If most Americans too young for membership in the Greatest Generation have any inkling at all who Bill Mauldin was, the knowledge probably comes smeared with a dash of sepia, like some Norman Rockwell of the cartoon world. The actuality of the man and his art, as presented in the fantastic new two-volume box set, Willie & Joe: The WWII Years, has quite a bit more of the stink of reality to it. Said reality is accentuated by the olive-drab packaging and old typescript-dossier design.
Not someone who trafficked in instant nostalgia (just as, come to think of it, Rockwell wasn’t either, regardless of his current reputation), Mauldin was instead a chronicler of the everyday grime and misery that was the life of the average G.I., “These strange, mud-caked creatures who fight the war,” as Mauldin called them later.
A New Mexico kid raised during the austerity of the Great Depression and the hell-raising stories and antics of his WWI vet father, Mauldin spent a year at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts (they didn’t mind high school dropouts, then) and had his cartoons and illustrations rejected by many of the finest publications in the land. He returned to Phoenix in 1940 to try and find work as an artist.
Then, “broke and desperate”, as his biographer Todd DePastino recounts in the introduction, Mauldin joined the Arizona National Guard, part of the 45th Infantry Division. Career-wise, it was probably the best decision of his life, as is shown by the cartoons in this set, the first compilation of every one of Mauldin’s over 600 wartime cartoons published from the time of his enlistment to the end of it all in the summer of 1945.
The first volume of Willie & Joe will prove the least recognizable for most readers, as many of the cartoons there follow the (minor) trials and tribulations of garrison life in Oklahoma. The figures are mostly in fine health, and tend to smile. While the weather is often uncooperative, the characters seem relatively clean and with few worries, and the humor is of the gentle non-sequitur variety.
A cartoon dated June 24, 1941 shows two soldiers laying prone in a field; with armed units and fighter planes on maneuvers behind them, one lectures the other, “Then th’ bee carries th’ pollen from this flower to the other one…” Some of the less welcome humor comes from extraordinarily stereotypical jokes at the expense of Native Americans. However, that changes dramatically after Mauldin’s transfer in 1941 to the 180th Infantry Regiment, which DePastino noted was “an outfit heavy with Oklahoma Choctaw,” one of whom became a mentor to the young Mauldin.
While the cartoons from the earlier period were normally quietly funny, that doesn’t mean they were without bite. One from January 1942 (less than a month after the Japanese attacked Hawaii) shows a soldier doing dishes and looking at a sign hanging over his sink that sternly admonishes: “Remember Pearl Harbor!” It’s an incongruous image and one with surprisingly cynical bite, given the place that the rest of the country was in at the time.
Not surprisingly, things changed once Mauldin’s unit entered the war for real, landing in Sicily in July 1943. The savagery of the fighting that would follow, as the Americans slugged their way up the mountainous Italian peninsula in the face of stiff opposition and with less-than-inspired commanders, would be reflected in his later work. By the end of that year, Mauldin’s intrepid dogfaces are a slouchier, leaner, and uglier looking lot. Cigarettes permanently dangle from tired lips and their eyes are heavy with worry.
The stubble will not leave until victory is declared, as baths (a constant source of humor in the later cartoons) are a thing of luxury. The heavy toll of casualties is reflected in a Stars and Stripes piece from that December where a couple of men read a letter while a pre-adolescent kid in the uniform of a man twice his size stands nearby. One man says, “I guess it’s okay. The replacement center says he comes from a long line of infantrymen.”
By the end of that winter, in February and March of 1944, Mauldin’s cartoons (a prolific artist, he came up with at least a half-dozen ideas a day) become bleaker and bleaker. The men’s stubble grow to beards, they look half-asleep, and the war looks like nothing more than a sad and dirty job best gotten over with sooner than later. Mauldin’s ability to speak the language of the soldiers he served with inspired his drawings—this is reflected not just in his compassionate and anti-heroic presentation of their lives, however, but in the fact that Mauldin was singled out for criticism by no less than the egomaniacal stickler General George S. Patton.
Infuriated by Mauldin’s depiction of sloppy-looking soldier and the hint of insubordination in his cartoons, Patton tried to get his work cut from Stars and Stripes. No less an authority than Patton’s senior, General Dwight Eisenhower stepped in to mediate the dispute by arranging a meeting between the two, which blew up later after Patton threatened to “throw [Mauldin’s] ass in jail.”
In spite of Patton, Mauldin had a long and solid career after the war, which shouldn’t be surprising for a Purple Heart recipient who didn’t truck in the romanticizing of slaughter and appeared glad to leave all the fighting behind. A cartoon from July 1945 has a pair of soliders waiting on a runway as a transport is landing; one says, “Poor fellers. They ain’t heard about th’ cigarette shortage.”
There are no tickertape parades at the conclusion here, only a myriad of wry asides made during the mundane grind of demobilization and the return to civilian life. It may be important that the war is over, but a lack of cigarettes can trump all. The appreciation of the important if common reality of small things—cigarettes, pretty girls, wine, a bath, clean clothes—that runs through Mauldin’s work is a key to his enduring success. Wars, weapons, and causes may change, but soldiers are forever.