I often come across old copies of Bill Mauldin books that are as beat-up-looking as Willie and Joe, Mauldin’s famous GIs, who let America see World War II through soldiers’ eyes. His book Up Front was a best-seller; in 1945, when Mauldin was 23, he won the Pulitzer Prize.
Happily, there’s nothing beat-up about Willie & Joe: The WWII Years, a stunningly produced two-volume collection of more than 600 cartoons that document foot soldiers as they travel from training camps to trenches, to the occupied streets of Europe, and back home. Anything that Jacob Covey, who designed Willie & Joe, does is worth looking at, and this is no exception. Covered in army-green linen, this set could sell as well in Army-Navy stores as in Barnes & Noble.
Willie & Joe includes every wartime cartoon Mauldin produced. Mauldin enlisted at age 18, and I’m not sure the reader gains much by the 136 pages drawn by the teenaged Mauldin; I would rather have seen tearsheets reproduced from the 45th Division News or Stars and Stripes to see how his comics looked in their original context, since the early work is mostly uninspired gags in a generic style.
Still, if the war made boys into men, it certainly made a cartoonist out of Mauldin. As a result, Volume II (1943–45) is more urgent and essential. Once Mauldin got “up front,” his cartoons took on his signature style, a bold but loose expressionistic brushstroke. In Volume I (1940–43), the soldiers seem like actors on a military sitcom set. The Volume II GIs resonate with real pathos; each cartoon, however jocular, emanates weariness and resignation.
Mauldin intended fellow soldiers as his audience, and his cartoons are embedded with authentic details. The endnotes, by editor (and Mauldin biographer) Todd DePastino, provide useful historical and military background. The cartoonist’s humanistic brush paints a sober picture of war that a news camera can never achieve. “Mauldin’s drawings of the war ought to live as long as history books,” reads Up Front’s original dust jacket. This new collection will help make that possible.