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Obituary: Bill Mauldin 1921-2003
posted February 28, 2003
William Henry (Bill) Mauldin, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for editorial cartoons and the creator of World War II icons Willie and Joe, died January 22, 2003. He had been sick for an extended period of time previous to his passing.
Mauldin was born in the tiny, south-central New Mexico town of Mountain Park on October 29, 1921. He was named for his grandfather, one of the early settlers of the region who had befriended such larger than life figures of the American West as Pat Garrett and the cattle baron Oliver Lee. "Uncle Billy," as Mauldin's grandfather was known in the Mauldin family, worked for the U.S. Army as a civilian scout during the Geronimo skirmishes in the 1880s. Continuing in the family tradition, Mauldin's father served as an artilleryman in France during World War I. Mauldin would later describe family members' past involvement with the military as a factor "that did nothing to alienate me from the martial life."
A talented artist at an early age, Mauldin focused on a career in cartooning during his teen years. Spurred on by dreams of the great riches he read were due the great practitioners in the field, Mauldin borrowed money from a family member to take the Landon school correspondence course, a pay-by-mail series of lessons in arts basics that both served as a revenue generator for its owners and as a potential recruitment tool for cartooning talent among its graduates. Discovering his son's interest, Mauldin's father introduced the budding cartoonist to a regionally published cartoon maker and gag artist known as Hillbilly Larry Smith. Armed with the streamlined methods of the Landon School and the practical tips handed down by Smith, Mauldin began to do work for his high school in Alamogordo and take on a few gigs in local advertising. Moving to Phoenix to finish high school, Mauldin was influenced by his teachers there as well as the Arizona Republic cartoonist Reg Manning to broaden his artistic technique and continue his arts education after high school.
Out of high school, Mauldin attended classes at the Academy of Fine Art in Chicago for a year. Mauldin learned under the teachers Wellington J. Reynolds, who earlier taught E.C. Segar; the widely published gag cartoonist Don Ulsh; and the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Vaughn Shoemaker of the Chicago Daily News
. Mauldin also began an ambitious freelance program of sending out cartoons to potential buyers ranked by their status. "I would put sketches The New Yorker
had returned into a fresh envelope for Collier's
, the Collier's
stuff to Saturday Evening Post
, and so on down the line. By the time a dozen or so editors and their assistants had pawned over the roughs, the paper, not a very fancy grade to begin with, had gotten a little scruffy." Mauldin enjoyed little success as a Chicago-based freelancer.
Mauldin returned to the region of his birth in a burst of homesickness, confident his brief time at the Academy had given him the skills to succeed as a commercial artist. But finding steady work proved to be rough going. Although Mauldin found some success doing campaign cartoons for local political candidates, he remained largely unemployed until a high school friend convinced him to join the Army. According to Mauldin, enlisting not only solved his vocational problems, it allowed him to avoid being drafted into the infantry if and when the United States went to war in Europe. The year was 1940, and the U.S. Army Mauldin joined was still undergoing massive changes due to accelerated growth. He bounced from his original position as a driver and into, ironically, an infantry unit, where he settled into a position with the division's newspaper and whatever infrequent freelance work he might be able to score while off duty.
Mauldin flourished as a cartoonist in the service. His service-related cartoons became a popular feature in the 45th Division News, and he continued his efforts part-time through training in the Southwest, advanced training in the Northeast, and overseas where the division joined Allied efforts in Sicily and Italy. In conditions that bore the fresh wounds of war in the soil, buildings and wounded soldiers, Mauldin and his fellow journalists begged, bought and haggled for the materials needed to produce a paper by servicemen and for servicemen. As the United States effort became more entrenched and its front line advanced across the continent, the newspaper found a more solid foundation for its publication. Still, Mauldin stressed that he and his fellow journalists never lost their connection to the front lines. In The Brass Ring
, he would write, "Each of us came back from every trip forward feeling both grateful and guilty about being spared from those freezing-wet foxholes and those deadly-accurate German 88 guns and mortars, and it was probably a good thing, because our work reflected our feelings. Our paper took on a new character. Light anecdotes gave way to irony." By 1943, the Mauldin cartoons were so well received they started to be reprinted in Stars and Stripes
. In 1944, Mauldin began a six-days-a-week assignment with that widely disseminated armed services newspaper and holdover from the First World War. Mauldin's audience expanded from a single division and its frontline neighbors to an entire continent at war.
The progression from stateside volunteer to weary veteran in an active theater of war transformed Mauldin's work from the lighthearted and sarcastic into explorations of the ironic poignancy and grim sense of humor for which he is most celebrated. Mauldin's early cartoons were often of a standard editorial variety or even light commentaries on military culture, concerning subjects as general as the transformation of American cavalry divisions into armored tank companies. And there remained a certain amount of levity to some of his work even in Europe, seen in cartoons such as those spoofing certain rules regarding the conduct of off-duty soldier in Italian towns.
Most importantly, Mauldin experienced his artistic growth through the development of his most famous characters. Willie and Joe were at first a standard comedic team, with Joe as the hook-nosed Native American (Mauldin's unit, Company K, was from Oklahoma, and had within its body several Native American soldiers) and Willie the straight man. But eventually Mauldin switched the characters' names and the pair became standard industry everymen. As fully realized in the heyday of their appearances in the 45th Division News, Willie and Joe were world-weary foot soldiers from the European theater, extremely competent when it came to performing their duties, but keenly aware of the shortcomings and inherently absurd humor to be found in life during war time. They grew beards to reflect the lack of water to shave in many theaters of battle and the cold weather to be found in the mountain battles, the kind of attention to detail that made Mauldin's characters accepted and beloved.
The characters, and Mauldin's work in general, became huge favorites of enlisted men whenever they were exposed to them. Comic strip historian RC Harvey dissected Willie and Joe's anti-authoritarian appeal for the Journal
"Rained on and shot at and kept awake in trenches day and night, the combat soldier was wet, scared, dirty and tired all the time; and Mauldin's spokesmen - the scruffy, bristle-chinned, stoop-shouldered Willie and Joe in their wrinkled and torn uniforms - were taciturn but eloquent witnesses on behalf of the prosecuted. Through simple combat-weary inertia, they defied pointless army regulations and rituals: they would fight the war, but they wouldn't keep their shoes polished."
As the fame of the cartoon pair spread, many conservative officers, particularly those who were in the Army before the war and served as the backbone of its World War II officer corps, felt the image of Willie and Joe was a slap in the face of the longstanding, popular image of the American recruit as an ordinary man becoming spit-and-polish Regular Army before returning to the simple pleasures of civilian life. General George S. Patton was a noted critic of the Willie and Joe strips, believing the characters undignified and the situations disrespectful of military procedure. In The Brass Ring, Mauldin recounts in brilliant and hilarious detail about meeting Patton in his Paris office late in the War and personally receiving a long diatribe on the virtues of leadership and the fundamental disrespect inherent in the Willie and Joe portraits. "You make them look like goddamn bums," says Patton in Mauldin's account. "I don't know where you got those stripes on your arm, but you'd put 'em to a lot better use getting out and teaching respect to soldiers instead of encouraging them to bitch and beef and gripe and run around with beards on their faces and holes in their elbows."
But Mauldin, who thought Patton viewed the enlisted men as peasants, wouldn't have his "dogfaces" look or act any other way. "I drew pictures for and about the soldiers because I knew what their life was like and understood their gripes," he told an interviewer after the war. "I wanted to make something out of the humorous situations which come up even when you don't think life could be any more miserable." Knowing that the cartoon's popularity with its intended audience of rank-and-file soldiers mitigated concerns from even a high-ranking general, Mauldin did confess some measure of satisfaction that Patton let him speak his piece in defense of the cartoons. The Patton-Mauldin meeting, with much less colorful language, was later written up in Time. Although after reading the piece Patton vowed he would throw Mauldin in jail were they to meet again, they never did, and their confrontation remains one of the most famous anecdotes about wartime journalism.
Further approbation awaited Mauldin back home. A turning point had arrived for Mauldin in 1944 when the famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle profiled Mauldin for his massive stateside readership. Pyle wrote, "Sergeant Bill Mauldin seemed to us over there to be the finest cartoonist the war had produced. And that's not merely because his cartoons are funny, but because they are also terribly grim and real. Mauldin's cartoons aren't about training-camp life, which is most familiar to people at home. They are about the men in the line - the tiny percentage of our vast Army who are actually doing the dying. His cartoons are about the war." Due in great part to Pyle's attention, the cartoonist's notoriety quickly grew beyond the confines of military culture. United Features soon syndicated Mauldin's cartoons as Up Front
, and several newspapers across the U.S. began carrying Mauldin's work next to popular strips of the day. The American people were desperate for insight into the daily lives and outlook of their friends, neighbors and family members overseas, and Mauldin's take felt as legitimate as any mud-stained letter. Cultural critics agreed with the public's positive assessment. Mauldin won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize in editorial cartooning for his work. Twenty-four years old, Bill Mauldin was at that time the youngest person to win the award.
Mauldin returned to the United States a minor celebrity; Willie and Joe came back the same grunts they went in. When the war in Europe ended, Mauldin's iconic pair returned home and eventually faded into the same blissful anonymity shared by their fellow real-world grunt soldiers. But that fate was a long time coming. It wasn't even a certainty - Mauldin said years later he planned on killing the pair during the last days of the war, but was vetoed by his editor at Stars and Stripes
. Mauldin's syndicate encouraged the cartoonist to feature cartoons of soldiers returning to civilian life, and Mauldin did so with his favorite pair under titles such as Sweatin' It Out and Willie and Joe. But the biting commentary that had seemed a fresh air of American contrariness in wartime now seemed overly political, and newspapers began dropping Mauldin's cartoon in droves. After life in syndication, Willie and Joe stepped out of retirement only a few times, and across various media. They appeared in a pair of elegant editorial cartoons done after two great generals of World War II died: George C. Marshall in 1959, and Omar Bradley in 1983. They also appeared as characters in Mauldin's 1947 book Back Home
, and as characters in a pair of movies. Through subsequent re-printings of Up Front
, including a current printing by Norton, audiences have also remained familiar with the original source material.
Ironically, Mauldin was not able to turn his initial post-war notoriety into a stable, long-term career as an editorial cartoonist. The bulk of his cartoons attacked targets such as the Ku Klux Klan and McCarthyism with such blunt savagery that United Features had a hard time placing them in small-town newspapers. Disillusioned, Mauldin would give up newspaper cartooning for several years.
There was much to fill Mauldin's time. The period directly after the war was one dominated by book efforts and other eclectic attempts to stay active and in the public eye, including an unsuccessful run for a seat in the United States Congress. Mauldin's post-war publishing career began auspiciously. Up Front
was published in the same year as he received the Pulitzer, and became his most popular book. The volume reprinted dozens of Willie and Joe cartoons, pairing them with a running commentary by Mauldin about the real-life situation that was mirrored in each cartoon. The book was enormously successful. In an introduction to a later edition, the historian Stephen Ambrose claimed Up Front
has sold over three million copies and stayed at number one on the New York Times
best-seller list for a jaw-dropping 18 months after its initial publication. Hailed as one of the clearest and most doggedly truthful of World War II accounts by historians and veterans alike, Up Front
has remained sporadically in print ever since. He would publish several more times over the course of his professional career, including the ruminative Back Home
(1947), the autobiographical A Sort of a Saga
(1949) and The Brass Ring
(1971), and reportage-fueled efforts like Bill Mauldin in Korea
(1952), I've Decided I Want My Seat Back
(1965), and Let's Declare Ourselves Winners and Get the Hell Out
Two movies were filmed based on Mauldin's early cartoon work. Up Front
, sharing a title with Mauldin's newspaper feature and most successful book, featured Broadway superstar Tom Ewell and future Sgt. Bilko regular Harvey Lembeck as Willie and Joe. In addition to the expected wry commentary from the pair over the vagaries of military life during wartime, audiences were treated to a through-plot involving Naples, an extremely ripe Emi Rosso, and her father's illegal alcohol business. The 1951 movie was enough of a success for a sequel to be made and released the following year. Back at the Front
took Willie and Joe from their post-service civilian lives and back into military life at a base in Japan, with a similarly dame-laden caper of a plot.
Oddly, Mauldin's brief acting career may be better remembered than the films made from his cartoons. Mauldin had featured roles in two notable Hollywood films released in 1951. In Teresa
, Mauldin joined the notorious starlet Pier Angeli and shared a screen debut with Rod Steiger and John Ericson in a Fred Zinneman film lauded at the time (winning an Oscar for original story) and rarely discussed now. Mauldin enjoyed a longer-lasting reputation as one in a series of fine supporting performances in the Audie Murphy vehicle and anti-war film The Red Badge of Courage
. Critics noted Mauldin's portrayal of Tom Wilson, the Loud Soldier, as extremely effective in a movie whose status has grown since its release. It was, however, Mauldin's last film.
Mauldin would eventually return to newspaper cartooning in a big way. He won a second Pulitzer Prize in 1959 as the full-time editorial cartoonist for the St. Louis Dispatch
, where a year earlier he had settled in as replacement to the legendary Daniel Fitzpatrick. Taking a position with a big city newspaper solved the professional dilemma that had earlier driven him from the field by placing him in an urban setting that would appreciate his views on Civil Rights, environmental reform and, eventually, strong disagreement with U.S. policy in Vietnam. Mauldin flourished professionally. In 1961, he became only the second editorial cartoonist (after Herblock) to win the Reuben Award given out by the National Cartoonists Society. In 1962, Mauldin moved to an even bigger urban center, taking a position alongside cartoonist Jacob Burck at the Chicago Sun-Times
, a job he would hold until an accident involving a large car part being dropped on his drawing hand forced his retirement in 1991.
Mauldin's second opportunity at a newspaper platform cemented his place amongst the great editorial cartoonists of the 20th Century. Says historian Harvey, "Mauldin is in that pantheon because he hit his subjects hard, pulling no punches in presenting his opinion, and because he did it by yoking words to pictures for emphatic, memorable statements that were often visual metaphors. His comment on the assassination of JFK, for instance, has become a classic - the statue of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, bent forward, head in his hands, a perfect posture of grief, an emblem of national mourning."
One constant throughout his career was that Mauldin maintained the ability to throw himself into a story. Writer Charles Poore wrote glowingly of the cartoonist in a 1965 article entitled "Satire is the Eternal Vaudeville of Morality" that appeared in the New York Times
. "Mr. Mauldin certainly gets around. His running text describes some of his recent adventures as a cartoonist. Always a man to see for himself, he went out to Vietnam not long ago and plunged into the heart of the action. Or rather, got plunged. He was there when President Kennedy's insistence on giving Americans weapons equal to their task was beginning to bear fruit. He shared rugged days." Minus the references to Kennedy and Southeast Asia, that description of Mauldin the middle-aged editorial cartoonist could have applied to his work as a soldier 20 years previous. So would have this Mauldin credo from that era concerning the thrust of his editorial cartoon work. "I'm against oppression - by anyone."
By the time of his second retirement from cartooning, Mauldin had relocated to Santa Fe, New Mexico. In recent years, the cartoonist took to sculpting three-dimensional versions of some of his earliest works. An active participant in the National Cartoonists Society, Mauldin appeared in their annual meeting's programming as late as 1999, the same year his wartime cartoons were recognized as one of the top 100 comics efforts of the century by The Comics Journal
. Several younger cartoon fans grew to know Mauldin as a friendly reference made by Charles Schulz's root-beer swilling would-be veteran Snoopy on appropriately reflective days in the Peanuts
strip, or by Schulz's own many public references to Mauldin's cartooning skill. The affection and respect between Mauldin and Schulz was legitimate and reciprocated. Schulz contributed an illustration to a reprinting of Up Front
and editorialized in favor of a Bill Mauldin room at a planned D-Day Memorial. For his part, Mauldin would be the only artist to ever draw on a Peanuts daily other than Schulz, and he would later participate in the NCS-sponsored cartoonists dinner marking his colleague's passing.
According to biographical information linked to his film work, Mauldin was married twice, to the former Norma Jean Humphries from 1942 to 1946 and to the former Natalie Sarah Evans starting in 1947. With Humphries, Mauldin had two sons, Bruce Patrick and Timothy. Mauldin had four more sons with his second wife: Andrew, David, John and Nathaniel. In addition to the pair of Pulitzer Prizes and the Reuben, Mauldin was inducted into the St. Louis Sidewalk Hall of Fame (at 6271 Delmar) in May of 1991. The cartoonist also received honorary degrees from several American universities, such as Albion College, Connecticut Wesleyan, and St. Louis' own Washington University.
It was Mauldin himself who best characterized the unapologetic but human approach to the cartooning profession for which he was known and loved, in a statement made for a 1961 profile in Time
. "When we realize finally that we aren't God's given children, we'll understand satire. Humor is really laughing off a hurt, grinning at misery."
Bill Mauldin was 81 years old.
Originally Published in The Comics Journal #250