by Tech. Sgt. Timm Huffman
439th Airlift Wing Public Affairs, Westover Air Reserve Base, Mass.
5/25/2012 - Citizen Airman/June 2012 -- For most people in the military, putting a smile on someone's face is not in their job description. But for retired Master Sgt. William Pope, it's the goal.
After 20 years as the official Air Force Reserve cartoonist, he's gotten good at it.
W.C. Pope is the author of Pope's Puns, a comical chronicle of military life that has appeared regularly in Citizen Airman, Leatherneck and other military publications since 1992.
Pope said his interest in cartooning started when he was 4 or 5 years old.
"One of my uncles had these Beetle Bailey books. ... that's when I started seeing cartoons and then copying them -- actually drawing Beetle Bailey," he said. "That got me started into drawing and at the same time got me interested in the military. So the two have gone together since the very beginning."
Pope continued to draw and imitate what he saw in cartoons and comics and realized what he was best at was stylizing the human form and delivering a pithy punch line. He earned an associate degree in commercial art from Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica, N.Y., before enlisting in the Air Force in 1981.
"When I joined the Air Force, I joined a collection of military quirks, bureaucratic snafus and old military traditions, which all lend themselves to great cartoons," Pope said.
A classic example of this appears in a cartoon he drew during an operational readiness inspection. The cartoon depicts an Airman in four inspection phases: simulated sand bags, simulated bomb crater, simulated blackout and simulated pay check.
While stationed in Okinawa, Japan, as an electrician with a small E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System squadron, Pope said he developed the predecessor to Pope's Puns -- Arthur Awax.
Pope said he would draw a full-page comic relevant to that week's squadron activities, place it under a glass-topped counter in his support section and watch his fellow Airmen come and go.
"It was really fun to see their reaction. ... if they liked it, if they didn't like it," he said. "It honed the skills of what people saw as funny."
Pope moved on from Okinawa to become a Reservist in a civil engineer squadron at the now-deactivated Griffiss Air Force Base near Rome, N.Y. While there, he had the additional duty of putting together a monthly newsletter. To liven up an otherwise dry publication, he began putting in his cartoons. He called the cartoon Weekend Warrior.
After about two years, the staff at Citizen Airman magazine wanted to pick up the cartoon. But the name Weekend Warrior was seen as demeaning to Reservists, so the magazine dubbed it Pope's Puns.
"I really didn't have a lot to do with that, unfortunately, because I never would have called it Pope's Puns," he said. "It really doesn't tell what it is. ... I think out of 800-some cartoons, maybe 20 are puns."
Pope's Puns made its debut in the June 1992 edition of Citizen Airman and evolved from there. Bo Joyner, Citizen Airman associate editor, praised Pope's comic chops and his ability to connect with readers.
"I've been a part of Citizen Airman since 1994, and W.C. Pope's cartoons have been an integral part of our magazine since I first arrived," Joyner said. "He has a unique perspective on the Air Force Reserve experience and has a tremendous talent for sharing that perspective with others through his cartoons."
When the cartoon first appeared in the magazine, Pope was stationed at Griffiss. When that base closed, instead of getting out of the Reserve, he transferred to the 439th Airlift Wing at Westover Air Reserve Base, Mass., where he joined the public affairs team.
During the next 15 years, as a Reservist at Westover, Pope's cartoons appeared monthly in the wing's Patriot magazine as well as Citizen Airman. Pope's Puns disappeared from the pages of Patriot magazine when he retired in 2009, though he continued cartooning for Citizen Airman.
His retirement from the Air Force didn't last long. In 2011, Pope's comics once again began appearing on the Westover website and in the pages of the wing magazine when he returned to the base as a civilian public affairs specialist.
Pope said he keeps his cartoons relevant and the humor engaging by focusing on new issues and topics of discussion. He also said allowing the drawing to evolve has given Pope's Puns a natural progression.
Things like adding color or finding new ways to draw hands keep the cartoons visually appealing. Pope explained that hands are as important as facial expressions when it comes to getting emotions or ideas across in his cartoon. It's a subtle way of keeping his cartoons compelling, he said.
In addition to the drawings, his writing is constantly evolving as well. Pope said he reduces writing down to its simplest elements, using short, snappy sentences that have a lot of punch.
Pope said the hardest part is coming up with an idea. When he's having a hard time, he often sits down and just starts sketching things that don't usually go together, like a C-5 with a mouth on it. Once he solidifies an idea, it doesn't take long before his cartoon is finished. About an hour is all it takes, he said.
Pope said he's drawn more than 800 cartoons, not including all of the variations of a basic cartoon. For example, he might draw a cartoon with the characters wearing Air Force uniforms for his wing publication or Citizen Airman and then create a variation of the same cartoon with the characters dressed in Marine uniforms for Leatherneck magazine.
The cartoonist said the commonality of the military experience gives the cartoons a broad appeal to people in the different services. One example of this is a cartoon that depicts a troop reclining in the desert with a camel chomping on his hair. The caption reads "desert haircut."
Pope, who prefers to stay behind the scenes, said it's all about the cartoons. That's where all the attention should go.
He said he draws for the morale of the troops.
"That's the satisfying part of the job. ... when we have someone we've helped or made happy, helped them cope, it's the ultimate."