Although the name usually implies humor, cartoons don’t always have to be funny. In fact, like any other artistic medium, cartoons can –and should– express the entire range of emotions, and just maybe they can express something true about the human condition. Of course, if they are able to do so while making us laugh, that’s even better. Few cartoonists were better at walking that fine line between funny and tragic than Bill Mauldin, whose work portrayed the mundane realities of World War II, giving the readers at home a sense of what the lives of soldiers was really like while also providing a form of catharsis for the soldiers themselves. In his cartoons Star Spangled Banter and Up Front, Mauldin achieved a sort of existential humor that captured the absurdities of war and its impact on those who fight. Devoid of the propagandizing of Hollywood or the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia, Mauldin’s cartoons provide a glimpse at the true realities of the war and its human cost. They also happen –despite, or maybe because of that– to be very funny.
Mauldin began cartooning while training with the 45th Infantry Division, and his early cartoons, drawn for unit’s newspaper, were mostly lighthearted takes on the daily grind of training and the bureaucratic structure of the army. After the division was involved in the invasion of Sicily and the Italian campaign, Mauldin continued drawing his cartoons, which took on a more serious and satirical –at times grim– tone. Although humor was probably hard to find on the front lines, the cartoons Mauldin drew during the war had a sort of black comedy that captured the mundane absurdity of the soldiers’ daily lives. While fighting in the Italian campaign, Mauldin managed to draw cartoons daily and print them in the 45th Division News, which often augmented the printing ink with used motor oil or cheap red wine. They proved so popular that Stars and Stripes magazine commissioned him to do original cartoons published under the name Up Front. Despite their often bleak tone, Mauldin’s cartoons became a hit among his fellow soldiers since he was an enlisted man himself –and one unafraid to skewer the army’s bureaucracy. Of course, some commanding officers didn’t take kindly to Mauldin’s portrayal of our fighting forces. In fact, General Patton personally threatened to have Mauldin arrested due to Willie and Joe’s “insubordination” and dress code violations.
Despite the criticisms, the war reporters recognized the value of Mauldin’s work. For the enlisted men, the cartoons offered a form of catharsis since Willie and Joe suffered the same daily hardships they did with a knowing laugh. They were the “everyman” since they represented the same self-deprecating spirit of those infantry soldiers who called themselves “dogfaces”. There was also a sense of kinship with Mauldin himself since he was slogging across Europe like they were, and his cartoons expressed the true grind of the war in a way that their officers and families back home could never fully understand. Mauldin believed he was drawing cartoons for himself and his fellow soldiers, so he was surprised when a collection of them were collected and published back home. The book, Up Front, was a huge success, and offered a much more accurate portrayal of life on the front lines than the papers and newsreels could, although the parents and wives reading them knew their boys were not as slovenly and cynical as Willie and Joe, of course.
In fact, the first thing you notice about Mauldin’s cartoons is the characters’ postures. Unlike the handsome, smiling GIs seen in movies or on posters for war bonds, Willie and Joe –as the two recurring characters in Mauldin’s cartoons were dubbed– were slumped over with drooping shoulders and weary looks on their unshaven mugs. These were the real faces of war that Mauldin saw as a member of the army’s 45th Infantry Division. Since he was unable to draw the truly gruesome, violent reality of war, Mauldin instead showed how it affected his fellow soldiers. Willie and Joe’s weary appearances convey the weight and exhaustion they carried with them across Europe. And yet, despite the grim reality, Mauldin was able to find humor in their situation.
Although they often poked fun at officers and army bureaucracy, Mauldin’s cartoons were rarely editorial. Instead they function as a sort of “field report” from the front lines. These are what the soldiers did to kill time and distract themselves from the monotony of daily life. Some of the best examples of Mauldin’s unique humor play with the incongruity of their “routine” and the chaos of the war. Food and equipment shortages were inevitable, so why fret about them? Instead of a “grin and bear it” attitude, Willie and Joe approach their situation across like a pair of existential thinkers. They are like Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon detached from –and musing at– the chaos around them while they wait for the inevitable, yet unpredictable, end. Whether they would have prefered the war or their lives to end first is left to interpretation. In fact, Mauldin himself had wanted the characters to be killed at the end of the war, which would have offered a cynical, sobering denouement. However, the fate that awaited Willie and Joe –as well as the real men they represented– was in some ways even bleaker.
The sort of bleak existential humor Mauldin tapped into is clearly one that would speak to his fellow soldiers, but is often too idiosyncratic for those who weren’t there. They often referred to specific events, battles, or figures that only make sense to those who were there. That said, there is also something universal about Willie and Joe continuing suffering and skewed worldview. Sure, the daily indignities and setbacks we suffer pale in comparison to those of soldiers, but there is something recognizable in these cartoons. Knowing that the most men reading them were laughing along with Mauldin makes is somewhat easier to understand and appreciate what they did. He humanizes the servicemen without sugarcoating or ignoring their struggles and shortcomings, and he celebrates their hard work and sacrifices without patronizing them.
While the history of WWII is made up of large battles, strategic planning, and geopolitics, the infantry soldiers were more concerned about dry socks and finding something strong to drink. These cartoons show those small moments that happened between the larger “historical” ones. Even the newsreels of the time used actors to stage recreations of battles and newspapers reassured those back home with promising reports. Mauldin’s pencil was offering a far more accurate catalogue of the events. (The cartoon that won Mauldin a Pulitzer prize addresses that very fact: the war “up front” looked very different from the war “back home”.) Even now, with seeming 20/20 hindsight and countless historical examinations, these cartoons have an authenticity about them. Despite being pen and ink drawings with some clever captions, Mauldin’s cartoons may just be the best account of the war we have.
When the war was finished, Mauldin was recognized and celebrated for his work. At only 23 years of age he had a successful book in print and a Pulitzer prize on his shelf. More importantly though, he continued to catalogue the effects of the war on himself and his fellow soldiers. His post-war cartoons took on a far more political tone as they followed Willie and Joe struggling to acclimate to life back home. Their friends and families could never understood what they went through overseas and expected them to simply go back to their “normal” lives. After fighting across Europe, they were still battling even tougher enemies back home: PTSD, unemployment, homelessness, etc. These post-war cartoons are much more political and editorial than Mauldin’s previous work. In that way they are somewhat even more poignant and moving: Willie and Joe still look weary because, even though the war was over, they were still fighting.
His new editorial work cost Mauldin as newspapers began dropping his cartoons. Like the war itself, it was easier to understand and cheer for Willie and Joe when they were overseas. But, when they were back home, no one seemed interested anymore. Mauldin eventually left Willie and Joe and turned toward a more traditional political cartoon style, but in the political climate of the late 1940s and ‘50s, his cartoons quickly got him labelled a communist. Their “controversial” tone seemed to be just a bit too real, a bit too true.
Throughout his career, Mauldin’s keen eye for detail and his dry wit remained trained on the truth. The fact that his work managed to bring attention to the lives of soldiers both abroad and at home is a testament to his own talents and the power of cartoons. They give some credence to that old chestnut about pictures being worth a thousand words, and Mauldin’s spoke volumes.