Comics Review: Bill Mauldin’s war classic
What comics do you think of when you think about war? Two years ago, Jason Aaron’s The Other Side offered an earnest look at the Vietnam War from the points of view of an American and a North Vietnamese soldier. Brian Wood’s DMZ, an ongoing title that started in 2005, has offered a shrewd metaphor for invasion and occupation by setting a war zone in a New York City of the near-future — as told from the perspective of a rookie photojournalist. And reaching further back, comic-book war heroes approached superhero status with Marvel’s Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, and DC’s Sgt. Rock — both World War II heroes, both drawn by masters of heroic dynamism (Jack Kirby and Joe Kubert, respectively) in their early incarnations. But now, thanks to Fantagraphics Press, we can see the work of arguably the greatest cartoonist of war, the late Bill Mauldin, in a handsome, two-volume, olive-green hardcover set called simply Willie & Joe.
Willie and Joe were Mauldin’s average G.I.s — two muddy, affable, often perplexed young fellows stuck in the thick of war. They offered the foxhole view of wartime. Lonely and obeying orders that frequently made no sense to them, but which they carried out with the uncomplaining loyalty of soldiers since time began, Willie and Joe became immensely popular among servicemen who read Mauldin’s one-panel comics in the Army-published Stars and Stripes newspaper.
Mauldin, himself an Army man who fought during the invasion of Sicily among other campaigns, drew mostly one-panel, black-and-white cartoons with a thick pencil line of great intimacy and detail. A typical Mauldin cartoon depicted one soldier sitting around reading a comic book, waiting to ship out, and saying to another soldier, ”Hope it ain’t a rocky beach. Me feet’s tender since they got webbed.”
In Mauldin’s cartoons you could almost feel the mucky dampness and the air of resignation that hung over the soldiers. At the same time, their humor was bleak. ”I lose fifty bucks; I got here safe,” says the caption to one 1944 cartoon that depicted two soldiers doing what they usually do — waiting around cradling their weapons.
The most famous anecdote concerning Mauldin is about Gen. George Patton taking exception to the artist’s grunt’s-eye-view of Army life and discipline. Patton thought these drawings ”spread dissent” and threatened to ”throw his ass in jail.” But, the story goes, Dwight Eisenhower, then-commander of the armed forces, pulled Patton off Mauldin’s back, saying he thought Mauldin’s work allowed soldiers to vicariously let off some steam under the tension of wartime.
Editor Todd DePastino provides solid, fully detailed biographical notes about Mauldin in Willie & Joe, going beyond the familiar anecdotes and Mauldin’s multiple awards (including two Pulitzer Prizes). In DePastino’s writing and in Mauldin’s own work here, the artist comes across as a devilish humanist, a plainspoken wise man who both identified with and stood apart from his fellow soldiers. [DePastino also has published a biography of the cartoonist, recently reviewed by EW, called Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front.]
Mauldin’s creations are neither superheroes nor metaphors. They are people living — soggily, good-naturedly, bitterly, bravely — through the most agonizing times of their lives. In my favorite Willie & Joe cartoon, the pair hold a pick and shovel and tap aimlessly at some dirt with sour expressions when Willie says, ”You’ll git over it, Joe. Once I wuz gonna write a book exposin’ th’ Army after th’ war, myself.”
As these collected cartoons attest, Mauldin did some exposin’ himself, of the highest calling and most bracing honesty. A