Thursday, March 20, 2008

Quaffing root beer with Bill Mauldin

When I was a kid, I read and reread fifty-cent Fawcett paperback collections of Peanuts cartoons until they fell apart in my hands. My seven-year-old self didn't understand the cultural references that Schulz occasionally threw into the strip. I didn't know who Andrew Wyeth was, or Willie McCovey. But their mysterious specificity spoke deeply to me. It never occurred to me to wonder who they were. They were perfect as complete ciphers. To this day, nothing delights me more than unexplained jargon in entertainment -- highly particularized references that entirely fail to refer, a world where everyone understands the code except me.

One of those Peanuts references from my youth was Bill Mauldin, someone whom Snoopy was perpetually on the way to meet for a root beer. When I became interested in comics history, I developed a vague sense of who Bill Mauldin was -- a cartoonist whose iconic soldier characters had become emblematic of infantry life. But it wasn't until I read Todd DePastino's passionate biography of Mauldin, a youngster who became an unlikely voice of his generation, that I appreciated the complexities of the place he holds in history: a foot soldier who fled combat but guiltily applied himself to documenting its grim reality, a celebrity whose Depression-era boyhood left him unable to deal with wealth and success, an angry crusader whose scathing cartoons about Communist witch-hunting and Southern racial oppression were routinely eviscerated by many of the newspapers who belonged to his syndicate.

Fantagraphics is producing a collection of Bill Mauldin cartoons to coincide with W.W. Norton's publication of the biography. (My review of Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front appeared today on the A.V. Club site.) Together, they're an essential reminder of the complicated stories of the war and its aftermath, and a portrait of an unlikely hero who made himself such by rejecting heroic myths wholesale.

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