MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. --
Surrounded by decades of cartoons that amount to countless characters and their antics, the retired Marine hung up not only his military cover but artwork on his walls, has them spread out on his desk and filed away in his studio – two lifelong dedications that defined his path, and something his family embraced. Charles Wolf shared a glimpse into his life as a Marine, the humble beginnings and creations of comical cartoons, and the lifelong connection between the two.
SemperToons, “Always Toons,” is a morale-boosting cartoon that makes light of the challenging, yet humorous, times of the Marine Corps and occasionally other services. Dedicated to making the world laugh, Wolf crafts the narrative of his cartoons, so all service members and their families can relate to the stories and share them.
Rocking the iconic jarhead high-and-tight haircut, Wolf grinned and said, “I draw for all. My ultimate goal is to reach more Marines, their families, and those in the world who want to understand the fun side of the military.”
Wolf, a corporal and an infantry assault Marine at the time, drew everywhere he went. Whether it was out in the field or in the barracks, the stocky young leatherneck found time to create comedic morale.
He drew for the enjoyment of his fellow Marines and never went anywhere without his plastic bag filled with lead, colored pencils and his favorite ctrl. ‘Z’ eraser – a cylindrical undo button.
After a 10-month deployment to the Gulf of Oman, during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the combat veteran was sent to Quantico to be an instructor at The Basic School (TBS) where newly commissioned Marine officers learn necessary skills to lead Marines in combat situations.
While at TBS, he was promoted to sergeant. He continued to share his cartoons with the other Marines. One of them encouraged him to submit his cartoons to Leatherneck Magazine for monthly display; he received $25 for every strip. At the same time, Navy Times featured his artwork, then followed the Marine Corps Times. Working tirelessly, he also saw an ad in the base newspaper, the Quantico Sentry, asking for cartoon strips. He acted quickly, and his art was accepted for weekly submission.
The wacky misadventures of these wide-eyed Marines and their ‘punny’ actions were officially up and running; they featured all ages, ranks and occupational specialties with a humorous insight into the life of Marines.
While an instructor, Wolf discovered an occupational specialty related to his passion, a graphics specialist, and laterally moved into it from the infantry field, though not immediately.
“They didn’t want to let me go,” he said laughing, speaking of the administrators in charge of moving infantry assault Marines to different locations. He had to get permission to leave, and this occurred the same time he had to move to another base, Camp Pendleton, California. The passion for his art remained the same, even when he arrived to deploy for six months with 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Division.
“During my lunch breaks, I would go to pay phones with a pocket full of quarters and call every base in the Marine Corps,” Wolf said as he glanced at his toon-decorated desk. “The calls to Okinawa, Japan, were expensive, but I still called.”
He was eventually cleared to transition to graphics illustrator but had to spend six months of on the job training before he earned that title. He explained it was a natural fit for him and wasn’t too difficult to adjust to the work. It was during this time he returned to the Quantico Sentry as the weekly cartoonist. The editor wanted to know what to call his cartoon, and Wolf instinctively exclaimed, “SemperToons!”
“I didn't even have to think about it,” the cartoonist said with a chuckle. “It just sort of came out.”
He found success in the new job, getting promoted to staff sergeant and gunnery sergeant, the rank he retired in 2007. Soon after, he and his wife, Amy, expanded their business to a SemperToons Store, a room on the second floor of the Quantico Marine Corps Exchange.
Years before this milestone, when Wolf was still an active duty Marine in 1996, Marine Corps Community Service (MCCS) did not allow the sales of merchandise by active duty personnel and their families in the exchange system. But after Amy wrote the director of MCCS, the policy was changed paving the way for Wolf and Amy to sell their witty artwork, and also opened the doors to other active duty service members and their families.
Overcoming that obstacle gave them the publicity to set the stage for SemperToons, Wolf explained.
“The machine was starting to move a little bit, getting recognition, and just bringing morale to the world,” Wolf said with a smile. “It was like a sense of accomplishment for me; every time I drew a SemperToon I knew it was going to help somebody out there.”
General Niel E. Nelson, a retired Marine from Marine Corps Combat Development Command aboard Quantico, came across the cartoonist in his section where he stopped to admire his handiwork. The two Marines struck a conversation about the many styles of art Wolf could draw. From there, Wolf took on the task of making portraits of the various student classes at Command and Staff, Expeditionary Warfare School and Senior Enlisted Schools.
“His artwork is proudly displayed by Marines, sailors, airmen, soldiers and foreign officers around the world,” Nelson said proudly. “In fact, Maj. Gen. Jin Ha Hwang, who was the commanding general of the 2nd Republic of Korean Division in 2013, was very proud of his time with the Marines in Quantico and displayed Mr. Wolf’s work prominently on his office wall.”
Wolf’s animated journey led him to the creation of his first book, “Welcome to the real world devil dog,” a collection of silly, two-dimensional Marines and their satirically relatable lives in the military. Next thing he knew, there were several loads of heavy boxes, full of books, throughout the house. It was a very proud accomplishment for the Wolf family, he said reminiscently.
In addition to the accomplishments of the jolly Marine and Amy, the Wolf family was blessed with another member to their team, a healthy baby boy, whom they named Joshua. One year after Joshua’s birth, the seasoned devil dog retired from the Corps to spend more time with his family. Although the retirement helped with necessary family time, his art career continued to consume, what seemed to him, just as much time.
“Trying to keep up with demand was challenging but a dream come true,” Wolf said. “I knew I had to keep doing it though.”
Soon after he published his second book, “It’s a Marine Thing,” Wolf felt the burden of time dealt due to artwork. Having spent almost 16 years working 12-to 16-hour days drawing for morale, he dedicated his time to his family as his son turned six and placed his career in the back seat while Joshua continued to grow.
Since then, the Wolf family has taken many vacations across America and collaborated on their own original cartoons, such as BalloonToonz, CrossRoadz, Heart to Heart and D.I. Crusher. They motivated one another to continue the path that Wolf set for his family.
Although retired from the Marine Corps, Wolf continues to provide his much needed expertise for the Corps as a graphic illustrator and production specialist for the Communication Strategy and Operations section aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia. “I get to help the Marine Corps as much as I can,” said Wolf about the work he does designing graphics, videos and creating his comics.
Wolf's art continues to extend beyond the office and has become a true family affair. Even Joshua, now 12 years old, has grown fond of art. He said he specifically enjoys drawing cartoons with his father and helps him create SemperToon ideas and brainstorms their antics. He recently drew a Star Wars cartoon for the National Museum of the Marine Corps, following closely in Wolf’s entrepreneurial artistic ways.
Wolf calls Joshua the art director, and exclaimed, “He's better than I was when I was his age.” “Now there are two people in fighting position for SemperToons drawing.”
“I am not as good at drawing as [my dad], but I have a wilder imagination than him. He has always taught me to be positive in all I do,” Joshua admitted. “If it’s unlikely, at least it’s not impossible.”
Throughout the 24-year-long journey of the retired gunnery sergeant and his cartoons, Wolf and his family stayed true to the spirit of his work, emulating the Marine Corps’ motto, Semper Fidelis: always faithful.
*SemperToons may be viewed each Sunday and special occasions throughout the year on Marine Corps Base Quantico’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts.