Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sequart #141: Willie and Joe: The World War II Years

This review was originally published at in 2008.

Bill Mauldin was the right man with the right attitude at the right place at the right time. The fact that a cartoonist of his skill was able to craft barbed, pointed cartoons that criticized officers in wartime that were printed in military newspapers is almost impossible to imagine today. While he certainly had his share of detractors (including General George S. Patton), his cartoons were insanely popular among the grunts--the army infantrymen. His ability to understand their lives and frustrations and produce humor from it was tolerated because many members of the top brass thought it was actually a morale booster, helping the dogfaces blow off steam as they faced horrible conditions. Mauldin was an infantryman himself who was part of the army press corps. He didn't see active combat, but he did travel to every front with the infantry and even received a purple heart after being hit by shrapnel. He was obsessed with accuracy and verisimilitude, feeling that he'd be letting down his fellow soldiers if he got any details wrong.

The amazing thing about his strips is how quickly this crucible of a comics laboratory turned him from a raw artist to an absolute master within the span of three years. He was just a kid when he entered the army, just starting to learn his craft; yet by the end he became one of the most accomplished and famous cartoonists in the world. Willie & Joe: The World War II Years, the 600+ page retrospective of cartoons from the beginning of his career through the end of World War II is a remarkable record of not just the development of an artist and his craft, but how a war was fought. It is as thorough and painstaking a document about a cartoonist and their career as I've ever seen. Editor and Mauldin biographer Todd DePastino provides a wealth of historical context without overwhelming the cartoons themselves, and as a bonus presents a trove of variant strips, unpublished cartoons and other Mauldin material. Most of the strips in this book have never been reprinted. The design of the collection is icing on the cake, done in camo-green with a heavy cardboard slipcase. The type for the notes is done in what looks like a Pica font, the sort that would have been used on a manual typewriter in the 1940's to write military documents. It's an added flourish that helps tie the project together, as though it were a military dossier of some kind.

Most of the first volume finds Mauldin developing as an artist. His career began in earnest in 1940 when he was just 19 years old, and much of his pre-war work was visually clever but crude. He relied a lot on certain ethnic stereotypes, especially Native Americans. His earliest military strip, "Star-Spangled Banter", was crafted for a limited audience and hence had the feel of an inside joke at times. Mauldin honed his craft with these strips, concentrating on composing a strip that needed a minimum of text to get across its gag. Mauldin made some missteps along the way, changing the format of his cartoon to landscape and jamming in up to five different "around-the-scene" gags. There was humor in these strips, but little resonance beyond that gag. Still, reading this first volume provides context and informs what was to follow.

When Mauldin shipped out with his company to the Italian front and his strip began to run in army newspaper Stars and Stripes, his strip (now retitled "Up Front") became legendary. Mauldin abandoned his cluttered compositional style and went back to a single panel gag per page. Writing from the front, his normally tart observations on army life crossed over into being acidic. With the government waging a propaganda war at home in its depiction of its apple-cheeked soldiers, Mauldin provided a voice for the real experiences of the soldiers at the front and in the trenches. He centered his strips around the unshaven, disheveled and cynical privates Willie and Joe. Mauldin emphasized that they were good soldiers who did the dirty work and didn't have time for protocol and other niceties that officers like Patton demanded.

With the influence of a Native American soldier in his company, Mauldin also abandoned the crude stereotypes from his early strips (as noted by DePastino). His gags grew more sophisticated and pointed even as they dealt with the quotidian concerns of GIs. The strips told the story of the European theater, from the fighting on the front to the occupation to mustering out. Mauldin had his finger on the pulse of the frustrations of the soldiers, be it over-eager MPs keeping them out of occupied towns, officers demanding comforts he didn't feel that they earned, the difficulty in actually getting home when victory in Europe was declared and the sheer tedium of daily life in a hole in the ground. Mauldin was quite restrained in the use of stereotypical imagery or propaganda regarding the enemy, concentrating instead on the job the soldiers were there to do.

The most remarkable thing about Mauldin is the sheer amount of labor he put into each strip. He knew he had an audience who wouldn't accept a cartoon that didn't look authentic, and so he slaved over those details. Beyond his simple attention to detail and craftsmanship, his composition was superb. The way he drew in the eye to instantly tell a story was a testament to his ability. At the same time, he never oversold his gag, trusting his audience to absorb his visual clues. That sense of craft carried over to his later career as a political cartoonist, as he tried to eschew lazy labeling. This collection of Mauldin's World War II strips is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the history of gag cartooning, political cartooning or World War II in general and provide the luxurious and expansive treatment that his work has always deserved.

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