As a young boy in the seventies, I was obsessed with cartoons and comic books. I used to spend hours in the Joliet Public Library, where I must have checked out every collection on the shelves. I soaked up the collected “Dick Tracy” and “Little Orphan Annie” comic strips, and burrowed my way through the history of Sunday funnies in anthologies, where I discovered “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” “Gasoline Alley” and “Li’l Abner.” And I remember the Bill Mauldin single-panel cartoons, which, at the time, were synonymous with how American soldiers in wartime were depicted.
As much as Mauldin was then a household name, universally recognized for his artistic output and his “Willie and Joe” characters, he’s receded from public consciousness since his retirement in 1991, a victim of a cultural recalibration regarding military matters and the waning role of political cartoons in American newspapers. A new exhibition at the Pritzker Military Museum & Library aims to rectify this. The PMML owns the largest collection of Mauldin’s original cartoons and, in conjunction with the Bill Mauldin Estate, has just opened a massive, yearlong solo exhibition of his work, including 125 original drawings, another thirty-five reproduced images and more than twenty artifacts.
Bill Mauldin was one of those great American rags-to-riches stories, according to the exhibit’s curator James Brundage, who has built a well-designed exhibition that manages the difficult feat of being organized both chronologically and thematically. Born in 1921 to a family of limited means in New Mexico, Mauldin knew he wanted to be a cartoonist early on, and came to Chicago to study his craft at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts in his late teens, just before the war. Seeing his early, much rougher work and its quick evolution under the influence of the professionals who taught him in Chicago, is one of many highlights of the exhibition. Just before the United States entered World War II, Mauldin enlisted and quickly established himself as a cartoonist depicting the concerns of the average infantryman, first in a publication for his unit, the 45th Infantry Division, and soon for the influential and widely distributed Stars & Stripes military newspaper. Before he left the Army, he’d won a Pulitzer Prize. His book published at the end of the war, a collection of drawings and stories, “Up Front,” was a bestseller and, at the age of twenty-three, he was rich and famous.
It’s hard to comprehend how much military life influenced American culture and attitudes in the 1940s without understanding how pervasive military service was then. More than sixteen million Americans served in the military during World War II, compared to less than 1.4 million currently serving, and this in a nation with a population less than forty percent of what it is now. With most American families having at least one member putting their life on the line, the market for positive depictions of soldiers was vast, from Hollywood films to Mauldin’s cartoons. But while Hollywood veered toward propaganda (with the notable exception of 1946’s Oscar-winning “The Best Years of Our Lives” and its depiction of the postwar letdown of returning soldiers), Mauldin’s strips were gritty and focused on the lowest-ranking soldiers, often depicting their superiors, or the top military brass, as incompetent or out of touch.
The reality that Mauldin captured, and one that he would return to year after year, and war after war, was that the day-to-day life of the soldier in the trenches was excruciatingly boring, even as the threat of death was always hanging in the air. In one cartoon, Willie and Joe, two scruffy but combat-ready soldiers, are talking. “I got a hangover. Does it show?” reads the caption, a conversation likely repeated millions of times in millions of places over the years, which is the point. Army life was just life.
The size of his audience, which included not only soldiers but millions on the homefront where his cartoons were syndicated across the nation, was not lost on the “brass hats,” as he called the leadership, which was forced to tolerate his warts-and-all narrative. Only General George Patton tried to interfere in his work, enraged over the depictions of unkempt enlisted men, which ran counter to his orders. When he tried to get Mauldin’s cartoons pulled from Stars & Stripes, General Eisenhower overrode him and sent Mauldin to meet the legendary Patton. Grievances were aired, but the work did not change.
After the war, Mauldin guided his characters into a return to civilian life, reflecting a similar sort of disillusionment seen in “The Best Years of Our Lives.” And he became increasingly critical of military and government leadership, especially in matters of race and civil liberties, which made his work less appealing to cautious newspaper editors in an era that was migrating from wartime patriotism into the troubling waters of the red scare and McCarthyism. He wrote more books, dabbled with ultimate disappointment in the film adaptation of his work, and ran for Congress in New York and lost.
In 1958, after a decade on hiatus from cartooning, he signed on with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he won his second Pulitzer Prize, in 1959. He jumped to the Chicago Sun-Times in 1962, where he created his most iconic piece, in the wake of the JFK assassination: a full-page drawing of the Lincoln Monument with Abe’s statue, head in hands, weeping. No text was necessary. When James Meredith, a Black veteran, enrolled at the University of Mississippi in one of the pivotal events of the civil rights movement, only Mauldin and the literary editor of the paper were there to represent the Sun-Times.
His widely syndicated work reached the highest corridors of power. The exhibition includes original letters from several presidents, or would-be presidents, including Johnson, Nixon and Humphrey, commenting on specific cartoons and usually asking for the original, even when they were harshly unfavorable to their subject. Those were different times.
While it’s possible to see his cartoons collected in books, the originals in this show are revealing, offering a glimpse at the details of the cartoonist’s craft in those pre-computer days, where whiteout was used to move ink lines, where captions were roughed in before final inking, likely to allow for editors to review, and cryptic notes and numbers told the press room how to size the work.
And the artifacts, especially the letters, shape a fuller portrait of the man. In one particularly surprising letter home to his parents near the end of the war, Mauldin wrote:
“I noticed in one of your letters that you wish the German people would realize that Hitler is the cause of their troubles, and get rid of him so the war would be over. Let’s hope the rest of the world realizes that Hitler is simply a symbol of the German people, and that the world will get rid of them so the war will be over…
“Germany as a nation or as a group should be wiped out, because as long as ten Germans are together they will find another Hitler or Kaiser or Bismarck. If they can’t be separated or broken up and absorbed, then they should be destroyed as any predatory animal should be destroyed. Never say forgiving things about Germans to people who have seen them first hand.”
Fortunately for Mauldin, social media did not exist then, though he did ask his parents to keep his sentiments confidential. And years after the war, he’d be recognized by onetime opponents for his fairness in their depiction. Perhaps this letter was penned at a particularly difficult time.
Mauldin retired in 1991 when the Sun-Times decided not to renew his contract; he died in 2003 at the age of eighty-one.
The role of the political cartoon, one of the great vessels of satire and dissent since the dawn of this republic, has grown smaller ever since Mauldin’s demise. In its place, we’ve suffered the rise of cable news and the mendacity-fueled air-fillers of the pundits, all proving that more is less. You can’t visit this exhibition and not be struck with the resonance of so many of these cartoons, created fifty or more years ago, with the events of the last five years. We need another Bill Mauldin, now more than ever.
Today, Mauldin’s longtime home, The Chicago Sun-Times, does not publish editorial cartoons.
“Drawn to Combat: Bill Mauldin & the Art of War,” Pritzker Military Museum & Library, 104 South Michigan. May 14 through Spring 2022