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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Bill Mauldin

Bill Mauldin, 1945, sweet-
faced kid with a pencil, a pad,
and a Pulitizer Prize
Someone once said, "In the end, you are known by the quality of the friends and the enemies you make in life." Snoopy (of Peanuts fame) used to meet with him every November 11th, in a small French bistro where they'd throw back a few root beers and talk about old times. General George Patton once wrung him out good for depicting in his cartoons such a ratty pair of dogfaced privates as Willie and Joe instead of a couple clean-cut, patriotic, all-American types. Give me Snoopy over General George any day. His name was Bill Mauldin, and you know you're talking about a legend when yet another cartooning legend, the late Charles Schulz idolized your work.

Front-line funny lines
William Henry Mauldin was born in Mountain Park, New Mexico, in 1921, which would have made him something like nineteen years old when he joined the 45th Infantry Division in 1940.  Armed with little more than paper, pencil, and a $500 art course he took from the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts before the war, his offbeat cartoons soon began appearing in the division's newspaper and from there quickly came to the attention of The Stars and Stripes, which managed to get him out of the trenches, but not necessarily out of the line of fire.  The "grunts" loved Willie and Joe, his two battle weary private slobs, while the "brass" hated them. Fortunately, the brass had a war to fight and they needed Mauldin to help those fighting it let off steam so he pretty much got away with any insubordination he turned his pen to. He, Willie, and Joe saw "duty" all over Europe from Salerno to the South of France.  And when it was over, Sergeant Mauldin went home something of a war hero; a status confirmed when, in 1945, he became the youngest person ever to win a Pulitzer Prize (Up Front with Mauldin).  He was 24. 

In 1951 Mauldin went to Hollywood to fight the Civil War
with Audie Murphy (left) in Red Badge of Courage.
After the war, Mauldin briefly tried civilianizing Willie and Joe in a syndicated comic strip, but the sardonic realism of their postwar trials and travails was out of sync with the "feel good" attitude of the American public during the late 1940s. The strip folded. And when he turned his hand to political cartoons, his strident views on racism, McCarthyism, and Republican "feel-good-ism" made his work unpalatable with the majority of small town newspapers of the time. Disillusioned, he gave up cartooning in 1949 to try his hand in the movies. Mauldin made two, the most notable, opposite fellow war hero, Audie Murphy, in Red Badge of Courage. After that he wrote more books, and even saw Willie and Joe through a couple of their own movies. The Korean war found him back on the front but this time as a civilian with sufficient following to be given free rein to draw what he liked any way he liked.

Mauldin's most famous political cartoon came
following the death of President Kennedy,
November, 1963.
In 1959, Mauldin came out of retirement to join the Chicago Sun-Times where his political cartoons won him a second Pulitzer that same year. Thirty-two years later, with the two Pulitzers, a list of 16 books, legions of friends, at least a company or two of enemies, and enough awards to fill the walls of a half-dozen dens, Bill Mauldin again retired to his native New Mexico, still spinning yarns with old-time war buddies even as their number grew thinner with each passing year. He joined their ranks in 2003 at the age of 81. But like his friend Snoopy, Bill Mauldin lives on from the walls of the cartoon hall of fame.

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