Dick Hafer's one-man advertising agency provides small businesses with an unusual service. The 45-year-old Maryland artist creates comic books or comic-strip advertisements to help his clients in their battles against what Hafer calls "the establishment."
The targets of Hafer's often satirical pen range from the Pentagon to the Federal Trade Commission to the U.S. Postal Service. For one client -- Julie Research Laboratories Inc. in New York City -- Hafer speared the U.S. Army with two pointed comic books that prompted government investigations of Army procurement policies.
Loebe Julie had been trying for years to get the Army to consider his calibration equipment, which he was convinced outperformed everything the government was buying from his brand-name competitors; the procurement office wouldn't even take a serious look. Finally Julie called on Hafer, who came up with You're Not Suposed to Get Mugged by Your Own Army! and Where Were You During the Coup? The publicity from the two comic books brought Hafer and his client national recognition from the press and a hearing from the U.S. Congress.
"It was a very technical, highly complicated story," Hafer says. "For six years, Congress wouldn't even talk to Julie, because they didn't understand the story. That's not surprising. Congressmen don't have time to wade through 30 pages of typewritten material. What I try to do is put the story on a very personal level -- one guy fighting the system."
The experience not only earned Julie several interviews with the Secretary of the Army, it also encouraged Hafer to quit his 15-year job as marketing and advertising manager for a small industrial equipment firm and strike out on his own. "I finally decided that I would never be happy until I was working for myself," he says.
In the year and a half since he opened his own ad agency, officially called Dick Hafer, The Comics Commando, Hafer has represented a Florida industrial park that was battling three city-council members over allegedly discriminatory water-meter readings, and a Northbrook, Ill., mail-order company fighting the Federal Trade Commission over alleged violation of mail-order rules. "The Bible sanctions righteous indignation," says Hafer, a churchgoing Baptist who spices his cartoons with sometimes un-Christian ridicule. His beliefs encourage him to champion underdogs, he explains.
Hafer also harnesses his indignation on behalf of conservative political causes. He has contributed graphics to publications produced by Richard Viguerie, the "New Right" direct-mail impresario, and will soon make a more direct move into politics with a comic book opposing the reelection campaign of a prominent Senate Democrat.
"Nothing irritates me more than people who don't get involved and then want to complain," Hafer says. "I suffer fools poorly."
Hafer has been cartooning since age five, when his closet contained more Walt Disney comic books than clothes. After high school, he worked for an advertising agency but managed to do cartooning on the side, including a three-year stint as a political cartoonist for the Bowie (Md.) Blade newspaper. At one point Hafer produced a "serious" comic book for his church on how to be a good steward. But the idea, he says, wasn't his. "Everything I have is from God," Hafer explains.
Most of his cartooning, though, is just plain commercial work, like the time Hafer took on the U.S. Post Office in Montgomeryville, Pa. Rental Tools & Equipment Co. Inc., Hafer's previous employer, had opened a branch plant in Pennsylvania but couldn't get postal service. If the firm wanted its mail delivered, it would have to use a North Wales, Pa., address, the Post Office said. The company argued, but the Postal Office was obstinate. Hafer wrote We Want Our Mail and circulated it to state and federal officials and to the newspapers. It had the desired effect. "We'll do whatever you want," Hafer says the Post Office said, "only stop sending that book around."
The Comics Commando's post is a converted carport in the lee of his suburban Maryland house, where Hafer lives with his wife and two of his three children. But his is no ordinary carport. It's a $10,000 converted carport with built-in cabinets and bookshelves, a skylight, and a picture window overlooking the wooded backyard and the above-ground pool. "I expect to make a very handsome living from this work," he says, estimating revenues this year, his second as a freelance comic hitman, at six figures. About three-quarters of that, he says, is pure profit.
Hafer may be for hire, but not by just anyone. Two congressmen asked him to do comic books for their upcoming reelection campaigns. "I turned them down. They were more liberal than I care to see in office."
He's never done a book for a major corporate client. "I'm not the corporate type. Small business is where I see my help needed."
Hafer will work by the hour, by the project, or on a contingency fee. He'll talk to anyone on the telephone, but he won't accept an assignment without a personal inspection of the potential client. For that alone he wants travel expenses and $500 a day. "Integrity -- that's important to me in a client," he says.
What makes Dick Hafer's work effective is simple and obvious -- once he points it out to you. "When people start to read my books, they finish them. Take any concept, whether it's a product, a service, a political candidate, or an idea. If you can get somebody to read what you have to say from beginning to end, that's worth money to people."
No one has sued him yet, though he had had one anonymous bomb threat, the fallout from a political cartoon in a local newspaper. And he's pretty sure his telephone is tapped. But Dick Hafer insists that he's a happy man. The Comics Commando, he says, is working to "stamp out bad buys and grouches all over the world."