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There are basically two types of political cartoons: the hard-hitting kind, and those of a softer, more humorous variety. Bill Mauldin specialized in the former, and at the height of his powers he was the undisputed World Heavyweight Champ of American cartooning. The country has produced other irascible inkslingers, Thomas Nast and Paul Conrad among them, but none reached the level of fame and influence that Mauldin did.

By the time he was 23, the boyish-looking artist was revered as a national treasure for his World War II ''Willie and Joe'' cartoons. He had a Pulitzer Prize (the youngest winner in history), a huge syndication deal, his work featured on the cover of Time, fans in the White House and, most important, the admiration of millions of U.S. servicemen overseas and their families back home.

It's one of my great professional regrets that I never got a chance to meet Mauldin. Sure, I knew the heavily inked and charcoal-shaded drawings, but I wanted to see what the man behind them was like. But Mauldin was in the twilight of his career when I began drawing cartoons for my college newspaper. Todd DePastino's ''Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front'' does an impressive job of illuminating the complex character of the idol I never got to know.

The tone of the biography is reverential: You can tell that DePastino, the general editor of a previous cartoon collection of Mauldin's work, is a fan.

''A Life Up Front'' is well-paced and written in an honest, straightforward manner. And you don't have to be a cartoonist or a soldier to appreciate it. True, the book will likely resonate with almost any member from the Greatest Generation, but Mauldin's life was so interesting, and his stamp on the culture so indelible, that this is an enjoyable read for anyone with even a cursory interest in history.

Mauldin's life is a quintessentially American success story: the poor kid who uses his talent, charm, grit and determination to attain fame and fortune. But if the broad outlines of the tale are familiar, the details are far from ordinary. Bill Mauldin grew up during the Depression on an apple farm in the mountains of southern New Mexico. His family was as dysfunctional as it was disreputable: His frequently out-of-work and alcoholic father was raised in a brothel and never lost an interest in prostitutes.

Young Mauldin was bookish, but scrappy; he frequently found himself in fistfights due to taunts regarding his odd looks and runty stature. This near-pathological need for an adversary (playground bullies, officers, editors) stayed with him his whole life. Smoking at age 3, drinking whiskey at 10 and living on his own at 15: Here are the origins of a fiery independent streak.

But despite Mauldin's hell-raising, DePastino paints a portrait of a youth consumed by dreams of hitting it big. ''God knows,'' Bill once recalled, ''if I wanted anything even more than money it was recognition.''

Mauldin learned early that his drawing talent would lift him from the doldrums of poverty and obscurity. Whether it was sketching exact likenesses of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck for classmates or sending cartoons to magazines, Mauldin did everything he could to get people to notice his work.

After excelling in the ROTC in high school, Mauldin enlisted in the Army in 1940, hoping his talent would help him rise through the ranks. The military provided not only a chance to cartoon but also the stability his unpredictable world lacked. ''I wouldn't be the first hayseed to begin a distinguished military career from hunger,'' he reasoned. Mauldin quickly talked his way into drawing cartoons for the 45th Division News, the only division newspaper in the Army at the time.

''A Life Up Front'' details not only the young cartoonist's development, but also military life during WWII. Mauldin's reputation really started to grow with his move to the more widely circulated Stars and Stripes and the introduction of his soldier characters, Willie and Joe. Most military-themed cartoons at the time were bland and gag-oriented. Mauldin's were different; they were detailed, biting, realistic and, to some, subversive. He almost had his feature canceled by superiors who took a dislike to his depictions of unshaven and weary-eyed dogfaces forever flirting with insubordination.

But for every critic, Mauldin had 10,000 avid fans. Eventually, people like Eleanor Roosevelt and Ernie Pyle became vocal supporters who reasoned that not only did Mauldin's humor help the men blow off a little steam, it was important to the independence of the soldier press.

Sergeant Mauldin returned from the European theater in 1945 rich and famous. But like so many of his fellow soldiers, adjustment to life back home was a struggle. His marriage fell apart, and without the fodder of combat, his inspiration ran dry. Mauldin spent the better part of a decade dabbling in far-left activism and writing books and magazine articles, but doing little of the cutting-edge cartooning that made him famous.

It's not until Mauldin decides to start drawing daily editorial cartoons in the 1950s that we see the rekindling of the fire in the belly, as he tackles such topics as Joe McCarthy, Soviet imperialism and civil rights. The pinnacle of this era is his cartoon on the assassination of JFK, depicting a weeping Lincoln-Memorial Lincoln. (Mauldin never much cared for his most famous piece. Ever the perfectionist, he didn't feel he got Lincoln's hairline just right.)

DePastino makes it clear that his subject was no saint. The alcoholism and infidelities that bedeviled his father plagued him as well. His ''peppery disposition'' was long part of his character, but as he grew older, Mauldin turned abusive toward his wife and children. Chris, his third wife, left him because of the verbal assaults.

Mauldin's editorial cartoons done after the war were powerful and important, but the author reminds us that the impact Mauldin's Willie and Joe work had cannot be overstated. DePastino opens the book with an elderly Bill Mauldin dying and incoherent in a nursing home. A reporter wrote a story for the local paper on Mauldin's sad state, and it gained nationwide attention. Within days, the fading cartoonist's room was full of tearful old vets, many in uniform, wishing to pay their respects. Hundreds of cards poured in from around the country from others.

''In shaky handwriting,'' DePastino writes, ''veterans told Mauldin that his cartoons 'saved my soul in that war' and 'kept my humanity alive' amid the slaughter.'' In his younger days Mauldin had avoided these types of tributes, but deep down he reveled in the recognition.

With U.S. soldiers fighting new wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a flailing economy and a history-making presidential campaign, Bill Mauldin would have been pretty busy with his brush were he around today.

- Steve Breen
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