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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Willie & Joe: Back Home’

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 17, 2011

WILLIE & JOE: BACK HOME
By Bill Mauldin
Edited by Todd DePastino
Fantagraphics Books, $29.99, 288 pages

If you grew up during World War II, the mere mention of the comic strip "Willie & Joe" should immediately bring back vivid memories. These two embodiments of front-line soldiers found themselves in just about every conceivable situation on the European battlefield, from foxholes to watering holes. Willie and Joe's frank and controversial discussions about Army life, the war and everything in between intrigued soldiers as well as their families and friends.

The views of the strip's creator, Bill Mauldin, obviously played a significant role. He wasn't afraid to challenge established views on progressive politics, civil rights and personal liberties. He wrote eye-opening accounts like "Up Front"(1945), in which he described his wartime cartoons as "heavy humor, and it doesn't seem funny at all sometimes when you stop and think it over."

He wasn't even afraid to challenge the Army brass: Mauldin wrote that Gen. George S. Patton threatened to "throw his a- in jail" for "spreading dissent" with a cartoon that poked fun at the general - until Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower stepped in and defused the situation.

So, what happened to Willie and Joe, the two dogfaces, after the war ended? Fantagraphics Books, a highly respected publishing house of classic and modern comic-strip anthologies, followed up on its successful two-volume release of "Willie & Joe: The WWII Years"(2008) and answered this question with an impressive new collection, "Willie & Joe: Back Home."

It's an in-depth examination of Mauldin's tumultuous 1945-46 period, when he was forced by his syndicate, United Feature, to keep the strip going against his own desires. The ex-infantry troopers therefore struggled to regain their identities as well as find their place in a world that had been radically transformed before their eyes.

The lush 288-page book, complete with a striking yellow cover and original black-and-white illustrations, is superbly done. Like many Fantagraphics releases over the years, this book easily could be placed in a personal library or on a coffee table for public viewing. In many ways, it can be described best as a piece of art and something to be treasured by collectors, comic-strip enthusiasts and military buffs alike.

"Willie & Joe: Back Home" also has a story to tell. The short historical introduction by Todd DePastino - an author of various books, including "Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front" (2008) - paints a fascinating portrait of the American cartoonist's point of view.

Mauldin's marriage had fallen apart when he came home, the syndicate wouldn't let him retire "Willie & Joe," and his cartooning style became angrier and more political in tone. As Mr. DePastino points out, this was a dramatic change from his wartime demeanor:

"Unlike his liberal and left-wing colleagues on Stars and Stripes, Bill possessed slow ideological reflexes. While overseas, he remained true to [the] sardonic temperament of his characters and avoided any hint of politics in his wartime cartoons. He never referred to Roosevelt's 'Four Freedoms' or denounced fascism or satirized Hitler's racial theories. Indeed, he had never even used the word 'Nazi,' preferring that Willie and Joe repeat the dogfaces' favorite slur, 'Kraut.' "

When they came home, Mauldin and his former dogfaces struggled to come to grips with everything from free speech to the growing red menace. The cartoonist challenged authority at every turn, especially when it came to individual freedoms such as civil rights and racial segregation. Meanwhile, many strips were censored because they were so diametrically opposed to societal and political norms. Mr. DePastino points out that on average, "at least one Mauldin cartoon a week fell victim to United Feature's razor, correction fluid, and blue pencil."

Fantagraphics included some of Mauldin's original strips in this collection. Reading them, you likely will understand why the syndicate's blood pressure resembled a volcanic eruption. Willie and Joe were no longer the soldier's best friends.

To his credit, Mauldin never backed down. He savagely chopped away at anything within arm's length, including government interference, poverty, big business, free enterprise and even the Ku Klux Klan and racism. The strips are a stunning mix of blunt political messaging with dark, satirical humor. It makes you occasionally wonder if United Feature ever privately wished Patton had made good on his threat.

All kidding aside, "Willie & Joe: Back Home" will both amuse and infuriate people of every political stripe. Some readers will think Mauldin went too far in his post-World War II political commentary and others will complain he didn't go far enough. Yet the vast majority will simply shrug and accept the pen-and-ink drawings as a sign of the times. In my opinion, the latter method is the best solution to fully appreciate a true cartooning genius and his legendary creation.

Michael Taube is a columnist and former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

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