For a brief moment as World War II drew to a close, Bill Mauldin was the most famous cartoonist in America. Only in his early 20s when he filed pen-and-ink dispatches for his division's newspaper during the bloody, grueling Italian campaign in 1943, Mauldin looked even younger; childhood health problems kept him short, skinny, and jug-eared well into adulthood. The kid was accustomed to hustling every cartooning job he could, perpetually fearful that he wouldn't be able to eke out a living. Then fame hit overnight when Ernie Pyle devoted his famous newspaper column to praising Mauldin's work for Stars And Stripes. Within a few weeks, offers from syndicates, magazines, and publishers had overwhelmed the Army paper, and General Patton was demanding that Mauldin's grim, pointed drawings of enlisted men suffering indignities in camp and terror on the battlefield be censored.
Todd DePastino's extraordinary Mauldin biography, liberally illustrated with work from all periods of Mauldin's career, captures a countermovement to the "Greatest Generation" mythology that dominates current discussion of World War II. Mauldin was under no illusions about the character or intrinsic heroism of the "dogfaces" with whom he served and identified. They were, for the most part, victims of processes beyond their control. One stunning 1944 cartoon reproduced in DePastino's book depicts a soldier crawling out of his foxhole to defecate, while bullets whiz by just overhead. "Wish to hell I wuzn't housebroke," he remarks to the buddy he's leaving behind in the hole. Such routine, unromantic humiliations of infantry life were Mauldin's contribution to truth-telling about the war.
Mauldin made good use of his instant celebrity after his discharge, penning scathing editorial cartoons that condemned anti-Communist hysteria and Southern racial policies during the '50s and '60s. He was an early champion of underground comics, he ran for Congress, and he even tried his hand at acting. But his enduring legacy remains Willie and Joe, the infantrymen he marched through Sicily and up to Germany in 1944 and 1945. In spite of the nostalgia industry's efforts to paint those cartoons as feel-good relics of a time when soldiers were larger than life, the cartoons and their story give eloquent testimony to Mauldin's burning moral sense. DePastino translates their righteous anger into pithy memorials of a side of the Good War that many would prefer to forget.