Monday, April 30, 2012

Pete's Pantheon: Bill Mauldin, Tangling With Patton, Quaffing Root Beer With Snoopy

Nobody drew rubble better than Bill Mauldin. He saw plenty of it as he roamed the front in Europe during WWII. As the cartoonist for Stars and Stripes, Mauldin also showed a flair for rendering wrinkled, raggedy uniforms, worn by sardonic, exhausted soldiers. Soldiers that persevered, in spite of all that they endured. Men personified by his two characters Willie and Joe.

Mauldin's cartoons were skillfully composed and boldly rendered. He worked with a heavy line necessitated by the vagaries of newspaper reproduction in the midst of a war.  His well-honed captions could have stood on their own as trenchant one-liners. "I feel like a fugitive from the law of averages" says one beleagured dogface to a second as bullets fly overhead in the dark. "Beautiful view. Is there one for the enlisted men?" inquires one clueless officer  of another, admiring the Sun over a mountain pass

This work was beloved by the men who marched in the rain, slept in the fields and dug the fox holes where the killing happened. It also brought home the urgency of the war to those who saw his widely distributed cartoons back in the States. Mauldin's point of view, shaped by his depression-era childhood in rural New Mexico, was with the struggling underdog. As a nobody from nowhere, he had no reverence for the entitled establishment.

His devotion to showing life at the front in as he saw it, battered and stained, didn't sit well with General George Patton. Patton vowed to "Throw his ass in prison" for "dissent" Eventually the cartoonist was summoned to the general's imposing HQ where in a meeting with Patton and his  white bull terrier (Ironically named "Willie"), Mauldin defended his work, giving no ground. Fortunately General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in the European Theater of the war was in his camp.

With Ike's backing Mauldin remained at large, driving his prized jeep out to where the soldiers were in harm's way, and creating work that carried the deeply comforting message that someone understood and cared. He continued in spite of getting wounded by a mortar.

As the war in Europe wound down, the skinny kid from New Mexico was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in cartooning at the age of 23. He returned to the U.S. a celebrated and popular hero. It would have been easy for him to coast comfortably. But that wasn't Bill.

He came home to a troubled country where veterans were having difficulty finding their feet, where KKK night riders terrorized minorities, where paranoia would raise the demagogue Senator Joe McCarthy. None of this set well with the man whose motto was "If it's big, hit it". Soon his scathing cartoons were getting censored by his syndicate.

Mauldin left cartooning, trying his hand at writing and even acting in "The Red Badge of Courage". After this self-exile from his true home, he returned to cartooning, first in St. Louis, then at the Sun-Times in Chicago. This turned out to be one of the great second acts in American life as he produced brave and powerful work celebrated with a second Pulitzer. All of which must have been sweet, but what could have been better than his fellow WWII veteran  Charles Schulz marking every Veteran's Day by having Snoopy head over to "quaff a few root beers with Bill Mauldin."

His fellow veterans never forgot him. As he was stricken with Alzheimer's disease, they and their families sent countless letters to him to tell how much his work meant in those dark and uncertain hours when it fell to them to put on their boots, pick up their rifles, and put everything on the line.

No comments:

Post a Comment