a Marine lawyer. The latter told him not to use real names - a warning he did not always heed.

When Uriarte left the corps, he enrolled at the California College of the Arts. 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 re-adjusting to civilian life.

As he works on a second graphic novel, he said he expects his work will eventually leave the corps behind. That day does not seem soon.

For now, Uriarte remains fully engaged with the corps and his illustrated version.

When an annoyed Marine wrote in, demanding that he reveal a source behind a recent video, Uriarte did not drift into a discussion about the role of anonymous sources in keeping the public informed.

Like a proper terminal lance, his reply was defiant, in keeping with what his fans might expect.

"Your mother," he shot back.


• Terminal Lance: Ultimate Omnibus is available at kinokuniya.com.sg for $44.57.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 02, 2018, with the headline 'Drawing on experience and moles for gritty portrayal of the US Marines'. Print Edition | Subscribe