Guest Post by Brian Cremins
“History should be understood and practiced as toys.”
Tony Trigilio, White Noise(2013)
I’ll begin by repeating the question I pose in my title: Is Bill Mauldin’s Back Home, a memoir first published in 1947, a graphic novel? After all, it contains words and pictures—or, as the original dust jacket describes it, “text & drawings” by one of Charles M. Schulz’s (and Snoopy’s) favorite cartoonists.
A year ago I found a copy of Mauldin’s first book, Up Front, at the Gallery Bookstore in Chicago. I’d been reading Ernie Pyle’s Here Is Your War and Brave Men, too, so I thought I’d learn as much from Mauldin’s cartoons as I’d learned from Pyle’s collections of newspaper articles. When I discovered a copy of the beautiful 2011 Fantagraphics edition of Willie & Joe: Back Home, edited by Mauldin biographer Todd DePastino (2011), I looked forward to reading the post-war strips not included in the original 1947 edition. But something was missing: the Fantagraphics collection, named for Mauldin’s two bedraggled infantrymen and their return to civilian life in the United States, contains the cartoonist’s “drawings,” but not the “text” of his memoir. The captions of each cartoon, of course, remain, but this new anthology is far different from the 1947 book titled Back Home.
While the 2011 edition is a book of cartoons—all of them beautifully rendered, many of them still funny, others as haunting today as they must have been in 1946 or 1947—the 1947 “text & drawings” memoir called Back Home is a more challenging text. I think it can be called a graphic novel, in the same way that I might describe Art Spiegelman’s Maus as a graphic novel, or Julie Doucet’s My New York Diary, or even W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz: none of these is a work of fiction, but each one contains a series of words and pictures designed to evoke, or to celebrate, or to memorialize the past. The 1947 Back Home is a graphic novel, not because it is a sequential narrative, but because, like these other texts, it is a book of ghosts.
In her discussion of Maus and Austerlitz in Chapter 1 of her 2012 book The Generation of Postmemory, Marianne Hirsch describes how drawings and photographs embody a sense of the past, both as it was lived and as it is remembered:
It seems to me that this may be the clearest articulation of what we fantasize and expect of surviving images from the past: that they have a memory of their own that they bring to us from the past; that that memory tells us something about ourselves, about what/how we and those who preceded us once were; that they carry not only information about the past but enable us to reach that emotional register. (Hirsch 52)
Is it possible for these “surviving images,” however, to “have a memory of their own that they bring us from the past”? And, if so, whose memories do they carry, and how might those memories speak to us in the present? A closer look at some of Mauldin’s drawings may help us to answer these questions.
Mauldin’s Up Front (1945), like Back Home, is a memoir, but the cartoonist’s first book is a record of his experiences during the war. Cartoons illustrate Mauldin’s text just as they do in the 1947 sequel. “Illustrations” is not the right word, however. I am looking for something else. The cartoons are more than footnotes, points in the narrative where the reader might pause and reflect. At times the words and the pictures work together. At other times, Mauldin’s drawings express what he is unable to say in his prose. Early in Up Front, for example, Mauldin reveals to readers his limitations as a writer:
I haven’t tried to picture this war in a big, broad-minded way. I’m not old enough to understand what it’s all about, and I’m not experienced enough to judge its failures and successes. My reactions are those of a young guy who has been exposed to some of it, and I try to put those reactions in my drawings. Since I’m a cartoonist, maybe I can be funny after the war, but nobody who has seen this war can be cute about it while it’s going on. (Mauldin, Up Front 7).
There are two cartoons on the pages where this passage appears: first, to the left on page 6, we see an image of Willie and Joe. They are carrying rifles. Behind them are shattered buildings. In the foreground of the image sits a cat, his back to us, as he stares at the two soldiers. The cartoon’s caption reads, “Them wuz his exack words—‘I envy th’ way you dogfaces git first pick o’ wimmen an’ likker in towns.’”
Here is a good example of Mauldin’s dry, observational humor for those readers not familiar with his work.
On page 7, Mauldin describes the nature of this humor, written not for you and me in 2013, but for these “dogfaces” and their families in 1944 and 1945: “The only way I can try to be a little funny,” Mauldin explains, “is to make something out of the humorous situations which come up even when you don’t think life can be any more miserable. It’s pretty heavy humor, and it doesn’t seem funny at all sometimes when you stop and think it over.”
The cartoon at the top of page 7 is easier to read and to understand. The laughter is more familiar, more present, not shadowed by the violence and catastrophe of the panel on page 6. “Ya won’t have any trouble pickin’ up our trail after th’ first five miles, Joe,” Willie says:
As Todd DePastino reminds readers in his introduction to the 2011 Fantagraphics collection, Mauldin’s Up Front was an immediate success, so much so that Henry Holt and Company “didn’t have enough war-rationed paper to meet demand” (DePastino viii). Despite his claims of not being “old enough to understand what it’s all about,” Mauldin created a series of cartoons that revealed the war and its complex, sometimes absurd, nature to his readers. After the war, Mauldin turned his eye to the social, political, and cultural changes that had taken place in the United States. As Mauldin fills the 1947 Back Home with critiques of American xenophobia and racism, the book reads like a catalogue of post-war trauma and paranoia: the poor treatment of veterans; the continued oppression of African Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans; the origins of the Red Scare.
Throughout the book, Mauldin mixes text and image in the same style as Up Front, but his second book feels more incomplete. The United States of the late 1940s was still taking shape when William Sloane Associates published Back Home. Of course, with 1947 almost 70 years in the past, contemporary readers can fill in the historical blanks Mauldin has left for us. But will reading this book bring us any closer to the lived experiences of those who survived the war and looked to fashion a new life for themselves and for their families at the dawn of the Cold War?
Back Home, Mauldin explains, is a book written as a message from his present to his future self: “I’m sure I’ll continue drawing about politics once in a while,” he writes in Back Home’s closing paragraph, “but I got my big burden off my chest by getting this book out. I don’t ask anybody to agree with me, nor do I hope to convince any readers of anything. I simply feel age creeping up; my bank account grows, my radical years are almost over. I want to stick this thing on the bookshelf as a reminder of my wild days so I can read it over and be a little more tolerant of the next generation of upstarts” (314-315). One last cartoon offers a possible ending:
“Zat’s just like parents,” says the little boy. “Zey always leave their messes for their kids to clean up.” He walks with his hands in his pockets. She, barefoot, carries a pail. Behind them are the ruins of a house, the skeletal timbers of its attic revealed, its walls marked with bullet holes. This time we don’t see a cat in the foreground. Instead, we see the cobwebbed remains of a tank, its barrel covered by a vine newly sprouted from the black soil. If there were another panel, a series of panels, maybe the children would slowly disappear from view.
Tony Trigilio’s new poetry collection White Noise includes a one-page, Heiner Müller-like play titled “SHE WAS PLEASED THAT NOTHING ODD HAPPENED TONIGHT.” We meet three characters: He, She, and Grandmother. The grandmother, as Trigilio explained last week during a reading from the book at Columbia College, gets all the best lines. “There’s nothing worth knowing or exploring,” says the character named She. Grandmother replies (responds?), “History should be understood and practiced as toys” (Trigilio 6). I listened to this play and I thought again about Bill Mauldin’s legacy and about the historical value of old comic books. What do they ask of us, and what might they teach us?
Graphic novels, at least ones like Maus, for example, employ a children’s form in order to salvage what Hirsch describes as those “surviving images” from the past. Only in the act of play, of improvisation and wonder, can we resurrect these otherwise lost and neglected historical fragments.
Is Back Home a graphic novel? Yes, I think so. I don’t know what else to call it. But read it for yourself. What do you think?
DePastino, Todd. “Willie & Joe Come Home” in Bill Mauldin, Willie & Joe: Back Home. Ed. Todd DePastino. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2011. vii–xix.
Hirsch, Marianne. The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust. New York: Columbia UP, 2012.
Mauldin, Bill. Back Home. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1947.
Mauldin, Bill. Up Front. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1945.
Trigilio, Tony. White Noise. Las Cruces & Jersey City: Apostrophe Books, 2013.