Jeff Bacon scribbles away, his pencil a blur on the notepad as it sits on his table. A general issue Navy notepad, with an even more modest pencil in his hand. The tools provided to the author of the Navy Times’ comic “Broadside” don’t seem to slow him down.
“It gets an idea across,” he says, his eyes precisely focused on his work as he creates the image before us. “My cartoons, my artwork, they’re about getting a point out there. It’s not perfect, but due to the familiarity that comes with Navy life, we can identify with the joke.”
Centered around a light table, Bacon’s collection of artisan supplies invokes thoughts of anarchy. Various inks, pens, pencils and paper lay askew, forming their own rebellion against any form of organization. Every piece, although unconventional, is where it needs to be for the retired Navy Captain.
Broad-shouldered and bare-headed, Bacon doesn’t quite fit the typical image of a cartoonist. Quick to laugh about his lack of hair, the correlation to him being a Navy man is easy to make.
“All I wanted to do was drive ships,” said Bacon. “While I was in school, I started doing little doodles in the margins like any other bored student. It wasn’t until the Frigate USS Cook (FF-1083) that I started really working on my drawing.”
Bacon had begun a career as a junior surface warfare officer on Cook, spending his time as many junior officers do, on watch.
“There was a dry erase board just outside of the Executive Officer’s stateroom,” he says. “I was 22 years old and there’s a board, with markers, just sitting there in the open. I’d wait till no one was around, do a quick graffiti sketch then get the heck out of dodge! The XO would get furious trying to figure it out. Of course when he did, my buddies would think I was a rock star because I just jammed up the XO.”
Bacon was forced to quit, but by that point he had obtained a small taste of a career he would carry with him for nearly 31 years.
It was six unique cartoons that cemented Bacon’s career in 1986. Urged on by his fellow officers, Bacon submitted his cartoons straight to the magazine publication the Navy Times. Oversized, under-edited and sketched by free-hand, the jokes were solid Navy humor. Gentle but stern comments on Navy life and the things that irk Sailors everywhere.
While on watch aboard Cook, Bacon received a surprise he had only dreamed of. The latest issue of Navy Times arrived and his cartoons were featured right alongside his favorite artists.
Bacon had found a unique level of satire with his work. Refusing to directly ridicule or scorn the trivial issues he came across, there was a balance found between a teasing joke and a good-natured jab at some of his fellow Sailors’ idiosyncrasies.
Thirty-one years later, Bacon continues cartooning despite having retired from the Navy. Once a week, he releases one hand-tailored strip for the Navy and one for the Marines through his website Broadside.net and Navy Times.
Bacon explained his mission simply, “In the Navy you have that inside humor, there are things always going on that can rub (people) the wrong way. You do a cartoon that irks everyone, gets a few laughs and maybe you might inspire some change with a few gentle pokes to the ribs. I’ve always loved the Navy, I love the people and the energy that comes with it. When I write the cartoons, I know who I’m trying to make laugh. I know my target audience, the people in uniform.”
Traveling to military bases across the globe, the work of a cartoonist and writer is never quite complete. Spending a considerable amount of his time refreshing his memory on Navy equipment and personnel, Bacon regularly rides along with ships on short visits during cruises and deployments for new cartoon ideas. This time, he flew on USS Nimitz (CVN 68) for an overnight visit as part of the Commander, Naval Airforces distinguished visitor program.
“Some of my jokes are from personal experience, but I’ve been out for 12 years,” he says. “My newer material is mostly what I hear and what I observe when I’m riding along. When you let Sailors talk, unguarded, you can get some real priceless stuff out of them.”
Surprisingly, despite his successes after retiring, Bacon still feels like he’s never completely transitioned back to civilian life. Speaking on his feeling of relevance while on deployment, there’s a difficulty in replacing that feeling in the civilian world.
“When you’re in, you have a sense of purpose, you’re serving your country, defending your family and friends,” said Bacon. “When you get out of the military, if you’re discharged because you got hurt or injured and you’re not ready to leave yet, you have this sense of purpose that’s lacking.”
Bacon works with several organizations such as the National Cartoonists Society and the USO to help in giving back to current and former service members who feel the same way.
Despite his light hearted jokes, Bacon has a somber reminder for the Sailors who have long since earned their salt and those who are just now joining the branch that commands the sea.
“Remember that what you do is important. It means everything to the country and the civilians in it. There’s a power you represent, both off our coasts and overseas,” said Bacon. “When you’re down in the mess decks or buried under paperwork in an office, you may forget, but everyone’s got their piece to play. We’re proud of you and we’re thankful for you keeping our families safe.”
Story by MC3 Samuel Bacon