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Comic Strip / Willie and Joe

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Willie (left), Joe (right).

A series of single-panel comics, created by Bill Mauldin, which humorously depicts the travails of the eponymous duo of front-line infantrymen as they slog through the foxholes of World War II Europe.

Originally created for the 45th Infantry Division's newspaper as Mauldin and his fellow grunts endured basic training stateside, the comic was picked up by Stars and Stripes after the division was sent to Italy. Its creator was eventually moved to full-time staff at the latter paper, and was given a Jeep to tour the front and make comics about his experiences. During its run, which was also syndicated by United Features to hundreds of newspapers back home, the series was both lauded and reviled for its unstinting depiction of actual life at the front, as opposed to the sanitized, rah-rah boosterism that was published in most official channels.

After the end of the war, the comics were collected in the best-selling memoir Up Front, and Mauldin became the youngest man in history to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize. He turned to political cartoons, but was forced by popular demand to return to the Willie and Joe characters, placing them back home and showing them trying to readjust to civilian life. From then on, the characters were occasionally revisited (as during the wars in Korea and Vietnam), and were even borrowed in 1998 by Charles M. Schulz, who used them in a Peanuts Veteran's Day strip that year. They even got a Shout-Out from the modern webcomic Delta Bravo Sierra, with a US Army platoon in Iraq (all of them anthropomorphic dogs) shown taking fire and counterattacking, and the next frame revealing Willie and Joe among the soldiers, grumbling that they've been in the Army too long because "I swear them dawgs a'barkin' orders now."

In 2008 Fantagraphics Books put out a two-volume work that attempted to definitively collect all of Mauldin's strips from the WWII era, but the originals were put out under such hectic conditions that some are probably lost forever.

Willie and Joe contains examples of:

  • Biting-the-Hand Humor: Military regulations were often parodied, particularly the insistence on spit-shine uniform cleanliness for front-line soldiers living in muddy foxholes.
    • Mauldin was called on the carpet by General Patton because soldiers were imitating his characters' undisciplined appearance—or more accurately, the appearance of the characters was a realistic depiction of what men living in muddy foxholes in a war zone were going to look like. This was right after a strip that openly mocked Patton's strict dress codenote . He was rescued by Dwight D. Eisenhower, who felt that the comics' effect on morale that it gave the troops a means to vent was more important. Besides, Ike thought it was Actually Pretty Funny!
  • Black Comedy: Some of the more insane realities of surviving on a battlefield come up often.
    • A particularly memorable example pops up after our heroes have just survived sprinting across open ground under machine gun fire. Gambling on other people lives? Heinous. Gambling on your own? Hilarious.
    Willie: "Looks like I made it. I owe ya another fifty bucks."
    Sergeant: "I need a couple guys what don't owe me no money fer a little routine patrol."
    • There's a grim but comedic cartoon that consists of an illustration of a landing craft headed for the beach during a night assault. The caption:
    Willie: "Try and say sumpin' funny, Joe."
  • Boot Camp Episode: The first three years of the strip, which Mauldin started in 1940.
  • British Stuffiness: Appears in full fig in a comic where a fastidious Tommy, busy cleaning his Lee-Enfield, snarks to Willie and Joe that "you blokes leave an awfully messy battlefield." This was Truth in Television, as America's ridiculous manufacturing base allowed US troops to expend war materiel at a rate that UK troops could merely envy.
  • Captain Obvious: A comic wherein Willie suggests that Joe might need a rest - because he's talking in his sleep(walking). note 
  • *Click* Hello: Joe, to a German soldier climbing over a barricade.
  • Combat Medic: Mauldin depicted the hardships of their work, especially in the rugged terrain of Italy, and brought attention to their low salaries:
    (To a Combat Medic, from the wounded man he's treating) Ya don't git combat pay 'cos ya don't fight!
  • Comically Missing the Point: "Nonsense, HQ reported that machine gun silenced hours ago. Stop wiggling your fingers at me!" An annoyed Willie is wiggling his fingers at the officer through holes in his helmet.
    • "I hate to run on a flat. Tears th' hell outta th' tires." The flat has been caused by incoming fire and the driver is remarking morosely to Willie and Joe, who are actively shooting back at the offending Germans as they all attempt to flee in the Jeep.
  • Cool Car: Jeeps pop up every now and again, with the soldiers love of the rugged little machines emphasized, for their speed in combat, all terrain utility and ability to run on almost anything. Almost.
    Soldier: (With a huge, smoking hole blown through the hood of his Jeep) "We shoulda drunk th' cognac and walked t' git th' gas."
  • Crossover: In 1998, Willie and Joe showed up one final time in a Peanuts Veterans' Day strip commenting on how short Snoopy (in his guise as a World War I soldier) was.
  • Deadpan Snarker: The only way Willie and Joe can even survive out there.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: During the boot-camp strips, Joe is a Native American who speaks broken English. By Bill's own admission, he accidentally switched Willie and Joe's names towards the end of boot-camp and decided to stick with it. In those same early strips, Willie lacks his distinctive high-bridged nose.
  • The Engineer: One of them has this to report from under a bridge he'd built: "Yessir, B Comp'ny broke another bridge-buildin' record. A kraut company is retreating across it!"
  • Everybody Smokes: The excessive amount of smoking in the cartoons is very much Truth in Television. Not only was it socially acceptable at the time, but US tobacco companies donated literal tons of cigarettes to the Army. Soldiers would still hoard smokes, though, memorably demonstrated in one (slightly) hyperbolic cartoon. Willie and Joe are charging up a beach during a landing and they need more ammunition. They both stop to inspect their bandoliers — which are supposed to contain spare Garand clips — and one announces, "That's th' problem. Mine's all fulla cigarettes too."
  • Friendly Enemy: German soldiers occasionally show up being good-natured about not getting shot at.
    • Mauldin followed the invasion of Italy, which was one of the most amicable fronts in the whole war. The Italians — not just civilians, but also soldiers — were by and large relieved to be "conquered" by the Americans, mainly because it got them out of the war. It also helped that there were a lot of Italian-American soldiers who spoke the language and often used the invasion as an excuse to catch up on old family connections. Mauldin memorialized this in a cartoon after Italy's official surrender where an Italian-American GI embraces a local and says, "Ey, you hear, Guisseppe, you ain't a enemy no more!"
    • One German patrolman catches Willie and Joe raiding an officer's stash of schnapps (right next to a sign declaring said schnapps verboten for enlisted men): "Nein, nein, I wouldn't dream of interfering!"
    • They'll even express some concern over the fates of their foes, such as when Joe is playing a harmonica in a trench and Willie notices something's off. "Krauts ain't followin' ya so good on Lily Marleen tonight... think maybe something happened to their tenor?"
    • One cartoon shows a squad of American soldiers having snuck up on a German tank crew who are busily sabotaging their Panzer before retreating. The commanding officer restrains one of his troops, saying, "No, no, it's a beautiful booby-trap ... it'd be a shame to spoil it."
    • Of course, wartime civility had its limits. One cartoon from late in the war shows Joe reclining in splendor on a fine German bed. All around him there are signs left by the German owners, begging the invaders (in superb English) to treat their home with respect. As Willie passes through the room, his pal mentions, "Be careful. Th' toilet's booby-trapped."
  • Funetik Aksent: All th' time. Rare is th' Willie n' Joe strip where evvy word is spelt exackly like it's s'pposed to.
  • Gosh Dang It to Heck!: The one thing Mauldin couldn't get away with depicting was profanity, which comes into incredibly sharp focus when Willie and Joe stumble across the horrific scene of the cruelty of the retreating Germans: they've trashed the local bar's booze stores.
    Joe: "Them rats! Them sore-headed, atrocity-committin', stinkin' Huns...!"
  • Hypocritical Humor: The caption to one comic describes the "fresh, spirited troops bringing in ragged, battle-weary prisoners". Both groups look equally tired and about to pass out on their feet.
  • It's All About Me: As noted throughout the page, Mauldin was following troops through the Italian campaign, which got heavily overshadowed later in the war. One comic has Willie reading a newspaper about the Normandy invasion to his buddy in an Italian foxhole, to which Joe snarkily replies:
    Th' hell this ain't the most important hole in the world; I'm in it.
  • Lethal Chef: Army rations take a lot of flak in the strip.
  • Les Collaborateurs: The butt of a joke during the liberation of France. A pair of women have had their heads shaved and are being wheeled through town wearing signs proclaiming them as "Collaboratrices". Joe takes the opportunity to snap some photos to remind his girlfriend to be faithful.
  • Mercy Kill: A cavalry sergeant shoots a Jeep with a broken axle while turning away and covering his eyes, much the way he might've treated a horse with a broken leg. Bill Mauldin had said this was his favorite cartoon and to his dejection, he never saw much agreement with that. (Though the comic did make it on the front cover of one edition of the collection Bill Maudlin's Army.) It was also recreated by Col. Potter in an episode of M*A*S*H where his jeep was run over by a tank.
  • Mildly Military: Essentially a real-life example. The front-line troops often became very lax about cleanliness/grooming regulations, as well as discipline, which wasn't surprising considering what passed for living conditions at the frontnote .
    • The classic (though slightly subtle) example is Willie and Joe playing cards with their CO, who looks as rough as they do, asking him "By the way sir, what wuz them changes you wuz going to make when you took over last month?"
    • Another comic showed Willie bodily carrying a wounded officer out of heavy fire. Justifying the rescue, the grunt said "Don't worry about it, Lieutenant, they mighta replaced you wit' one of them salutin' demons."
    • A semi-aversion comes from an anecdote Mauldin relays in Up Front. He had published a typical comic on Mildly Military themes, one where Willie and Joe were confronted by a by-the-books officer and the former said "He's right, Joe, when we ain't fightin', we oughta act like soldiers." Mauldin was tracked down by a similarly-earnest officer who completely missed the irony of the cartoon and wanted to turn it into a motivational poster. Mauldin let him have the original art, not daring to explain the realities of the work.
  • Military Moonshiner: A soldier busily adjusts a still, as an officer looks on. The officer comments:
    Hell of a way to waste time. *beat* Does it work?
  • Mirroring Factions: Whenever British, German or even Russian troops are depicted, they all have the same exhausted, scruffy bearded look that our protagonists do.
  • Mook: The comics focus squarely on the "dogfaces" of the army.
  • New Meat: New guys occasionally turn up at the front with strange attitudes, including one who complains that he's been in the Army two days and hasn't been shot at. The Army's system of "replacements" and the often short life of the poor souls brought in to fill out depleted units was also grimly mocked, such as Joe recommending a beefy recruit with duffel bags marked "A" and "B" as he's "...packed wit' vitamins."
  • Not What It Looks Like: Joe and Willie take cover from German bullets in the front doorway of an Italian bank. One of them comments on how suspicious they must look.
  • Only Six Faces: Possibly intentionally, the "dogfaces" infantrymen tend to look very similar to one other with their Perma-Stubble, even after some Art Evolution, while other sorts of characters are more liable to have distinguishing aspects to their appearance by contrast. The titular characters themselves can be difficult to distinguish from one another aside from their nose - Willie's the one with a larger and higher bridge to his nose.
    • The comic set in "th' town my Pappy told me about" features only two faces: Willie, and everyone else.
  • Perma-Stubble: The titular characters and many other frontline infantrymen as well. It's hard to find time to groom at the frontline. In fact, their full beards became such an iconic part of their faces that, following a rare visit to a barber for a proper shave, Willie remarks in mild shock, "My god, I'm naked."
  • The Pig-Pen:
    • It's a running theme and joke that being on the frontlines ensures you're not going to be able to keep very clean. Sometimes, even when you're trying to be.
    • As in real life, the soldiers in the cartoons often prioritize combat effectiveness over staying neat and tidy. In one strip, an officer brings a Jerrycan of water into Willie and Joe's foxhole under heavy fire. As he pours it, he says, "Drink it all, boys, the general what gave them orders about shaving ain't gonna be makin' no inspections today."
  • Pocket Protector: One cartoon shows a soldier writing to Margaret Mitchell, saying he'd been carrying "[your] big book, Gone with the Wind, under my shirt," while the book sits next to his foxhole with a gaping hole in the cover.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Mauldin dared to show what life was really like for front-line soldiers.
  • Religious Russian Roulette: Downplayed example here, with Joe asking a fellow soldier (A Moroccan goumier in Free French service, by the looks of things) if he knows any good Muslim prayers, ostensibly just in case.
  • Shot in the Ass: Two cartoons show sergeants trying to teach soldiers not to raise their rear while crawling to avoid this type of injury. One claps a helmet on that part of the body, saying that's where it'd do the most good. The other one goes down the line applying a spiked board.
  • Shown His Work: Mauldin was right there with the troops that he was depicting, and was meticulous in his attempts to get details right.
  • Social Engineering: All sides in WW2 used huge amounts of propaganda. Mauldin took aim at this in one cartoon that showed an exhausted artilleryman reloading his cannon and telling a compatriot, "Tell them propaganda boys the Krauts [Germans] ain't got time to read no pamphlets today."
  • Soldiers at the Rear:
    • A common target of dogface resentment, especially when they lay claim to quarters and amenities in liberated towns. Slightly closer to the front skulks a strange hybrid: "We call 'em garritroopers. They're too far forward t'wear ties, an' too far back t'get shot."
    • One cartoon shows a battle-hardened officer and his orderly driving up to a "liberated" town in their combat-wracked Jeep. They observe a signpost filled with delicate instructions for the behavior of US troops. The enlisted man says, "Hell, sir, let's just go back to th' front."
  • Southern-Fried Private: Willie (originally Joe) was described as "...a Chocktaw Indian with a hook nose and a smart mouth", which would peg him as hailing from somewhere between Georgia and Oklahoma.
  • Take That!: The strip was for, by, and about combat infantrymen. As such, it took shots at rear-echelon troops, officers whose sole qualification was a college degree in nothing related to the Army, and a memorable one against General Patton.
    • Another comic takes a swipe at Gen. Douglas Macarthur, for his perceived egotism and Glory Hound tendencies.
    "Eisenhower wuz a piker. He needed an army to help him."
  • Tank Goodness: Willie, glancing at a passing Sherman tank, observes he'd rather be infantry and dig in the mud, as "...a movin' foxhole attracts th' eye."
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: Underplayed, but it's there. A key comic is one where a captain drops by Willie and Joe's foxhole and tells them, effectively, "I'm counting on you hardened men to teach these new recruits we've got coming in." Joe is displaying a textbook Thousand-Yard Stare and is possibly drunk; Willie has just used his bayonet to cut out a row of paper dolls. The obvious conclusion is that Willie and Joe are far too traumatized to mentor younger soldiers.
  • True Companions: The dogfaces are always depicted as this.
    Willie: Joe, yesterday ya saved my life and I swore, I'd pay ya back. Here's my last pair of dry socks.note 
  • War Is Hell: It's also drudgery, mud, foraging for food... and booze... and smokes, mud, surviving an artillery barrage from time to time, and mud.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: Strongly averted. Comics with Allied troops are rare, but they invariably treat Allied soldiers as equally deserving of respect as the American dogfaces. When there is criticism, it is leveled at the Americans as much as their allies: One memorable comic shows a conference of Allied soldiers — scruffy fighting men distiguingishable only by their uniforms — in an Italian cafe. The American GI is upbraiding a British Tommy, telling him "You woulda lost this war if it wasn't for allies like Texas and Russia."