Friday, September 14, 2007

Joe and Willie, Dogfaces

I think Bill Mauldin accurately conveys the humanity of soldiers, and this is one of the most difficult and important things to accomplish. Combat soldiers gain a different perspective on life than we civilians. Bill Mauldin reassures us Americans that we're human beings, wherever we go and whatever we do. Whether we're at home reading his comics in a quiet room or reading them on a dark night in Anzio hearing shells fly overhead, Bill Mauldin quietly reminds the American civilian at home and the American soldier in the field of the one trait they will always share.

Bill Mauldin died aged 81 in January 2003. He spent two years in Europe as a soldier and cartoonist for the Stars and Stripes newspaper. He drew single panel comics about two imaginary soldiers named Joe and Willie who stood for the trials and tribulations of just about every American infantryman fighting Hitler's Reich. His experiences were in the European theater, primarily, and the invasion of Italy specifically, but Willie and Joe walked through landscapes and battlefields all over.

My dad gave me a book of Bill Mauldin's cartoons called "Up Front", published 1944, and in it Bill Mauldin talked about why he was doing what he was doing.

All the old divisions are tired - the outfits which fought in Africa and Sicily and Italy and God knows how many places in the Pacific. It doesn't take long to tire an outfit and many of the divisions that saw their first battle in France are undoubtedly feeling very fagged out right now. Like the men in the older divisions, those men have seen actual war at first hand, seeing their buddies killed day after day, trying to tell themselves that they are different - they won't get it; but knowing deep inside them that they can get it - those guys too know what real weariness of body, brain, and soul can be.

I've tried to put their weariness and their looks into Willie and Joe, who started with them and are getting tired with them.
Bill Mauldin makes no bones about the exceeding similarity of war to hell.

Since I'm a cartoonist, maybe I can be funny after the war, but nobody who has seen this war can be cute about it while it's going on. The only way I can try to be a little funny is to make something out of the humorous situations which come up even when you don't think life could be any more miserable. It's pretty heavy humor, and it doesn't seem funny at all sometimes when you stop and think it over.

Through it all, there's a serious attention to detail; Bill Mauldin knows how to draw guns and equipment, and there's a sway to his postures that I've mostly seen in newsreels and photographs. He does lighting and effects without fanfare; he uses them because that's what's needed at the time.

He kept right on trucking with his cartoons for decades after World War II. There's a deep grief in this cartoon of November 1963.

My scanner is flickering in and out, and all images are probably still copyright Stars and Stripes or elsewhere, so a glimpse is all you'll get. Willie and Joe are immensely likable and resonant, and many enjoyable hours can be spent in their company listening to all the things they had to say.

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