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Bill Mauldin’s Ink-Slinging Transformation During WWII

I consider Bill Mauldin to be one of the most influential cartoonists of the 20th century, coming into WWII as a kid cartoonist and leaving the Mediterranean Theater as someone who changed the way cartoonists depicted war, mixing reality and black humor in profound ways that helped humanize his characters.  Mauldin’s work had a strong impact on the famed EC war comics, Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, as most of the EC artists were WWII vets and saw Mauldin’s cartoons throughout the war.  Jack Davis wrote of Mauldin’s influence in a letter to me, and you can see that influence on his story MUD, from Two-Fisted Tales #25, which was beautifully art directed by Harvey Kurtzman.  The story was a tale of soldiers, but it was also an homage to Mauldin’s depiction of the vile material that soldiers faced during WWII, especially during the rainy seasons.   The TV show M*A*S*H* was also influenced by Mauldin’s work, even though few of the actors were veterans.  So much of the black humor from the show was clearly derived from the humor and insights found in Mauldin’s Up Front.  The famous scene with Harry Morgan, depicting Col. Sherman Potter shooting his Jeep, was appropriated directly from one of Mauldin’s most famous Up Front cartoons.

Bill Mauldin was just 21 years old when he landed in the Mediterranean Theater, in July 1943.  Mauldin was with the 45th Infantry Division when they arrived in Sicily, Italy. He had been doing cartoons for the 45th Division News and was soon to start contributing to Stars and Stripes as well.  I have long been interested in Mauldin’s transformation as an artist, from one who wielded some good pen and ink, to an artist who found his visual voice rather quickly with brush and ink. I am presenting 10 different Mauldin cartoons here, covering a period of approximately six months, from late 1943 to mid-1944. It is rather breathtaking to see Mauldin’s transformation, as he matured as both a person and an artist.

Stars and Stripes, December 16, 1943

In this cartoon from December 16, 1943, Mauldin was not yet assigned to Stars and Stripes on a permanent basis, as he was still doing work for the 45th Division News, but you can see the initial development of characters as they start to take the shape that the public would become so familiar with. This cartoon is drawn entirely with pen and ink.  Mauldin was a competent pen and ink artist, creating a good sense of volume in his figures, as well as good textures in the uniforms and craggy forms.  You can see how Mauldin breaks down information into shapes. The folds in the clothing function a bit like folds, but in some ways give the impression of patterns.  There’s lots of hatching, scribbling and a bit of stippling in the helmets, adding texture to the surface.

This piece would have been done during Mauldin’s time in Sicily, which featured some fierce battles, especially the battle of Hill 335, otherwise known as “Bloody Ridge”. This cartoon takes a darkly humorous view of the situation. Mauldin did another drawing during this time that did not appear in either the 45th Division News or Stars and Stripes. “Bloody Ridge” (below) appeared Stateside in the Daily Oklahoman, as well as Mauldin’s self-published “Sicily Sketch Book”.

Scan of the original artwork, “Bloody Ridge”. Appeared in print on October 17, 1943.

“Bloody Ridge” predates the first cartoon by two months, but you can already see some differences in the approaches between the two. “Bloody Ridge” is a much more tactile drawing, with varying degrees of hatching and cross-hatching to create texture and volume. But even something as small as folds in the clothing are handled differently. You can begin to see Mauldin’s shape-based approach, but there is still a fair amount of fine hatching used to create those shadows.

Stars and Stripes, December 22, 1943

Appearing in the pages of Stars and Stripes on December 22, 1943, six days after the first cartoon in this post, Mauldin breaks out the brush for this panel featuring Willie and Joe.  Mauldin was no stranger to the brush, but at this point he was using it to lay down a fairly generic contour line, while blocking in the shadows as relatively flat shapes. You’ll note that the folds in the clothing function better as high contrast shapes, helping to create some movement in the drawing.  Likewise, Mauldin creates some nice contrast behind the figures with the dark spaces.  We do see some brush hatching in the rock formations and some pen stippling on the helmets, but the texture is kept to a minimum. This piece contains elements of Mauldin’s earlier, cartoonier work, as he is still finding his visual voice.

Stars and Stripes, January 1, 1944

In this first drawing of the New Year in 1944, and about a week after the previous image, Mauldin is using all brush, except on the helmet, where he creates the texture using a dip-pen. Rather than using the brush to convey the contour line and shadows, Mauldin incorporates a fair amount of dry-brush effect, not a technique he employed very often. The folds in the clothing, as before, are handled as fairly solid, organic triangular shapes. Because Mauldin hasn’t worked them around the figure in a cross-contour fashion, they read more like large wrinkles or waves in the fabric. Compare those folds to the hoof-prints, and you see something entirely different. The hoof-prints create depth and slight roundness in the earth, while the folds remain flatter.  The texture in the other landscape elements of the drawing are quite lively, especially Mauldin’s handling of the foliage. That tree almost has a Walt Kelly vibe to it, though it was published long before Kelly’s Pogo saw print.

Stars and Stripes, January 11, 1944

Ten days after the previous Up Front cartoon, published on January 11, 1944, you start to see a more confident and expressive brush line from Mauldin. This is a few weeks before Mauldin is permanently assigned to Stars and Stripes, though he has already been doing a fair amount of work for the publication. Noted illustrator Ed Vebell, who ran the Sicily office of Stars and Stripes, long claimed that he convinced Mauldin to work exclusively with a brush.  Maybe we’re starting to see Vebell’s encouragement pay off.  Mauldin employs a more active brush line in this piece, with lots of variation in the hatching, from scribbling on the tires, to some lush textures created on the wall and spaces. We can still the solidity in the folds on the clothing, but Mauldin is bringing in more curves and a bit more liveliness to those folds, especially in Joe’s arm at the right edge of the drawing. The folds have a nearly calligraphic feel to them.

Stars and Stripes, January 15, 1944.

Now we’re talking! At first glance this Up Front panel appears to be a rather quickly executed piece, but look at those brush lines! Instead of using flat black shapes to create the folds, Mauldin is starting to use the folds in a cross-contour sort of way, creating volume with fewer, more expressive means. The brush line has life to it, more along and around the figures.  Maybe the expressiveness in the drawing was partially borne out of deadline woes, needing to draw the piece more quickly, but Mauldin found something in this piece. He found a life and energy, which we barely glimpsed four days earlier.

I mentioned Jack Davis’ EC war story MUD in the opening paragraph. Look at that mud!  That glorious, filthy, stick-to-your-boots mud! Mauldin knew mud.  Here’s what he wrote about it in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Up Front”:

“Mud, for one, is a curse which seems to save itself for war. I’m sure Europe never got this muddy during peacetime. I’m equally sure that no mud in the world is so deep or sticky or wet as European mud. It doesn’t even have an honest color like ordinary mud.” Mauldin continued, “The worst thing about mud, outside of the fact that it keeps armies from advancing, is that it causes trench foot. There was a lot of it that first winter in Italy. The doggies found it difficult to keep their feet dry, and they had to stay in wet foxholes for days and weeks at a time. If they couldn’t stand the pain, they crawled out of their holes and stumbled and crawled (they couldn’t walk) down the mountains until they reached the aid station. Their shoes were cut off, and their feet swelled like balloons. Sometimes the feet had to be amputated. But most often the men had to make their agonized way back up the mountain and crawl into their holes again because there were no replacements and the line had to be held.”

To give you a sense of Bill Mauldin’s influence on Jack Davis, here is a panel detail from the story MUD, which appeared in the comic book Two-Fisted Tales #25, published by EC Comics in 1952:

Jack Davis, detail from the story MUD. Two-Fisted Tales #25

You can certainly see the similarities, from the ooey, gooey mud, to the heavily brushed cross-contour clothing folds.

Mauldin wrote about trying to capture the quality of the mud, by having to draw it from life. He said that it couldn’t be experienced in the studio.  Even Snoopy knew that Mauldin knew mud, as seen in this Peanuts daily from November 11, 1992:

As many know, Charles M. Schulz was a huge fan of Mauldin’s work, having seen it during WWII. Schulz paid tribute to Mauldin in many Veteran’s Day strips, but this one shows one of those small details that a former “dogface” would be all too familiar with.

Stars and Stripes, January 27, 1944

12 days later, Mauldin is really starting to hit his stride .  He’s allowing the brush to carve out that wonderful foreground space, as well as creating the rainy atmosphere.  You still get a small bit of pen work in the stippling on the helmets, but everything else is done with brush, and that brush line is adding wonderfully expressive energy to the work.

Stars and Stripes, February 6, 1944

A bit more than a week later and now check out these clothing folds!  Gone are the simple flat shapes laid in with solid black. Mauldin is now using brushwork to create shadows and mass that describe the human form in an almost sculptural and architectural way. Simply bringing a bit of white space into the folds gives them greater depth. It also allows the drawing to breathe a bit more.

When you look at Mauldin’s delineation of clothing folds, it’s hard not to make a comparison to Will Eisner’s approach with drawing of clothing.  It’s quite possible that Eisner picked up a thing or two from Mauldin during the war when it came to wielding a brush.

Will Eisner, The Spirit, November 19, 1946

The Eisner panel appeared almost three years after the previous Up Front cartoon. While there are differences in the handling of the brush, there are also some real similarities, especially when it comes to the creating of the shadows and folds. Eisner’s work might appear lusher, but part of that is due to the Film Noir approach he took in The Spirit, which added contrast to the forms and spaces.

Stars and Stripes, March 4, 1944

This Up Front panel from March 4, 1944 is a rather sparse drawing, but less is really more in this case.  Mauldin allows the brush work to focus on the figures, briefly setting up the foreground elements to develop the shallow space.  In the previous month’s drawing, you could see Mauldin’s quickly developing understanding of drapery.  In this piece, the clothing folds have so much life to them with relatively few means. The brush dances around the figures’ arms and legs in cross-contour fashion.  Check out the lower legs of the standing soldier in the background.  The density of the brush work creates legs that have so much volume to them, yet maintains a liveliness in the mark-making.

Stars and Stripes, March 31, 1944

Mauldin is having an absolute field day with brush and ink, slapping it and slathering it all over the drawing in this Up Front panel from March 31, 1944. You can see that he’s no long messing with stippling as a way of depicting the texture on the helmets, but he’s allowing the brush to show the weight of the helmet, foregoing a bit of texture in the process. That brush work now starts fitting in with the rest of the drawing, instead of feeling like a foreign element. You can also see how Mauldin loved drawing legs, with those wonderful cross-contour folds and lines.  The scribbled brush work in the lower half of the drawing adds volume and atmosphere to the piece. While comparing Mauldin’s work to that of the British sculptor Henry Moore is like comparing an apple to an orange, I do see some commonalities in the use of cross-contour line work to create volume. Moore had to give up his sculpture for a time during WWII, spending a good deal of time on his Shelter series of drawings, depicting British citizens taking shelter in the subways.

Henry Moore, Apprehensive Shelterers, 1942
Stars and Stripes, May 27, 1944

This is the final example I have as a demonstration of Bill Mauldin’s remarkable transformation. Appearing just six months after the first panel cartoon I showed, the differences are breathtaking. It’s classic Mauldin, with supreme confidence exuding from that brush. Every mark in this Up Front cartoon is vitally important to the image. And just look at how Mauldin varies the tones in such a seemingly easy manner. There is contrast, richness, volume, atmosphere and energy. And to paraphrase the cartoon’s caption, it is funny as hell. Six short months from competent to incredible. Not too bad for a kid cartoonist.

In my introduction to this piece, I wrote that I would be presenting 10 Mauldin cartoons that show the transformation of his drawing during WWII. But because there is no such thing as too many Bill Mauldin cartoons, I have some bonus images for you!

45th Division News, January 8, 1944

This piece is scanned from the original artwork in my collection. It is one of the final pieces Mauldin drew for the 45th Division News. At this point, he was drawing for both the 45th Division News and Stars and Stripes. He would go on to draw three more cartoons for 45th Division News before devoting himself full-time to Stars and Stripes. The piece is drawn entirely in pen and ink. You can see how Mauldin’s understanding of the figure is developing here.  Nice mass in the shadows and weight in the forms.  Even some of that wonderful cross-contour line work. Much more texture than we’ll see later on.

Stars and Stripes, August 21, 1944

Do I even need to explain my rationale here? This is brilliant stuff on so many levels, from the complexity of the perspective to the incredible brush work. And the gag is hilarious as well. A master cartoonist at the top of his game.

Stars and Stripes, July 3, 1944

This Up Front panel from July 3, 1944 is one of my favorite Mauldin panels. There is actually more black than white in the drawing, and the scene almost appears to be carved out of darkness using light. There are elements, such as Willie’s and Joe’s clothing, that have a woodblock print feel to them. It’s a powerfully executed piece, with that wonderfully dark humor of Mauldin’s.

In the first paragraph of this article, I made reference to M*A*S*H* and the impact of Bill Mauldin’s work on the long-running TV series. While the often dark humor of M*A*S*H* is certainly in line with Mauldin’s humor, there are more direct examples. In episode 4 of season 5, Frank Burns takes off in a tank, only to discover that he doesn’t know how to drive a tank. Mayhem ensues. As does the destruction of Col. Sherman Potter’s Jeep, which Potter puts out of its misery by shooting it with a pistol.

I apologize for the poor quality of the image, but surprisingly, there are few images of this scene online. What does this have to do with Bill Mauldin’s work? This scene in M*A*S*H* was an homage to one of Mauldin’s most famous cartoons:

Stars and Stripes, May 12, 1944

Anyone who watched M*A*S*H* remembers the character Father Francis Mulcahy, played by the wonderful William Christopher. There were a number of scenes in the series when Father Mulcahy would be in the middle of a religious service or saying a quick prayer, before being interrupted by the war. I have to imagine that the Up Front cartoon below was a reference for at least some of those scenes.

Stars and Stripes, April 29, 1944

Finally, one more original from my collection. This is a rare Up Front original in private hands, as the vast majority of Mauldin’s WWII originals remain in the collection of the The 45th Infantry Division Museum in Oklahoma City.

Stars and Stripes, February 17, 1945

This Up Front panel was original published in Stars and Stripes, and was later reprinted in Mauldin’s 1945 book, “This Damn Tree Leaks”. Todd DePastino, the noted Mauldin biographer, wrote about this cartoon: “After the invasion of Normandy, Italy became the “forgotten front”, as correspondents moved to France. The fighting in Italy remained fierce, nonetheless.”

I do hope you’ve enjoyed this brief look at Bill Mauldin’s transitional work during WWII. Until next time, be well.


If you’ve had a moment of déjà vu, this article has been massively edited and updated with new text and imagery from an old, defunct blog site of mine.

Rob Stolzer has been collecting original comic strip and cartoon artwork for over 40 years. He has written numerous articles for Hogan's Alley, the CFA-APA and other journals. Stolzer taught art at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point for 33 years, where he taught Art Seminar, Drawing, Figure Drawing, Graphic Narration, Illustration, and Painting courses.

3 Comments

  • howard johnson

    Excellent article, thanks. A rare and welcome “from the trenches” look at art making. I revist my father’s copy of up front regularly, he was a WWII vet and maudlin’s talent was only few things we agreed on. Also, I see a daumier to masereel to maudlin flow, do you?

    • Steve

      If you want to see Mauldin represented well in Hollywood, look into “The Story of G.I. Joe.”

      It’s based on Ernie Pyle’s time in North Africa and Italy, but there are a few different Mauldin jokes every fan will pick up immediately.

      And there’s mud, of course.

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