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25 years of aiming high to be funny

WESTOVER AIR RESERVE BASE, Mass. -- When I was a kid, my dream was to grow up and draw superheroes.
Back in the olden days before all of the superhero movies, superheroes got their -- spoiler alert -- start in comic books. They were drawn by some of the greats like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and a bat cave full of others that tirelessly toiled over their drawing boards creating what has since leaped to the big screen.

My drawing style was much more stylized and simplistic, and I was never satisfied with my renditions of caped crusaders. But I quickly realized I could make great observations of the world and people around me. I could “boil” situations and people down into a few cartoon panels and find the humor.

While growing up, I had many relatives that were in the military and they collected military related comic books and books. That’s when I found a comic book by the name of “Sad Sack” that was drawn by George Baker. He had been an Army sergeant in World War II and his line work was amazing. The more I dug into his work the more I found and loved it! As I searched I came across another prolific cartoonist from the Army, Bill Mauldin, who’d created “Willie and Joe” a cartoon about two regular G.I.s in foxholes during the war. Both cartoonists and their creations were extremely popular in the telling of the everyday military life of the soldier. In some ways you could saw I was recruited by cartoons from WWII.

I joined the Air Force in 1981. My first duty station was at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa. There I found Airman Magazine and Jake Schuffert’s “Here’s Jake” cartoon. Jake had flown 50 missions as a B-24 radio operator in World War II and had survived being shot down in Yugoslavia. The first time I saw one of his cartoons I was hooked. My goal was to draw cartoons for Airman. I began sending the staff cartoons, coming up with ideas from the everyday Airman’s life; like working on the flight line, completing travel vouchers, tool box turn-in to bench stock, TDYs, or going before the below-the-zone board. Whatever I was experiencing become ideas for cartoons.
Airmen I worked with or came in contact with became my Sad Sack, my Willie and Joe.

Here are some examples: a crew chief who unknowingly spat tobacco out of the E-3 AWACS crew window onto the maintenance officer wearing his blues. A commander that would tell jokes for half his commander’s call, or when a maintainer wore an orange cone on his head to marshall out a plane, after working for three months straight without a break. The flight line frog herding in the Philippines. The dining-out where a squadron Airman sat at the head table dressed as baby New Year.

After each event, I would put pen to paper and draw the cartoon, I called it “Arthur Awax”. This cartoon was always popular with everyone in the squadron -- except for some of the people whose story I was committing to paper. So I had to learn not to draw mishaps or in-jokes involving specific people who could be called out. At the time, I was sending cartoons to every Air Force magazine I could and got back rejection slip after rejection slip. But I persevered and found my way into science fiction magazines.

By the time I joined the Air Force Reserve in 1985, I had already honed my cartooning skills to include a wider audience. I was a carpenter in a civil engineer squadron in upstate New York when my cartoons were picked up by the Air Force Reserve Citizen Airman magazine. My original title was “Weekend Warrior” but the editors at the time considered it negative slang for Reservists. So we retitled it “Pope’s Puns” in homage to “Here’s Jake”, that was in 1992. Twenty-six years later, it is still published in the Air Force Reserve Command’s magazine.

After Jake’s passing in 1998, a couple of my cartoons were finally published in Airman but the editors moved on from cartoons and used the space for other things. I agreed. It didn’t feel right filling those big boots left by him. For many years I drew cartoons for Mobility Forum’s back cover and for a safety humor feature they ran monthly. My cartoons have been run in other Air Force newspapers and magazines around the world, including Air Force Magazine.

After drawing Airmen for 25 years and creating well over a thousand cartoons, in the end, my childhood dream of drawing superheroes did come true.

Editor’s note: Pope is a retired master sergeant who held positions in public affairs, aircraft maintenance, and civil engineering. He still serves today at Westover as the visual information manager for the public affairs office.