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The most famous cartoonist of World War Two was Bill Mauldin. Everyone knew his cartoons of the disheveled, ill-shaven GIs Willie and Joe, but not everyone liked them. The GIs themselves were big fans. They knew that Mauldin, even in the simple medium of newspaper comics, was getting their story right. In _Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front_ (Norton), Todd DePastino, who has previously edited a book of Willie and Joe cartoons, has given us what is, surprisingly, the first full length biography of the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist. The book fittingly contains dozens of Mauldin's drawings, and not all from the war years. Like many veterans, Mauldin may have had the high point of his life during the war, but his second Pulitzer came in 1958, and it's not even for his most famous post-war cartoon. A distinctly American genius, Mauldin deserved a sympathetic and detailed biography, and that is just what DePastino has given us.
Mauldin really was a genius with a pencil or pen. He was making detailed drawings before he could talk. He got some formal training, but he could not make cartoons pay, and unemployment was bad enough in 1940 that he joined the Arizona National Guard's 45th Infantry Division. His cartoons, featured in the division newspaper, were humorous takes on the sort of things other soldier cartoonists were doing, showing dumb privates peeling potatoes and dumb officers mouthing off criticisms. After he went through battle in Sicily and Italy, however, the cartoons changed, showing generally competent soldiers, doing a bloody, muddy, dangerous, and unappreciated job. The sympathetic accuracy of the portraits was what made them beloved by the dogfaces that recognized themselves in the depictions and the situations. The GIs loved Mauldin's cartoons; the officers were less than unanimous in their admiration. General Patton hated them, and early in Mauldin's army career, he tried pulling rank, telling Mauldin's commander "Get rid of Mauldin and his cartoons". It was one battle Patton lost. Mauldin's cartoons were syndicated stateside. He also began a writing career that was to prove to be successful, starting with _Up Front_, a bestselling account of the Italian campaign. He became a popular editorial cartoonist. His cartoons took down segregationists, the KKK, and the anti-Communist hysteria of Joe McCarthy. He got himself an FBI file for his efforts. His most famous postwar cartoon was the one of the statue of Lincoln from the Memorial, head in hands after the assassination of Kennedy. Mauldin remained a reporter, taking assignments in Vietnam, Israel, and even the Persian Gulf for our first war there. He acted briefly in the movies. He died of dementia, complicated by alcohol, and a severe scalding accident in 2003.
DePastino's wonderful and moving book rightly concentrates on the war years, but details plenty of the post-war career. Mauldin was self-critical enough to write, "I never quite could shake off the guilt feeling that I had made something good out of the war." He didn't like the Veterans of Foreign Wars or American Legion types who he felt glorified war, and he couldn't stand going to the memorials which brought back gruesome memories. But he died well loved by the soldiers who had loved him for depicting them realistically. In his nursing home, he didn't always recognize family that came to see him, and his marriages and career became blanks. But when the veterans came, just guys who had loved seeing themselves in his work, he seemed to know them. Years before, when Tom Brokaw put to him that the real Willies and Joes were America's "Greatest Generation," Mauldin wasn't having any of it. He replied that "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 that they were a little too young to die." It was the realistic sort of respect his cartoons had always shown.