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Mud and blood, brushes and ink

Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His most recent book is the memoir "A Woman of Uncertain Character."

Bill Mauldin

A Life Up Front

Todd DePastino

W.W. Norton: 370 pp., $27.95

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Willie & Joe

The WWII Years

Bill Mauldin, edited by Todd DePastino

Fantagraphics: 650 pp., $65

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BILL MAULDIN, surely the finest artist to come out of World War II and one of America’s most impudent postwar editorial-page cartoonists, was a born gut fighter. If he were alive today, this pint-size, waggle-eared, pugnacious correspondence-course cartoonist, who carried a rifle along with his sketchpad as a combat infantryman in Company K, 180th Regiment of the 45th (“Thunderbird”) Division, would probably be drawing furiously behind some sandbagged outpost in Anbar province, not tormenting the Iraqi foe but poking fun at his favorite targets, publicity-mad U.S. generals and rear-echelon soldiers far from battle. His love -- there is no other word for it -- for the ordinary enlisted man exalted his art and tumultuous life.

As Todd DePastino writes in his deeply felt, vivacious and wonderfully illustrated biography, Mauldin’s “morbid, angry, compulsive humor” was born of the frontline soldier’s resigned sense that he was a walking dead man because “few would survive the war with anything less than a life-altering wound.” Mauldin’s native genius, like that of his predecessor satirists Hogarth and Daumier and today’s Garry Trudeau, was to assimilate “the [enlisted] men’s grievances into his own,” which for a hungry kid from the Great Depression were many and intractable.

Laden with an M-1 rifle, grenades and a backpack full of drawing paper, brushes and ink he’d scrounged, Mauldin waded ashore with the 45th in bloody beach invasions in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and France. Close combat -- he was wounded by a mortar shell -- was the inspiration for his immortal “Willie and Joe” GI cartoons, which spread like wildfire among the troops and then, in newspapers and magazines, to civilians back home hungering for a grittier picture than the War Department’s sanitized images.

Willie, fierce-beaked and tramp-like, and Joe, battle-weary and dazed-looking, were the war’s Everymen. Top brass like Gen. Patton despised these defiantly low-class creatures for spreading “a cancer of insubordination.” But ordinary soldiers came to love them -- and Mauldin -- because the kid cartoonist “came closest to representing the experience of combat.” After all, his 170-man rifle company had suffered over 1,000% casualties.

Like Ernie Pyle, the beloved war reporter killed near Okinawa, Mauldin stuck close to the ordinary because he was ordinary. This “impertinent young squirt,” as one admiring writer called him, was skilled at liberating wine (to mix with ink) and at pilfering engraving equipment to produce his “Willie and Joe” cartoons, first for the 45th Division News and later for Stars and Stripes. At 110 pounds (thanks to a childhood case of rickets), he looked boyishly innocent and he hadn’t even begun to shave yet.

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Mindful of military bureaucrats who regarded Willie and Joe as “unsoldierly,” Mauldin struck “a delicate balance between representing . . . the men of the lines -- and fulfilling his official charge to bolster morale.” He couldn’t tell the grisly truth about the brutally mismanaged Italian campaign. But in the fiercest fighting of 1943-44, when the infantry had to scale sheer cliffs under fire and cross rivers under Wehrmacht machine-gun fire, his panels “dripped with insinuations and veiled meanings.” And “his fans in the foxholes read the truth between the brushstrokes.”

Readers can judge for themselves. In addition to Mauldin panels in DePastino’s book, there’s a terrific, new two-volume collection (edited by DePastino) that traces the artist’s development from 1940 to the end of the war. With a few chiaroscuro strokes and a wry caption, Mauldin cuts to the bone. For example: Willie and Joe, unshaven, ragged and exhausted after a battle, look up at a clean-cut soldier swaggering toward them, fire in his eye. “That can’t be no combat man. He’s lookin’ fer a fight,” observes Willie. And when two officers on a mountaintop gaze at a gorgeous sunset, the captain says to the major, “Beautiful view”; below it a caption reads, “Is there one for the enlisted men?” In another, Willie and Joe, cowering in a ditch, mutter to a general standing upright, “Sir, do ya hafta draw fire while yer inspirin’ us?”

DePastino suggests that Mauldin was so successful because, unlike other Army-oriented comics (such as “Sad Sack” and “GI Joe”) that flooded the market after Pearl Harbor, “Bill’s realism . . . suggested a fundamental respect for army life.” For him, as for so many dirt-poor boys, the Army was a good deal (a steady $21 a month unless you got killed) and an education in diversity.

After the war, some critics expressed surprise, even dismay, at Mauldin’s anti-racist, anti-Red Scare cartoons for the newspapers that had competed to hire the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. Chalk it up to the 45th Division. Despite the Army’s rule of strict segregation, his “was the most integrated regiment in the country” full of “rough and literate men who seemed to delight in defying stereotypes.” His buddy Rayson J. Billey, a Native American, Shakespeare-quoting University of Oklahoma graduate, distinguished himself in ferocious hand-to-hand fighting.

Mauldin, “the angriest baby” his grandmother had ever seen, was born into a “weird bunch” in the bleak “Empty Quarter” of southern New Mexico. His alcoholic, drifter dad was a prairie orphan, part Native American and part Cajun, raised -- of course! -- by local prostitutes until the Mauldins adopted him. Mauldin Senior’s lungs had been scalded by poison gas in World War I, and at home he liked lying in a bathtub full of beer, peeing in it and drinking from it. "[H]is parents’ erratic behavior left [Bill] insecure, distrustful, and always braced for trouble.”

A wild, fighting-mad desert child, young Bill was drawing before he could walk or talk. Well before his teens, he drank, whored and learned to smoke (if tobacco wasn’t available, “coffee grounds mixed with dried horse manure” would do). His idea of art came from gag cartoons in magazines and newspapers. Desperately ambitious, he took learn-by-mail classes and drove himself hard to acquire a bit of the technique of “new pioneering adventure strips, led by Hal Foster’s ‘Tarzan,’ Alex Raymond’s ‘Flash Gordon’ and Milton Caniff’s ‘Terry and the Pirates.’ ”

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LIKE so many GIs, including this reviewer, Mauldin had trouble finding his feet in peacetime. Babies, divorces (three) and quiet suburbia unsettled him. Being “the most famous enlisted man in the United States Army,” then hailed as “the most important artist of his age,” was disorienting. His books, especially “Up Front,” became bestsellers and made him rich, but J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI tagged him a dangerous communist because he criticized the House Un-American Activities Committee and spoke out against racial discrimination. Briefly, he became a Hollywood star, as the Loud Soldier in John Huston’s masterpiece, “The Red Badge of Courage.”

In the late 1960s, Mauldin grew his hair hippie-long, enjoyed the counterculture cartoonist R. Crumb and later got his nose broken by one of Chicago Mayor Daley’s thugs. All along, unable to break his war addiction, or perhaps because he had always suffered from “survivor’s guilt,” he covered Korea, Vietnam (where his serving son turned him temporarily hawkish) and even the Gulf War for various publications.

At the age of 80, beset by Alzheimer’s, Mauldin lay dying in a Newport Beach nursing home in 2002. Word spread. From across the nation, veterans from the 45th and other fighting divisions came in the hundreds “bearing relics of their youth: medals, insignia . . . folded (and faded) newspaper clippings.” These Willies and Joes, now grandfathers or great-grandfathers, wept like kids as they filed past the forever-young cartoonist’s bed, the impertinent squirt who had “fought the war with an ink brush.” He was their guy, a rifleman like them, their champion against all forms of petty b.s. -- bad officers, poor chow and the random miseries of an ordinary infantryman.

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On the Web

To see a roundup of Bill Mauldin’s cartoons, go to latimes.com/mauldin.


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