Monday, May 17, 2021

Mauldin urges us to always face the truth

Bill Mauldin

     “Who is Bill Mauldin?” reads lamppost banners outside the Monroe Building, where “Drawn to Combat: Bill Mauldin & the Art of War” opened Friday at the Pritzker Military Museum & Library, 104 S. Michigan.
     A sad, almost a shocking question. But the truth, which he so revered, is that in 2021, Bill Mauldin’s name will evoke nothing to many, or else be a distant ping. If fame were doled out according to impact, Mauldin would stand today among the best-known Chicagoans.
     Alas, people forget.
     Mauldin not only changed how Americans viewed World War II but how we think about war and the military. At a time when the Army was presenting its shiniest spin, when a photo of an American casualty would never be seen in a newspaper, when cartoons about Army life were Sad Sack peeling potatoes, Mauldin created Willie and Joe, a pair of exhausted, bedraggled infantrymen flat on their bellies in the mud, hoping to live long enough to smoke another cigarette.
     Nor did his influence end on V-E Day. After the war that made him famous, Mauldin advocated liberal causes decades before they became common. Odds are, if you believe strongly in social justice, Mauldin was advocating your core principles before you were born. He was fighting for civil rights when Martin Luther King was a teenager, for gay rights in the mid-1970s. He wasn’t just a cartoonist but an artist, a Chicago artist.
     OK, “Chicago artist” might be a stretch. Mauldin lived most of his life in the Southwest, born in New Mexico, settled in Arizona. But in between, he came to Chicago for a key year to learn his art at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. And was an editorial cartoonist on staff at the Sun-Times for almost 30 years.

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  1. "A history lesson that keeps bumping into current events." I thought I had a clue, and a good one, about Mauldin. Hardly! You don't hear his name often enough among the "roll-call" (wink-face emoji) of great Chicago, yes, artists. And the Pritzker Library is also in my view another under-rated local treasure. Thanks again, Neil.

  2. Such a genius, moral champion and courageous crusader. We old timers well remember this "local" hero. In 1969, about 5 years before I got there, Mauldin was commissioned by the National Safety Council to illustrate its annual booklet on traffic safety. Thanks for the heads up, this exhibit is now a must see.

  3. Mauldin was so offended and disgusted by the racism, greed, selfishness, hatred, and bigotry of postwar America that he took a very sharp left turn in the middle and late Forties. That move nearly cost him his future as an editorial cartoonist, because it coincided with the beginning of the Cold War and the first years of what later became the McCarthy era.

    Mauldin's most famous "Willie and Joe" cartoons, from the war years, were published in "Up Front"--which was a huge best-seller in the summer of 1945. But a far-less-popular and little-remembered Mauldin sequel called "Back Home" was published in 1947. It contains text and images that will gladden the heart of any social justice warrior who can get his or her hands on a copy. It's not easy to find, but it's probably still available online.

    Mauldin wanted to have his two battered characters get killed on the last day of the war, but his publishers talked him out of it. So Willie and Joe survived briefly in Mauldin's cartoons just after the war, and were in some of his most biting, and acidic images in late '45 and early '46. There's also the far more recent "Willie and Joe Back Home"...which was issued in 2011, and edited by Todd DePastino, who also wrote the definitive biography of Mauldin a few years later ("Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front").

    The disillusionment, cynicism, and bitterness felt by many returning World War II veterans is still crystal clear in the 2011 book, and some of the cartoons still have the power to knock you on your ass, all these decades later. So much has changed in America's last 75 years, but a great deal has not. Reading it will make a liberal both angry and sad.

    Mauldin becames a huge champion of civil rights, civil liberties, and free speech in the postwar years. Much of his late-Forties output was censored by his distribution syndicate, especially his attacks on racial segregation and anti-Communist witch hunts. There are less than a dozen pages of text by DePastino. The rest of the 2011 book is just composed of Mauldin's 1945-46 magnificent image on each page. No additional words are necessary.

    All of these books are a must-read for any fan of Bill Mauldin, along with "The Brass Ring"--his 1971 memoir. All of them are treasures that occupy much-deserved space in my WWII library.

  4. The great cartoon of a dispirited GI escorting German prisoners, with its ironic headline, echoed a sentiment expressed by that soldier's soldier, the Duke of Wellington after Waterloo: "Next to a battle lost the greatest misery is a battle gained."


  5. I've been a big admirer of Bill Maudlin since I was ten. I spread his name and message as much as possible to other folk of the younger crowd (I'm 34). I was fortunate enough to find a copy of Back Home at the book barn, a true sanctuary. There are people that know and appreciate him and his work and more importantly, understand it. There is hope.


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