The writing on the wall

By Dom Cioffi

In the early 1940s, as World War II was raging in Europe, a young man named James J. Kilroy was hired to work as a riveter at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Mass.

Kilroy was a diligent worker who took pride in each day’s accomplishments. At the time, the builders were paid by the number of rivets they secured in a given shift. Chalk was generally used to mark the spot where one riveter’s day ended and another’s began. However, dishonest workmen would often erase the chalk line of another employee and move it back in order to claim a larger area.

To combat this unethical practice, Kilroy began to apply his name in bold letters to the spot where he stopped, i.e.“Kilroy was here.”

Because the ensuing war demanded little delay in the delivery of supplies and materials, many times ships were released into battle before they had a chance to be painted, which left Kilroy’s signature in tact. Later, when sealed areas were opened for maintenance, soldiers began to see Kilroy’s reccurring name. The phrase began to be associated with a well-checked ship while serving as a protective talisman in the minds of nervous sailors.

Later, on battlefields and occupied areas, soldiers began writing the phrase whenever an applicable spot popped up, i.e the foundation of a bombed-out building.

Curiously, at the same time the phrase “Kilroy was here” was appearing, a reccurring doodle was making its way across the battlefields of Europe. This simplistic piece of graffiti featured a bald man with a large nose peering over a wall with the fingers of each hand clutching the wall. Soldiers referred to the character as “Chad” or “Mr. Chad.”

At some point during the war, Chad and Kilroy merged and an icon was born. The joining of these two images was a poignant metaphor for the Allied unity that eventually helped with the war.

Of course, this was all unknown to me as a child growing up in the 1970s. And yet I was quite familiar with Kilroy.

He appeared on postcards from exotic locations; he appeared on tags attached to Christmas presents; he appeared on letters while I was away at camp; he appeared on my brown paper bag school lunches; he even appeared on the fogged-up mirror in the bathroom.

My mother, who has always been a closet artist, couldn’t help labeling things with her Kilroy signature. It was her go-to doodle and to this day whenever I see it, it immediately conjures up pleasant childhood memories.

I’ve always pointed to this doodle as the original motivation for becoming an artist myself.

Over time, I dropped the lettering and morphed the character into my own creation, whom I affectionately called “Fred.” And following my mother’s lead, I drew it everywhere–even places I shouldn’t have.

Fred appeared on notebooks and desktops and the insides of the stalls in the men’s room. He was known to pop up on blank blackboards and driveways and even the occasional dirty window of a car. At one point I even got detention for drawing a 6-foot tall Fred on the wall outside our school.

As the years progressed, my doodle morphed again into another character, whom I named “Digby.”

Digby consumed me. I filled sketchbooks with him doing everything from snowboarding to hang gliding. Every time I sat down to relax, I found myself instinctually drawing Digby.

At the same time, I was also writing this weekly column, which I was also quite passionate about. It didn’t take long for me to realize that these two passions would eventually have to merge.

And so, on the eve of New Year’s many moons ago, I made a vow that I would write a children’s book featuring Digby. Twelve months later I completed my first manuscript.

That first Digby book was a regional success and inspired a second book that also found moderate success.

Eventually life got in the way and Digby’s importance waned. But not a week goes by where I’m not inspired to fill an empty space with his Kilroy-ish face – usually on the foggy shower door or my son’s school notebook.

This week’s feature, “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water,” is based on a character that another man filled notebooks with prior to its becoming one of the most popular cartoon icons of the last 15 years.

In his second feature-length film, SpongeBob makes his way to the surface world to locate the lost recipe for the hallowed Krabby Paddy.

My son has been a fan of the SpongeBob series for his entire life, so by default I have seen nearly every episode at least five times. And I must admit, he remains one of my all-time favorite cartoon characters.

This is a fun, contemporary romp that will obviously appeal to children but is surprisingly entertaining for adults as well. Check this one out with a crew of youngsters in tow and you’re guaranteed to have a great time full of laughs.

A squishy “B” for “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water.”

Got a question or comment for Dom? You can email him at

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