Sunday, May 24, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

The End of World War II – V-C Day.
All the Mauldin Details…

1. Bill’s early (1943) Sicily Sketch Book, some yet earlier cartoons from the 45th Division News. A slim paperback and slimmer design, yet printed on slick paper and grain cover.

By Rick Marschall

V-C Day. What’s that? Blame it on Kilroy, who was just here. It’s a stretched point on the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II – “Victory of Cartoons.” OK, to coin the  term might be a historical crime, but it’s not a war crime. Just an excuse to share some special and obscure cartoon memorabilia, with some connection to my Crowded Life.

I am a baby-boomer, born several years after my father returned from the service (our side). He was in an Air Force weather squadron that overflew Normandy on D-Day; and was an officer charged with re-establishing the German civilian weather bureau after the surrender. Until the end of his life he seldom talked about the war, so a lot of what I knew I learned – predictably – from cartoons.

And there were many cartoons that taught me; more cartoons, probably, than accompanied other wars in the world’s bloody history. There were many book collections and anthologies of many cartoonists’ work. There were cartoons in the service publications Yank and Stars and Stripes and Leatherneck. Many of the cartooning greats of the next generation got their starts, drawing for camp newspapers. Virtually every character in syndicated strips donned a uniform during the war (ironically, or maybe not, to the detriment of creative quality) – Joe Palooka, Winnie Winkle, Skeezix, Donald Duck. Established comic-book superheroes, and virtual cavalries of new heroes, took on Huns and Japs. Animation studios, with federal subsidies padding their patriotism, churned our war cartoons. And all sorts of licensing and merchandising, from post cards to songsheets, drafted cartoon characters too.

2. 1944’s Mud, Mules, and Mountains was printed on crummier paper in occupied Italy – “Sorry, folks; there’s a war going on” – but featured some wonderful wash drawings by Bill; and an Introduction by his print counterpart, the legendary Ernie Pyle.

Except for obvious details, American service 1941-45 was a Cartoon War.

Cartoons and comics produced during the war were obvious targets of research and collecting for me. It was a bonus, when I could meet – which was frequently – cartoonists who won the war. So to speak. I did a story in the old NEMO Magazine about “The Cartoonists Who Won the War,” a panel from Milton Caniff’s Male Call – a strip created exclusively for soldiers – on the cover.

Not excepting Caniff, the cartoonist most identified with cartooning during the war was Bill Mauldin. He “came from nowhere” in the sense that he was a young recruit with no cartooning chops when he enlisted in the New Mexico National Guard while still a teenager…. and two days before it was federalized. All cartoonists “come from nowhere” – everybody does – but Bill was an artist who seemingly never had a “green” period. His drawings, from the start, were mature, well composed, funny, and with sharp points of view. His work featured aspects some artists never master, like the obvious importance of grasping anatomy; and the deceptively simple depiction of shadows and folds.

3. This Damn Tree Leaks (titled Mauldin’s Cartoons on the front endpaper) was a meaty 118 pages; 1945. The title served as a confirmation that Mauldin was to World War II what the British soldier Bruce Bairnsfather was to World War I. His most famous of many cartoons was Ole Bill in a rainy foxhole to a complaining comrade: “If you know a better ‘ole, go to it!”

He was put to work on Stars and Stripes, the “soldier’s paper.” So General Eisenhower called it when he countermanded George S Patton’s removal of Mauldin for portraying dirty, tired, and wrinkled soldiers as dirty, tired, and wrinkled. That military stand-off was a blessing. On the other hand, staff work on the paper dragged young Mauldin through a succession of famous and bloody battles.

He was wounded, yet there was yet another silver lining. Publishers in the United States notices this, and reprinted it. United Feature Syndicate noticed his work, and his cartoons were distributed to many stateside newspapers. The Pulitzer Prize committee noticed his work, and Bill, at the age of 23, won the coveted award – his first of two.

Back in the States post-war, his first hardback book was published (softcover anthologies were released in war zones) and it was a best-seller; his face, and the soldiers who starred in his cartoons, Willie and Joe, joined him on the cover of TIME.

4. Up Front was the title of Bill’s syndicated cartoons for United Features; and the hardcover book published by Henry Holt stateside.

I will interrupt his biography at this point, because I have much more to tell of his later years – retiring from cartooning; writing and illustrating; a run for Congress; appearing in movies; “re-upping” as a political cartoonist; another Pulitzer Prize, as I said.

In the 1970s, when he drew for the Chicago Sun-Times and I was Comics Editor of Field   Newspaper Syndicate (totally superfluous as his nominal syndicate editor), our offices were on the same floor and I got to know him well. Anecdotes, stories, insights in a future installment. I will also, in this anniversary year, call up some other special war-cartooning material.

In my office at Field I furnished it not with furniture or lamps or comfy guest chairs as assiduously I decorated it as a comics museum and library of cartoons. I had my stable of artists do artwork for the walls; a couple of the looser nuts waited until they visited Chicago and forswore frames, drawing their characters right on the walls. One day Bill noticed that I had all his books on a shelf – of course; they were favorites! – and asked if I wanted him to do inscriptions in them.

I share them here (was there a doubt that I said No Thanks?), quick sketches of Willie and/or Joe the ways they might have looked when the cartoons in each book were drawn.

Quick sketches, as I say, and related to the “Good” War. Before long we’ll trace Bill through the Korean War and Vietnam; his political odyssey; and anecdotes about interplay with John Fischetti, Herblock, and other cartoonists.

At ease.


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