Q&A: Sherman’s Lagoon Cartoonist Jim Toomey on Ocean Conservation with Comics

Posted by KristenM on September 12th, 2017

by Kristen Minogue

Artist with cartoon shark and cartoon sea turtle looking over his shoulder

Cartoonist Jim Toomey with two of his characters, Sherman the shark and Fillmore the sea turtle. (Image courtesy of Jim Toomey)

Since 1997, a great white shark named Sherman has put a wacky spin on life underwater in the comic strip Sherman’s Lagoon. Jim Toomey, the comic’s creator and conservationist, uses Sherman and his (usually more intelligent) friends to reveal real issues facing the ocean. In this Q&A, Toomey describes adding humor to environmentalism, and what happens when Sherman’s Lagoon meets Chesapeake Bay. Edited for brevity and clarity.

Want to dive deeper? Watch Jim Toomey’s TED Talk online. You can also meet Toomey at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center October 17 at 7pm, for his free evening lecture, “Drawing Inspiration from the Sea.” Details here.

What first sparked your interest in the sea?

I was a little boy, maybe six, seven, eight years old….Some of the TV shows I used to watch, the Jacques Cousteau specials and things were somewhat unique. And it just fascinated me. It really captured my imagination to see this team of scientists explore this completely alien world.

Where did the idea for Sherman’s Lagoon start?

One of the most vivid memories I have in my childhood is going down to the Bahamas. My father was a pilot in the service, so we had a little private plane….

[One day] we flew over a lagoon, and there was a shark in it sunning itself. I remember that image vividly. So this concept of a discrete little living area like a lagoon, which is great for recurring comedy—if you look at any sitcom, it usually takes place at some hangout or some place, and characters always go back to that place. And I thought, “If I’m going to create an underwater comic strip, I need some kind of discrete living area, and the ocean’s too big. So I need this self-contained place where all these crazy things can happen.” That’s where I came up with the lagoon concept.

Who is your favorite character?

My heart really still goes out to Sherman. When I write Sherman, I really kind of put a lot of myself in it. I can relate to Sherman in a lot of ways. Sherman is a little, not quite well adapted to the real world…The one who’s easiest to write for is the crab, Hawthorne. He’s always cranky and complaining, and that point of view is a very easy point of view to write for. And I think a lot of people can relate to someone who’s crabby and cranky a lot.

I do enjoy [Sherman’s wife] Megan a lot. She’s probably the strongest character in the whole group. Very no-nonsense, probably the straight character, the Hardy of Laurel and Hardy, the Desi of Desi and Lucy. She’s the one who brings everybody back down to earth.

Who does the audience latch onto most?

Probably the crab, probably Hawthorne. I think a broader cross section of people can relate to a complainer more than a philosopher or a clown.

Fillmore [the sea turtle], he’s the philosopher. And he’s probably the most difficult for me to write for, because he has the gentle touch. And humor oftentimes isn’t a gentle art form. Sometimes it’s a pie in the face. Sometimes it’s a sharp rebuke, or a cynical remark or observation or whatever. But it’s rarely subtle and soft. Although it’s important to have that element in your cast, I don’t really use him a whole lot for the gag lines.

Most of Sherman’s Lagoon takes place in the open ocean. How do issues in Chesapeake Bay differ from issues in the open ocean?

The big three here in Chesapeake Bay would be the agricultural runoff, the loss of coastal habitat and invasive species….I have taken the characters to the Bay a few times. I did address invasive species in one of my latest times there. I had a snakehead pass through the strip.

Four-panel black and white comic strip

Sherman’s Lagoon comic from Oct. 1, 2012. (Credit: Jim Toomey)

How would the comic be different, if Sherman were a sandbar shark in Chesapeake Bay instead of a great white shark in the open ocean?

He’d certainly have different friends. He wouldn’t have a hermit crab and a sea turtle. So maybe it would be a blue crab friend, who’s probably more cantankerous than a hermit crab….I might have a terrapin instead of a sea turtle, or I’d throw a rockfish in there. You’d take some of the charismatic species, and some of the species that are fun to cartoon. The cast would be different, but I think just as much fun to write for. The water wouldn’t be as clear—I don’t know how I’d deal with that one. It would be green panels every time!

What do you wish more people understood about the ocean?

It’s interrelated. The things that happen to the ocean and in the ocean have influenced our lives, even if we live very far from the ocean. The fact that the ocean produces half the oxygen we breathe, for example, or the fact that we’re upstream communities, no matter how far inland we live. So if we throw things like pharmaceuticals or plastic bottles into our waste stream, it will end up influencing the ocean. So we’re all coastal communities in a way…

I also firmly believe that environmental issues are not a partisan message….Environmentalism is really all about preserving things for future generations. It’s about sustainability, it’s about the precautionary principle, sustainable business—these are values I think both the left and the right can embrace.

 

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