‘He Drew Great Mud’
By DAVID MICHAELIS
Published: March 2, 2008
Until surprisingly late in World War II, Army cartooning consisted of gags about mean old drill sergeants and raw recruits on K.P. duty. Then came Bill Mauldin, an impish rifleman from the 180th Infantry Regiment, who volunteered as a cartoonist for The 45th Division News. On July 10, 1943, he stumbled ashore, pistol drawn, in the Allied invasion of Sicily and went on to fight in the Italian campaign while turning the raw material of the front into captioned panel cartoons, often at the expense of superiors in the rear. Mauldin listened to his fellow dogfaces in their foxholes and sketched quickly, sometimes rendering finished work on the back of whatever scrap he could find in the rubble.
From “Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front”
“Hell of a way to waste time. Does it work?” A 1944 Mauldin cartoon.
A Life Up Front.
By Todd DePastino.
Illustrated. 370 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $27.95.
Up Front (March 2, 2008)
Bill Mauldin, Cartoonist Who Showed World War II Through G.I. Eyes, Dies at 81 (January 23, 2003)
The New York Times
Sgt. Bill Mauldin in 1945.
In March 1944, the Fifth Army gave Sergeant Mauldin his own personal jeep, which he outfitted as a traveling studio, complete with electric light and drawing board. As a roving full-time soldier-cartoonist, he bumped across the bloodiest sectors of Italy, France and Germany, producing six cartoons a week for the G.I. newspaper Stars and Stripes. Along the way, he invented Willie and Joe.
These were not the square-jawed soldiers of enlistment posters. Pale, densely bearded, forested by their own rifles and packs, their huge dirt-caked boots and filthy uniforms delineated in heavily shaded brush strokes, Willie and Joe looked not just disheveled but mummified by mud. One G.I., a machine-gunner named Charles Schulz who went on to do some cartooning of his own, spoke for many when he later had Snoopy remark, “He drew great mud.”
Real combat soldiers loved Mauldin. His cartoons were well drawn and funny, and, as the famed correspondent Ernie Pyle reported to the civilian press, “They are also terribly grim and real.” Mauldin won admiration because he worked hard to get every detail right; in Willie and Joe he mirrored the American combat soldier’s deep respect for professionalism. Mauldin’s foot-slogging pair did not Sergeant York the enemy’s machine gun nests, nor did they sit on Sad Sack haunches, looking helpless and beaten. They dug in and hung on. They put up with war. They hated it, but they fought and killed when they had to, as professionals do.
Syndicated in more than 100 stateside newspapers in 1944, the series “Up Front ... With Mauldin” enabled Americans to feel that, at last, they understood what the war was really like. But as this well-illustrated biography shows, Mauldin’s cartoons aren’t so much about war and its horror as they are about quietly courageous soldiers and the unending slog of campaigning. With their slumped bodies, dull eyes and melted-candle features, Mauldin’s pen-and-ink warriors reminded people that combat was hell, but it was a vision of war that could be lived with. Willie and Joe are dirty, tired human beings, not brutalized men. Somehow, even scared out of their wits, they keep their hearts in their work and always find a way, through a dark but droll remark or a small act of kindness, to take tender care of each other. Willie squeezes his partner’s shoulder as the two huddle in a rain-filled foxhole: “Joe, yestiddy ya saved my life an’ I swore I’d pay ya back. Here’s my last pair o’ dry socks.”
In the final year of the war, Mauldin published “Up Front,” an illustrated memoir and a masterpiece of soldiering that became a New York Times best seller. It brought its soldier-author more than $100,000. That same year, Mauldin won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning, which doubled his syndication to more than 200 papers. And after he and his characters made the cover of Time magazine, Mauldin, by the age of 23, had achieved 97 percent of what counted for a cartoonist. But his great distinction was to win the hearts of his fellow soldiers. As this first biography, “Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front,” confirms, it was the honor of his life. Nothing that Army brass or stateside officialdom could ever award him compared with Mauldin’s standing among the fighting men of World War II.
American good fortune has two sides. “I never quite could shake off the guilt feeling that I had made something good out of the war,” Mauldin recalled. As fame, syndication and Hollywood distanced him from the common soldier, a difficult decade followed, during which he only occasionally rose above his wartime work. Embedded with the Eighth Army to cover Korea for Collier’s magazine, Mauldin couldn’t get the feel of a stalemated war. In 1956, he ran an ill-timed, highly publicized race in New York’s 28th Congressional district, losing by a surprisingly close margin as a left-of-center challenger to the conservative Republican incumbent. In 1958, Mauldin made a comeback as an editorial cartoonist for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, winning his second Pulitzer the following year for his cartoon about Boris Pasternak, which imagined him as a prisoner in Siberia: “I won the Nobel Prize for Literature. What was your crime?”
At The Post-Dispatch, Mauldin was once again a “controversial little cuss,” as The New Yorker affectionately called him, and a consummate professional, taking aim at segregationists, the Ku Klux Klan, red-baiters and stuffed shirts everywhere, while meeting deadlines under fire. For newsmen of his generation, it took a certain amount of grit to keep going on Nov. 22, 1963; Mauldin put aside his own grief and in under an hour answered the tragedy of President Kennedy’s assassination with his much-imitated vision of Lincoln, face in hands in his own memorial, grieving the murder of another president.
By then Mauldin had joined The Chicago Sun-Times, but after Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam and Watergate, things went flat for him. By the mid-’70s, he had given his papers to the Library of Congress. In 1985 he published his last collection. He took a final disapproving look at the Persian Gulf war of 1991, but after maiming his already arthritic drawing hand while attaching a snow plow to a Jeep, Mauldin retired.
Todd DePastino, who teaches at Waynesburg College and wrote a previous book chronicling the counterculture of the American hobo, proceeds cautiously to understand the hard-working, hard-drinking soldier-cartoonist who stood up to Patton and was liked by Ike. He snips at the barbed wire surrounding Mauldin’s childhood in the rural Southwest, revealing the unhealed wounds of a highly intelligent boy who was passed over as a runt by a proud dreamer of a father and considered a genius by a mentally unstable mother. As this life of high achievement and half-concealed self-destruction unfolds, the truth of intimate experience is too often sacrificed to literal accounting.
Mauldin’s story has much to say about the development of an artist, but in this telling it seems almost as if a censoring hand has cut out pieces of what might have been a classic narrative of art’s paradoxically redemptive and imprisoning power.
Bill Mauldin, Cartoonist Who Showed World War II Through G.I. Eyes, Dies at 81 (January 23, 2003)Creation can devour the creator. Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was overwhelmed by the world fame of Sherlock Holmes, Mauldin was never prepared to become a cult author. He once tried to kill off Willie and Joe after V-J Day (much as Doyle tried to kill off Holmes), but was dissuaded by a Stars and Stripes editor. They were his “creatures,” he told Studs Terkel in 1983. “Or am I their creature?” strong>From the 40th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in 1984, to the 50th-anniversary edition of “Up Front” in 1995, to his final days in a nursing home, Mauldin became a one-man war memorial, an altar for remembrance. During his speeches and appearances and finally even at his death bed, veterans gathered, intending to pay warm tribute to their hero, but couldn’t help pulling out their own medals and clippings, filling the air with their stories, often speaking “almost as if Bill were not there.”
The Mauldin myth, that he was a droll fellow who took puckish pride in stirring up trouble, curdled in later decades. With the unfettered support of some of Mauldin’s survivors, DePastino discloses that by late middle age, this father of eight children by three marriages could at last be recognized, in the admission of one son, as “a kind of tortured man” — anxious, irritable, paranoid, mean, a binge drinker. Another of his sons raises “the Rosebud question,” which DePastino also poses (“Just what, precisely, was the source of the pain?”) but dares go only so far, hinting at the behavior associated with alcoholism, before another progressive disease, Alzheimer’s, led to the pneumonia that took the 81-year-old Mauldin away on Jan. 22, 2003.
With compassion and precision, the military presents the widow or widower of its fallen fighting men and women a folded flag and the thanks of “a grateful nation.” At every such burial, an Everyman folk hero is created from a lost life. By the same transaction, a grateful biographer (the book is dedicated to “the real Willies and Joes, with gratitude”) enshrines but does not necessarily illuminate. Mauldin’s characteristic skepticism of war’s heroic commemorations may be more telling. Asked to comment on Tom Brokaw’s enormously popular homage to the men and women of the Greatest Generation, Mauldin blew his own version of Taps: “They were human beings, they had their weaknesses and their flaws and their good sides and bad sides. The one thing they had in common was they were a little too young to die.”
David Michaelis is the author of “Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography” And “N. C. Wyeth: A Biography.”