• One of the smartest decisions the Library of America ever made was to include the complete text of Bill Mauldin’s Up Front in Reporting World War II, its two-volume anthology of World War II journalism. Up Front is the best collection of editorial cartoons ever published by an American, though that flat phrase cannot begin to suggest the true nature of the book’s excellence, much less its formal uniqueness. Not only are the cartoons themselves devastating in the deadpan eloquence with which they sum up the combat soldier’s now-grubby, now-terrifying life (“I’m beginnin’ to feel like a fugitive from th’ law of averages”), but the combination of Mauldin’s brilliantly evocative drawings and plain-spoken accompanying text adds up to something far greater than the sum of its considerable parts. He and Ernie Pyle were without doubt the best newspaper journalists to cover the war, and it is all the more impressive to learn that Mauldin was a smooth-faced boy in his early twenties when he drew the cartoons that went into Up Front—and all the more dismaying to discover that he never did anything remotely as good for the rest of his life.
Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front (W.W. Norton, 352 pp., $27.95), Todd DePastino’s too-admiring but nonetheless illuminating biography of the cartoonist, is interesting for the first two-thirds of its length, in which DePastino describes Mauldin’s troubled youth and the demanding circumstances under which he produced the cartoons that went into Up Front. Much of this story has already been told in Mauldin’s autobiographical writings, but DePastino goes over the same ground with more detachment and detail. It is especially interesting to see reproductions of Mauldin’s early work, which is conventional and devoid of obvious promise—it could have been drawn by any provincial cartoonist—and to watch his familiar style start taking shape as soon as he was shipped out to Europe in 1943. All at once (it is almost as sudden as that) he breaks free from the conventions of early-40’s cartooning and turns into an artist, one whose ability to embody the feel of modern war in individual, lightning-like flashes of candor and grim wit brings him on occasion within spitting distance of Daumier.
Then the war ended, and Mauldin, by now famous, returned stateside and started floundering. He would not be the first prodigy who later proved incapable of producing work comparable in quality to that with which he made his name, though DePastino fails to see what went wrong. The problem was that Mauldin, who had no feel whatsoever for politics, tried to fit his genius into the wrong mold when he attempted to retrofit himself as a political cartoonist. His newly acquired liberal views, which ran to the reflexive, were too obvious to serve as the basis of striking comment on the issues of the day, and the only postwar cartoon of his that continues to be remembered, the captionless caricature of the Lincoln of the Lincoln Monument holding his head in his hands after hearing of the Kennedy assassination, is both crude and mawkish.
Mauldin was largely forgotten by the time he died in 2003, though the publication in 1995 of Reporting World War II (an event of which DePastino inexplicably makes no mention whatsoever) was to introduce his and Pyle’s work to a small but significant number of readers born too young to know how well those two men captured the American experience in World War II. Owners of that invaluable collection will want to read Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front and see for themselves how the horrors of war transformed a confused ne’er-do-well into—briefly—a great journalist.