From the Stars and Stripes archives

Cartoonist Silverstein called Stripes his catapult to success

Shel Silverstein at Yokohama, Japan, in December, 1956.


By STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 1, 1995

Shel Silverstein, Playboy cartoonist, author and composer, served as a draftee on the staff of Pacific Stars and Stripes in the mid-1950s and said it was the catapult that launched him success and wealth.

He was only an aspiring cartoonist when he arrived at the newspaper in 1953 and served through 1955, Silverstein told Stripes Senior Writer Hal Drake in a 1969 interview. He had never done any steady and serious cartooning until he began drawing daily panels about barracks life and field soldiering.

"For a guy of my age and with my limited experience to suddenly have to turn out cartoons on a day-to-day deadline deadline, the job was enormous,'' Silverstein recalled.

"It was a great opportunity for me and I blossomed.''

As a soldier-cartoonist, Silverstein realized he could only offend some of the people some of the time. He seldom drew cartoons about officers, and those few drew bitter complaints.

"So I started working on sergeants," Silverstein sighed. "I had nothing against sergeants but that's all I could get and I went after them until finally I was told all I could attack were civilians and animals. "But they even made zebras off limits to me because they had stripes.''

Still, his cartoons drew popular as well as angry response, although one almost got him court-martialed. Silverstein sketched a woman and her child in cut-down uniforms, implying that quartermasters stole clothes from the depot and took them home.

He got out of that, Silverstein said, by explaining that he meant to say quartermasters were so gung-ho they went so far as to dress their families in uniforms.

He was as he was all during those Stripes years, old-timers at the newspaper recalled — an indentured civilian.

MPs used to watch for Silverstein, looking for and usually finding faults in the way he wore a uniform.

One day, two or three of them stood Silverstein tall, looked him over from head to foot and found no glaring discrepancies.

"Lift your cuffs,'' one MP ordered.

Silverstein did.

He was wearing argyle socks.

Home and out, Silverstein and the Army eventually parted as friends.

"It did me good, taught me things about life and gave me the freedom to create.''

He found the cartoon market lean, unable to "sell my blood'' until somebody told him about Hugh Hefner, who was putting together the first Playboy in a modest apartment. Hefner hired Silverstein, who literally moved from ground floor to an executive suite in the Playboy Mansion.

World famous for cartoons, songs and even poetry, Silverstein still recalled a Stripes cartoon that again almost caused a collision with the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Drawing a page of cartoons for April Fool's Day, Silverstein sketched a soldier holding out a mess kit with a slab of toast in it. A cook splashed dark matter over it, saying: "Today, it really is.''

The managing editor, required to inspect all Silverstein cartoons before they were printed, called him over and asked, "Shel, what does this mean?

"Well, you know, powdered milk, powdered eggs. Today it's the real thing. April Fool! Get it?''

That editor, a World War II machine-gunner in Europe, approved the cartoon. Many readers gasped over their breakfast on April Fool's Day.

Or as one of Silverstein's contemporaries on the newspaper put it at the time: "That cartoon, shingle and all, flew in and out of the fan for several days.''

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