Monday, June 09, 2008

Graphic Lit: Bill Mauldin and 'Willie & Joe'

The soldier looks, quite frankly, like hell.

His shoulders are slumped, his uniform is disheveled and torn, there are bags under his eyes, and he’s sporting a five o’clock shadow.

He’s speaking to a seated medic, also looking rather tired and beat-up, who hands the standing man a box with a medal inside.

“Just gimme a coupla aspirin,” the soldier insists, “I already got a Purple Heart.”

The soldier is known simply as “Willie,” and for most of World War II, he and his pal “Joe” offered some of the most biting, insightful, honest and (let’s not forget) humorous commentaries on the war and the soldier’s life that’s ever been attempted.

Willie and Joe were the brainchild of Bill Mauldin, a fresh-faced kid from the Southwest who, upon joining the Army, found himself amazed at the inequities in the military and blessed with the opportunity to mock them in print. The result was some of the most indelible and important editorial cartoons ever published.

These cartoons have been collected in a handsome, oversized, two-volume slipcased set, “Willie & Joe: The WWII Years.” It might be the most important comic reprint project of the year.

Edited by Todd DePastino, the collection goes back to Mauldin’s early years and sheds light on how the cartoonist’s work developed over time.

His initial cartoons, done for the “45th Division News,” rely heavily on traditional gag structures and familiar stereotypes (the American Indian recruit talks in third person).

As the threat of war edges ever closer (Mauldin volunteered in 1940), however, all that starts to change. A greater attention to detail begins to show. His characters become less stock company types and more everymen. And he becomes more concerned with the plight of the lowly, beleaguered infantryman plagued by uppity, fatuous officers, surrounded by gunfire and hostile enemies and all but drowning in mud.

“Willie & Joe” offers a close look at a private’s life without seeing actual blood and guts (Mauldin once said he wanted to suggest “that there were bodies just offstage”).

As a result, Mauldin’s work, by this point serialized in the “Stars and Stripes” newspaper, became a sensation. He was adored both on the front lines and the home front and became the youngest cartoonist ever to win the Pulitzer Prize. For those fighting and dying in Italy and France, Willie, Joe and Mauldin’s other “dogfaces” were their mouthpieces.

Though many officers saw the good in Mauldin’s work, others were enraged by what they viewed as his insubordination and rabble-rousing, none more so than Gen. George S. Patton. Things got so bad that ultimately Eisenhower had to arrange a man-to-man sit-down between the two in order to cool overheated heads.

That meeting is delightfully recounted in DePastino’s new biography of the cartoonist, “Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front.” This engaging book makes an excellent companion piece to “Willie & Joe.”

After the war, Mauldin retired from cartooning for a while. He wrote several books. He acted in John Huston’s adaptation of “The Red Badge of Courage.” He took up aviation and even ran for Congress.

Eventually, however, he returned to the drawing table, becoming an editorial cartoonist, first for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and then the Chicago Sun-Times. Outspoken on civil rights and other liberal causes, he garnered a second Pulitzer Prize during this period.

But it was his World War II cartoons that will be the most cherished and remembered. Perhaps it’s simply because they were the most needed.

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