Cartoonist Tom Rominger Draws a Bead on G.I. Gripes and Launches His Career as the Gulf War's 'Zorro'

updated 02/25/1991 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/25/1991 01:00AM

Air Force TSgt. Tom Rominger sidled into his office at military headquarters in Riyadh recently and discovered it, he says, in a state of "complete and total pandemonium." An incoming Scud, perhaps? A news flash from Wolf Blitzer? Nope, the uproar concerned the mysterious disappearance of allied commander Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf's favorite coffee mug. While MPs formed a search party, Rominger doodled on a sketch pad. The result: a drawing of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein sticking out his tongue while dropping the general's cherished cup.

The sketch is one in a series, signed with the nom de cartoon Zorro, which has been faxed and photocopied around the gulf theater ever since Rominger arrived at U.S. Central Command in Saudi Arabia last August. His black humor explores the flip side of Pentagon-approved press reports. Among his themes: boredom, Saudi bus drivers (whose murderous speed is rivaled only by their lack of control) and, of course, military food. One drawing shows a soldier who has been saved from an incoming round by the bulletproof cracker stuck in his breast pocket.

"I'm no Rembrandt or anything, but I've always loved to draw," says Rominger, 33, who grew up in Lake Hopatcong, N.J., and joined the Air Force after high school, giving up "a glamorous job at 7-Eleven slicing deli sandwiches for drunks at 3 A.M." Nowadays, the 6'5" computer-graphics specialist frequently corresponds with his wife, Helle, 27, a seamstress, and their three children in Tampa, Fla., by way of a sketch.

He might still be laboring in obscurity if a coworker hadn't sent a batch of Zorroisms to cartoonist Garry Trudeau's syndicator in New York City. The Doonesbury creator was sufficiently impressed to ask Rominger for permission to publish some samples of his work in Trudeau's own syndicated Sunday strip. Entitled "Living in Purgatory," five zaps from Zorro appeared in 600 newspapers nationwide.

One panel, "The Desert Shield Rotation Policy." showed a soldier being roasted over an open pit. Another, depicting a GI who has hanged himself in despair of receiving his mail, lampooned notorious gulf postal snafus. The mordant humor spurred a barrage of protest calls to Universal Press Syndicate, and one newspaper canceled Doonesbury outright. But the troops in the gulf couldn't care less. "Every war has its cartoonist," says Army Lt. Col. Mike Rodrigue, a Zorro fan, "and he's ours."

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