CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Patrick Sammon was hailed as a hero last month after pulling an unconscious man out of his mangled car moments before it burst into flames.
During an interview with a San Diego television station, the humble Marine Corps lance corporal smiled and flashed a popular hand signal.
Sammon doesn’t belong to a gang, and he wasn’t using sign language. He was performing the lance corporal hand signal from the wildly popular Marine Corps-themed comic strip “Terminal Lance.” Nightly news broadcasts aired the scene, which spread across the Internet.
“Terminal Lance,” created by former Marine and Iraq War veteran Maximilian Uriarte, has quickly become a cultural phenomenon, blending humor with the intricacies of Marine Corps grunt life.
Since its debut in 2010, it has become a staple in the Marine Corps Times, and the hand signal has been flashed by retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, Medal of Honor recipients and celebrities such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Channing Tatum.
On Feb. 1, Uriarte debuted “Terminal Lance: The White Donkey,” an ambitious and gut-wrenching graphic novel that examines the realities of war and its effects on the psyche. It is largely a departure from the straightforward humor Uriarte has mastered with the comic strip, but is already getting rave reviews. The book sold out of 3,000 copies on Amazon.com after only 36 hours, and after two weeks, it holds a perfect five-star review rating.
“Terminal Lance, to me, is a spitting image to what it’s like as a lower enlisted,” said infantry Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Meyers of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment. “The comic strips are so funny because they are so relatable, and for the most part they all have some truth to them. I can relate to the writer’s thoughts and experiences because he was a grunt.”
“White Donkey” closely mirrors Uriarte’s journey to “Terminal Lance.” He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2006 at age 19 to gain “worldly experience,” much like the popular character “Abe,” who seeks some sort of enlightenment through going to war in Iraq. Uriarte, like Abe, soon discovered how arrogant he had been.
“I wanted to make better art,” Uriarte said. “That’s a weird reason to join the Marine Corps for most people, I think.”
Uriarte said he soon began to see cracks in both his reasoning and in the Marine Corps itself. There was very little romanticism to be found in sleeping in the mud and hiking with a pack that weighs as much as a skinny adult.
“It’s not that there’s anything wrong with joining the Marine Corps, but you begin to see the flaws in it, the flaws in your thinking, and you’re like, ‘Wow, this sucks,’ ” he said laughing. “My expectations were shattered. It wasn’t what I expected it to be.”
So Uriarte put pen to paper and began satirizing the Marines and military service in general, from disproportionate funding and equipment between service branches to sleeping on the ground and veterans rebelling against grooming standards by refusing to shave upon separation.
In between drawing and brainstorming ideas with his brothers in arms, he did two tours in Iraq, in 2007 and 2009.
The humor in “Terminal Lance” is crass at times but walks the fine line of social commentary. The now-famous hand signal — the first two fingers on both hands crossed to resemble a lance corporal’s chevron and crossed rifles — debuted in 2010 in strip No. 10.
His work was discovered by Andrew deGrandpre, then managing editor of the Marine Corps Times, and Uriarte was signed to his first contract in 2010. Since then, the paper has published more than 260 “Terminal Lance” strips.
“Terminal Lance” has “started to become part of the fabric of the Marine Corps,” said DeGrandpre, now a senior editor at MCT’s parent publication, Military Times. “The credibility he has brought to the table has been a windfall for Marine Corps Times in that regard. It’s been awesome to see.”
Even though Uriarte has been out of the Marines since 2010, he has found a way to stay relevant, and his strips seem to keep up with seismic shifts in attitudes and policy.
“White Donkey” follows Abe and battle buddy “Garcia” to Iraq where they experience boredom, humor, tragedy and brotherhood amid adversity. The novel also provides a veteran’s take on the fracturing of personal relationships after the war ends as well as the scourge of military suicide.
“I wanted to tell a war story of what it’s like to be in the Marine Corps,” Uriarte said. “What does it mean to do this, to go to Iraq, to come home? What did I learn from all of this?”
The graphic novel comes as Uriarte’s popularity is exploding. On a typical day, “Terminal Lance” gets approximately 100,000 page views, he said. He has about 500,000 Facebook followers, and in any given month he gets a million unique visitors and up to 5 million impressions. New strips come out on his website and social media on Tuesdays and Fridays, in addition to the weekly strip in the newspaper.
“It’s authentic,” said Paul Szoldra, a retired Marine and creator of Duffel Blog, a popular faux-news site. “If you want to know the mind-set of an infantry Marine and all the inside jokes, that’s ‘Terminal Lance.’ It’s become this thing where if you don’t know what ‘Terminal Lance’ is, you’re an idiot.”
Uriarte plans to continue the strip and to move to Los Angeles in March to pursue a career in film animation. He announced on Twitter on Feb. 11 that he had inked a publishing deal with Little, Brown and Co.
“I saw an opening and I took it,” Uriarte said of his success. “There wasn’t anything else like it. I knew if it was good, it would get a following."