PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Comics

Willie & Joe: The WWII Years

Mauldin was 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."


Willie & Joe

Publisher: Fantagraphics
Subtitle: The WWII Years
Author: Bill Mauldin
Price: $65.00
Length: 650
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9781560978381
US publication date: 2008-04
Amazon

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.

8

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Music

Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.

Music

Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.

Music

Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.

Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.