Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #203: Willie and Joe: The WWII Years by Bill Mauldin

This is possibly another cheat: I read the hardcover edition of Willie and Joe: The WWII Years back in 2008, soon after it was published, as part of my whirlwind Eisner-judging weekend that year. I wrote a few words about in in my monthly round-up a couple of days later. (I also reviewed the post-war collection, Willie and Joe: Back Home, in 2012.)

But a less expensive paperback edition came out three years later, and another three years after that I finally got a copy. (Which isn't that bad; if I'd gotten it immediately, it would have been one more thing to be destroyed in my flood of '12.) And so I read it again.

There are probably other forms where you can see a creator growing up and getting substantially better over the course of a single work -- a chronologically organized short-story collection, for example -- but comics provides some of the best examples, since every page or panel is a concretized piece of time spent at the craft, its own set of lessons and ideas and thoughts. Any largish book that collects consecutive work by a young creator can do this, but it's clearest when there's a story or other through-line to all of that progressively more impressive work. The first big volume of Dave Sim's Cerebus is a great example of that -- you can see Sim learning what he can do, how to structure jokes and stories, and moving from a Barry Windsor-Smith imitator towards his own style, over the course of the first twenty-five issues of that series.

Willie and Joe: The WWII Years has precisely the same arc, though it goes even higher by the end. Mauldin started the war as a talented but green young man from the sticks, drawing pictures of the foibles and idiosyncrasies of the local, mostly-Native soldiers, with big panels crammed full of captions and lots of little jokes to make it all go over. Over the next five years, his style got both looser and more controlled, with slashing black lines that exactly defined all of the very concrete parts of a soldier's life: mud, gear, men, dirt, bullets, grenades, death. And his writing got equally controlled and specific: one short caption, one line of dialogue for each squared-off cartoon.

Mauldin ended the war as possibly the best American editorial cartoonist working, even though his matter was the most constrained of anyone in the field: not just men at war, not just the infantry, but the front-line infantry soldiers that he actually saw and knew and sketched alongside (mostly in Italy). For yet another thing that Mauldin is an exemplar of, it's the idea of finding your garden and hoeing it assiduously: if he'd tried to cover the "whole war," with cartoons for the point of view of sailors and generals and aviators and REMFs, he might have shown a wider view, but it would never have been as strong as what he actually did.

So this is one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century American cartooning -- or this book contains that masterpiece, which makes up about the last half of it -- as well as an vital and gripping first-hand account of a harrowing and important war. And it's full of just plain great cartooning, too.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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