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Cartoonist Continues Strip, Publishes Book While Deployed

By Tech. Sgt. Sonny Cohrs, USAF
Special to American Forces Press Service

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras, Jan. 4, 2008 – It’s hard being only a figment of someone’s imagination. Just ask Air Force 1st Lt. Kenneth Dahl, an F-15 fighter pilot with the imaginary 809th Fighter Squadron.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Austin M. May works on a character from his comic strip, Air Force Blues. May, a public affairs noncommissioned officer deployed to Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, recently published a book of his comics, and the strip is slated to appear in an upcoming issue of Airman Magazine. U.S. Air Force Photo by Tech. Sgt. Sonny Cohrs
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Dahl, call sign “Barbie,” is the star of the online comic strip “Air Force Blues,” and is a hero, of sorts, to his Internet following. The fictional fighter jock is the creation of Air Force Staff Sgt. Austin M. May, a public affairs specialist deployed here from Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas.

The general process for production is this: an idea born in May's brain makes its way on to paper. From there, the comic is scanned into a computer, and eventually is published on www.afblues.com. The site boasts as many as 1,000 hits per day when the comic is updated.

Dahl's antics were published in a new book that made its debut in November. The strip also is slated to appear in an upcoming issue of the Air Force's flagship publication, Airman Magazine.

May, who has been drawing since he was a child, said he began the comic strip in February 2007 because he felt it was time to “step things up.”

“For almost a year, I had been doing random Air Force-related comics for a friend’s Web site, but I was ready to try launching my own site,” he explained. “I wanted a consistent base, a recognizable duty station, and above all, a main character everyone could eventually relate to.”

The sergeant said he chose a fighter pilot as his main character for a variety of reasons, the biggest being the wealth of comic potential associated with that particular group of airmen.

“Everywhere you look there are movies, books, video games and more, all glorifying fighter pilots,” he said. “Why not a comic to make fun of them? After all, they do some pretty off-the-wall things sometimes.”

May should know. As a former aircrew member stationed at a specialized undergraduate pilot training base, he has spent practically his entire Air Force career surrounded by fliers.

He noted that the comic doesn’t make fun of any specific group of people as a whole, but lumps several stereotypes into one character who becomes the butt of most of the strip’s jokes, a proven formula for a successful comic. Just as Beetle Bailey is only one goofy soldier in the Army, Dahl is not necessarily representative of today’s men and women in uniform, May said.

The sergeant’s first comic strip, AWACker, was started while he was deployed to Southwest Asia as an airborne battle management systems operator on the Airborne Warning and Control System E-3 Sentry. When he wasn’t flying missions, May put pen to paper and drew comic after comic to circulate among his fellow fliers. His deployment helped him compile a binder full of comics, which was the basis for the now defunct domain AWACker.com. The site, founded with a fellow AWACS crewmember, had a good run until it was hacked in August 2005, he said. The site never recovered.

“I went on to cross-train into a new career field, and neither of us really had time to rebuild the Web site from the ground up,” he said.

Helping May with the current Web site is Air Force Senior Airman Justin Coffman from the 552nd Computer Systems Squadron at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., who volunteers his off-duty time as the webmaster, forum administrator and “faithful lackey,” he said.

Coffman is a recurring character in the strip and is described as the “Airman Agitator” who pokes fun at the other characters. However, it's all in good fun, Coffman said.

“I think humor is a required part of daily life,” he explained. “If you aren't laughing, you aren't living. Everyone knows it's just a comic and that it's exaggerated.”

Longtime reader Air Force Reserve Master Sgt. William Gordon, from Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla., agreed, saying the comic pokes “good-natured fun” at the idea of a stereotypical throttle jockey.

“I enjoy the entire concept of Air Force Blues,” he said. “It brings together all types of people from different parts of the Air Force who normally would not interact. It (also) has opened my eyes to different things about the Air Force that I would not have considered before.”

Dahl’s personality developed as May elaborated on his new creation, reflecting himself. The character is an F-15 fighter pilot stationed at the fictional “Elmendork” Air Force Base. May's first duty station was at the very real Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska.

“He’s very young. He’s pretty new to the Air Force still, and he is so in love with himself and his job,” May said in describing the character. “He’s like a kid who realized what he wanted to do when he grew up and stuck to it,” a trait that rings true for the artist today.

“My parents used to take me to air shows when I was little kid. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, only that I wanted to one day join the Air Force,” said the 25-year-old native of Katy, Texas.

Donations from readers help to fund the project, and May said his greatest reward is knowing people enjoy his creations. Many readers e-mail him saying how much they look forward to the new strips, he said.

Though some money comes n, none of it ends up in his pocket, the sergeant emphasized.

“I don’t do it for profit at all,” May said. “All the money I make from selling coins, stickers and the books goes back into the site for Web hosting, drawing supplies, more coins and stickers. I’ve also sponsored a couple of events at the Laughlin Club.”

Dahl is gearing up for a deployment to support the real global war on terrorism at a fictional air base abroad. Readers can follow along online to learn what makes deployments so special for Dahl: “deployment mustaches,” he said in a recent strip.

But just because the faux fighter pilot won’t be flying real combat missions in his F-15, he will be delivering humor from his cockpit in cyberspace to a desktop near you.

(Air Force Tech. Sgt. Sonny Cohrs serves with Joint Task Force Bravo Public Affairs.)

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAir Force 1st Lt. Kenneth Dahl, call sign “Barbie,” is the star of the online Web comic strip, Air Force Blues. The fictional fighter jock is the creation of Air Force Staff Sgt. Austin M. May, a public affairs specialist deployed to Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, from Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas. Courtesy graphic.   
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