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Thursday, May 26, 2022

First-hand war stories

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What was he trying to accomplish, “a bloody mutiny?” General Patton asked artist Bill Mauldin, whose cartoons appeared in the Army newspaper Stars and Stripes. Patton wasn’t just any guy, he was the leader of US troops during World War II and, in his bold and direct manner, embodied the American ideal of the soldier.

Mauldin’s response, if he can be trusted (he told this story himself), was strangely soft but firm: He only draws what he sees.

He didn’t let go. After the war, Mauldin became known outside the military through the publication of books of cartoons about him. In 1945 he received the Pulitzer Prize. However, Mauldin got his biggest posthumous fame from Charles M. Schulz, who had his character Snoopy in “Peanuts” drink root beer with Mauldin every year on Veterans Day (November 11). What did Mauldin see that bothered Patton, what impressed Schulz? In a word, authenticity.

Mauldin was called up in 1940 when he was 18 years old. A year later, the United States entered what became known as World War II, and Mauldin was sent to the European front. The cartoons he drew there under the title “Up Front” were mostly a deflation of the realities of everyday life for soldiers.

Mauldin’s soldiers were dirty, unshaven, rarely cynical, but always without illusions about their work, which involved a lot of mud, idleness, lack of the simplest, most everyday things like toothpaste, and, of course, a lot of death.

These are things that are now an integral part of all war movies and most war comics. Perhaps that is why Mauldin’s work seems so unspectacular to today’s readers.

Dragonfly bombers, armor made from old shoes

If you want to understand “Up Front” today, you must be aware of two things. That Mauldin broke a taboo with his realistic portrayal of war, at least in the comic book context. And that he and with him a whole generation of cartoonists, especially in the 1950s, did not simply draw what they saw. But that they had seen what they were drawing.

In the Trenches: A Bill Mauldin cartoon from the Stars and Stripes Army newspaper.Photo: promotion

Of course, there were depictions of war in the comics before Mauldin. Ham Fisher had his hapless adventurer duo “Mutt & Jeff” clowning on the front lines of World War I for a time while it was still in circulation: the strip, which is barely known today and in Europe, was the comic most successful of the 1910s In terms of content, it was as far removed from the actual war as the cartoonist himself.

And we owe it to Walt Disney, of all people, for the first reasonably realistic, at least exceptionally grim, portrayal of war in comics. In 1932 and 1932, author Earl Duvall and cartoonist Al Taliaferro, who would become a seminal Donald Duck cartoonist, recounted the Junkville Bugs’ war with the Flyburg flies in the “Silly Symphonies” comic strips produced by Disney Studios.

What sounds rather amusing in the short summary is surprisingly bitter when you look behind the nonsense of the strip’s constantly rhyming texts: The Flies, an obviously monarchical society with a king at the top, declare war on the democratic vermin because They need space to live. A battle ensues on all fronts, with dragonfly bombers, tanks made from old shoes, cannons made from beer bottles, and snipers.

That almost sounds cute. But this all-encompassing slaughter sequence spanned 22 weeks: “We’re lucky to be alive,” Bucky says crouching in a trench at one point. Duvall and Taliaferro even included a frontline map, adding to the realism of all-out war. Realistic yes, authentic no: Duvall was stationed in the United States during World War I, Taliaferro was still too young.

Along with Remarque and Kisch

Mauldin’s success, which protected him even from the wrath of the almighty Patton, was based on the simple logic that there are always more soldiers than generals in the army, and that these soldiers recognize themselves in unadorned representation.

Everyday Life as a Soldier: Another Bill Mauldin Cartoon.Photo: promotion

After the war, Mauldin’s role model founded a whole school of comic book artists who, when drawing about the war, always referred to it, even though and because they, like Mauldin, had been there themselves. The most impressive war comics by these artists, including Wallace Wood, Harvey Kurtzmann, Jack Davis and John Severin, were published between 1950 and 1955 as part of EC-Verlag’s “Two-Fisted Tales” and “Frontline Combat” series.

What has been published in these volumes is, to date, the most authentic and unadorned war narratives ever produced, on a par with Remarque’s “Nothing New in the West” and Kisch’s War Diaries. Not only, but also because, like Remarque, like Mauldin, they always focus on the simple soldier. Not only, but also for the graphic mastery of its cartoonists, to whom, unusually for the time, the publisher gave them total freedom.

Anyone who has seen Jack Davis’ depiction of soldiers battling rain and earth wants to take a shower right away. “Mud” is the appropriate name for one of these stories.

And not only, but also because of what Wood, Davis and the others have lived through. The stories in these pamphlets are not autobiographical. In one impressive multi-story sequence, the artists describe the battle for the Japanese homelands, in another the course of the US civil war versus being because they know what that means.

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To see that, it’s worth looking at the faces of these soldiers (if you can see them under the beard and dirt). There are gloomy faces, there are happy faces, there are fearful faces. However, above all they are individual faces. In these stories, which are almost never about generals, each soldier has an individuality, despite the great uniformity of uniform and rank.

Reconstruction instead of experience

There is not, which is quite revealing, not a single German edition of these comics in a country that, for one thing, does not get so tired of war documentaries that two television stations almost equip their entire program with them, but on the other hand. On the other hand, precisely with this individualization of the soldier, there has always been a problem.

The comics of these artists and a few others (Will Eisner should also be mentioned here, who, however, only worked through his 1990s war experiences, that is, a good forty years after the comics described here) differ in their experienced knowledge of later artists. . Which, as masterful as they are, like the great Tardis WW1 comics, are always based on reconstruction, not experience.

It is a great fortune for these cartoonists, and for us as readers, that they have been able to reconstruct the war so far from itself. You should read them. But anyone interested in the pure feeling of war and being a soldier can’t avoid EC-Verlag’s comics any more than Remarque.

This is, it must be emphasized, not a purely Western experience. When the Japanese mangaka Keiji Nakazawa, a survivor of the Hiroshima atomic bomb, set out to record his memories of the war, he submitted one of the first drafts (which, by the way, unlike his memoir “Barefoot through Hiroshima” published in the following years, it was also not available in German) the simple title “Ore wa mita”, in German: I saw it. And we, the readers, too.

EC’s war comics appear in a large American edition of Fantagraphics. Tardi is published in German by Edition Moderne. Bill Mauldin’s books are only available second hand. Stefan Pannor is a freelance author working on a book about the social dimensions of the Mickey Mouse comic strips of the 1930s and 1940s.


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