Author of biography of cartoonist Bill Mauldin interviewed

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Visitors to the site may remember my late January used bookstore discovery of Bill Mauldin’s 1944 World War II book, Up Front. That discovery ultimately led me to contact Todd DePastino, regarding both his latest work, a biography of Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front (which is to be released by W. W. Norton on February 25) and Mauldin’s Willie & Joe: The WWII Years (edited by DePastino and set to be released on March 24 by Fantagraphics). I can honestly say I enjoy every interview I do for this blog, but when DePastino’s replies hit my email in-box, I just sat and savored it for at least 15 minutes. After reading it once, I stood up from my computer and paced for a moment or two, that’s how engaging I found his responses. While it may be apparent that I had not gotten my hands on a copy of the biography before this interview, I have since been able to peruse an advance copy. As interesting as you (hopefully) will find this interview, it’s only a small aspect of the wealth of information that DePastino packs into the 320-page book. Before starting the interview, here’s DePastino’s official bio blurb: “Todd DePastino is the author of Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America and the general editor of the cartoon collection Willie & Joe: The WWII Years. He teaches at Waynesburg College and lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.” It seems only fitting that we also got a chance to discuss the upcoming Fantagraphics book, given that I first learned of Mauldin thanks to Dirk Deppey writing about him back in late 2002.

Tim O’Shea: This past January 22 marked five years since the passing of Mauldin. How long have you been working on his biography? Did you ever get an opportunity to interview Mauldin?

Todd DePastino: By the time I became fascinated enough with Mauldin that I couldn’t resist diving into research on him, he had already died. I began my research at the Library of Congress in the summer of 2003 and handed in my manuscript about three years later. Then came the edits and production. The book took three years to research and write.

O’Shea: Was this book done in cooperation with Mauldin’s family? I ask this mostly due to Charles Schulz family’s response to David Michaelis’ biography, Schulz and Peanuts. In that recent situation, they have taken issue with aspects of the bio, even though it was done with the family’s cooperation.

DePastino: The Mauldin family did cooperate with my work on the book, though they didn’t want to “authorize” or otherwise direct or control the book’s contents. In this, they very much adhered to the spirit of Mauldin’s life and work–uncensored and free thinking. Those I worked with most closely–four sons and Mauldin’s former wife–were all smart, talented, fascinating people in their own right, with their own well-considered interpretations of Bill Mauldin’s complicated life and character. I was shocked to learn how undaunted they were by the prospect of an honest depiction–”warts-and-all.” All they really demanded–and this was never stated outright but inferred by me–was a serious consideration of his art. They didn’t mind if I was critical of it. They just wanted a serious interpretation. They thought he deserved that. I sent them chapter drafts as completed them and received wonderful comments and helpful feedback. I did the same with several of Mauldin’s friends. Not one ever flinched at the more unsavory aspects of his character depicted.

O’Shea: How did you first become interested in Mauldin’s work?

DePastino: I was writing my first book on the history of homelessness (Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America), and was struck by how such a far-flung counterculture of homeless men (tramps and hoboes) which had held sway for some 75 years after the Civil War had disappeared during World War II. I mentioned this disappearance to a few people, and several (including a relative, an elderly combat veteran of the First Armored Division) exclaimed, “hoboes didn’t disappear! They went into the army. Just like Willie and Joe!” I confess I didn’t know Willie and Joe and had only dim knowledge of Bill Mauldin. So, I went to the library, pulled out a yellowed copy of Up Front, and was stunned by what I saw: fiercely sardonic and edgy cartoons, rendered in exquisite detail. The humor was fresh and the draftsmanship rough-hewn in a way that you could almost feel the mud sucking at the soles of the characters’ boots. Moreover, Mauldin’s work revealed a whole side to World War II with which I hadn’t been familiar: the everyday lives of army infantry combat soldiers, not men who had volunteered for elite units–the paratroopers, Marines, flyboys, and the like–but the drafted warriors from hard-scrabble backgrounds (you could tell that by the dialect) with no enthusiasm for the fight, nor reverence for authority.

Two questions immediately formed in my mind, the first rather ego-centric: How had I never heard of this guy? I was a Ph.D. in American cultural history! This was some of the most important popular art of twentieth-century America. How had I missed it? My second question was: how did these anti-establishment cartoons end up in Stars and Stripes, the official newspaper of the United States Army? These two questions drove me, and at first I thought I would write a scholarly article about Mauldin’s wartime work and career. But the more I learned about Mauldin–his adventurous and charismatic life, his befuddling character and improbable ups and down–the more fascinated I became with him. I kept looking for reasons NOT to write a book (that’s become a habit of mine to ensure that I only write books I really MUST write). Someone told me that people just don’t write biographies of cartoonists. Unfortunately (or fortunately), that only encouraged me further. Here was one of the most important artists of the twentieth century and no one had written his biography. I felt it important to get his story out and to satisfy my own fascination and curiosity....

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