The Mud and the Mirth: Marine Cartoonists in World War I

  • Published

The Mud and the Mirth: Marine Cartoonists in World War I by Cord A. Scott. Marine Corps University Press, 2022, 111 pp.

In The Mud and the Mirth: Marine Cartoonists in World War I, Cord A. Scott examines cartoons created by Marines from 1914 to 1919. Scott teaches history, government, and humanities for the University of Maryland Global Campus in Asia. Having written two books on military comics of World War II, Scott is suited to write this survey, in which he aims to show how Marines used cartoons to entertain and inform other service members during these years. This is the first such book focusing on Marine Corps-produced cartoons and cartoonists.

Scott begins by giving a brief overview of the use of cartoons in early official Marine Corps publications such as Recruiters’ Bulletin and Marines Magazine. The Recruiters’ Bulletin began publication in November 1914 as a vehicle to highlight recruiters’ jobs, goals, and achievements. Many of the early cartoons in the Bulletin accordingly poked fun at the drive to find suitable recruits and the idiosyncrasies of Marine Corps life. Marines Magazine “went further into the lives and aspects of Marine Corps life around the world” (28). Accordingly, it presented cartoons illustrating Marine Corps life in such places as Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

As Scott notes, these early cartoons occasionally featured “bigoted” depictions of individuals of color that are reflective of the cultural notions of the time. He acknowledges that such depictions—along with others featuring women as “objects of desire”—are “at best insensitive and decidedly racist or sexist” (5). But Scott also emphasizes their importance in lending insight into US social history. He writes, “These attitudes are also reflective of the fact that the U.S. military as well as much of American society was segregated during the time these illustrations were created” (xviii). For Scott, the cartoons are important historical markers, and their inclusion, as the book’s editor notes at the start, was “not offered to draw attention to or glorify the derogatory nature of their use so long ago but to offer yet another opportunity for us to learn from the mistakes of the past” (xi).

Some of these cartoons show the “rivalry between the Services as well as the racially insensitive depictions of the enemy or locals” (36). For example, a cartoon by Pvt. Charles E. Hayes appearing in the January 1917 issue of Marines Magazine depicts a confrontation between a Marine and a Haitian national, with both men portrayed in caricature fashion. A cartoon by Private Paul Woyshner, appearing in the magazine’s April 1917 issue, depicts a larger-than-life Marine instructing the local Haitians, who are portrayed as pint-sized in comparison, on how they should treat their fellow citizens, thus revealing the paternalistic attitudes of the time. Other cartoons of this era portray “the lives and the public perceptions of life in the Corps” (37). The cartoons in both publications were meant for an internal audience and meant to be informative and humorous, often making light of recruiting procedures and life in the Corps.

The next section of the book covers Marine cartoons in the overseas armed forces newspaper Stars and Stripes from February 1918 to June 1919. Early in the war, Allied soldiers sought to alleviate boredom in the trenches while entertaining their compatriots by publishing trench newspapers close behind the lines. These unofficial newspapers contained cartoons and were necessarily of limited circulation. Stars and Stripes was an officially sanctioned newspaper run by American soldiers. For Americans, it served the same purpose as the trench newspapers of the Allies.

These cartoons that appeared in Stars and Stripes, while certainly appealing to Marines fighting in France during World War I, were exposed to a broad audience of other American service members. For each month of the newspaper’s run, Scott gives a one-paragraph summary of the war news. Some of the cartoons now show combat, albeit in a humorous vein, for the first time. Other cartoons poke fun at hygiene and grooming standards in the trenches, conscientious objectors, and Army service in Siberia and North Russia. Post-war cartoons focus on the occupation of Germany, treaty deliberations, and the interminable wait to return to the United States. Scott concludes with a brief examination of war commemorative cartoons. These include a couple of books comprising cartoon compilations, as well as a few newspaper cartoons. Scott correctly sees these cartoons as a part of military history, and he believes military art, whether for humor or to depict history, “is still fertile ground for academic study” (89).

In two appendices, Scott gives us a mini biography of Abian Wallgren, perhaps the best known Marine cartoonist on the staff of the Stars and Stripes, as well as a short description of different types of art, including fine art, comics and comic strips, and graphic art. Wallgren, who had experience drawing cartoons for several Philadelphia newspapers before the war, was a sign painter in the 5th Marine Regiment when he joined the staff of Stars and Stripes. He had “a reputation for being ill-suited to military life, especially to requirements for deadlines and punctuality” and had visited the front as a correspondent (91). Wallgren depicted all aspects of frontline life. His cartoons showed destruction and misery, poking fun at vermin, poor rations, and training. Scott considers these types of cartoons as pieces of military history; they shed light on how Marines and Soldiers viewed themselves at the time.

The author includes 117 illustrations, most of them cartoons; however, therein lies the biggest problem with this book. All the cartoons that appeared in the Stars and Stripes, more than 70 of them, are reproduced in the book. Yet they are reproduced as three multi-panel cartoons to each 6-inch by 9-inch page. The cartoons are in such small scale that it is almost impossible to read them without a magnifying glass, and even then, many of the images and words are blurry. It would have been better, for this size format, to reproduce fewer cartoons in greater clarity. Yet due to the ephemeral nature of comics and journals, century-old surviving copies of the cartoons “are often tattered or missing significant portions of the content” (xviii). Ultimately, it is a good thing Scott has compiled these examples.

Even with the shortcoming regarding the readability of many of its cartoons, The Mud and the Mirth is a helpful study of Marine Corps cartoons as well as a useful addition to the historiography of the Corps during World War I. This book is recommended for anyone who wishes to learn more about American military cartoons during World War I.

Major Peter L. Belmonte, USAF, Retired

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."