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Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Book Review - Drawing Fire: The Editorial Cartoons of Bill Mauldin.

reviewed by Lizzy Walker, Wichita State University Libraries

 DePastino, Todd (ed.) (2020). Drawing Fire: The Editorial Cartoons of Bill Mauldin. Chicago: Pritzker Military Museum & Library. 250 pages; $35.00. ISBN 9780998968940.

All images and their captions in this review are courtesy of the Pritzker Military Museum & Library

            William Henry "Bill" Mauldin (1921-2003) had a lengthy career spanning 50 years as a popular and award-winning cartoonist. Drawing Fire: The Editorial Cartoons of Bill Mauldin, collects essays and selections of his wartime and political cartoons from Chicago's Pritzker Military Museum & Library, which boasts over 4,500 cartoons by Mauldin in its collection. The publication of this important volume will include a spring 2021 exhibition at the Pritzker Military Museum & Library in Chicago and will then travel to the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas later in 2021.

            The book opens with a brief preface by Tom Hanks. It is the perfect opening to this poignant book. He states, "If a picture is worth a thousand words, Bill Mauldin drew hundreds of novels" (6). Hanks describes how Mauldin's works depicted the everyday soldier, and discusses two of Mauldin's pieces that resonated with Hanks the most.

            In her foreword, Colonel (RET.) Jennifer N. Pritzker, founder of the Pritzker Military Museum & Library, describes how Mauldin's work affected her interest in following in her family's legacy of joining the military, and how seeing his work helped her in her own journey, down to her attitude and how she treated those above and below her station. She mentions that Mauldin's ability to communicate through different sociopolitical climates showed how his work still presents valuable history lessons in each short cartoon. She sums up nicely, writing "you can take out the print date or the caption and still see contemporary issues and subjects in his drawings. There is a Bill Mauldin cartoon for every situation, for every topic" (10). History marches on, but it also recurs.

            Mauldin's biographer Todd DePastino provides the introduction to Drawing Fire, discussing Mauldin's life and fifty-year career. He joined the Arizona National Guard in 1940 and then transferred into the 45th Infantry. During World War II, Mauldin's cartoons featuring Willie and Joe, two American GI grunts on the front lines in Europe, earned him a position on Stars and Stripes, the Army newspaper. DePastino discusses Mauldin's success at having his characters depicting the less-than-glamourous aspects of wartime while acting as a platform for criticism of the military hierarchy. The characters quickly became favorites of both soldiers in the trenches and civilians on the home front. Mauldin won a Pulitzer at the age of 23, before he even arrived back stateside. DePastino then explains Mauldin's return home, his difficulty re-acclimating to civilian life, the divorce from his first wife Jean, and other topics of his personal life.

            DePastino continues by looking at the subject matter Mauldin started addressing in his cartoons upon his return, such as the rampant discrimination against Japanese-Americans, free speech, civil rights, public housing, and more, which made certain editors request that he censor himself, lest they do it for him by canceling their subscription for his syndicated cartoons. Mauldin's pushing of boundaries throughout his career earned the ire of high-ranking political and military figures, such as J. Edgar Hoover and General George S. Patton. Mauldin retired in 1991 after an injury to his drawing hand. Further tragedy struck as he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and he lived in an assisted living facility in Orange County before his death in 2003.
"Thank you, Mr. Mauldin," Tom Brokaw, one of the most recognized names in news broadcasting, weaves a beautiful essay about growing up as a military child during World War II and how Mauldin's Up Front was an influence in shaping his career as a journalist. Brokaw discusses themes of Up Front, as well as other works that Mauldin published all the way through Desert Storm in 1990.

            "Bill Mauldin, Thunderbird" by Denise Neil provides a brief discussion of Mauldin's time with the 45th Infantry Division (also known as the Thunderbird Division), his regular feature in the 45th Division News called Star Spangled Banter, and Up Front published in Stars and Stripes. Neil asserts Mauldin blended humor with the realism of the "exhaustion and fear endured by the dogfaces" (48), which explains Mauldin's popularity among soldiers, past and present.

            "Back Home" by G. Kurt Piehler addresses the challenge of reintegration of soldiers back into civilian life and Mauldin's hand in assisting with the effort via his post-war cartoons, reprinting some of them in Back Home in 1947. He had to face his own problems head on when he returned as well. Mauldin was witness to many traumatic events, and many of his friends, both members of the infantry and journalists, did not make it home at all. As he was during the war, Mauldin continued to be an advocate of free speech and exercised his right as much as possible in his cartoons. For example, he used his medium to speak out against anti-Semitism and the Ku Klux Klan. Piehler writes of Mauldin's cartoons that "American veterans, if given access to housing and decent jobs, would be able to readjust to civilian life and that the nation as a whole might emerge from the greatest war in history a wiser, more tolerant, more generous power" (69).

            In "Bill Mauldin Goes to Korea" by Cord A. Scott mentions that Mauldin was highly sought after by publishers during the Korean War and reviews his process for creating his new book Bill Mauldin in Korea. Scott states that the "one aspect that distinguishes Mauldin's work on Korea from the illustrations of other cartoonists is that his are consistently realistic even if they do not appear as finished as his other pieces for the book. None of the characters, especially those of enemy combatants, relied on stereotypical cartoon features" (75-76). He also retained his military humor while still making his work accessible to the layman as well as soldiers, presenting the struggles of "sacrifices and conditions in which ordinary people serve. It presents the unique perspective of a famous WWII enlisted veteran on a different, more complicated conflict" (81). Scott writes that Bill Mauldin in Korea is "a reflection of how Mauldin as a person was evolving in his worldview, relaying those views not through his own thoughts so much, but through his character" (81). Scott's follow-up essay, "Korean War Cartoonists," presents a great discussion of Mauldin's contemporaries, including those who were clearly influenced by the artist himself.

            "Bill Mauldin's Legacy in Military Cartooning" by Christina M. Knopf opens with discussion of a Peanuts comic strip conversation between Linus and Snoopy that was a memorial for Mauldin upon his death. Knopf states of military humor that it "helps to strengthen community, buoy morale, teach valuable—even life-saving—lessons, make sense of war, and express universal concerns about daily life" (89). Knopf shows other military cartoonists, including Vernon Grant, John Holmes, W. C. Pope, and others who are what she calls "modern Mauldins," who may use the web to disseminate their work. A particularly amusing section of this chapter, titled "Grumbling in the Ranks," discusses Mauldin and an earlier wartime cartoonist, Captain Bruce Bairnfather from World War I England, and their ability to ruffle the feathers of the military "brass." Knopf then reviews the role and benefits of military cartoons and satire, providing a thoughtful comparison between Mauldin's realistically-styled comics to the more “heroic” war comic books of the time.

            "Sparky and Bill Mauldin" by Jean Schulz is a touching end to the narrative portion of the book. Jean Schulz, the widow of Sparky, better known as Charles M. Schulz of previously mentioned Peanuts fame, briefly but poignantly tells a moving story about the friendship of two major figures in cartoon strips and how they became friends and colleagues.

            "A Selection of Bill Mauldin's Cartoon from the Pritzker Military Museum and Library Collections" takes up a bulk of the book and images cover a wide range of topics, such as post-World War II soldiers returning to civilian life, commentary on his perception of the ridiculousness of bipartisan politics, and civil rights issues, up until commentary on the Gulf War.

            Drawing Fire is a worthy tribute to the soldier, artist, and free speech advocate Bill Mauldin. The first time I came across his work was while I was doing some cataloguing for Wichita State University Special Collections and University Archives. I picked up the well-worn copy of Up Front from the book cart, carefully flipping through the yellowed pages, and was immediately struck by Mauldin’s artwork, and then his captions. It is easy to see why each of the contributors to Drawing Fire included how Mauldin influenced their chosen professions, as well as how he helped shape their ethics, in their essays. The glimpses into Mauldin's life and career, paired with the inclusion of 150 of his military and political cartoons, provides the reader with an historical portrait of the artist, as well as fifty decades of sociopolitical history and wartime coverage.

Versions of this review will appear online and in print in IJOCA 22:2.



Mauldin drew this cartoon on June 6, 1968. In the early hours of that day, forty-two-year-old Senator Robert F. Kennedy died in the Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles after being shot on June 5 at the Ambassador Hotel by assassin Sirhan Sirhan. Following on the heels of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination tow months earlier, RFK’s assassination triggered national soul-searching about the role of violence in American history and society. (Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, 1968.)

A strong proponent of civil rights and social justice campaigns throughout his lifetime, Mauldin illustrated here that those who advance reforms or policies are often the most unqualified to do so. (Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, 1974.)

“We won!”

The U.S. Victory in the First Gulf War left Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in power and raised a number of questions about the United States’ role in the region. Mauldin saw that despite President Bush’s proclamation of victory, the Middle East was far from won. (Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, 1991).

“Yer a Menace to the People. It’s me duty to sink your end of the boat.”

(Originally published by United Features Syndicate, Inc., 1947)

“Good gosh! Willie struck oil!”

In the summer of 1941, the War Department held the Louisiana Maneuvers, a massive exercise designed to test the underfunded Army’s readiness for war. Bill accompanied the 45th Division to Louisiana, where soldiers still clad in World War I -vintage uniforms often wielded two-by-fours instead of actual machine guns. Two men in seersucker suits and a big Oldsmobile approached Bill and convinced him to produced a souvenir book of cartoons to sell to the troops. Bill drew fifteen cartoons and twenty-five drawings in forty-eight hours for a book he called Star Spangled Banter. It cost twenty-five cents and was a hit with the 45th Division, though Bill never saw any royalties or the two men again. (Originally published in Star Spangled Banter, 1941.)

“This damn teepee leaks.” 

This cartoon from 1973 plays on Mauldin’s well-known wartime cartoon and GI comic book titled, This Damn Tree Leaks from almost thirty years earlier. At a time when the Nixon administration was trying to diffuse the situation at Wounded Knee over Native rights, Mauldin not so subtly reminds his readers of the deceit and dishonor that characterized the history of U.S. federal relations with Native American tribes. (Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, 1973.)

“I got a hangover. Does it show?”

This cartoon from January 1945 plays on ordinary civilian concerns about self-presentation in public to highlight both Willie and Joe’s disheveled and grimy appearance and their dependence on alcohol to cope with the trauma of war. It was precisely this kind of cartoon that rankled the spit-and-polish General Patton. (Originally published in Stars and Stripes, 1945.)

“It’s either enemy or off limits.”

American infantrymen in World War II encountered devastation wherever they went. The Germans demolished towns as they retreated, while the Allies did the same as they advanced. It was a war of brute force that left Italy looking, in Bill’s words, “as if a giant rake had gone over it from end to end.” Occasionally, a town escaped ruin. In that case, it would be placed off-limits to dogfaces and reserved for rear-echelon soldiers and high-ranking officers to enjoy. (Originally published in Stars and Stripes, 1944.)

“Come on in – the quicksand’s fine.”

During the Salvadorian Civil War of 1979 to 1992, the Reagan administration increased U.S. support for the military junta government fighting a left-wing insurgency. Observers like Mauldin feared a quagmire akin to the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. Mauldin references (or, perhaps, simply copies) a chilling cartoon by M.A. Kempf that appeared in The Masses in June 1917 during WWII. It shows the great powers of Europe dancing with death in a pool of blood. The caption reads, “Come on in, America, the blood’s fine.” (Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, 1982.)

 “Ain’t you gonna buy a war hero a drink?”

Bill Mauldin returned home before V-J Day. His reluctance to wear his uniform or talk about his wartime experiences led many strangers to assume that, because of his youth and civilian clothes, he had avoided military service, and he was subjected to much bravado from home front GI’s. (Originally published in United Feature Syndicate, Inc., 1945.)

“Investigate them? Heck, that’s mah posse.”

(Originally published by United Feature Syndicate, Inc., 1947.)


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