The 1947 Bantam Books edition. Artist: Bill Mauldin.


Original Medium: Newspaper cartoons
Published in: 45th Division News
First Appeared: 1940
Creator: Bill Mauldin
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Willie and Joe weren't super-soldiers, wielding a chattering machine gun in each hand, like Sgt. Rock or Sgt. Fury. Nor were they …

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… pathetic losers like Sad Sack, or screw-ups like Private Snafu. And they weren't over-the-top caricatures of the types found in military life, like many of the characters in Beetle Bailey, either. They were just ordinary guys, there because that's where they were, doing a job because that's the job they were doing — the Everyman of the World War II American army. Their characters were perhaps best illustrated in a caption to one of their cartoons: "Just give me the aspirin. I already got a Purple Heart."

Bill Mauldin was an 18-year-old "dogface" in the U.S. Army in 1940, when he created the classic pair. Between shooting and getting shot at, he found time to supply cartoons to the 45th Division News. Their fame spread throughout the service, and in 1944 he went to work as a full-time cartoonist for Stars & Stripes, where his daily one-panel glimpses into the lives of his disheveled protagonists were seen by combat men the world over.

Real-life soldiers loved Willie & Joe. But the characters' doings and observations sometimes made the brass uncomfortable because they reflected a front-line soldier's day-to-day life a little too accurately, with humor and affection but no sugar coating — the ambience was such that years later, Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts, expressed admiration for Mauldin's ability to depict mud. In addition, many officers thought the feature fostered an anti-authority, possibly mutinous attitude. General George Patton, for example, was an outspoken critic, and made no secret of the fact that he'd love to see Mauldin's cartoons suppressed.

Patton got the opposite of his wish. A 1944 article by Ernie Pyle brought Mauldin and his creations to the attention of the civilian press. United Feature Syndicate, which handled Li'l Abner, Gordo and other long-running strips, began syndicating his cartoons on the home front. He received his first Pulitzer Prize in 1945. That same year, Henry Holt & Co. (Rudy in Hollywood) issued the first of more than a dozen printings of Up Front, Mauldin's first book, which consisted of Willie & Joe cartoons accompanied by Mauldin's commentary on the realities of life in a war zone.

Willie & Joe survived the war, tho Mauldin later said he'd planned to kill them on the last day of it. Afterward, Mauldin went into editorial cartooning, and Willie & Joe were retired — almost. They appeared in two movies set in World War II, Up Front (1951), starring Tom Ewell and David Wayne, and Back at the Front, with Ewell reprising his role as Willie and Harvey Lembeck as Joe.

Also, on rare occasions, they've turned up in Mauldin's own postwar work, for example in his 1947 book, Back Home (which depicted them as civilians, a role they weren't well suited for). One of their last appearances was on Sunday, June 5, 1988, when Mauldin drew the final Steve Canyon installment as a memorial to the strip's creator, Milton Caniff.


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