Willie & Joe: The WWII Years by Bill Mauldin



“The real war,” said Walt Whitman, “will never get in the books.” During World War II, the closest most Americans ever came to the “real war” was through the cartoons of Bill Mauldin, the most beloved enlisted man in the U.S. Army.

Here, for the first time, Fantagraphics Books brings together Mauldin’s complete works from 1940 through the end of the war. This collection of over 600 cartoons, most never before reprinted, is more than the record of a great artist: it is an essential chronicle of America’s citizen-soldiers from peace through war to victory.

Bill Mauldin knew war because he was in it. He had created his characters, Willie and Joe, at age 18, before Pearl Harbor, while training with the 45th Infantry Division and cartooning part-time for the camp newspaper. His brilliant send-ups of officers were pure infantry, and the men loved it.

After wading ashore with his division on the first of its four beach invasions in July 1943, Mauldin and his men changed — and Mauldin’s cartoons changed accordingly. Months of miserable weather, bad food, and tedium interrupted by the terror of intense bombing and artillery fire took its toll. By the year’s end, virtually every man in Mauldin’s original rifle company was killed, wounded, or captured.

The wrinkles in Willie and Joe’s uniforms deepened, the bristle on their faces grew, and the eyes — “too old for those young bodies,” as Mauldin put it — betrayed a weariness that would remain the entire war. With their heavy brush lines, detailed battlescapes, and pidgin of army slang and slum dialect, Mauldin’s cartoons and captions recreated on paper the fully realized world of the American combat soldier. Their dark, often insubordinate humor sparked controversy among army brass and incensed General George S. Patton, Jr.

This is the first of several volumes publishing the best of Bill Mauldin’s single panel strips from 1940 to 1991 (when he stopped drawing). His Willie & Joe cartoons will be presented in a deluxe, beautifully designed two-volume slipcased edition of over 600 pages. The series is edited by Todd DePastino, whose Mauldin scholarship will be on full display in a biography of the artist coming in February 2008 from W.W. Norton. Willie & Joe will contain an introduction and running commentary by DePastino, providing context for the drawings, pertinent biographical details of Mauldin’s life, and occasional background on specific cartoons (such as the ones that made Patton howl).


Born in 1921, Bill Mauldin squeezed several lifetimes into his 81 years. In addition to cartooning, he acted in Hollywood movies, ran for Congress, piloted airplanes, wrote several books and hundreds of articles, and won two Pulitzer Prizes, the first for his wartime cartoons. He died on January 22, 2003.


Todd DePastino is the author of Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America (2003). He also edited and introduced a lost classic, The Road by Jack London (2006). His biography of Mauldin, titled Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front, will be published by W.W. Norton in February 2008. He teaches history and writes in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


From a 1983 interview conducted by Richard Samuel West; reprinted with permission.

The war started in September of ’39 and I knew it was just a matter of time until we got involved. I joined the army partly out of craftiness; the brutal truth of the matter was that the Depression was still on and I knew I couldn’t make it out in Phoenix freelancing. I figured, what the hell, I’d get in before the draft and maybe find myself in a good spot. And the other consideration was that it was three meals a day and a pair of shoes. The pay was $21 a month. I joined up with the National Guard outfit in Phoenix. This was a unit in the 45th Division, which was mostly an Oklahoma National Guard outfit but it had little units scattered over four states. It was a quartermaster truck company and I had some friends in it and I thought, hell, I already knew how to drive a truck so I thought this might be the way to join the Army. I joined it in August or early September 1940 and about a week later we were in the Army. We were the first division to be called up, under what Roosevelt called the Limited National Emergency Act. At that time, as I recall, the Army had a total of 175,000 men and we were 25,000, so we brought the army up to 200,000.

You were fooling around with sketches of your comrades and…

You could say by this time I was a seasoned hustler of five years. I would do anything. For example, we had to letter our names on our fatigues and I would letter my friends’ names for two bits apiece and draw a little caricature above their name. And that was all right except that my outfit was a pretty sorry one. And I was a pretty brash kid, so I ended up doing a lot of KP and guard duty. My real break came when I learned that there was a division paper starting up because the Division G-2 officer was a lieutenant colonel named Harrison who was the managing editor at the Daily Oklahoman. I arranged for some of my stuff to accidentally on pupose fall into his hands. He phoned me up and said he would like to use me. I immediately envisioned getting out of that chicken-shit truck company where I was spending all my time doing latrine duty, guard duty, and KP and getting a nice cushy job at division headquarters. I thought, “This was where you were smart getting in early, Mauldin,” and I was congratulating myself. As it turned out, Harrison wasn’t transferring me up to headquarters at all. He said, “Stay down there where you’re getting material.” I said, “Listen, this is a chicken outfit and all I’m learning is how to clean toilets. I’d even rather be in infantry than down here.” So he took me up on it. The next morning I was transferred to a rifle company where I spent the next three years. Of course he did me a huge favor, although it didn’t seem like it at the time. He arranged for me to get Friday afternoons off to do my thing for the division paper. It was the best thing that could have happened to me. I had an outlet for my drawing and I was also having to soldier.

Did Willie & Joe start with the truck unit?

Not with the truck unit: the infantry unit. I was always kind of army-oriented because of the first cavalry division, which was then on horses, used to come up and maneuver in our mountains in the summer. To me as a little kid that was pretty glamorous stuff. I aspired to be a good infantry soldier. I was in a really proud infantry unit. Willie & Joe really started there. We had a lot of Indians and that is where the hooked nose character came from. Willie and Joe were these sort of laconic characters who’d walk along kicking mud off their shoes and soliloquizing about the whole situation. They reflected what I saw and the kids that I was with. I used them because they were handy to use. They were recognizable and I had learned early on that you need recognizable characters if you’re going to have any continuity in your work. My stuff in the division paper took on a bite early on. I got a lot of things off my chest. It made me feel better and obviously made a lot of other guys feel better. I was able to get away with it I think because this was a National Guard division and the brass were all civilians at heart — much more indulgent than regular army officers would have been. Anyone who was authoritarian-minded didn’t like what I did. But it was basically somewhat mischievous in tone, not destructive. I wasn’t trying to take the army apart; I was trying to reform it.


“More than anyone else, save only Ernie Pyle, he caught the trials and travails of the GI. For anyone who wants to know what it was like to be an infantryman in World War II, this is the place to start — and finish.” – Stephen Ambrose

“I think of Mauldin as one of the great anti-war artists, much like Goya. He took drawing up to a communicative level that I think is extraordinary.” – David Levine