Opus 48:

1. Quick & Sloppy (2/21)

2. A Classic Front (2/21)

1. Quick & Sloppy. Operating with the conviction that in today’s high-speed, 24-seven news cycle, you can’t be both fast and thorough, we’ll opt for speed here, too, for once. Just to keep you abreast of the latest, so you won’t miss anything. (If I waited to tell you about some of these jems until I could formulate essays festooned with my customary erudition, none of these treasures would be around anymore. And if you act fast, most of these will still be on the shelves in your corner comic shop.)

DC’s archives program is movin’ apace. Volume 2 of Jack Cole’s Plastic Man is out with an introductory essay by comics historian Ron Goulart. And Volume 3 of Will Eisner’s The Spirit is likewise available—with an introduction by Tom Heintjes. The first starts off with reprinting Plastic Man No. 1 from the summer of 1943, and the first Police Comics story is from August 1943. By this time, Cole was starting to hit manic comedy pretty good, and sight gags were tumbling into the action. I’ve been critical (well—irate, actually) about the miserable quality of art reproduction in these archival tomes, all as a consequence of DC’s stubborn persistence in Theakstonizing old funnybook art instead of just shooting directly from those warmly yellowed pages. But this time out, the Plastic Man art looks pretty decent. Maybe Greg Theakston got better quality printing in the old comic books to start with this time. Who knows?

The Spirit book should be reprinting from Eisner’s vault of original art, I would think. But it doesn’t look like it. Looks like reconstructed art here and there. (And since Greg is credited for "additional reconstructed art" and Bill Blackbeard is thanked for providing source material, I must conclude that original art for this period, July 6 to December 28, 1941, is not available. Could be no original art from the pre-war period is.) The thing that helps the appearance here, however, is that the paper used is not glossy white but off-white, almost cream. That nearly duplicates the vaguely yellowed pages of old funnybooks, kimo sabe, and it cuts the glare off the colors, muting the over-all appearance. Much better. And the black line-art in some of the stories looks good enough to have been shot from originals even if it wasn’t.

A second collection of artwork from Mike Hoffman is out. Called Sorceress: The Mike Hoffman Sketchbook Volume 2 (from SQP, $14.95), it’s 72 pages long and has on all but a half-dozen of the pages a picture of one of Mike’s amply endowed females (either naked or nearly so) on every page and the inside front cover. An 8-page color section is inserted in the middle, but most of the art is pencil drawings, and reproduction is good. Hoffman’s the best Frazetta since Frazetta. And the bonus is that most of the drawings are somewhat humorous vignettes. Frazetta deployed an antic sense of humor in some of his minor pieces, but Hoffman goes for it throughout this collection, and it’s a treat as a result.

David Hahn has revived his 1994 heroine, Trudy Honeyvan, in Private Beach No. 1 from Slave Labor Graphics ($2.95). And his artwork shows the kind of improvement you’d expect after six years: nice, tightly rendered black-and-white pictures, clear and clean compositions. And he knows how to deploy the resources of the medium, too—dropping verbiage for at least one two-page sequence, and pacing events nicely. The narrative makes a couple grown-up statements about the mercilessness of nature, the arrogance of comic shop clerks, and mindlessness of ethnic-hyphenation (one of the lead players is a white woman who was born in South Africa, making her an "African American," right?). The opening page offers a nicely provocative metaphor that you have to see and read to appreciate. And there’s more coming: the men in black put in a one-panel appearance here, but Hahn promises they’ll be back in No. 2.

We’ve now gone about as far as it is possible to go in the depiction of male musculature. I thought we’d reached this consummation devoutly to be missed long ago, but Ed McGuinness on Superman has taken the tendency to new highs. It makes me wince in pain to observe the Man of Steel in the turgid condition he’s arrived at in Superman No. 166. How can he move with all that bulgy-ness weighing down his every limb? He looks for all the world like one of those toy creatures that carnival vendors make by blowing up balloons and then knotting them together. I’ve heard of "corded muscles" but "balloons"? And they all look ready to pop! McGuinness continues this swollen, distended rendition in Superman No. 167, part of the multi-title series in which Clark and Lois go back to Krypton (to find Superman’s roots, I suppose). All the women have manga round-eyes and all the men have lantern jaws that drop down to their clavicals. Suddenly, Superman is, indeed, a cartoon character—that is, an inspiration to laughter.

And speaking of swollen physiques, Roberto Flores does a good job of it with the women in Wildstorm’s Mostly Wanted series. Most of them, in addition to basketball bosoms, have long sinewy legs, wasp-waists, and steel buns. Lots of manga round-eyes here, too, but at least the men don’t all have huge chins. And the women actually look sort of athletic, despite the basketballs. Intriguing.

And that’s enough of the hot-off-the-stands stuff. Here’s just a strange item from the Happy Harv’s Odditorium: I ran across a novel entitled Buck Rogers: A Life in the Future by Martin Caidin, published in 1995 by TSR. It’s a regular 300-page text narrative by our old friend, Anthony "Buck" Rogers. And at the end, there’s a reprint of what I learned was a cereal giveaway—a little booklet with another, much shorter, text narrative of Buck’s adventures in the 25th Century, decorated by pictures from the comic strip. But nowhere in the book’s front matter or on the jacket does anyone even mention the comic strip, the thing that, undoubtedly, inspired the text narrative. That’s a little like doing a movie of Romeo and Juliet and forgetting to mention William Shakespeare in the credits.

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2. A Classic Front. At one time in our nation’s history, most American males under the age of 30 knew what life in military service was like because they’d been drafted into it, served their two- or three-year stint, and escaped. Most were eager to escape. And most were proud that they were eager to escape. Wanting to get out of the army was not regarded as evidence of frayed moral fiber. It was, instead, a ringing assertion of the independence of spirit that characterizes American life.

Nowadays, comparatively few American males under the age of 30 have put in any time on a military base. Few (if any) of us aforementioned escapees would fault any of them for this dereliction, which most of us would call, simply, a lucky break. Few of us would say that the current crop of Under-thirties is missing anything much as a result of this void in their lives.

Some of us, however, might say that while military regulations and guard duty and learning how to kill other people are not experiences vital to a life of happy usefulness, military experience does teach one something about how to live in a hierarchy. And that may not be a bad thing to know. Most human societies are arranged in hierarchies.

And maybe one of the reasons various aspects of our current society seem to malfunction on occasion is that the management of these affairs is passing from one generation to another, from a generation with military experience of a hierarchical nature to a generation without it whose sole organizational experience has been confined to college campuses which are structured around collegial rather than hierarchical principles. Collegial principles stress bonhomie and group dynamics and civility in the extreme. In collegial enterprises everyone gets the credit and no one gets the blame; in the military, there’s always someone to blame and only a few get the credit. These are vital distinctions that we have almost forgotten.

Today the only instruction most of us receive in the survival skills necessary for living in hierarchies we obtain by reading Beetle Bailey. But now, thanks to W.W. Norton & Company, we can re-visit a classic about military life.

The best book about war and life in an army was written by a cartoonist. Norton published a facsimile edition in 1995 at the 50th anniversary of the book’s initial publication; and that facsimile edition has now been freshly reprinted, this time with a new introduction.

The book is Up Front. Disguised somewhat as a collection of cartoons about World War II, it includes a healthy dose of text, too, by the cartoonist, Bill Mauldin, who was also a soldier in that war. It’s a book everyone ought to read. You will find out what a soldier’s life in wartime is like, and from that, you’ll quickly deduce the reasons that most of us were eager to escape from the embrace of the military.

You won’t learn from Mauldin everything you need to know to survive in a universe of hierarchies, but you’ll get a pretty good taste of the kind of maneuvering and posturing that is involved. And you’ll also see evidence of the anti-authoritarian spirit that will sustain you in your endeavor.

Born 1921, Mauldin was famous as an anti-authoritarian critic by the time he was twenty-four years old. He acquired his notoriety in the most authoritarian of societies, the U.S. Army during World War II: in the cartoons he drew for military newspapers, he depicted the life of the "dogface" (foot soldier) the way it was. Rained on and shot at and kept awake in trenches day and night, the combat soldier was wet, scared, dirty, and tired all the time; and Mauldin’s spokesmen—the scruffy, bristle-chinned, stoop-shouldered Willie and Joe in their wrinkled and torn uniforms—were taciturn but eloquent witnesses on behalf of the prosecuted. Through simple combat-weary inertia, they defied pointless army regulations and rituals: they would fight the war, but they wouldn’t keep their shoes polished. Their popularity was an affront to generally accepted notions of military propriety, but Mauldin never wavered even after General George S. Patton leaned on him.

"I knew these guys best," Mauldin said, "and [the cartoons] gave the typical soldier an outlet for his frustrations, a chance to blow off steam."

Published in Stars and Stripes and syndicated stateside as Up Front, the cartoons revealed just what sort of monotonous hell everyday war was and won Mauldin his first Pulitzer Prize in 1945.

That was the year the book Up Front was published, and it was No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list for 18 months. In the prose he wrote to accompany his cartoons, Mauldin talked about the inspiration for this cartoon and that. He also wrote about life in the military—his life and the lives of the soldiers he knew.

Some of his discourse is amusing in a sort of sardonic "ain’t life funny" way. He writes about the inequities inherent in the military hierarchy: officers have separate latrines which enlisted men can’t use, but if the officers’ latrine is further away and it’s raining, the officers feel no compunction about using the nearest enlisted men’s latrine. Medics didn’t get combat pay, but they were under fire as much as their rifle-toting comrades.

Reading Mauldin, you get a good sense of what combat soldiers live through, what they gripe about, and what makes them tick. You also find out what makes soldiers laugh. And you laugh, too, and then shake your head in wonderment if not disbelief.

This edition of the book sports an introduction by Stephen E. Ambrose, a noted author of books about World War II. Mostly, the introduction is a good preparation for appreciating the book; but Mauldin’s words and pictures are such a superlative introduction to military life in WWII that they really don’t need any introduction themselves.

Besides, Ambrose is wrong about one or two things. He seems to think that Mauldin was on the staff of the serviceman’s newspaper, Stars and Stripes, the whole time. But Mauldin’s initial cartooning was done for the 45th Division News; he didn’t join the S&S staff until 1944.

Ambrose reports that Mauldin considered killing off his dogface duo at the end of the war, but gave up the idea when the S&S editor told him he wouldn’t publish a cartoon about their deaths. (Incidentally, for trivia lovers: Mauldin switched the names of his odd couple midway through the war. At first, Joe was the hooknosed character, a Native American; and Willie was the straight man. The Native American ploy was undoubtedly an appeal to Mauldin’s own unit. Once he started cartooning, he requested transfer from the quartermaster corps he was in to an infantry unit which was more army-like. As a rifleman in the infantry, Mauldin was closer to the experiences most soldiers have. And the unit he found himself in, Company K, was composed of men from Oklahoma, many of them Indians.)

After the war, Ambrose says Willie and Joe disappeared. Actually, they didn’t.

Mauldin returned to civilian life a celebrity, and the syndicate that had been distributing his wartime cartoons wanted him to continue with cartoons about soldiers returning to civilian life. Under a succession of titles (Sweatin’ It Out, Willie and Joe, Bill Mauldin’s Cartoon), Willie and Joe shed their shabby uniforms and dressed in mufti. But they didn’t look very comfortable. Mauldin’s bold brushstrokes and trap-shadow shading, ideally suited to depicting the gritty life at the front, made his civilians look like bums. But that wasn’t all that was going awry.

Initially, the circulation of his cartoon doubled, but Mauldin soon found that his approach to cartooning wasn’t working: cartoons that were critical of post-war America, while taking essentially the same satirical stance as he’d taken in the service, were seen as "political" rather than "entertaining," and newspapers dropped his feature quickly, saying they had their own political cartoonist.

Mauldin dropped out, too, for about a decade, writing books, acting in movies, and running (once—unsuccessfully) for Congress. Then in 1958, he was invited to replace Daniel Fitzpatrick, the retiring political cartoonist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and suddenly, Mauldin’s liberal voice had a home again. Winning his second Pulitzer in 1959 and the NCS Reuben in 1961, Mauldin continued the battle he had begun in the army. "I’m against oppression," he said, "—by whomever."

After the failure of the post-war panel cartoon, Mauldin wrote a book about it—about the cartoon, about how difficult it was for soldiers to adjust to civilian life, about how baffled he was by his own failure to achieve success, about post-war social evils. Called Back Home, it’s another good book. And so is Mauldin’s book about his growing up in New Mexico, Sort of a Saga—illustrated by the author but with wash drawings not cartoons. And the cartoonist revisited this entire autobiographical landscape in The Brass Ring in 1971.

Eventually, Mauldin moved back to New Mexico where he grew up. He settled in Santa Fe, where, for amusement, he worked on old automobiles and a 1946 Willys Jeep, exactly the vehicle he toured Europe with while in the army. He retired in 1991 after he dropped a large car part on his drawing hand and has only recently recovered partial use of it.

Mauldin writes as well as he draws and has produced about fifteen books. But in Up Front, his first endeavor, he produced a classic of both prose and pictures ($24.95 in hardback; ISBN 0-393-05031-9). You don’t want to leave the 20th Century behind without reading it.

For a review of the rest of the 20th Century in cartooning, you could do worse than consult my books that trace the evolution of cartooning in its first American century: click here for The Art of the Funnies (an aesthetic history of newspaper comic strips) and click here for The Art of the Comic Book. Or, in a frenzy of fact-searching, click here for The Children of the Yellow Kid, a completely different sort of book about newspaper comics.

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