The Creative Endeavors Thread Salutes Bill Mauldin

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Starting this week, I’m gonna try something different with my creative threads and do a kind of mini-spotlight on artists I like or who’ve inspired me. This is partly the result of me forgetting to post my scheduled Day Thread for July 10 (if memory serves, I was having a lot of fun).

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Bill Mauldin (1921-2003) was probably the most famous American cartoonist to chronicle the Second World War (the most famous to serve was his conceptual disciple, Charles Schulz); his cartoons ran in a number of military papers and usually chronicled the misadventures of Willie and Joe, American infantry grunts who stuck out the European theater all the way through with their creator. For my money, Mauldin at his best was one of the greatest cartoonists of all time, vividly portraying joyous mundanity and gritty self-deprecation in the middle of both unimaginable horror and courage.

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Born in New Mexico, Mauldin became interested in cartooning at a young age, and had enrolled in classes through the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts when the Second World War broke out in Europe. Enlisting in the National Guard, his unit was called up as the 45th (“Thunderbird”) Infantry Division and would serve in Italy and Southern France. Mauldin began drawing single-panel cartoons for the division paper and later Stars and Stripes, Willie and Joe growing out of both his own experiences and reports and interviews he conducted with other frontline personnel. The two characters quickly became a beloved symbol of what many soldiers believed to be the American combat spirit (though far more by enlisted men than officers, who were less than exalted characters in Mauldin’s cartoons). Mauldin became famous enough to get chewed out by George Patton when the former had the temerity to criticize the general’s obsessive approach to sartorial matters (Mauldin was not a fan). Up Front appeared towards the end of the war, collecting most of the classic Willie and Joe panels along with some of his personal reminisces and observations about life at the front.

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Mauldin himself went into editorial syndication on his return to the United States,first winning a Pulitzer for his wartime work, and then working for a number of papers as a cartoonist. A lot of his postwar work pales next to his Willie and Joe panels (the worst of it as painfully on-the-nose as an unironic version of The Onion‘s “Kelly”), but there were a number of high points, notably his bereaved Lincoln Memorial after the Kennedy assassination. Mauldin, a fairly run-of-the-mill, self-described “Truman Democrat,” ran a somewhat indifferent campaign for Congress in New York in 1956 but didn’t really make much of his celebrity other than appearing in a couple of movies (Fred Zinnemann’s Teresa and John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage, in which he appeared alongside fellow veteran Audie Murphy), and generally stuck to the middle of the road in terms of politics, rarely deviating from standard postwar liberalism.

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In the sixties, though, something snapped. Mauldin suddenly became unprecedentedly biting and acerbic, partly as a result of the Vietnam War (an early supporter, he turned on it with a vengeance), going bohemian, growing a mustache (which he still sports while being interviewed in a couple of episodes of The World at War) and steering dangerously close into becoming a hippie. Never one for nuance or subtlety in his editorial cartooning, his response to the Chicago PD’s 1969 killing of civil rights activist and Black Panther leader Fred Hampton is about as ambiguous as a tire-iron to the head and was not only the right call but also–especially given the events of this year–more than a little ahead of its time.

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Having lived an eventful, inspirational life, Mauldin suffered a tragic death in 2003 when, suffering from Alzheimer’s, he fatally scalded himself in his bathtub. He was a hero, both personal and artistic, to many (Schulz had Snoopy “spend” every Veterans’ Day with Mauldin, sharing a root beer), and his wartime comics still hold up very well, I think, as examples of how to score a good gag while both making an artistic comment and making best use of his space. For me, his work’s America at its best.

How’s your work going?