Todd DePastino on Bill Mauldin

Visitors to the site may remember my late January used bookstore discovery of Bill Mauldin’s 1944 World War II book, Up Front. That discovery ultimately led me to contact Todd DePastino, regarding both his latest work, a biography of Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front (which is to be released by W. W. Norton on February 25) and Mauldin’s Willie & Joe: The WWII Years (edited by DePastino and set to be released on March 24 by Fantagraphics). I can honestly say I enjoy every interview I do for this blog, but when DePastino’s replies hit my email in-box, I just sat and savored it for at least 15 minutes. After reading it once, I stood up from my computer and paced for a moment or two, that’s how engaging I found his responses. While it may be apparent that I had not gotten my hands on a copy of the biography before this interview, I have since been able to peruse an advance copy. As interesting as you (hopefully) will find this interview, it’s only a small aspect of the wealth of information that DePastino packs into the 320-page book. Before starting the interview, here’s DePastino’s official bio blurb: “Todd DePastino is the author of Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America and the general editor of the cartoon collection Willie & Joe: The WWII Years. He teaches at Waynesburg College and lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.” It seems only fitting that we also got a chance to discuss the upcoming Fantagraphics book, given that I first learned of Mauldin thanks to Dirk Deppey writing about him back in late 2002.

Tim O’Shea: This past January 22 marked five years since the passing of Mauldin. How long have you been working on his biography? Did you ever get an opportunity to interview Mauldin?

Todd DePastino: By the time I became fascinated enough with Mauldin that I couldn’t resist diving into research on him, he had already died. I began my research at the Library of Congress in the summer of 2003 and handed in my manuscript about three years later. Then came the edits and production. The book took three years to research and write.

O’Shea: Was this book done in cooperation with Mauldin’s family? I ask this mostly due to Charles Schulz family’s response to David Michaelis’ biography, Schulz and Peanuts. In that recent situation, they have taken issue with aspects of the bio, even though it was done with the family’s cooperation.

DePastino: The Mauldin family did cooperate with my work on the book, though they didn’t want to “authorize” or otherwise direct or control the book’s contents. In this, they very much adhered to the spirit of Mauldin’s life and work–uncensored and free thinking. Those I worked with most closely–four sons and Mauldin’s former wife–were all smart, talented, fascinating people in their own right, with their own well-considered interpretations of Bill Mauldin’s complicated life and character. I was shocked to learn how undaunted they were by the prospect of an honest depiction–“warts-and-all.” All they really demanded–and this was never stated outright but inferred by me–was a serious consideration of his art. They didn’t mind if I was critical of it. They just wanted a serious interpretation. They thought he deserved that. I sent them chapter drafts as completed them and received wonderful comments and helpful feedback. I did the same with several of Mauldin’s friends. Not one ever flinched at the more unsavory aspects of his character depicted.

O’Shea: How did you first become interested in Mauldin’s work?

DePastino: I was writing my first book on the history of homelessness (Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America), and was struck by how such a far-flung counterculture of homeless men (tramps and hoboes) which had held sway for some 75 years after the Civil War had disappeared during World War II. I mentioned this disappearance to a few people, and several (including a relative, an elderly combat veteran of the First Armored Division) exclaimed, “hoboes didn’t disappear! They went into the army. Just like Willie and Joe!” I confess I didn’t know Willie and Joe and had only dim knowledge of Bill Mauldin. So, I went to the library, pulled out a yellowed copy of Up Front, and was stunned by what I saw: fiercely sardonic and edgy cartoons, rendered in exquisite detail. The humor was fresh and the draftsmanship rough-hewn in a way that you could almost feel the mud sucking at the soles of the characters’ boots. Moreover, Mauldin’s work revealed a whole side to World War II with which I hadn’t been familiar: the everyday lives of army infantry combat soldiers, not men who had volunteered for elite units–the paratroopers, Marines, flyboys, and the like–but the drafted warriors from hard-scrabble backgrounds (you could tell that by the dialect) with no enthusiasm for the fight, nor reverence for authority.

Two questions immediately formed in my mind, the first rather ego-centric: How had I never heard of this guy? I was a Ph.D. in American cultural history! This was some of the most important popular art of twentieth-century America. How had I missed it? My second question was: how did these anti-establishment cartoons end up in Stars and Stripes, the official newspaper of the United States Army? These two questions drove me, and at first I thought I would write a scholarly article about Mauldin’s wartime work and career. But the more I learned about Mauldin–his adventurous and charismatic life, his befuddling character and improbable ups and down–the more fascinated I became with him. I kept looking for reasons NOT to write a book (that’s become a habit of mine to ensure that I only write books I really MUST write). Someone told me that people just don’t write biographies of cartoonists. Unfortunately (or fortunately), that only encouraged me further. Here was one of the most important artists of the twentieth century and no one had written his biography. I felt it important to get his story out and to satisfy my own fascination and curiosity.

O’Shea: He had a rather diverse and long career. In researching his life was there a period that became a favorite of yours?

DePastino: Great question because I’m not going to say his World War II phase. Terry Teachout recently blogged about my book saying that Mauldin’s only great work was his wartime stuff, and therefore only two-thirds of the biography is really worthwhile. I must say that Mauldin’s immediate postwar work is to me just as compelling. But I’m partial to that late 1940s “film noir” and “film gris” sense of isolation and confusion, betrayal and disillusion. Going through Mauldin’s cartoons from June 1945 to January 1949 (when he retired–for the first time–from cartooning) is like watching a wonderful film noir serial with a hero (the older and wiser Willie appears more often than Joe after the war) who stands in the shadows, not knowing whom to trust, longing for understanding and sympathy. These cartoons reflect Mauldin’s own postwar frustrations and troubles, his disillusionment and vulnerability. They also trace the nation’s descent from the idealism brought about by Victory to the fear and paranoia of an emerging Cold War. World War II had radicalized Mauldin, thrusting him into the struggle to raise a better world out of the catastrophe to which he had been witness. He campaigned for civil rights especially. But these efforts only brought him grief. His syndicate censored his cartoons, changing captions and whiting out offending symbols in his drawings. The FBI started investigating him, even trailing him on some of his trips to military bases. His growing paranoia was in many ways well-founded, and the drama of his life–his divorce, his fall from popularity–is all captured in the wonderful body of work he did before his first retirement.

O’Shea: Many people try to make a go of it in Hollywood, but few people get to say they worked with the director John Huston. How much does the book delve into Mauldin’s role as “The Loud Soldier” in the 1951 film, The Red Badge of Courage?

DePastino: What a fascinating chapter of Mauldin’s life that was, being called upon by John Huston in 1950 to act in what Huston always said was his greatest film, Red Badge. That film, like Mauldin’s postwar cartoons, fell victim to the Cold war chill. By the time the film was in production, the Korean War had broken out and MGM grew nervous about Red Badge’s mildly anti-war message. Producer Dore Schary chopped the film down to a little more than an hour, cutting out any sense of ambiguity or uncertainty on the hero’s part. It was just one more disillusionment for Mauldin, who had a very difficult time with the picture. Huston was intent on making a film “without actors,” so he cast Mauldin and Audie Murphy–the most decorated soldier in American history–in lead roles. Murphy was a mess, a severe victim of post-traumatic stress who toggled between near-catatonia and belligerence. Some days he just couldn’t say his lines. Other days he’d show up all bruised and cut because of fights he had gotten into. But Murphy had this gentle, sensitive side. Mauldin recognized it, and he identified deeply with Audie. They were both poor boys from the Southwest–I mean, absolutely flat-out dirt poor–who had come up the hard way and had to fight for everything they got. Mauldin was able to fight his way out with his inkbrush. But Audie had only his physical courage, which he seemed intent upon demonstrating day in and day out.

Huston, meanwhile, channeled the spirit of both men and reveled in the idea of defying MGM with his edgy, challenging film. Mauldin admired Huston for The Battle of San Pietro, a hand-held documentary Huston had shot in Italy while under fire. The film showed men crumpling and then being zipped up in body bags. Really grim stuff. Mauldin had the privilege of being on hand in Rome (perhaps it was Naples) when the film was shown to army brass for the first time. Generals walked out in protest. But General George Marshall intervened and ordered that all recruits view the film to give them a true sense of what the war was like. Huston had achieved in film what Mauldin had in his cartoons. So the two men had an affinity. But the whole experience of Hollywood soured Mauldin on film acting. He didn’t like taking direction or having to wait hours and days while the director and crew fiddled with the set and so forth. He also hated the censorship. He never acted again.

O’Shea: In recent years, do you think any greater attention has been paid to him because of his presence in the Ken Burns war documentary?

DePastino: Well, putting aside false modesty, I expect the biography and the Fantagraphics collection (Willie & Joe) will fuel a Mauldin revival of sorts. . . with a little help from Ken Burns, of course!

O’Shea: In reading the AP obit, I thought the following was of interest: “In recent years, as Mauldin battled Alzheimer’s, thousands of veterans, widows and other well-wishers have sent him letters, offering thanks and stories of survival.” Were you able to see any of those letters and/or excerpt from them?

DePastino: Yes, the family, and the attorney for the Mauldin estate–family friend Jon Gordon–sent me hundreds and hundreds of those letters, all stacked in file boxes. So many poured into Mauldin’s nursing home, the family lost count at 10,000. Many were unopened. They are fascinating and often heartbreaking to read. Some are written in spidery hand thanking him for his service while they were in uniform so long ago. One old war widow–a WAR WIDOW from 1944!–wrote to Bill to thank him for buoying the spirits of her soldier-husband before he was killed in combat. Boy, did that letter hit home. First, that the death of her husband was still such a fresh and open wound, and second, that Mauldin should have played such an intimate role in her grief. That generation–what [Tom] Brokaw called “the Greatest”–is really a damaged generation, damaged by Depression and war and the Cold War, and Mauldin’s ability to laugh really helped that generation cope with their trauma and endure their suffering. Through those letters, I felt the truth of the old Faulkner insight: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

O’Shea: Just to understand how much more political cartoons were respected, I offer this link to a Library of Congress photo of a Chicago Sun-Times billboard advertising “Maudlin Invades Viet Nam for the Chicago Sun-Times”. At what point do you think political cartoonists’ influence started to dwindle? (Don’t get me wrong, they are still influential, but not as much as Mauldin in his prime.)

DePastino: That photo appears in my book, and I thought it captured Mauldin’s celebrity during the 1960s, after he had once again taken up cartooning (after a 10-year “sabbatical”) and reached the pinnacle of his profession. Your question is an interesting one, and I must say, I haven’t given it systematic thought. But my hunch is that political cartooning–and, perhaps, cartooning in general–was, during the conformities of the high Cold War–one of the few places where fierce satire and political dissent were permitted. After the culture began opening up in the 1960s–with Mort Sahl, Stan Freberg, Lenny Bruce, Second City, Dr. Strangelove, and the like–then Mauldin’s brand of political satire was no longer the exclusive preserve of political cartoonists. Perhaps it was a matter of other cultural forms–TV, film, stand-up–adopting the attitudes and perspectives of satirical cartoon, rather than the cartoons abandoning quality satire. Today, no matter how incisive a political cartoonist may be, he could never compete with the likes of Jon Stewart, Michael Moore, Stephen Colbert, and Bill Maher for audience or influence.

O’Shea: As much as he is known for his war work, would you say his civil rights political cartoons carry their own level of importance and impact worth appreciating?

DePastino: Of all the political issues Mauldin addressed over the course of his career, censorship and Civil Rights remained his most important and consistent passions. He grew up with a sense of himself as an outsider. He was part Native American; artistic in a rough southwestern farming and ranching region; frail as a child; his parents were rather disreputable . . . ok, very disreputable . . . so he spent his entire life with his radar attuned to slights, grievance, discrimination. He identified with those who experienced discrimination because of their backgrounds or appearance. It enraged and outraged him always. During the war, he championed the Nissei 442nd Regimental Combat Team (still the most highly decorated unit in American history, I believe) and was horrified to return to a segregated America in 1945. Some of his most radical and hardest-hitting cartoons were the covers he drew (for no charge) for the Chicago Journalism Review, a radical publication that critiqued the anti-liberal media during the days when Richard Daley was the undisputed boss of the city. Mauldin was one of the first to defend the Black Panthers when police shot and killed Panther Fred Hampton. Civil Rights was his fight, and his cartoons traced the nation’s engagement with it. They are some of his best.

O’Shea: Given that he was a political cartoonist in Chicago, I wonder if you delve into Mauldin’s work and attitude toward Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley’s administration?

DePastino: Mauldin called Daley Chicago’s “Mussolini.” He considered Daley a bully and depicted him as an overgrown, Tuna-lipped Keystone Kop with the hat pulled down over his eyes. In 1975, Mauldin saw cars doubleparked outside a Daley event in a residential neighborhood while the cops stood around doing nothing. He started taking pictures of license-plate numbers and got his nose broken by a Daley crony for his efforts. Mauldin pressed charges and lost. The Daley-appointed judge wouldn’t even listen to closing arguments. Mauldin’s ire toward Daley was personal. With Mauldin, everything was personal, never business. He had thin skin and felt every slight.

O’Shea: Mauldin donated a great deal of material to the Library of Congress in 1975–did you avail yourself of any of that collection while working on the biography?

DePastino: Mauldin’s personal papers are in the Library of Congress’s Manuscripts Division, and they were central to my research. Most of the correspondence is from his years as political cartoonist after 1958, but there’s a good deal of World War II stuff, and from his 10 years in the wilderness between 1948-1958. Over 1,700 original drawings are in the Prints and Photographs Division. We drew upon these for Willie & Joe and will continue to use them for subsequent volumes. It is fascinating to see the original drawings, tracing the hand that sketched and inked them.

There is one treasure in the Library of Congress I’ll never forget discovering: the original screenplay for Up Front, written in September 1945 by brothers John and Ring Lardner, Jr. It’s a masterpiece. I couldn’t believe that a Hollywood comedy of that vintage should so capture the sardonic, anti-establishment sense of Mauldin’s cartoons. Mauldin was reluctant to do a movie. He said he’d be willing only if the film contained no romance, nor comedy, nor happy ending. The Lardner script just about fit the bill. It’s dark humor, very grotesque and outrageous, but sensitive too. It was never made. By the time the studio got around to the film, Ring was in prison for defying the House Un-American Activities Committee. As a member of the Hollywood Ten, he couldn’t be associated with any script. So the script was thrown away, and the studio ended up making Up Front as a more conventional slapstick with little Mauldin input. However, as I read the Lardners’ “Up Front,” I realized that a lot of this humor seemed familiar. Then, it dawned on me. Ring Lardner, Jr. wrote the screenplay to M*A*S*H in 1970. Here was Up Front updated for a new war.

O’Shea: When and how did the decision come about to release the Fantagraphics collection, Willie & Joe: The WWII Years, a month after the biography’s release?

DePastino: I happened to mention to Jon Gordon that a complete collection of Mauldin’s cartoons would be a good idea. I had discovered that less than half of Mauldin’s wartime cartoons had ever been reprinted. Many of them had only appeared once in one newspaper, the 45th Division News. I saw a great need to bring all these together. Gordon and the family had just been approached by Gary Groth at Fantagraphics about just such a project. Groth had no idea about the extent of Mauldin’s wartime production (he drew over 600 cartoons in those years!), but he hired me as editor, and I worked on both the biography and the cartoon collection at the same time. It was great because I had agonized over what cartoons to include in the bio. Now, I knew that all of them would be made available to the public, so that made the selection for the bio easier.

O’Shea: The new Willie & Joe collection features previously unpublished work. Can you tell us what kind of treasures you unearthed to feature in this collection?

DePastino: Mauldin had the strangest cartooning career in history . . . strange for many reasons. One strange thing was that he had two separate army cartoon features–both titled Star Spangled Banter running concurrently in only two newspapers. One Star Spangled Banter appeared exclusively in the 45th Division News–which was the paper for his infantry division. He cartooned for that paper from October 1940 to February 1944. Only a handful of those cartoons were ever reprinted in postwar cartoon collections. They were never reprinted in other papers. And only one run of that paper survived the war and now resides in a museum vault in Oklahoma City.

The other Star Spangled Banter–a whole different cartoon from the one in the 45th Division News–appeared in the Daily Oklahoman (and before that, briefly, in the Oklahoma City Times). In addition, as the 45th Division traveled from Oklahoma to Texas to Massachusetts to New York to Virginia, Mauldin would sell a single cartoon–with local color added–here and there for $5 or $10. He was a $21-a-month rifleman and needed the cash. But he left no record of where he sent these off. He also published two books, one in 1941 and one in 1944 (titled–what else?–“Star Spangled Banter”) that contained new, previously unpublished cartoons, and most of those were never printed elsewhere. Finally, there are original drawings in the Library of Congress and at the 45th Division Museum in Oklahoma City that appear never to have been published. So the challenge was to collect all of these drawings and bring them together in a way so that the reader could trace Mauldin’s development as an artist, a soldier, and a survivor of combat. I annotated these 630-odd cartoons in order to explain some of the background because most of these cartoons detail the everyday life of ordinary dogfaces, a world entirely unfamiliar to us today.

O’Shea: Do you and Fantagraphics have future new Mauldin collections planned?

DePastino: We plan to publish all of Mauldin’s cartoons done over his 50-year career. We estimate this will take about 10 volumes over the next several years. The next volume in the series will be his wonderful postwar work, from 1945-1949. It will contain his censored cartoons and trace the battle he had with his syndicate over his more controversial drawings. I’m very excited about it. This is the Mauldin that few people know about but, like I said earlier, it’s as compelling a saga as his incredible wartime career.

6 thoughts on “Todd DePastino on Bill Mauldin

  1. I found the Todd DePastino interview very meaningful – just finished Bill Mauldin – A Life Up Front this morning – couldn’t put it down and finished it in one sitting. I do a newspaper column and would like to contact Todd. If you’ve his e-mail address I’d welcome it very much. Kind regards.

    Paul R. Dunn
    Former Naval Person and WWII vet (now a newspaper columnist) who plans to do a review of Todd’s book with two Mauldin Pulitzer cartons included if I can get Mauldin Estate okay.

  2. Paul:

    Thanks for serving our country and I will pass your contact info on to Todd.
    Hopefully Todd will get in touch with you.


  3. I have just finished reading Back Home, which I found in my fathers book collection after his death. What an amazing book! It should be required reading in every American contemporary history course. I too was amazed to read about Bill’s time in Hollywood as his UP FRONT was being written buy the Lardners… someone must make this film!

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