Sunday, November 13, 2016

Bill Mauldin again

In dark times, I retreat into comics. 

Here’s a few new additions to my Bill Mauldin collection. As I’ve written before, I’m a HUGE Mauldin fan. The only cartoon book the branch library in my hometown had in its collection was Up Front, Mauldin’s bestselling collection of wartime cartoons. I checked out that thing so many times, the aged librarian Mrs. Born yelled at me to get my own copy (She yelled at everyone. She was extremely hard of hearing). Mauldin was more than brilliant, and incredibly resourceful, he was also the comics voice of his generation, probably the first to achieve that status… and, I’d argue, the first “underground” cartoonist. Before the Army brass realized he was there, he was a star and beyond their control. He was an early inspiration of mine. Still is!

The first piece here (above) is a copy of the 45th Division News from July 19, 1943. Mauldin was a member of the 45th, having joined up in 1940 before the war, a common rite of passage for Depession kids. He volunteered to work for the unit's newspaper and his cartoons proved so popular with the men, he was assigned to The News permanently and relieved of mundane soldiery. The Allies invaded Sicily on July 10, so this cartoon was produced ON the battlefield, the first action Mauldin had experienced, as fighting raged against two crack Panzer divisions, plus 200,000 unenthusiastic Italian troops. On D-day plus one, editor Sgt. Don Robinson and Sgt. Mauldin hitched into Vittoria (note the location on the masthead), the town having fallen to the Allies but still under sniper fire and aerial attack, and opened a makeshift newsroom. There was one lone print shop in the town. The News started a new volume, Vol. IV, to celebrate being the first US paper printed on Axis soil. This is issue #3! Notice the newspaper nameplate is hand lettered! They didn’t have any type to make a proper one. 

The paper was thrown together using whatever materials could be found. Engravers equipment was salvaged from a bombed out shop and a nearby chicken coop was converted into an engravers shop. . Mauldin found acid at a local chemical factory, and zinc for the plates was torn out of unused caskets at a funeral home! Ink was cut with motor oil to make it last longer. Power kept cutting out and the presses had to be hand cranked. It’s a simple one-page, double-sided “paper.” More a handout, really. Robinson and Mauldin packed the papers into cardboard boxes, hitched to the front line and passed out copies to the troops. 

Note how primitive Mauldin’s cartoon is. And no wonder, given the conditions. He was transitioning from working at a stateside army base under ideal conditions to working on the front under the worst possible conditions, and hadn’t figured it out yet. He likely drew this one right in the print shop. His earlier work featured ink washes and delicate halftones. That was unachievable in a bombed out Sicilian print shop.  So he moves to simple inked line here, but he’s still using a pen, and the lines don’t hold up that well. He would soon work only in brush, and his distinctive thick ink work would be a stylistic breakthrough, and also a technique that held up under the worst conditions. This is virtually the moment that Mauldin went from being an army base cartoonist to becoming the Bill Mauldin of legend! I haven’t seen this cartoon reprinted anywhere. It’s not included in the Fantagraphics two-volume set. Granted, it’s not a particularly good cartoon, but since Mauldin was frequently being shot at, I think we can cut him some slack.

The second piece (above) is from Feb. 1945. The war in Europe is nearly over now, and Mauldin had grown to such stature he was transferred to Stars & Stripes, and signed by a US Syndicate which distributed his cartoons to papers stateside. Note the difference in style from the earlier cartoon. Even with the lousy reproduction, it’s a powerful image. The way Mauldin casts the front of the cow in shadow highlights draws the eye right to the udders and Willie’s face. It’s a brilliant composition and Mauldin had become a master of light and shadow. Observe also how Mauldin creates so many different textures— straw, wood beams, cloth— with just a few bold strokes. It’s not just darker in appearance, but in tone. After two years of battle, Mauldin’s work reflects the weary and jaded troops in the field. This cartoon was drawn “in France,” likely on Mauldin’s jeep “studio,” a vehicle given him by Ike’s HQ, outfitted with drawing supplies and a lap board, so he could travel about the front and draw what he saw.  What’s surprising is how small Mauldin’s cartoon was published in Stripes, just two columns wide. And yet they still resonated with his dogface readers. 

Three months later, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, as reported on he front page of this third piece. It was both the pinnacle of his career, and the end of that pinnacle. In early June, he returned home as a national hero to make an uneasy transition to a civilian cartoonist.