Mauldin's pen was his badge of courage

As Bill Mauldin lay dying in Newport Beach, Calif., old men who remembered how much his cartoons had meant to them made pilgrimages to the nursing home. On his medical records, he was just former Army Sgt. William Mauldin. But to the men who came bearing medals, photographs and clippings of cartoons they had saved for nearly 60 years, he was a hero, a man who had stood up to George S. Patton, for God's sake, and given voice to the ordinary foot soldier.

Perhaps the best feature of this first biography of Mauldin is that it's generously illustrated with Mauldin's wartime cartoons, which have lost none of their wry power. Mauldin was the visual equivalent of Ernie Pyle's war dispatches. His cartoons, featuring two GIs named Willie and Joe, emphasized the exhaustion and filth of the war -- Willie and Joe are usually unshaven and bedraggled -- and the ironic tension between the lofty verbiage of the brass and the gut-level reality of the foot soldiers.

Mauldin drew what he saw.

In later years, Mauldin believed that he should have killed Willie and Joe off, in order to be completely honest about the reality of war. In Mauldin's experience, preparation and training were almost useless; Whether you lived or died was usually a question of luck.

Mauldin was a product of the Southwest, a scrappy, slightly wild kid whose orphan father had been raised in a whorehouse. Mauldin got his early art training from a correspondence school in Cleveland.

Mauldin was always a hard worker, who immersed himself in every aspect of a new interest. He threw himself into his art with the same alacrity he would throw himself into piloting 20 years later, and he always wanted to be the best. (One of the main regrets of his life was never being able to sell a cartoon to The New Yorker.)

ROTC got him into the service, and most of Mauldin's most famous cartoons were done for either the 45th Division News, a newspaper that Mauldin and crew put out through the Sicilian and Italian campaigns, or Stars and Stripes. Mauldin's Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Up Front" was written in Grenoble, France, while he holed up in a hotel for a couple of weeks, stopping his writing only to eat and make love with an 18-year-old French girl he'd picked up.

World War II and a Pulitzer before you're 25 is a tough act to follow, and Mauldin didn't follow it.

He dribbled away the next 10 years. He gave a credible performance in John Huston's "The Red Badge of Courage" -- he and Huston had met and bonded during the Italian campaign. Mauldin had plenty of money from his books and cartoons, but he also had a wife who was alcoholic and given to bouts of depression (She later died in a car accident.) He wrote, he drew, and he even ran for Congress as a liberal Democrat in a heavily Republican district. He lost, but not by much.

Ultimately, Mauldin gave up his attempt at being a latter-day Mark Twain when he agreed to become the editorial cartoonist for the St. Louis Globe-Dispatch, later moving to the Chicago Tribune.

It's hard not to conclude that Mauldin peaked at 24, but it was quite a peak. "A Life Up Front" is far more of a professional biography than it is a personal one; given the achievement of those early years, maybe that's the way it should be.