CAMP VICTORY, BAGHDAD -- Almost everyone in the military has heard of the Good Idea Fairy. And when you think of it, the image that might come to mind is a Soldier, head cocked to one side in thought, as an ACU-clad, moth-winged fairy whispers in his ear.
If that's what pops into your head, thank Staff Sgt. A.J. Merrifield and his BOB on the FOB comics.
Merrifield is a member of the personal security detachment for Lt. Gen. Robert Cone, deputy commanding general of operations for United States Forces-Iraq, but in his off time, creates cartoons that have become something of a touchstone for deployed troops and civilians alike.
"It started when I was at Multinational-Division North," Merrifield said. He was assigned to create a poster for the unit, known as Task Force Band of Brothers. He commented that the unit would be dubbed "Task Force BOB," and was quickly proven right - although his picture of Soldiers silhouetted on a horizon was widely used. The nickname stuck, and since he was on a Forward Operating Base, "BOB on the FOB" seemed a logical name for the comics.
"The first one was "Fobbit," Merrifield said. "And like in all the cartoons, 90 percent of the text is straight from conversations I hear. It's one of the reasons it resonates; we all know people who say those things, we recognize the inherent humor."
The Good Idea Fairy was the third or fourth comic, drawn after he received a suggestion.
"The officer that posed is now in United States Division - North again," said Merrifield. "I got a photo of him for reference, and right outside his office, a signal Soldier was sitting on a desk in the perfect pose. I told him 'Don't move!' and got a photo."
Merrifield uses photographs for reference, and takes texture and pattern samples from them, but draws the cartoons by hand.
"They're all drawn on a Wacom tablet, by hand. I sample ACUs, skin tone, things like that, and paint it in with Photoshop."
Each comic contains between 30 and 50 layers, and takes two to three hours to draw. Merrifield took a break from creating the comics for awhile, only to discover how wildly popular they were even when he wasn't updating them regularly.
"I put together a Facebook page for them, and in no time I had five thousand fans. I realized then how many people wanted to see them."
Still, not many people know he's the source of the humor they enjoy.
"The longest I've gone without someone e-mailing me my own comics, thinking I haven't seen them, is about a month," said Merrifield. "And I was nearly dismissed from a promotion board because when I mentioned the cartoons, they thought I was taking credit for someone else's work."
Merrifield said he isn't running out of ideas any time soon; he frequently receives suggestions, and credits the person in the comic.
"There's always something being done, or being said, that you have to laugh at," he said. "That's what I love most about the military - the shared sense of humor. You have to laugh, or you'll go nuts sometimes."
"The cartoons are really funny because they poke fun at things most Soldiers, Marines, Airmen and Sailors and civilians immediately recognize as silly or absurd," said Command Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Mellinger, the Army Materiel Command senior enlisted Soldier, who met Merrifield while he was working in MND-N. "They exaggerate some of the excesses in behavior or accessorizing some troops go to. And anyone who looks at one of the cartoons will immediately have someone come to mind that they would swear was the subject."
Merrifield also appreciates the occasional negative comment he receives.
"I love hearing from people who are offended because they see themselves in it. I say, if you see yourself in a BOB on the FOB comic, you need to look at how you're doing things. If I get a nasty letter sometimes, I'm doing something right and hitting a nerve." (Merrifield easily admits to being a 'geardo' - one who spends at least 50 percent of a paycheck on the latest and greatest gear.)
"It's great to see that he's doing the comics again," said Sgt. Gregory Smith, an intelligence senior analyst at the United States Forces - Iraq Joint Operations Center. "They're entertaining and humorous because they're so true. If you spend even a couple of days in Iraq, you'll run into people that exactly fit those definitions."
Merrifield's company commander, Capt. Robert Bonham, is also enthusiastic about the potential.
"I can't wait to see what Staff Sgt. Merrifield has prepared for this deployment. I am positive he has some really unique ones started already...I was introduced to BOB on the FOB via the 'Good Idea Fairy' in 2007 and kept a stack on my desk until we deployed."
The comics aren't just popular with American troops.
"I was looking at the makeup of the Facebook group," he said, "And the comic is massive in the Canadian military; it blew my mind. And I like hearing from civilians; they say it reminds them of people they know.
"For the first time we have an all-volunteer force in combat, and there can be a real disconnect between the military and civilian populations," said Merrifield.
"Not everyone knows someone serving, there's no shared experience. So I'm making that connection through humor - that military life isn't that different. The same kinds of people, the same kinds of experiences are shared.
"And if you can't laugh at those, what's the point'"