SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras –
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.
Lieutenant Dahl, call sign "Barbie," is the star of the online web comic Air Force Blues, and 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 Sergeant May's brain makes its way onto paper. From there, the comic is scanned into a computer, and eventually published on www.afblues.com. The site boasts as many as 1,000 hits per day when the comic is updated.
Lieutenant Dahl's antics were published in the new book, Air Force Blues, which debuted
in November. Air Force Blues is also slated to appear in an upcoming issue of the Air Force's flagship publication, Airman Magazine.
Sergeant May, who has been drawing since he was a child, began the comic strip in February 2007 because he felt it was time to "step things up," he said.
"For almost a year I had been doing random Air Force-related comics for a friend's website, but I was ready to try launching my own site," he explained. "I wanted a consistent base, a recognizable duty station and an 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."
Sergeant May should know. As a former aircrew member and being currently stationed at a Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training base, he has spent virtually his entire Air Force career surrounded by fliers.
He noted, however, 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. Kind of like Beetle Bailey is only one goofy Soldier in the Army, Lieutenant Dahl is not necessarily representative of today's men and women in uniform.
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 not flying missions, Sergeant May put pen to paper and drew comic after comic to circulate among his fellow fliers. His deployment down time 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 Sergeant May with the current web site is Air Force Senior Airman Justin Coffman, 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.
Airman Coffman is a recurring character in the strip, and was described as the "Airman Agitator" who would often poke fun at the other characters in the story line. However, it's all in good fun, according to Airman Coffman.
"I think that humor is a required part of daily life," he said. "If you aren't laughing, you aren't living. Everyone knows it's just a comic, and that it's exaggerated."
Long time 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 that normally would not interact. It has (also) opened my eyes to different things about the Air Force that I would not have considered before."
Lieutenant Dahl's personality developed as Sergeant May elaborated his new creation, reflecting himself. The character is an F-15 fighter pilot stationed at the fictional "Elmendork" Air Force Base and Sergeant 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," Sergeant May said. "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. After basic and technical training, Sergeant May was stationed at Elmendorf.
Donations from the readers help fund the project, and Sergeant May said his greatest reward is knowing people enjoy his creations, many of whom email him saying how much they look forward to the new strips.
"I don't do it for profit at all," Sergeant 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."
Currently, Lieutenant Dahl is gearing up for a deployment himself 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 Lieutenant Dahl - "deployment mustaches" he said in a recent comic.
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.