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Drawing the Line

Chapter 7.
‘What’s So Funny?’

The Finding and Use of Soldier Cartoons from the World Wars as Historical Evidence

Jay Casey, University of Arkansas, Fort Smith

This chapter explores the manner in which the work of soldier cartoonists in the twentieth century reflected the military culture as well as the wider culture of the nations involved in the Second World War. It deals specifically with: soldier attitudes toward the conflict, conditions under which they lived and fought, perceptions of enemies and allies, adjustments to military hierarchy by millions of draftees, depictions of race and gender, the incidence of propaganda, and commentary on civilians and home fronts. The editors of military journals (such as Stars and Stripes, Yank, the Army Weekly, Union Jack, Maple Leaf, and CBI Roundup) sought out soldiers who could provide humorous features which would enable soldiers to vent the frustrations of army life in a non-destructive way through laughter, empathy or reflection. Along the way a surprising amount of editorial comment, in the form of social commentary regarding the circumstances of war, entered the visual record, and the manner in which cartoonists drew upon their immediate surroundings and experiences of combat and army life provides a remarkable insight into life during the Second World War.

Humour is not readily associated with the horrors of the two world wars of the twentieth century. But in the midst of these conflicts a select group of soldiers who worked as staff cartoonists for military publications created an enduring visual record of the wars in which they served. Producing work designed not for editorial comment but to entertain and amuse, these soldier cartoonists acted in a sense as visual correspondents, gathering material from the world in which they found themselves and, in the process, recording some of what soldiers thought about the course of war and their part in it. The images also provided what noted twentieth century civilian cartoonist Milton Caniff noted as a safety valve for the pent up emotions and frustrations of soldiers, allowing them to release anger regarding their circumstances in ways that would not hinder the war effort.1

As with all soldiers, these men went through ‘on the job training’. Their work evolved along with the duration of their service and, most significantly, with their proximity to the front. Not all soldier cartoonists were created equal. Levels of talent varied with the luck that goes with being at the right place at the right time providing opportunity for wartime notoriety at the drawing board. Those cartoonists who stand out from the hundreds of others who submitted their work to military newspapers during the First and Second World Wars embraced the luck of their assignments, augmenting their talent with an ability to gather material through a lens focused on empathy for their fellow man.

Largely forgotten now, this work deserves the attention of historians seeking to understand the attitudes of American soldiers in the First and Second World Wars. The visual record of wartime comics deserves to see the light again, not only for what the images tell us about a certain part of past but because much of it is still funny, if poignantly so. The work of soldier cartoonists presents a valuable area for research in that veiled social commentary, as opposed to more obvious forms of editorial comment, often informed their work.2 The intent was to deliver an escape from the realities they witnessed as a necessary part of gathering material for their cartoons. While humour remained the point, cartoonists familiar with the experiences of soldiers at the front often provided editorial comment in their attempts to recreate realistic scenarios.

Initially, the methodological approach to these visuals may seem straightforward since cartoon images revealed both individual and collective attitudes covering a wide array of wartime events during the twentieth century. The images offer commentary on their times and provide visual reinforcement for historians seeking a way to gauge soldier reactions to specific events. The links to broader issues are obvious for scholars familiar with the basic cultural and military history of the world wars. The methodological difficulty lies in recognising cultural references to given eras, assigning relevance to the materials, and finding images needed to support historical inquiry. Cartoon images often provide a trail leading back to larger issues relating to specific historical events and broader cultural attitudes. Researchers need to remind themselves not to dismiss clues that often seem buried in attempts at humour. Additionally, the researcher will often find that a deeper understanding of the cartoonist’s life and working experiences are fundamental to gathering meaning from their work and having that meaning serve as evidence for other types of history. Researchers can conceive of this approach as a biographical methodology in which a corollary between learning more about a particular cartoonist’s own life will inevitably lead to a greater understanding of the content of much of their work. Cartoonists frequently draw on material from their own experiences. With the variety of new experiences implicit in a military existence, especially during conflicts with the sweep of the two world wars of the twentieth century, the biographical approach is usually informed by the course of the war and events of both major and minor historical importance. One must link the cartoon images with what can be known regarding the history, each inform and enrich the other.

The biographical methodological approach allows historians to recognise that the work of the soldier cartoonist offers a way of getting at the experiences and attitudes of common soldiers through a medium with all of the visual power and immediacy of the comic strip. Such cartoonists served an audience, to be sure, but a singular one in that the audience was, in a sense, captive as were the artists themselves. However, it is worth remembering too that soldiers in the citizen armies of the United States, and other nations at war, often followed comic material in military publications as avidly as in civilian life. Appearing in publications designed to serve not simply an informational function, but also intended to underscore freedom of the press, soldier cartoons often succeeded in conveying more than laughs. The popularity of civilian comics during the first half of the twentieth century, particularly in the United States, guaranteed a ready audience once civilians entered the military.

The images are not as hard to find as one might imagine. But since methodology relies upon locating evidence, I will blend the discussion of approach with a bibliographic trail for finding visuals. Examples from the American experience take precedence, but contributions of significance from other sources share billing. The more popular soldier cartoonists saw their wartime works collected into volumes, often published and sold during the war, in part to raise money for the military newspapers on which they worked. Editors with the 45th Division News released several compilations of Bill Mauldin’s feature Up Front, with his characters Willie and Joe, as a way of subsidising the operating cost of that newspaper.3 Compilations were common throughout the world wars, British cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather and American Marine cartoonist Abian Wallgren, who worked on detached service from the Fifth Marines with The Stars and Stripes in Paris, published compilations during the First World War that sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Syndication and the publishing of compilations ensured that the work of Second World War soldier cartoonists such as Dave Breger’s Private Breger, later GI Joe, George Baker’s The Sad Sack, and Dick Wingert’s Hubert, remain available in many larger libraries or through loan. Dozens of soldier cartoon titles exist including the work of less known but significant artists from the wars. Online sources often offer compilations for a minimal price, providing researchers with excellent and original primary materials otherwise available only in special collections or archives. Works purchased online are often in better shape than those in archives, not having circulated.

When one relies upon primary documents such as wartime military newspapers – the certain repository for such images – microfilm, archival, and even on-line resources exist in abundance. Accessing material then becomes a matter of finding the location and format of desired images. Since comics generally appeared in predictable places in given publications, whether military or civilian, editors planned pages around the space necessary to place cartoons or comic strips. This ‘must go’ material literally dictated the layout of the editorial, or textual, segments of soldier publications. Such editorial emphasis underscored the importance of the images then and now. For example, The Wally Comic Strip, produced by Abian Wallgren for the First World War Stars and Stripes, usually appeared across the top of page 7 in each issue. In the Second World War, editors with the American military serial Yank, the Army Weekly, ran cartoons on the back page of each issue in several worldwide editions. Researchers will also find cartoons and illustrated features placed throughout Yank. Methodologically, predictable placement cuts down on the amount of time researchers might spend seeking relevant images.

Concerning content and its use, material found in soldier cartoons generally followed a pattern based on categories that followed the course of individual involvement with the military. A corollary to this paradigm is the selection of material by cartoonists that follows not only the daily course of conflict, and soldier adaptation, but also focuses on significant historical events.

The life and experiences of those in uniform is of course the focus of military comics. Within that venue, common themes are located. Hundreds of examples of soldier cartoons focusing on such categories as military bureaucracy, rank, food, technology, and even portrayals of gender and race relations exist in wartime military publications, compilations, and the civilian press.

It is instructive to evaluate some of the ways individual cartoonists in uniform selected material that falls into predictable categories. A brief understanding of the circumstances of the cartoonists themselves often reveals significant elements relating to outlook, technique, and the selection of materials. Biographical entries are typically located in the preface to wartime cartoon compilations. Period feature articles focusing on individual cartoonists frequently appeared in both the military and civilian press.

The story of American soldier cartoonist begins with Abian Wallgren, a marine serving on detached service with The Stars and Stripes in Paris during the First World War. Guy T. Viskniski, the officer responsible for founding the First World War Stripes, located Wally, as he was known to the doughboys of the American Expeditionary Force, in the brig of the Fifth Marines at Damblaine, France. In an era of hard-drinking newsmen, Wally was something of a prodigy. Despite promises of good behaviour if the lieutenant would only get him out, Wallgren cultivated an irreverent AWOL attitude toward authority. He pushed up against deadlines to the everlasting frustration of the editors of The Stars and Stripes who, nevertheless, considered his Wally Comic Strip an indispensable part of each issue.4

At their initial meeting, Viskniski asked Wallgren to stay away from controversial subjects. The editor charged him with creating a military comic strip something on the order of Bud Fisher’s then-popular Mutt and Jeff civilian feature.5 Viskniski’s orders elicited a honeymoon period during which Wallgren dutifully reproduced German characters in situations straight from Dutch cartoonist Louis Raemaeker’s stock of now largely discredited atrocity images. The work comes off as something Wallgren was obliged to do. He included one panel with Mutt and Jeff-like characters then, the proprieties met, he returned to his own method.

Because of the duration of American involvement in the First World War, including six months of combat, Wally’s work did not evolve to the extent of that of noted British cartoonist Bill Bairnsfather. Bairnfather, and Australians Frank Dunne and Cecil Hartt, the latter two focusing on the ‘Digger’ humour of the First World War, created cartoons that traded in war’s brutality and insanity. The development of such realistic comic images is a function of the duration of the war for soldiers serving the British Empire.

Wallgren created images common enough to the soldier cartoon genre – the vagaries of camp life, training, and living with military discipline (Figure 7.1) – and the cataloguing of dozens of other aggravations and discomforts. However, near the end of the fighting on the Western Front, by which time hundreds of thousands of doughboys had experienced war firsthand, Wallgren’s work exhibited elements which gave it its greatest value as a visual chronicle of the doughboy experience.

Still adhering to slapstick, Vaudeville-like delivery, Wallgren introduced social commentary into his work (Figure 7.2). Visiting the front enabled Wally to gather materials for comics focusing on topics as close to the action as shell shock. Though couched in the familiar style it was dark humour. In a real sense these images are the only comments Wallgren made of his visits. A revealing facet of his character remained his refusal to romanticise the war or play up in any way his contribution. He often travelled to the front in search of material, asserting later in life that ‘much of it wasn’t funny’.6 Published in an October 1918 edition of The Stars and Stripes, ‘Shelling is Shocking’, and ‘Bomb, Shell and Shrapnel’, exhibit the limits of evolution toward a starker reality for the Wally Comic Strip. Happily, the Americans escaped the sense that the war would never end that struck both allied and Central Powers alike. Undoubtedly the material Wally selected for his comic would have exhibited the hard-edged resignation and grim humour found in the works of Bairnsfather, Dunne and Hartt with a longer United States combat commitment.

With the armistice Wallgren turned to the predictable themes played upon the long wait for the return home. The editors of The Stars and Stripes re-issued some of his wartime comics, but most of the material focused on issues current with the AEF after the armistice, such as the establishment of a soldier’s university designed to give those waiting to return home something constructive to do with their time. The Wally Comic Strip also included flights of comic fancy, as in ‘Just Think of the Lads in Siberia’, where Wallgren encouraged his fans to imagine conditions for doughboys in Russia as a way of reminding to consider whether they had a right to complain about extended post war duty in France or Germany.7 Wallgren’s own association with drawing cartoons for soldiers and those who had once served was only beginning. The war that gave him immense popularity, with more than half a million of his collected wartime cartoons selling in France, locked him into the genre for the rest of his career.

Wallgren returned home and, in the early 1920s served a stint as the staff cartoonist for the short-lived Home Sector, an unsuccessful attempt to keep the popularity of the wartime Stars and Stripes going back in the States. From there he provided cartoons for the emerging American Legion Weekly, later a monthly publication, providing features for a magazine designed to serve an audience of First World War veterans. He augmented this steady work with freelance contracts but returned again to military-themed comic features during the 1930s with his work for camp publications serving the Depression Era Civilian Conservation Corps. He also launched his last commercially-successful comic strip Hoosegow Herman. Both Happy Days of the CCC and Hoosegow Herman featured characters in uniform. Content in Hoosegow Herman demonstrated Wallgren’s semi-official status with the United States government. Though a civilian cartoonist, he often included material in Hoosegow Herman handed down from the United States military as in a 1939 set of panels in which, through Herman, soldiers who followed the feature were reminded of the proper wearing of their uniforms.

Figure 7.1: Abian Wallgren, The Stars and Stripes, 1918.

Courtesy Stars and Stripes, 1918

Figure 7.2: Abian Wallgren, ‘Shelling is Shocking’, The Stars and Stripes, 1918.

Courtesy Stars and Stripes, 1918.

Through the 1930s and 1940s Wally remained loyal to his fan base, the doughboys of the First World War, attending veteran’s meetings and never failing to pen pro-bono logos or mascots for Legion Posts who requested his services. The interwar volumes Squads Write! and 1933’s The AEF in Cartoon kept his work before the public gaze.8 His private papers, photographs, and professional scrapbooks are preserved the United States Military History Institute at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and in the Philadelphia Historical Society collection.

A geographical search of a cartoonist’s known location at death is usually helpful in finding background information that can provide essential context to an artist’s work, though researchers do well to remember the truism that fame is fleeting. With a few exceptions, when an artist’s life ends, a clear path to originals of his/her works, and the permission to use them, is rare. Picking up that path includes the type of detective work necessary to recreate history. Abian Wallgren died in 1948. As a marker for his career, tucked away in a scrapbook at the Philadelphia Historical Society is the cut out of an early Wallgren comic, contemporary to his first successful commercial feature Sinbad the Sailor, pasted in without comment and titled ‘He Just Had to Be a Soldier’.9

In all the long years after the guns fell silent in November 1918, Abian Wallgren never left behind the genre that provided him with an astounding but ephemeral fame – linked to the generation he served through laughter – fame summed up in a letter of condolence to his wife upon his death in 1948. ‘He was the Bairnsfather of the American Army’, the veteran wrote, ‘everyone in the Army loved him’.10

Wallgren’s work is available in three sources. The primary source is the collected First World War Stars and Stripes, available in scattered archives and special collections and in digital format online. Good secondary sources include the aforementioned The AEF in Cartoon and the First World War Stars and Stripes retrospective Squads Write!

Bruce Bairnsfather work from the First World War is accessible through wartime and post war reprints of Fragments from France compilations.11 Though focused on his central characters, Bairnsfather also spent time with Italian and American troops, drawing cartoons concerned with British attitudes toward allied powers. For a primary and chronological look at Bairnsfather’s work as it appeared in print, London’s weekly Bystander is the source. His work is also available in Fragments compilations released during the First World War and in works such as 1927’s Carry on Sergeant. He continued to draw soldier cartoons through the Second World War, but never again achieved his First World War notoriety.

Frank Dunne’s ‘Digger’ characters appeared first in Smith’s Weekly, later collected in 1931’s Digger Days: Laughing Through the Great War. Cecile Hart, also of Smith’s Weekly, published two wartime collections, 1917’s Humorosities, in London during 1917, and Diggerettes, published in Sydney during 1919.12

American involvement in the Second World War saw many of the same dynamics as the conflict fought a generation earlier. Millions of young men found themselves at least temporarily in the role of soldiers. Again the military developed publications suited to the needs of an immense citizen army. Soldier cartoonists served a necessary function, creating comic strips on the civilian model but with a marshal theme. Dozens of artists filled the ranks of soldier cartoonists but a few rose above to comprise an elite cadre. Dick Wingert’s Hubert, George Baker’s The Sad Sack and Bill Mauldin’s feature Up Front, were the most popular comic features in the American soldier press. Because of the length of United States involvement in the Second World War, during which their work evolved, and considering the particular ways in which their material resonated with soldiers, each achieved a celebrity that gave these cartoonists greater freedom in the types of images created.

Given the significant number of soldier cartoons produced in the Second World War, it is easy to lose sight of the enormous popularity of the work of Wingert, Baker and Mauldin in particular. Produced first in London and later in Western Europe, Hubert became the favourite cartoon feature of troops fighting in that theatre.13 With his syndication through Yank, the Army Weekly, a publication that pioneered worldwide circulation techniques for magazines, George Baker’s The Sad Sack evolved into a type of every soldier’s ne’er-do-well. Mauldin’s characters Willie and Joe worked their way up the boot of Italy, in time transferring along with their creator from the 45th Division News and the Italian front to serve as comic icons of the American GI in the European theatre.

What set the content of these features apart was the inclusion of material that, from a purely military point of view, had no place in publications designed to support a war effort. Why were these men allowed to subvert the visual etiquette applied so rigidly with other editorial decisions? Part of the answer lies in their popularity, the existence of which is in itself instructive. Hubert, Sad Sack, and Up Front’s Willie and Joe each served the purpose of helping soldiers blow off steam but they did so by accurately portraying the attitudes GIs held about the circumstances of war in which they found themselves. As an audience, the soldiers recognised themselves in these comic characterisations. For their part, American military commanders, going as far up as European Supreme Allied Commander Eisenhower, consented to the routine criticisms and less than stellar portrayals of conditions as a price worth paying for the moral value implicit in the images.

Not content to sit on their laurels, Wingert, Baker and Mauldin each employed a method of gathering material that included an almost unending cycle of travel. They are the prototypical cartoon correspondents of the American military experience in the Second World War. Mauldin in particular logged tens of thousands of miles in a jeep equipped with a locker for his baggage and drawing materials.14

General George Patton’s injunction against Mauldin’s characters as looking like ‘goddamn bums’ whose appearance in The Stars and Stripes contravened military decorum is applicable to Hubert, a sloppy character based on Wingert’s own slovenly roommate in London. Baker’s Sad Sack – which every GI understood as a shortening of the common Army expression ‘sad sack of shit’ – focused on a soldier who, as the name implies, never wins out in the end. Main characters in each high profile feature fit this visual paradigm.

Patton had a point but missed the larger issue of these characterisations accurately reflecting the ways that soldiers at the front actually looked. Such portrayals created immediate empathy between artist and audience, telling in few words or none at all that the cartoonists were familiar with the circumstances of the average GI. Through this communication Wingert, Baker and Mauldin gained a sort of entry into the brotherhood of the soldiers – not exactly sharing hardships to the same depth as soldiers at the front, but gaining the credibility to comment upon their existence. Therein lay their popularity.

Focusing on Wingert, Baker and Mauldin provides an easy reference point for distinguishing between the types of images created by this triumvirate and their accomplished but less familiar colleagues. Since locating images is key to the methodology, the availability of images from still extant post war publications also recommends these cartoonists to the researcher seeking supporting visuals.

In their most evolved form, the cartoon characters produced by Wingert, Baker and Mauldin represent a protest against the insanity of war through the appearance of their characters – bedraggled and resigned.

Figure 7.3: Bill Mauldin, News Item, The Stars and Stripes, 1945.

© 1943 by Bill Mauldin. Courtesy of the Bill Mauldin Estate LLC.

Bill Mauldin remains the pre-eminent soldier cartoonist of the Second World War (Figure 7.3). His ‘take’ on the war and, in particular, the front line infantry’s perception of the conflict define the American visual genre of the cartoon GI.15 Mauldin is also useful as a source of images, and the sometimes-hard-to-find background information necessary to better understand the method of the cartoonist. Though lauded as an accomplished post war civilian editorial cartoonist, winning a second Pulitzer in 1958, Mauldin’s core audience continued to define him in relation to his work during the Second World War.16 He turned his wartime experiences and images into something of a industry. Autobiographical works, reissues, compilations, and Mauldin’s own skill as a writer and cartoonist for civilian publications, kept him before an enormous public of millions of American veterans.

Figure 7.4: Dick Wingert, Hubert, The Stars and Stripes, 1944.

© King Features Syndicate.

Figure 7.5: Dick Wingert, Hubert, The Stars and Stripes, 1944.

© King Features Syndicate.

The 45th Division News, and Stars and Stripes editions in the Mediterranean and Western Europe are primary sources for Mauldin’s wartime cartoons, including many that do not appear in any other venue. Up Front and Bill Mauldin’s Army are the most accessible secondary works.17 In 1945 alone Mauldin earned more than a half million dollars from the sale of Up Front. The work is a rarity among cartoon compilations since an autobiographical account of Mauldin’s wartime experiences wraps around reprints of his Up Front feature that first appeared in various military newspapers. Bill Mauldin’s Army contains the most examples of Mauldin’s wartime work, though the artist criticised the publisher for grouping his cartoons by subject rather than chronologically.18 Researchers using Bill Mauldin’s Army can overcome the publisher’s grouping by correlating images with the course of the war. The categorisation method is useful in consulting this work and the placement of the images resolves offers an interesting view of the visual evolution of Mauldin’s technique. Willie and Joe: The World War II Years, released through Fantagraphics in April 2008, takes some of the guesswork out of the wartime evolution of Mauldin’s soldier cartoons. Indeed, the collection begins well before Mauldin ever donned a uniform, including pre-war images drawn in high school and for Arizona Highways. Todd DePastino edited the collection, providing context and background information on a number of drawings in the sixhundred page collection. DePastino’s biography Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front, released through W.W. Norton in 2008, fills in many of the omissions Mauldin left in the record of his work while providing fresh insights into the professional and personal life of the artist. DePastino’s work will stand as an example to historians seeking to inform biography with cartoons. Many of Mauldin’s original drawings and documents relating to his career are housed in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. and with the 45 Division Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The Bill Mauldin Estate LLC serves as the gatekeeper for use of the late cartoonist’s work.

In Hubert, Dick Wingert peppered his comics with images of dead and twisted German soldiers, ruined towns, and exhausted GIs – his characters opining that ‘they regretted that they had but one life to live for their country since they’d kind of like another one to get home on’ (figures 7.4 & 7.5).19 Baker’s The Sad Sack remained as much a victim of the United States military as of the enemy, whether situated in material focusing on the ETO or the Pacific Theater. As the perennial loser, the Sad Sack seemed, in fact, to enjoy greater respect at the hands of the conquered (Figure 7.6). He also reminded his audience that the soldiers who suffered the most were the ones he had seen at the front (Figure 7.7).

Figure 7.6. George Baker, ‘The Enemy’, Yank, the Army Weekly, 1944.

Used with permission from Stars and Stripes, © 1944–1945, 2008 Stars and Stripes.

Figure 7.7: George Baker, ‘Deplorable Conditions’, Yank, the Army Weekly, 1944.

Used with permission from Stars and Stripes, © 1944–1945, 2008 Stars and Stripes.

Mauldin’s war-weary characters, based on the front line infantry he admired, remain iconic of the combat GI in the Second World War: every line a protest against the insanity of war from a cartoonist who claimed he’d tried to stay away from editorialising while in the Army. He succeeded in instilling his cartoons with what he referred to as the presence of death just outside of the panel, unseen but recognisable to the initiated (Figure 7.8).20 Post-war, Dick Wingert converted Hubert into a civilian and feature that continued for several decades as a comic fixture in American newspapers. George Baker, the former Disney animator, parlayed The Sad Sack into an industry through the early 1970s and is remembered by millions of fans of comic books featuring his character. Mauldin brought Up Front’s Willie and Joe home and, resisting an urge, in his last wartime cartoon, to kill the geese with golden eggs, returned the characters to civilian life. The gambit failed and Mauldin went on to a noted career as the editorial cartoonist he had always been.

Many soldier cartoonists shared the fate of all soldiers who go to war: the inability, ultimately, to shape a life independent of the wartime experience, the guilt of having survived when others did not. The feeling, as Mauldin put it, that they had garnered personal success out of a conflict in which so many had lost everything. Whatever they accomplished in life after 1945, it was their work as young men during the war for which they would be remembered.

Yank, the Army Weekly is an indispensable resource for mining American soldier cartoons from the Second World War in support of cultural issues reflecting the American wartime experience. With central editorial offices located in New York City, Yank maintained bureaus around the world from 1942 to 1945. The weekly magazine remains the single best resource for American soldier cartoons from the Second World War, from the noteworthy to the obscure. The iconic works of Dave Breger and George Baker appeared through syndication in Yank in every theatre of American involvement. Other significant artists filled out Yank’s regular staff, including Ralph Stein, Douglas Borgstedt, Jack Ruge, Frank Brandt, Bill Keane, Thomas Flannery, and Thomas R. St. George. The methodology of categorisation, in order to link wartime cartoons to larger themes dealing with historical and cultural events, recommends itself to the wartime layout of the weekly. The most accessible primary source is the 1967 Arno Press compilation Yank, the Army Weekly, 1942–1945, comprised of four volumes of representative issues of Yank.21 Many issues lack specific bureau identification, but researchers seeking to link cartoon content with historical themes will find enough images to create a representative sample for dozens of topics ranging from camp life, to the depiction of foreign cultures, to cartoons focusing on combat situations. Yank’s approach of syndicating cartoon content across bureaus, in much the same way the United States War Department’s Camp Newspaper Service syndicated cartoons to hundreds of military publications, also provides assurance of the availability of images across a wide sample of the American soldier population. Less complete but useful as a starting point is The Best from Yank, the Army Weekly, available in many libraries in the United States and online purchase.22

Figure 7.8: Bill Mauldin, The Stars and Stripes, 1945.

© 1943 by Bill Mauldin. Courtesy of the Bill Mauldin Estate LLC.

Figure 7.9: Leonard Sansone, The Wolf, 1944.

© United Media

The Camp Newspaper Service served as a syndication conduit for the work of American soldier cartoonists during the Second World War. From the standpoint of gathering images suitable for supporting history, the syndication of noted cartoonists translates into finding representative samples of comics in any military publication on the mailing list. These syndicated features contain images and messages indicative of wartime social and cultural norms. For example, Leonard Sansone’s The Wolf, offered through the Camp Newspaper Service, is an excellent feature for gauging gender perceptions during the Second World War (Figure 7.9).23

Figure 7.10: Vic Herman, Winnie the WAC, 1945.

Courtesy of Virginia N. Herman, Escondido, California.

Sansone’s feature points to a larger theme in the work of wartime soldier comics, the depiction of women. In both world wars soldier cartoonists created images of women, in and out of uniform. The images provide a window into gender perceptions during the mid-twentieth century. Sex and food remained the twin concerns of soldiers for millennia (The number of Spam-related cartoons in Yank alone accounts for something of a sub-genre in the criticism of military food.) Most soldier cartoonists eventually gravitated to the depiction of gender relationships. Some focused on gender exclusively as did Leonard Sansone and Vic Herman with his feature Winnie the WAC. Herman’s work is most accessible through the 1945 compilation Winnie the WAC.24 From the depiction of indigenous females to images relating to women in uniform, Yank provides an excellent resource for scholars involved in gender studies directed at wartime. Dave Breger in particular, the creator of GI Joe, routinely penned characters based on Women’s Army Corp characters as the focus of sexual conquest. Herman attempted to redress what he perceived as less than complimentary portrayals of women in uniform. Ironically, Winnie remained a sex symbol who compliantly returned to domesticity at war’s end (Figure 7.10).25 In perusing soldier cartoons for images of gender relationships, it is important to remember that what an audience tolerates tends to include images that reinforce audience attitudes: in this instance the cultural undercurrent of soldiers viewing the war as the millennial bailiwick of males.

Methodologically, comparative possibilities abound in the use of soldier comics. In gender studies, civilian Milton Caniff’s Miss Lace, a favourite among GI for the cartoonist’s use of a style focusing on sexual innuendo and scantily-clad female characters, provides a good jumping off point for comparisons between a popular civilian cartoonist, who strove for visual accuracy in his depictions of soldiers, and the work of soldier cartoonist in the same genre (Figure 7.11).

Figure 7.11. Milton Caniff, Miss Lace, 1944.

By permission of the Milton Caniff Estate.

Sex remained a topic of cartoon content throughout the world wars, though dramatically muted from 1914–1918 as a function of western cultural norms. Significantly loosened mores allowed for more adventurous and openly provocative content from 1939 to 1945, but researchers need to be careful to avoid the temptation of assuming the women-as-sex objects paradigm to hold true in all cases. Baker, Mauldin and Wingert were adept at exploding comfortable assumptions including going against the grain with cartoons that inverted stereotypes of women as the objects of sexual conquest or fulfilment. Themes resting on the frustration of expectation abound, but Mauldin, in particular, created a cartoon universe in which soldiers not only failed at sexual conquest but, as they moved closer to the front, lost both opportunity and desire in the face of the horror waiting for them at the front. In one such panel, Mauldin had Willie and Joe at the front of a group of soldier walking under a balcony. A female character leaned over, observing the soldiers pass. ‘She must be very purty ...’, Willie says to Joe, ‘Th’ whole column is wheezin’ at her’ (Figure 7.12).26

Figure 7.12: Bill Mauldin, The Stars and Stripes, 1944.

© 1943 by Bill Mauldin. Courtesy of the Bill Mauldin Estate LLC.

The syndication of Leonard Sansone’s The Wolf allowed for the inclusion of sexually explicit cartoons in military publications serving black outfits. The main character’s animalistic appearance, Sansone fitted him with a wolf’s head in GI uniform, allowed editors to place visuals with popular appeal – featuring sexual conquest or its attempt – without risking social backlash based on rigid 1940s taboos in the United States against even the suggestion of interracial relationships.

The use of Sansone’s The Wolf character as a nod to racial sensitivities points to another fertile area in the use of cartoons to support historical research. Cartoonists often created depictions of race and ethnicity in wartime publications. Such images generally reinforce racial attitudes common to the wartime eras in which they occurred. A good starting point for finding images that key on racial differentiation is Yank, the Army Weekly. Cartoons focusing on the collision of cultures in the Pacific War were standard in Yank, with characterisations of islanders a common occurrence. Many of the images come off as a not so subtle code for race discrimination common in the United States during the Second World War. If not an exact visual indicator of American racial prejudice, they are at least instructive in revealing to historians what soldier audiences accepted or tolerated concerning such depictions.

Figure 7.13: Joseph M. Kramer, ‘Slap the Jap’, Yank, the Army Weekly, 1945.

Used with permission from Stars and Stripes, © 1944–1945, 2008 Stars and Stripes.

American soldier cartoonist spared little more delicacy in lampooning ethnic groups. While they remained an Axis partner, for example, publications often featured characterisations of Italian soldiers running through a gamut of incompetence – ranging from a lack of fighting prowess to behaviours recognisable as contemporary civilian stereotypes of Italians as organ grinders, cooks, or opportunists. Interestingly, with the fall of Mussolini and the switching of allegiance to the Allied cause, caricatures of Italians ended in American military publications.

The most obvious focus for cartoon representations of ethnicity in soldier cartoons from the world wars concerned depictions of the enemy. Methodologically, researchers can group drawings of enemy characters into a larger subheading focusing on the ‘other’ as a visual paradigm. Focus on the other also includes, of course, images associated with both Allied military and civilians.

Cartoonists found ready material in the German and Japanese enemy during wartime. Researchers will find examples of the work, much of it corresponding to the types of heavy handed criticism and propaganda common in the civilian press of the wartime eras. While negative propagandistic cartoon portrayals never completely disappeared from wartime publications, an examination of the evolution of more accomplished artists reveals a shift in approach corresponding to the twin dynamics of the length of the conflict in question and a particular cartoonist’s contact with realities closer to the front. Any methodological approach, focusing on visuals to reinforce soldier attitudes closer to the front, must consider the evolution of a cartoonist’s work in order to gauge the value of the images (Figure 7.13).

The depiction of the enemy during wartime remains one of the most interesting areas of cartoon study not only for what the images reveal about the stereotyping of others during periods of conflict, but also for the ways in which such images tend to break from the expected method.

Propaganda from the First and Second World Wars is not generally associated with a high degree of subtlety. Cartoonists, especially those who made a habit of visiting the front, found themselves in the unusual circumstance of adjusting the selection of material based on changing perceptions of audience toleration. Especially during the Second World War, soldiers at the front were touchy about more blatant forms of flag-waving. Soldier cartoonists who took the time to acquaint themselves with the real war – in going however briefly where men killed one another – immediately learned the difficulty, as Bill Mauldin observed, of keeping up with the right war at the right time.27 In short, the failure to adjust content to reflect harsher realities labelled a cartoonist as rear-echelon. A loss of believability inevitably followed. The majority of cartoonists, of course, continued to function in their assigned roles of attempting to create humour. But a failure to rise above creating the types of images typical in early war publications locked them into appealing to a certain type of audience unfamiliar with the sharp end of conflict. Those cartoonists, who did visit the front for material, serving as visual correspondent, were the most lauded during the wars that they covered. Consequently their work remains the most accessible due to the contemporary popularity, and huge sales, engendered by evolution toward the real.

Researchers can easily find examples of such work. Bill Mauldin’s Up Front feature remains pre-eminent, but Dick Wingert’s Hubert, George Baker’s The Sad Sack, and the lesser known works of Jack Ruge, Ernest Maxwell and Frank Brandt and Thomas Flannery in Yank also provide researchers with an informative opening to attitudes shared by the initiates of combat. That these cartoonists succeeded in creating humour using material from frankly horrible circumstances is a tribute not only to their skill, but also to the empathy and respect they held for the combat soldiers who suffer more than anyone else in uniform during wartime.

For scholars writing on the First and Second World Wars, particularly the affects of those conflicts upon common soldiers, soldier cartoons exist that offer visuals focusing on a myriad of topics. The variety of national and cultural perspectives correlates to the combatants involved. The effort, and the evidence, is well worth the time.


1    Milton Caniff, 1945, Male Call, New York: Simon and Schuster: preface.

2    For a discussion of the use of social commentary in editorial cartoons see: Charles Press, 1981, The Political Cartoon, Rutherford, NJ: Farleigh Dickinson University Press.

3    Bill Mauldin, 1971, The Brass Ring, New York: W. W. Norton & Company: 170.

4    John T. Winterich, 1931, Squads Write!: A Selection of the Best Things in Prose, Verse and Cartoons from ‘The Stars and Stripes’, New York: Harper and Bros.: 126.

5    The Guy T. Viskniski Papers’, The Viskniski Manuscript, ‘Me – And a War Going’ On’, AEF United States Censor’s Office, World War I, S-8101, Carlisle, PA: United States Army Military History Institute.

6    Abian Wallgren, 1938, ‘The A.E.F.’s Famous Cartoonist’, Click, The National Picture Monthly, 1 (10).

7    Abian Wallgren, 1918, Wally, His Cartoons of the AEF, reprinted from ‘the Stars and Stripes’, Paris: US Army.

8    Anon., 1933, The AEF in Cartoon, Philadelphia: Dan Sowers and Company.

9    Abian A. Wallgren Collection, 1917–1947, 2, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

10  Abian A. Wallgren Papers, 1911–1948, Personal and Professional Letters, Manuscript Collection, Military History Institute, Army War College, Carlisle: Pennsylvania.

11  Bruce Bairnsfather, 1918, Fragments from France, New York and London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, The Knickerbocker Press.

12  Maurice Horn, 1980, editor. The World Encylopedia of Cartoons, New York and London: Chelsea House: 282–283.

13  Andy Rooney, 1995, My War, New York: Public Affairs Press.

14  Mauldin, Brass Ring: 215.

15  Another soldier cartoonist, Dave Breger, is credited with coming up with the term ‘GI’ through his comic feature ‘GI Joe’, formerly ‘Private Berger’. Stationed in London through much of the war, Berger’s work appeared in that city’s edition of The Stars and Stripes and in world-wide syndication through various editions of Yank, the Army Weekly.

16  Bill Mauldin, 1961, ‘I Won the Nobel Prize for Literature. What was your crime? What’s Got Your Back Up? (reprinted from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch), New York: Popular Library: 19.

17  Bill Mauldin, 1945, Up Front, New York: Henry Holt and Company.

18  Bill Mauldin, 1983, Bill Mauldin’s Army: Bill Mauldin’s Greatest World War II Cartoons, Novato, CA: Presidio Press.

19  Dick Wingert, 1944, Hubert: Cartoons from ‘The Stars and Stripes’ U.S. Army Newspaper, by Sgt. Dick Wingert, London: Well, Gardner, Darton and Co., Ltd.

20  Mauldin, Brass Ring: 233.

21  Yank, 1967, Yank, the Army Weekly, 1942–1945, 4 volumes., New York: Arno Press: introductions by Joe McCarthy and Franklin S. Forsberg.

22  Yank, 1945, The Best of Yank, the Army Weekly, New York: E.P. Dutton.

23  Sansone’s wartime comics were collected in Anon., 1945, The Wolf, New York: United Publishers.

24  Vic Herman, 1945, Winnie the WAC: A Cartoon Visit with Our Gals in the Army, Philadelphia: David McKay Company.

25  Herman, Winnie the WAC.

26  Mauldin, Up Front.

27  Mauldin, Up Front.

Primary Sources

Anon., 1933, The AEF in Cartoon, Philadelphia: Dan Sowers and Company.

Anon., 1945, The Wolf, New York: United Publishers.

Bairnsfather, Bruce, 1918, Fragments from France, New York & London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, The Knickerbocker Press.

Caniff, Milton, 1945, Male Call, New York: Simon & Schuster.

Herman, Vic, 1945, Winnie the WAC: A Cartoon Visit with Our Gals in the Army, Philadelphia: David McKay Company.

Mauldin, Bill, 1945, Up Front, New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Mauldin, Bill, 1961, ‘I won the Nobel Prize for Literature. What’s your crime?’, in What’s Got Your Back Up (reprinted from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch), New York: Popular Library.

Mauldin, Bill, 1971, The Brass Ring, New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Rooney, Andy, 1995, My War, New York: Public Affairs Press.

Vishinski, Guy T. Papers. United States Army Military History Institute, Carlisle, PA.

Wallgren, Abian A. Papers. Military History Institute, Army War College, Carlisle, PA.

Wallgren, Abian, 1918, Wally, His Cartoons of the AEF, reprinted from ‘The Stars and Stripes’, Paris: US Army.

Wallgren, Abian, 1938, ‘The A. E. F.’s Famous Cartoonist’, Click, The National Picture Monthly, 1 (10).

Wingert, Dick, 1944, Hubert: Cartoons from ‘The Stars and Stripes’ US Army Newspaper, by Sgt. Dick Wingert, London: Well, Gardner, Darton & Co., Ltd.

Winterich, John T., 1931, Squads Write!: A Selection of the Best Things in Prose, Verse and Cartoons from ‘The Stars and Stripes’, New York: Harper & Bros.

Yank, 1945, The Best of Yank, the Army Weekly, New York: E. P. Dutton.

Yank, 1967, Yank, the Army Weekly, 1942–1945, 4 Volumes, New York: Arno Press.

Secondary Sources

Horn, Maurice, editor, 1980, The World Encyclopedia of Cartoons, New York & London: Chelsea House.

Mauldin, Bill, 1983, Bill Mauldin’s Army: Bill Mauldin’s Greatest World War II Cartoons, Novato, California: Presidio Press.

Press, Charles, 1981, The Political Cartoon, Rutherford, New Jersey: Farleigh Dickinson University Press.


Cite this chapter as: Casey, Jay. 2009. ‘“What’s so funny?”: The finding and use of soldier cartoons from the world wars as historical evidence’. Drawing the Line: Using Cartoons as Historical Evidence, edited by Scully, Richard; Quartly, Marian. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 7.1 to 7.23.

© Copyright 2009 Jay Casey

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Drawing the Line

   by Richard Scully, Marian Quartly