These two dogfaces need no introduction to anyone in my grandparents' generation. Willie and Joe, cartoonist Bill Mauldin's iconic WWII combat infantryman, were featured in Stars and Stripes and wildly both overseas and back home. This despite the fact the Mauldin's characters griped about the army, as soldiers will, and the artist pulled few punches when it came to exposing hypocrisy, blunders and inefficiency. In airing their troubles it actually improved morale. As Mauldin writes in the first collection of his Willie and Joe Cartoons, Up Front (1945:Henry Holt & Co.);
"If it means that people at home are beginning to understand these strange, mud-caked creatures who fight the war, and are beginning to understand their minds and their own type of humor, that's even more swell, because it means the dogfaces themselves are beginning to be appreciated a little by their countrymen.
They are very different now. Don't let anybody tell you they aren't. They need a lot of people speaking for them and telling about them - not speaking for fancy bonuses and extra privileges. You can't pay in money for what they have done. They need people telling about them so that they will be taken back into their civilian lives and given a chance to be themselves again"
Mauldin came home in 1945 and brought Willie and Joe with him. It turned out that he had as difficult a time readjusting as his fictional characters. My generation grew up hearing about the difficulties that returning Viet Nam veterans experienced - particularly as participants in an unpopular war and during a period of great social upheaval in this country - but this was by no means the first time in US history that large numbers of discharged veterans found peacetime readjustment difficult and society unwilling or unable to comprehend what they had been through and unsure what to do with them. The GI Bill and other benefits programs notwithstanding, the "points system" for discharging WWII veterans meant that they came home singly rather than in a body, and had to face integration on their own.
Mauldin continued to write his cartoon for United Features Syndicate, drawing unsparingly about the problems of veterans but also the deep flaws in American Society. He held no brief with Red-baiters, bigots, and isolationists, and this caused some papers to drop his strip and put him at odds with editorial sensors quite different from those at Stars and Stripes. Mauldin himself characterized his drawings as "pretty heavy humor, and it doesn't seem funny at all sometimes when you think it over."
His second cartoon collection, Back Home (1947), is biting social commentary, harder to look at even now than his exhausted ragged infantrymen in their soggy foxholes making the best of a bad situation. Jim Crow and the KKK, homeless veterans, censorship and the HUAC: none were spared his pen and ink. On his pessimistic cartoons of the new United Nations, Mauldin writes:
"I think there is a hell of a difference between cynicism and pessimism. A person who is cynical about the idea of the UN thinks that human nature and selfishness will always cause war and that anything designed to prevent armed conflicts is a waste of time. A pessimist merely thinks the UN is doomed to failure unless something happens to change the way it's going."
A youthful curmudgeon, and iconoclast, champion of the dogface and the underdog, Mauldin was not cut out for a successful stateside career. Yet this two time Pulitzer winner may arguably be the finest political cartoonist of his generation, if not the 20th century, and I am always struck when I pick up one of his books at how time and again he nails an issue with some well chosen words and pen strokes. The time period from which it comes does not date his art, nor make his cartoons less relevant to modern readers.