The art of war and more from Bill Mauldin | On Culture | Chicago Reader

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The art of war and more from Bill Mauldin

The Pritzker Museum highlights the late cartoonist's 50-year fight with injustice.

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Editorial cartoonist Bill Mauldin, whose bedraggled “Willie and Joe” characters famously represented the lowly “dogface” foot soldiers of World War II, won two Pulitzer Prizes, the first when he was only 23.

He didn’t win for his best-known cartoon, however. That would be the despondent Lincoln, head on hands—a caption-free twist on the D.C. memorial that was published by the Chicago Sun-Times along with the news that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Mauldin was also a master at captions, but in this case, none was necessary.

Did you know all that?  

I’m asking because the Pritzker Military Museum & Library, which owns a major Mauldin collection, has opened a retrospective featuring 160 images, most of them original drawings, and 20 artifacts. Titled “Drawn to Combat: Bill Mauldin and the Art of War,” it’s being promoted with the once-unthinkable question, “Who is Bill Mauldin?”  

For those who actually don’t know, the show will be a strong introduction. And for those who only remember him for Willie and Joe, it’ll be a reminder that he went on to have a near 50-year, nationally syndicated career that spoke truth to power and championed every kind of “little guy” in the face of injustice.

Chicago figures both early and late in that career. Born in New Mexico in 1921 (Native American on his father’s side, ancestors in the American Revolution on his mother’s), Mauldin was a feisty, precocious runt of a kid who was said to be reading Mark Twain at the age of four and drawing before he talked. He finished high school, living on his own after a hardscrabble early childhood, but, thanks to a classroom prank, failed to get a diploma. In 1939, with $500 borrowed from his grandmother, he arrived at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, intending to learn all he needed to know to become a successful cartoonist in the single year it would take for his money to run out. He wound up mostly focused on the portraiture and fine-art techniques that would lend his cartoons their signature impact.

Lacking any job prospects after that year, Mauldin joined the Arizona National Guard which, in the run-up to America’s entry into WWII, was quickly mobilized. He immediately began contributing cartoons that featured the enlisted man’s perspective to the division newspaper, and by 1941, cartooning was his full-time Army job. In 1943, when he suffered a minor wound that got him a Purple Heart, he was on staff at the Armed Forces flagship publication, Stars and Stripes; a year later, his cartoons were taken on by a major syndicator for distribution to newspapers in the U.S.

"Willie and Joe" in a Bill Mauldin WWII-era cartoon. - COPYRIGHT PRITZKER MILITARY MUSEUM & LIBRARY
  • Copyright Pritzker Military Museum & Library
  • "Willie and Joe" in a Bill Mauldin WWII-era cartoon.

Mauldin’s depiction of the war as a muddy, bloody slog for enlisted troops under the thumb of fat-cat officers ran afoul of Army brass, including General George Patton, who wanted to toss “the little son of a bitch” in jail. But in 1945 a Mauldin cartoon that showed “victorious” American troops every bit as downtrodden and war-weary as their enemy prisoners won a Pulitzer. That same year, Up Front, his book about the war, became an immediate best seller. He came home a hero.

He would subsequently be criticized, and dropped from newspapers, for work that was perceived to be too far left—opposing the McCarthy hearings, for example. During an unsettled decade or so after the war, he acted in a movie (John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage) and ran an unsuccessful campaign for Congress. But by the spring of 1958 he was on staff at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and a cartoon he drew that fall, critiquing the Soviet Union for barring novelist Boris Pasternak from accepting his Nobel Prize, won another Pulitzer. In 1962 Mauldin returned to Chicago, signing on with the Sun-Times. He was a regular presence on its editorial pages through 1990, when the paper declined to renew his contract.

Mauldin led a frenetic, often troubled personal life that included three wives, two divorces, and eight children. (This exhibit might send you, as it did me, to his books or to Todd DePastino’s biography, Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front, which is on sale at the museum.) A year after his “retirement” from the Sun-Times, while attaching a snow plow to his Jeep, Mauldin crushed his drawing hand (the left), making further work difficult. Then, in 2000, suffering from Alzheimer’s, he essentially cooked himself in a bathtub. He lived for three years after the scalding, but never recovered.  

Bill Mauldin cartoon on the cover of Chicago Journalism Review after the police killing of Fred Hampton - COPYRIGHT 1969 BY BILL MAULDIN. COURTESY OF BILL MAULDIN ESTATE LLC
  • Copyright 1969 by Bill Mauldin. Courtesy of Bill Mauldin Estate LLC
  • Bill Mauldin cartoon on the cover of Chicago Journalism Review after the police killing of Fred Hampton

When Mauldin died, in 2003, longtime Reader columnist Michael Miner wrote that some of his best work had been done not for the Sun-Times, but for the tiny Chicago Journalism Review—a watchdog publication launched by local reporters outraged by their own publications’ censorship of their coverage of the 1968 Democratic convention police riot. Mauldin’s numerous covers for CJR included a response to the 1969 Black Panther raid by Chicago police: a door riddled by bullet holes that form a swastika. Miner reported that CJR’s founding editor, Ron Dorfman, said this cartoon was “every bit the equal of his weeping-Lincoln image after the Kennedy assassination.”

Judge for yourself: the Lincoln image, along with the two Pulitzer winners and much more are on view in “Drawn to Combat.”  v

“Drawn to Combat: Bill Mauldin and the Art of War,” through spring 2022, Pritzker Military Museum & Library, 104 S. Michigan, Tue-Sat 10 AM-4 PM, $10; $8 for seniors, students, and teachers; free for kids under 12, first responders, and active military.

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