Manny and Bill, Willie and Joe
By Bob Levin
My Uncle Manny, a doctor, was at the Battle of the Bulge. When he came home, he lived with us on 46th Street. After he moved out, he left behind a collection of German beer steins and some books. He never talked about the war in my presence, and only one of those books pertained to it: the cartoonist Bill Mauldin’s Up Front.
When I was older, I would wonder what my uncle and other vets thought of us kids, armed with cap guns, storming the Omaha Beaches of our driveways, seizing the Mt. Suribachis of our front steps. I had not looked at Mauldin’s book for nearly 60 years, when Willie and Joe: The WW II Years (Fantagraphics. 2011) fell into my hands. [Up Front had held 160 of Mauldin’s cartoons, amidst 30,000 words of text. Fantagraphics offers 700, nearly all a page in size and half from his Willie and Joe period.] What, I wondered, had led my uncle to welcome Mauldin into his civilian life? Why had he chosen that volume with which to burnish his memory?
He was a gentle man. After the war, he became a radiologist, partially, I suspect, because he had seen enough firsthand blood. I recognize it is impossible to enter another person’s consciousness. It is beyond presumptuous of me to imagine what his experience at the front may have been. But looking at Mauldin’s cartoons, I can see what they mean to me and assume this applies to others.
Bill Mauldin was born October 29, 1921, in Mountain Park, a small town in New Mexico’s Sacramento Mountains. In his biography, Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front, Todd DePastino calls Mauldin’s mother, a gambling, drinking, probably promiscuous renegade from a DAR-descended family, "bi-polar or borderline." Mauldin’s father, a part-Cajun, part-Apache, orphaned-at-eight, brothel-raised, whore-chasing alcoholic, who failed as an apple farmer, citrus grower, cotton picker, gold prospector, land developer, miner, outhouse builder, and wrench salesman, strikes me as her equal at ink blot interpretation.
Childhood rickets left Mauldin undersized, jug-eared, baby-faced, physically inept. He smoked at three and drank whiskey at ten. He started countless fights, losing, he recalled, them all. Despite an over-140 IQ, he failed to finish high school. His sole realized talent was drawing. At 14, after taking a mail order course in cartooning, he left home. From his first 2500 cartoons, he earned only enough to cover the cost of his postage and envelopes. Unable to find steady work, in September 1940, he enlisted in a quartermaster unit, within the army’s 45th Division, to become a truck driver; but he soon transferred to the 180th Infantry. No one, he was told, had been dumb enough to transfer from the quartermasters to the infantry before.
Mauldin served with the 45th across North Africa, into Sicily, and during its horrendous campaign up the Italian boot. He was with it through Salerno, Naples, Venafro, on the hellish beach at Anzio, where Axis artillery trapped Allied troops for four months, and then into France at Cannes. In its first 40 days in combat, the 45th lost nearly a third of its men. Within a year, DePastino writes, most of the men Mauldin had shipped with were "dead, wounded, captured, or deemed psychologically unfit to continue...." Mauldin spent most of his time at the front, but not as a rifleman. Instead, he covered the war as a cartoonist, first for the 45th Division News, for whom he had worked stateside, and then Stars and Stripes Mediterranean edition, where Willie and Joe were born. (Mauldin fired his rifle once, he said, killing a cow so starving Italians could butcher it.) Though not a combatant, he roamed close enough to battle to be nearly killed by German mortar fire and receive a Purple Heart for his wounds.
Mauldin’s commanding officers had conceived of his work as a safety valve. If he expressed the men’s gripes, it was thought, they would not explode. But overseas, Mauldin widened his view, he wrote in Up Front, to honor the "nobility and dignity" of these "strange, mud-baked creatures who fight the war," who, amidst rain and shit and cold, knowing they may die at any moment, risk their lives to aid and succor each other. Imagine yourself in a hole in the ground, he instructed his civilian readers, attempting to provide enlightenment, in pouring rain, your neighbors waiting to crack your skull if you emerge. Then fill a suitcase with rocks and carry it through the mud for 10 or 12 miles, diving to the ground every few minutes, occasionally crawling through brambles while being buzzed by lethal hornets. And then repeat every day for three months.
Mauldin had already sharpened his cartoonist skills. He had abandoned racial caricature as a source of humor. He had ceased dividing a single frame into multiple cartoons, delivering a single, more potent daily. He eliminated the clutter of multiple word balloons, replacing them with a gag line below his drawing. He developed his inking to infuse his work with depth and power. He became a fiend for accuracy, whether depicting weaponry or equipment, dress or bodily position. But his most significant change occurred in early 1944, when he transformed the numerous, amorphous characters who had populated his work into the two iconic dogfaces who would immortalize him.
Willie was beak- and Joe snub-nosed. Willie was angry- and Joe sleepy-eyed. Both were married. Willie had a son–and smoked more cigarettes. Otherwise, they were equals: unshaven, rumpled, exhausted, battered by cold and fear and fatigue, their eyes, DePastino, wrote "expressing grief, exhaustion and flickering hope," "too old for their young bodies."
Mauldin omitted death. Deemed bad for morale — as if the soldiers were unaware of it — his superiors would have spiked it if submitted. Still, Mauldin attracted attempts to censor him. George Patton was among those who sought to confiscate his pen, objecting to his "disheveled soldiers" and "subversive humor." But here, Mauldin gave no ground. His cartoons found humor in drinking, wenching, culture clashes, price gouging, the war souvenir market, the pettiness of officers and M.P.s, K-rations, personal hygiene (or the lack thereof), raw recruits, the elements, disconnect with home and the world, the frequent nonsense of medals, sore feet, and the pretensions of non-combatants.
And death was not far removed from his pages. It glimmered through the bullet holes stitched across Joe’s helmet, through which he wiggles five fingers. It echoed in the "law of averages" which Willie worries he has defied, while tracers fly above his head. It shown through both men’s dulled-to-numbness stares and broken bodily slumps. It was evoked by the degree of love his warriors extend to one another through an arm slung over a shoulder or an offer of dry socks. It radiated from the vacant typewriter with which Mauldin honored the war correspondent Ernie Pyle, slain by a sniper on Okinawa.
Remarkably, Mauldin extended his compassion even to the enemy. No cartoon depicts the Germans as beasts. They do not appear as monocled madmen or baby bayonetters. They are as mud-caked as Mauldin’s own. When they and Americans meet, mid-battle, their reactions are equally human. When Joe plays "Lily Marlene" on his harmonica in one trench, they sing from their side of the barbed wire. In his Pulitzer Prize winning cartoon of 1944, Mauldin counterpoints a newspaper quote extolling the capture of "ragged, battle-weary" Germans by "high-spirited American troops" with a drawing in which bedraggled, rain-drenched, bone-tired Wehrmacht veterans are guarded by equally bereft Americans. He reminds us that carnage surrounds everyone and that a common, lurking fate makes family of us all.
Seeing Willie and Joe across the napalmed gulf of Vietnam and through the blazing fields of Iraq and Afghanistan is not a simple task. Children do not seem to play at war any longer. I do not spot them defending Khe Sanh or even killing Bin Laden in their driveways. The parents I know do not lay mock M-14s beside their Christmas tree or menorahs.
But Mauldin created great art. His illustrative skill still catches our eye. His depth of thought and feeling still draw us in. We ponder Willie and Joe. We weigh their posture. We stare into their ravaged eyes. Who are these men, we ask? Where did they come from? Where will their paths lead? (Mauldin had planned to mark VE Day with an empty foxhole, remnants of Joe and Willie’s blasted possessions splayed around it. An editor convinced him otherwise.) Mauldin’s creations are as isolated and as awaiting-of-an-unknown-fate as Vladimir and Estragon. Their foxhole encapsulates their existence with the totality of Nagg and Nell’s garbage cans. Day-by-day, Willie and Joe confronted their readers, making no progress but enduring.
After the war, Mauldin worked as a movie actor, best selling author, and syndicated editorial cartoonist, winning a second Pulitzer in 1958. He opposed McCarthyism and segregation. He covered Korea, Vietnam and the build up toward the first Gulf War firsthand. On January 22, 2003, he passed away, silenced by Alzheimer’s and bed-ridden for months by infections following a scalding. After word of his condition became public, he received more than 10,000 cards and letters from veterans and widows of veterans whom he had touched. So many appeared to express their gratitude in person for the pride and grace he had provided, they had to be turned away.
Uncle Manny was not among these mourners. His contribution to Willie’s law of averages came three decades before, shoveling clear his garage. The heart that carried him through the snow of the Ardennes succumbed to that of Baldwin, L.I. Fantagraphics has honored him and them, the survivors and the fallen, while enriching the rest of us with this collection.
From April, 2012
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