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CR Review: Willie & Joe The World War II Years
posted April 7, 2008
Bill Mauldin, Todd DePastino
Fantagraphics, two-volume hardcover set, 600 pages, 2008, $65
If the resurgence of alternative comics publishing through a combined Direct Market and bookstore distribution model only
made possible the publication of the new, massive Fantagraphics collection of Bill Mauldin's Willie & Joe
cartoons, I think the whole damn movement would be justified. I can't take my hands off the book. I sleep with it, it joins me at meals, and I even find myself stopping work to pore over 10-15 pages at a time. As a comics-reading culture we've become so stuck on the rising literary model for comics that we sometimes forget how rewarding it can be to read a series of panel cartoons. If they lack a narrative through-line, or God help us an easy in for a film deal (there were two Willie & Joe
movies, actually), or the punch and passion of a long-form story done well, the sheer pleasure they provide in terms of Mauldin's developing line and the insight they provide into the minds and hearts of European theater World War II soldiers should more than make up for that.
Besides, there are several ways that reading these comics in one place, in the elegantly designed volumes that stress over all things the cartoons themselves, has the same sort of a power as an intentional long-form story. Reading these comics it's hard not to see Mauldin through them, the young, funny and ultimately sensitive young cartoonist following the carnage of Europe and piercing all the way to the heart and humanity of a group of young men asked to do very some awful things. You also get a real sense of two World War II narratives that have kind of been lost to history, at least the popular historical narratives -- the effort to take Europe from Italy and on up into the nations conquered by Germany, and the occupation of the newly freed countries in the months after Normandy. Yet all of that pales next to Mauldin's attractive, humorous cartooning. The sociological significance of Willie & Joe as grunt soldiers would be considerably if the cartoons themselves weren't frequently smart and funny. Fantagraphics' presentation of those cartoons, sometimes as rough as the best surviving copy allows, gives you a much better understanding of what made Mauldin great than any of the compilations or heavily illustrated books that have been released in the past. Not only do you get the best of the soldier cartoons, and the more iconic of the pre-war material, but you also see Mauldin jump from drawing style to drawing style in the early years as he found clients and his own voice.
Please consider buying this book.
I wrote at greater length about Mauldin and this book here.