Saturday, 30 January 2010 16:03 Jim Toomey and Sherman's Lagoon
Written by Ava

This American syndicate cartoonist is now proud to call himself a marine conservationist, too.  Thanks to the popularity of his syndicated comic strip, Sherman's Lagoon, which features marine animals under the sea trying to get along with each other, Jim Toomey is now educating himself and the rest of the world on the issues facing our marine environment.

In the mean time, his cartoon strip, Sherman's Lagoon, is distributed by King Features Syndicate and now appears in over 250 newspapers in North America and over 30 foreign countries.  That's 250 more newspapers that people will read to get to know more about the dilemmas facing our ocean and marine life (while enjoying a fun cartoon at the same time) and 30 more foreign countries that will be aware of the issues facing our marine world.

In one of our most fun interviews to date, we're proud to have had the chance to interview the creator of this well-recognized comic strip, Jim Toomey, who has plans for scuba diving, is developing a children's book, and is involved in a major grassroots campaign spreading awareness of ocean conservation.

Like Sherman, Jim has also brightened our day!

Tell me about yourself and your career before and after comic strips like Sherman’s Lagoon.

I grew up in Alexandria, VA, and eventually went off to Duke to get a degree in mechanical engineering, which was a family tradition for the boys going back several generations.  At Duke, I drew a regular political cartoon for the campus paper, and that’s where I really learned how to cartoon.  After college, I moved back to Alexandria and went to work at a company that built custom museum exhibits, not as an engineer per se, but more of a project manager.  At the time, I also dabbled in political cartooning for the  local paper there  -  the Alexandria Gazette.  After a couple of years I grew tired of political cartooning and decided to start a comic strip.  I moved to California and got to work immediately with drawing and self-syndicating the strip, “Sherman’s Lagoon.”  I drew on my first love of the ocean when looking for a theme for the strip.  

Where did this interest in the marine world come from? It doesn’t look like you studied it at all in college.

The love of the sea came from my early childhood trips to the beach, which was the highlight of my summer.  There, I would see all kinds of sea life.  Things the fishermen caught on the pier, things that were washed ashore, and things crawling and swimming around.  I thought it was a much more interesting world than the land world.  Jacques Cousteau helped, too. 

Tell me about the creation of Sherman’s Lagoon, what it is, and how it became so popular.

As I mentioned above, I started the strip by self-syndicating, which means that instead of going through a big distributor, I approached the newspaper directly to buy the strip.  I did reasonably well in that effort, getting about 15 newspapers to run the strip daily.  Eventually, I signed a contract with a distributor (called  a “syndicate” in the newspaper business) and they started selling it to more papers, and gradually, my readership grew over almost 20 years.  It all happened pretty slowly.

What is the premise behind Sherman’s Lagoon and how does it educate kids, people on marine biology?

SL is a comic strip that features undersea creatures that all struggle to get along with one another.  In a way, it’s representative of a real reef, where sharks and sea turtles don’t exactly get along, but at another level, it’s really about people, and how different kinds of people interact.  The Shark, Sherman, is not all that intelligent, but he’s got a lot of talents in areas that sharks excel at… particularly eating anything he wants, which gives him a certain amount of respect.  There’s a pensive sea turtle named Fillmore, a grouchy hermit crab names Hawthorne, and other characters.

Why is it important to educate the world on what’s happening to our marine world?

The ocean is a place that we personally spend much time in or near.  We don’t see the damage we’re doing to it.  The depleted fisheries and the destroyed coastal systems.  Through the strip, I hope to bring people closer to the ocean and make them more aware of the fact that it’s 71% of our planet, and it plays a vital role in our survival as a planet.

Has doing the Sherman’s Lagoon comic strips made you more aware and active of marine conservation? How so?

Yes.  Because my strip is one of the more established and visible media properties out there that regularly features ocean creatures, I get contacted a lot to make more “public service announcements.”  Though I can’t really do that in a comic strip, I do try to weave some kind of environmentally themed story into a comic format and hopefully deliver some entertainment and humor at the same time.  In researching new stories for the strip, I have developed a fascination and love for the ocean environment.

Which marine animal, coral, or plant do you feel is most in danger at this present time?

Sharks are in particular danger at the moment, and many species have been reduced to 5 or 10% of their historical populations.  Sharks are being killed because their fins in particular are extremely valuable in the Asian markets for soup.  Coral reefs are also in danger in many parts of the world because the extra CO2 in the atmosphere has created a colossal chemical reaction that produces acid in seawater.  Ocean acification and warming waters have been very destructive to coral reefs.

What is the Blue Frontier Campaign and how are you involved?

I sit on the board of directors.  BFC gets involed in a lot of grassroots campaigns to bring more awareness to the public about ocean conservation issues.  BFC just put on a “Wear Blue Day,” January 13, which involved lots of people wearing blue clothing in about a dozen cities around the country.  The purpose was to encourage Congress and the president to adopt better ocean policies.  I devoted a few cartoons to wearing blue that week.

Tell me about your other creative works outside of Sherman’s Lagoon?

I’ve been helping with the production of the SL musical, which premiered last year in California.  You can hear some of the music if you go to the website and follow the links.  I am working on getting the production to a stage in San Francisco.  Should be fun.

What are your future plans in the world of comic strips and marine life?

I’d like to get into shooting some videos.  It would combine my hobby of scuba diving with my quirky take on marine life.  Since the future of the newspaper business is looking a little shaky, I am casting about looking for other ways to keep Sherman alive.  Online cartoons have not yet developed a business model.  I’m also developing a children’s book, which will keep me busy this year.  Not based on SL but a new character.

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