In the cartooning world, Peanuts is the gold standard – the bar of humor and longevity every comic strip hopes to achieve. But even a great like Peanuts creator Charles M. Schultz has his heroes. Schultz went into the Army during WWII, and although his service wasn’t glamorous, he slogged through the mud like every other GI.
Schultz wasn’t a wartime correspondent, but his hero, Bill Mauldin, was. Because many WWII-era troops in Europe experienced hardships similar to Schultz’ – the mud and privation among others – it was no surprise that Mauldin’s comic lampooning of the situation (and not the war) caught on with the guys on the ground.
Mauldin became the hero for many GIs like Schultz fighting in Europe, but it was Schultz who honored Mauldin every Veteran’s Day by dressing Snoopy in his service blues to quaff a few root beers at Bill Mauldin’s place.
William Henry “Bill” Mauldin was a cartoonist and the creator of Willie Joe, the most beloved comic strip ever to come out of the war. It was featured in Stars and Stripes and read by just about every GI in the European Theater. Willie Joe was a single panel comic (think The Far Side and Ziggy) featuring two every day Joes living the daily life of troops fighting the Nazis. Before making it to Stars and Stripes Mauldin, “the fighting cartoonist,” was on the ground in Europe. He landed on the beaches of Sicily in 1943. This dedication to authenticity gave his work the realism with which every American soldier could relate.
His sketches appeared in his division paper before he became a full-fledged combat correspondent. He preferred to draw ideas from experience and stayed close to the front, to the Willies and Joes fighting the war. He was even on the sharp end of German mortars, wounded at Monte Cassino in 1943, which only lent more authenticity to Willie Joe.
There was one soldier who was less than a fan of Mauldin’s (to put it mildly). General George S. Patton frequently complained to Supreme Allied Headquarters about the cartoon and the cartoonist. He believed the unkempt appearances of Willie and Joe were a disgrace to the Army and subverted discipline. Patton repeatedly called for Mauldin’s dismissal, but luckily for Mauldin and the troops in Europe (and anyone who appreciates humor), the fighting cartoonist was protected from on high by General Dwight D. Eisenhower himself. Mauldin c to skewer anything and everything in his cartoons.
Eventually, Willie Joe became so popular that stateside newspapers began to feature the duo in regular publications. Civilians not only loved the comic, but it helped them understand the everyday struggles faced by troops fighting the war (at least the ones in Europe).
In 1945, Mauldin’s work earned him a Legion of Merit and the Pulitzer Prize. Willie Joe would grace the cover of Time magazine as Mauldin published a collection of 600 comics in a book called “Up Front.” The book was an instant best-seller. He kept writing comics right up until VE-Day.
After the war, Mauldin continued work as a writer and cartoonist, eventually going to the Chicago Sun-Times as a staff member. He won another Pulitzer in 1961 and penned more than one cartoon, including one on November 22, 1963. When he heard about Kennedy’s death, he rushed back to work and drew this iconic panel, depicting President Lincoln (with hair like Kennedy’s) mourning the loss.
Mauldin sketched Willie and Joe only a few times after the war. His work influenced many of the famous cartoonists of the 20th century, including Charles M. Schultz, who always referred to Mauldin as his hero. In fact, the last time Mauldin ever drew the dogface duo, they appeared in a Peanuts strip with Snoopy.
Bill Mauldin died in 2003 and the loss was felt (and depicted) by cartoonists all over the United States, a testament to the lasting memory of the fearless “Fighting Cartoonist.”