5 Questions with Cartoonist Jim Toomey

Jim Toomey says he works alone, but muses Sherman the shark and Fillmore the sea turtle beg to differ. Photo courtesy of Jim Toomey.

Jim Toomey, who says two of his favorite things to watch on television as a kid were “Peanuts” and Jacques Cousteau programs, offers up inspiring messages about ocean conservation along with plenty of quirky humor in the comic strip “Sherman’s Lagoon.”

Sherman, a great white shark, shares undersea adventures with his pals including camping in a kelp forest and surprising encounters with ocean trash.  Countering the traditional fear factor around sharks, Sherman is “Homer Simpson with fins,” says Toomey. We called the cartoonist to find out more.

1. When did your idea for an ocean-themed cartoon begin?

I started drawing caricatures of teachers back in 2nd or 3rd grade. I switched from teachers to sea critters after a family trip to the Bahamas when I was 12. My dad was a former navy pilot, and we had a family Cessna instead of a family station wagon.

When we flew to the Bahamas, it was the first time I’d seen the ocean from the air. I saw sharks and manta rays. And that’s when I realized the ocean has so much texture and detail. My fascination with the ocean began on that trip.

2. What’s the best thing about being a cartoonist?

I always explain to people that it’s not as sexy as you might imagine. Think about the nuts and bolts:  you’re alone in a room filling in a blank piece of paper. Trying to guess at what will make someone laugh is difficult. But it’s a very unstructured job, so you can get into other things. I care about issues like overfishing and marine debris, and as a member of the ocean conservation community I lend a lot of time and effort to helping educate people.  Of course, the opportunity to make a shark talk is a lot of fun!

3. Why did you choose a great white shark as your main character?

I was obsessed with sharks the way many kids are with dinosaurs; they captured my imagination. Sharks today are the same as they were 300 million years ago. They provoke terror and mystique. Great whites are probably the most charismatic of more than 300 species.

For a long time, I thought I was the only person excited about sharks. Then “Jaws” came along and everyone was into them. But when I saw the movie when I was 15 or 16, I was the only one in the theater rooting for the shark.

I’d been drawing this character forever in the margins of my books; when I decided to create the comic, I just had to give him a name.

4. How does humor help convey deadly serious topics like shark finning (the practice of removing a shark’s fins and throwing the body back in the ocean)?

Nowadays people are overwhelmed with information. It’s not like it used to be, when Jacques Cousteau was on television a couple of times a year. So the challenge is how to take a message to the public that’s got a little substance, but that has enough sweetness in the coating to get people to swallow the pill.

Humor—and entertainment in general—makes a good coating. Comics have a political origin, so it’s okay to be a little bit topical and political.

5. Can you tell us about Sherman’s finning experience?

Shark finning is wasteful and cruel, and needs to end.  Sherman is the perfect vehicle for that message. He is sitting in a Chinese restaurant when he gets a fortune about being scooped up by a trawler. His fortune comes true: He’s caught, finned, dumped into the ocean and dies. So he goes to heaven and meets St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, who says, “We have way too many sharks, we’re sending you back.” (An estimated 70 million sharks are killed yearly.)

Sherman doesn’t have his fins, but his fish friend Ernest is an internet whiz and notices that shark fins are sold on the web. He clicks the “BUY NOW” button and orders some. The fins arrive by courier, and they sew them back on. All’s well in the end—for Sherman, at least.

Learn more while watching Jim Toomey draw awesome ocean characters in this video from TED.com.

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