Willie & Joe: Back Home
by Bill Mauldin
Fantagraphics, 288 pages, $29.99
PS Magazine: The Best of Preventive Maintenance Monthly
by Will Eisner; Selected and with an overview by Eddie Campbell
Abrams, 272 pages, $21.95
There can arguably be no finer example of how to completely sabotage a successful career than what cartoonist Bill Mauldin did upon returning back to the United States at the close of World War II. The youngest person (he was 23) to win the Pulitzer Prize at that time, his gag cartoons, featuring dirty, worn-down, battle-hardened, embittered soldiers (most notably the pair known as Willie & Joe), which ran in Stars and Stripes and later in national newspapers, allowed soldiers to vicariously let off steam — someone out there knew what they were going through — and gave the citizens back home a look at the war that few media outlets at the time provided.
In 1945, Mauldin came home a celebrity and, as the new book, Willie & Joe: Back Home suggests (and the excellent introduction by Todd DePastino spells out), it was a role the contrarian Mauldin chafed at. Struggling to connect with a wife and child he barely know, disgusted at the way returning soldiers were treated by a public more happy about the end of rationing than interested in welcoming returning heroes, and inflamed by politicians and armchair generals who seemed more than happy to start another war, this time with Russia, Mauldin could barely hide his bile or confusion. The initial cartoons in this collection show Willie and Joe struggling to adjust to civilian life and usually failing, albeit not without letting out a sardonic quip. One cartoon, which seems to be drawn a bit too sharply from the artist’s life, shows Joe walking in on Willie as he’s lying on the floor, picture frame over his head and wife about to deliver the finishing blow with a lamp. “Come in, Joe,” Willie says, “I’m being rehabilitated.”
Eventually Willie and Joe faded into the background, however, as Mauldin started focusing more on other problems facing returning grunts — a housing shortage, trouble finding work — and then rather savagely (and rather bluntly) went after racists and right-wing extremists. This did not win him any new fans among a public that was increasingly growing more conservative and anti-communist, and many papers started dropping the strip or censoring it outright. Mauldin responded by doubling his attack, before ultimately retiring from cartooning altogether, at least for a little while.
The end result is a collection of cartoons that both read like the work of someone desperate to rage against perceived injustices as loudly as possible, but also seemingly desperate to demolish whatever status he has attained as quickly as possible. Few of the cartoons rank among Mauldin’s best work (although there certainly are gems), but it’s a fascinating book nevertheless.
Like Mauldin, Will Eisner attempted to shine a light on everyday military life and bring aid to the common private. The central differences were Eisner was: a) at the time of this work a civilian, contracted to produce comics for the Army; and b) he was more concerned with helping the private undertand what was going on with his equipment than with his head or heart, or government for that matter.
From 1951 to 1971, Eisner produced PS Magazine, a (sort of) monthly magazine designed to help soldiers better understand how to take care of their equipment. Preventive Maintenance Monthly, as it was also know, used comics to show and explain detailed information about intricate military rules and gear, furthering Eisner’s belief in the educational potential of the medium. Most of the series can be found online, but Campbell and Abrams have here assembled a “best of” book, highlighting a largely overlooked period of Eisner’s bibliography, in between The Spirit and A Contract With God.
Unfortunately, most of the work is deadly dull. No doubt soldiers of the day found strips like “How to Start a Stalled Engine” or “How to Keep Your Hydra-Matic Happy” to be both useful and entertaining, but as a modern, civilian reader — and one who’s primary interest in an automobile is whether it will get me to the store or not — I struggled to get through dialogue like, “In cold climates, particularly on M48 and A1 tanks .. some use Arctic covers or spread canvas on the topdeck grillwork and run the engine with cooling air intakes partially blocked!” If you can make it through sentences like that without getting sleepy, then you’re a better and more attentive reader than I.
Then there’s the issue of repetition. Most of these stories follow the basic same plot, with the emphasis on the need for constant maintenance repeated ad nauseum. In virtually each tale, a confused, dumb or lazy soldier — usually the buck-toothed Joe Dope — fails to take proper care of their vehicle or weapons only to face a stern talking-to the vivacious Connie Rodd (love that name by the way) who then lectures the poor dope on the proper method. That’s if they’re luck, by the way, since poor maintenance frequently leads to death or injury or a just plain bummed out time as well.
To his credit, Eisner and his company of helpers vary the set-up as much as possible, parodying Dragnet, Mickey Spillane novels and even classic comic strips at one point. But despite these efforts, the PS stories remain dry and too tech-oriented and exposition heavy to entertain. And although he revels in cartoonish caricature whenever possible (a trait the Army brass apparently did not appreciate as it was toned down as the years passed) Eisner shows little of the visual aplomb and acuity he demonstrated in The Spirit and his later graphic novels. Again, I have little doubt to the soldier of 1958, reading PS was infinitely preferable to perusing the technical manual or any other Army-issue material. But I also don’t doubt that given the choice, they’d rather see what Willie & Joe were up to.