Jim Toomey, Creator of Sherman's Lagoon

17 October 2002

    You wouldn’t think that hungry, sharp-toothed man-eating sharks could be funny, would’ya? Or that ugly bottom-feeders in the murky depths of the ocean floor might do anything remotely amusing? Are you shaking your head no? Well then, you haven’t seen Sherman’s Lagoon.

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Placed in glorious but imaginary South Pacific islands off Micronesia, Sherman’s Lagoon features Sherman, a Great White Shark, whose hilarious, and hungry, behaviour makes for an uproarious comic strip. His friendly demeanour may spare the “hairless apes” swimming in the water one day, or dine on them for lunch the next. Have you noticed a shark in pearls? That’s Megan, Sherman’s wife.  She is thinking of going into the polymer business with Hawthorne, a crabby little creature. Really crabby – he’s a Hermit Crab and joyously lives up to his title.

    The Sherman’s Lagoon comic strip has it all – a summer camp for the fry, an undersea newspaper edited by a sharply witty little sea turtle named Fillmore, computers and a young computer nerd, comfortable homes and a one-legged sea captain trying to catch the Great White Shark… Sherman’s Lagoon is a detailed and complete world of invention under the ocean. There is even a bottom dweller who eats everything, absolutely everything that lands on the ocean floor. Guns included.

    Using a shark for the star of Sherman’s Lagoon was no random act for creator Jim Toomey. Being one of those students who couldn’t resist drawing during class, Toomey drew a shark much like Sherman in his textbooks and notebooks when he was in grade school. His family took regular trips to numerous beaches from their home in Virginia. Toomey’s father, a WWII pilot who continued to fly after the war, took his family by Cessna to the beautiful shores of the Bahamas, where sea life and in particular, a shark in a lagoon, caught his son’s attention. “Little did I know that I would retain that image and base a career on that very shark,” said Toomey in a Northwest Diver interview. *(1)

    Jim Toomey took the round-about way to his career a cartoonist. He graduated in 1983 with a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Duke University, working afterwards part-time with a Virginia engineering company. Having drawn cartoons for his school newspaper while a student, in 1983, Toomey also began a six-year stint of drawing political cartoons for two daily Virginia newspapers.

    Since neither job filled his wallet properly, Toomey joined the Merchant Marine for a short time, then moved to San Francisco to build custom displays for museum exhibits and trade shows. He also delved into creating a comic strip. To find names for the comic characters, Toomey used alliteration with Shark to arrive at Sherman. He appropriated the San Francisco street names of Fillmore and Hawthorne for two more characters – and found there was also a Sherman street there too.

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    Under self-syndication, the innovative Sherman’s Lagoon made its debut on May 13, 1991 in California’s Escondito Times-Advocate. The cartoonist made wide-ranging success on his own, gaining publication in 17 newspapers including the Denver Post and even the Hawaiian Honolulu Star-Bulletin before a syndicate scooped up the hilarious strip. Creators Syndicate signed Toomey to a seven-year contract in the fall of 1991. In 1998, Sherman’s Lagoon moved to King Features Syndicate with a chuckling fan base in more than 200 newspapers.

    Certified as a diver since age 12, Jim Toomey is very familiar with underwater life and settings. He has been on dives around the world, with turtles in Tanzania, sharks in Belize and in kelp forests off of northern California, just to list a few places. Though his cartoon is highly humourous, he is serious about the underwater ecosystem and the risks it, and the sharks, must survive. Over-fishing and coastal development are his prime concerns.

    Discovery Channel Productions shined the spotlight on Toomey and Sherman’s Lagoon in 2000 by filming him at work in his studio for “Shark Week.” The cartoonist helped to put a more realistic spin on sharks, rather than the threatening, fearsome creatures people have come to believe. When the rare shark attacks do occur, the cartoonist is careful to avoid poking any fun at man-eatings in the strip. *(2)
Ordinary life experience is the inspiration for Sherman’s Lagoon and “What readers relate to the most are subjects that are very ordinary,” Toomey said in the Washington Post’s Live Online in May, 2002. He prefers to write the gag lines before starting the artwork, so half of his week is spent writing, then he tackles the drawings. He uses the last two days of the week to make the final art. Most recently, he is putting energy into creating a new comic strip, this one set on land with people.

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    Along with the Discovery Channel, the comic strip has received praise from oceanographic groups. The Coral Reef Alliance diving group loves the cartoon and reads it frequently, and Harvard biology professor Bob Woollacott found that “Toomey’s strip sets an important, upbeat tone for my undergraduate course in marine biology.”

    Lagoon fans can find an ocean of fun in the first two Sherman’s Lagoon books, “Sherman’s Lagoon: At That, What’s Next?” 1997 by Andrews & McMeel, and “Poodle: The Other White Meat” in 1999. More laughter can be found in several other books, including the newest "Sherman's Lagoon 1991 - 2001: Greatest Hits and Near Misses" also by Andrews & McMeel, 2002.

    Jim Toomey resides on the waterfront in California with his wife Valerie. He feeds beef to pet sharks that live just off his dock. Of course.

Jim Toomey’s home website of Sherman’s Lagoon:
http://www.slagoon.com

Interview with Jim Toomey on Northwest Diver:
*(1)northwestdiver.com/features/ (Link no longer functional)

Live Online Chat with Jim Toomey:
*(2) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/liveonline/02/style/comics040502.htm

© Susanna McLeod 2002
TheCartoonists.ca  
     
(Originally published in The Cartoonists on suite101.com.)