New Biography Reveals WWII's Toll On Willie & Joe Cartoonist Bill Mauldin
For a span of about two years, roughly December 1943 to December 1945, Bill Mauldin was one of the world's greatest cartoonists. During that time, while he was a member of the U.S. Army's 45th Infantry Division and serving as a journalist/cartoonist on the Italian front, Mauldin produced hundreds of single-panel cartoons for the Army's Stars and Stripes newspaper that depicted infantrymen just trying to survive, often while mired in muck.
How the creator of these Willie and Joe cartoons overcame some of the worst circumstances imaginable to create great art--and art that has lasted beyond many of his contemporaries (these cartoons were named among the 20th century's 100 greatest works of comic art by The Comics Journal)--is something of a mystery. Even more amazing is the life of Mauldin himself, as outlined in Todd DePastino's recently published biography Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front (Norton). All of Mauldin's 1940-'45 cartoons can be found in Fantagraphics Books' companion two-volume Willie and Joe: The World War II Years, edited by DePastino.
Before late 1943, Mauldin's cartoons were mediocre, though they steadily improved once he started submitting to the 45th Division News in Oklahoma in October 1940. They were often confusingly laid-out multipanel affairs, full of jargon and humor decipherable only by enlisted men, and maybe only by members of the 45th. Huge word balloons competed for attention with each other, and Mauldin's pen lines were thin, even weak at times, his shading was overly fussy, and his cast of characters, headed up by the wise Joe Bearfoot (many of Mauldin's 45th compatriots were American Indians), could be downright cutesy.
Then, after Mauldin hit the shores of Sicily in December 1943, spending the next two years on the front with soldiers in Italy and then France, his cartoons became dark, anti-establishment, grim. His soldiers were grimy, poorly uniformed, and sarcastic, and let it be known exactly how they felt about authority and the muck they were stuck in. The cartoons themselves were full of slashing, thick lines and elegant chiaroscuro effects. They're as full of impact now as the day they were drawn. It was like a whole new man was born once Mauldin saw war.
Mauldin's immediate post-war cartoons were as elegantly drawn and composed as his Europe-set Willie and Joes, but the subject matter of soldiers returning home, while poignant and sometimes as dark as film noir, just didn't lend itself to the artist's strengths at depicting men in situations beyond their control and the sardonic, fatalistic attitudes they had to adapt.
A Life Up Front, while an excellently researched and finely written account of Mauldin's one-of-a-kind life, only briefly touches on the aesthetical power of Mauldin's cartoons as art; as DePastino says in a recent phone interview from his office near Pittsburgh, he's a historian, not a critic. But he is willing to think it over. "In my opinion, it is great 20th-century art," says DePastino, 42, an adjunct professor of history at Waynesburg University (and brother of former City Paper arts editor Blake DePastino). "And I think Mauldin's limitations led to his best work."
Many artists adapt constraints to force themselves to produce better work--consider the Oulipans--but Mauldin had those limitations forced upon him. The paper available, his drawing tools, and even the printing presses in Italy were all shoddy at best, forcing him to draw thicker, darker lines, and to limit the amount of detail in his cartoons, leading to his adaptation of the two-man Willie and Joe format. Basically, the cartoon's two soldiers would observe their surroundings--mud usually, but sometimes tanks or falling shells or an Italian village--and make a complaint or a sarcastic remark: "I'm beginnin' to feel like a fugitive from th' law of averages."
"They're two individuals in a stark environment, so different from those busy [Oklahoma] camp cartoons," DePastino says of the cartoons. "Look at how big they are, Willie and Joe. . . . They spoke to those soldiers there. They convey a sense of individual life. They're dead in a sense spiritually--no front-line soldiers lasted as long on the Italian front as Willie and Joe did--but these cartoons showed that those lives were worth preserving. He depicted individuals mired in shit. Or maybe it was just, as Charles Schulz said, `He drew great mud.'"
Then there was the Italian front, something of a forgotten part of World War II, but, as DePastino says, "Italy was a grind. It was a nightmare. I don't know if Bill Mauldin would have happened if he had landed at Normandy. That was an awful few days, but Italy was hellish months. And in those conditions, Mauldin thrived."
However, DePastino says, Mauldin would have credited his words as the key to his cartoons' power. "To him, the captions are most important," the artist's biographer says. "He had a great ear, and was a folksy writer in the Mark Twain tradition. The captions tortured him much more than the drawings. His editors knew they could not change a comma."
If all Bill Mauldin ever did was those WWII cartoons, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize, he would be remembered today. But, as A Life Up Front amply shows, there was much more. Mauldin, who was born in 1921 in Mountain Park, N.M., and his itinerant family were so impoverished that they barely noticed the Great Depression. He smoked cigarettes starting at age 3, drove when he was 10, and abandoned his family to attend high school in Phoenix.
After the war, now a famous, wealthy man, he wrote several best-selling memoirs/cartoon collections, most notably Up Front and Back Home, wrote for national magazines, appeared in a few Hollywood films, and ran for Congress. His longest post-war stint was nearly 30 years as an editorial cartoonist at the Chicago Sun-Times, starting in 1962, where he covered the John F. Kennedy assassination, the civil-rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the Nixon years, and where he wrangled often with the ruling Daley family.
"I didn't really know who he was before I started researching," DePastino says. "Most people under, say, 68 don't. Then I got out Up Front and was amazed--stunned--by the drawings and the humor. There was massive censorship then. How did Mauldin get away with this, in an Army-published newspaper no less? I was stunned that very little has been written about him. He led as adventurous a life as you can imagine."
Reading DePastino's book, it is obvious that Mauldin's success, and his adventures, can be attributed to his perseverance and ambition. During much of the early part of the book, Mauldin spends months of time and reams of paper trying to get his cartoons in national magazines, and then, after joining the Army, he is seen literally knocking on door after door, trying to find a place for his cartoons. "He wanted wealth and respectability. He wanted to be taken seriously as a political commentator in the mainstream," DePastino says. "And he never stopped hustling. I think where Mauldin's true self lies is where the ambitious hustler comes up against the sensitive craftsman."
That ambition, however, had its dark side. Though no greater admirer of infantrymen may have ever lived, Mauldin's shucking and jiving his way onto the staffs of various Army papers and eventually Stars and Stripes kept him out of direct combat (though he did earn a Purple Heart thanks to a minor injury). And that lack of combat experience weighed on him heavily--after all, most of the real Willie and Joes died, while he survived. And then he had to deal with the fact that his most important work--1943-'45--came when he was a very young man.
"He peaked at age 23," DePastino says. "He had to figure out a way to go on for the next 60 years. The drama of the post-war years could never live up to that `crowded hour,' and he never got over it. He was a haunted man. . . . He was exposed to the horrors of war, but he survived them, and he profited from them."
Bill Mauldin's final years were not good ones. A lifelong alcoholic, he had moved back to the Southwest after his third wife left him, and after he got sick with Alzheimer's, his first wife returned to care for him. "The end of his life was so awful--uncontrolled alcoholism, demons finally catching up with him," DePastino says. "It was painful to write about."
Since his death, in 2003, however, DePastino reports that Mauldin's stature has risen again, at least among WWII vets and widows. That rise started, as reported in A Life Up Front, when, in the months leading up to his death, thousands of veterans and others wrote to and visited Mauldin in his nursing home. "The emotional connection his generation has with him is absolutely astounding, and that I never expected," DePastino says. "I do a lot of talks for this book, and the greatest events are the ones at public libraries and retirement centers. They're like teenyboppers at a Hannah Montana concert. They're so excited, not to listen to me necessarily, but to talk about Mauldin and what he meant to them.
"He carried the grief of those left behind," he continues. "It tortured him, but he took it very seriously. And now, these people, when you're dying, you're open to revisit the most exciting, traumatic time of life. They haven't told these stories for decades, but now they can open up, through Bill. It's like they're there again."
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