Two stories about the cartoonist Bill Mauldin haunt me.
After his death in early 2003, a fellow Chicago Sun-Times staffer related a favorite newsroom anecdote wherein Mauldin was roughed up by a tough friendly with the legendary Daley family. Mauldin's crime that specific Sunday afternoon was recording license plate numbers in an attempt to show how the Windy City's ruling elite got around things like basic traffic laws if and when it suited them. As the article put it: "What amazes me about that story was this: Mauldin had two Pulitzer Prizes. He had written best-selling books. He was well-to-do. He was 54 years old. Photographing license plates of double-parked cars was a job for the intern." And then words that stop the heart: "Mauldin did it because he hated the arrogance of power, the casual disregard for laws that we mortals must obey."
Another account of a more personal nature that surfaced after Mauldin's passing detailed how, at a certain point in a long and steady alcohol-related decline, the popular World War II-era icon could no longer stand to receive the thankful mail he still received every week, five decades after becoming a national figure of interest for his front-line "Willie and Joe" cartoons. The report said that for the last months he lived alone Mauldin allowed every package and unopened letter to sit in a spare bedroom with the lights off, unwanted guests in a home that with every lost day became a greater percentage of his entire world.
Bill Mauldin led a celebrity's life back when doing so had a grander and more specific meaning, a combination of accomplishments enjoyed and lives touched. He put together a series of achievements fueled by a natural-felt sympathy for the little guy. Mauldin survived the European Theatre and stood up to Patton; he acted in Hollywood movies and ran for Congress; he fought against romanticizing the War and for speaking plainly on issues of social justice, winning Pulitzers for both expressions of what he felt was right. They had an impromptu parade when he came to Chicago to ply his trade, and he's the only artist other than Charles Schulz to draw anything in Peanuts. And yet there was also the long and painful ending, the broken marriages in the time it took to get there, and stories about overdrinking that now seem less the legendary acts of a world-class raconteur and more psychologically telling of a weariness that defies easy understanding.
Bill Mauldin never quite fulfilled the promise of greatness that was thrust upon him by people like Ernie Pyle and the reporters of Time Magazine in the mid-1940s. But in the end it seemed he hewed pretty close to the truth as it ran across his line of sight, right and wrong as he felt it in his reporter's gut. Like his Willie and Joe cartoons, the truth about Bill Mauldin was caught up in the tired shoulders and plain talk of his characters, graceful nuances grounding the illustrator-era flourishes of his art. His best book remains UP FRONT, cartoons accompanied by unadorned running commentary that was also decades ahead of its time. It should remain in print forever.
Tom Spurgeon is a writer living in Silver City, New Mexico. He can be found online at The Comics Reporter.