Where It's Always Shark Week

Photo: Bryan Burris

Experts agree that the world's oceans are in serious trouble—polluted, overfished and stressed by climate change. But Jim Toomey finds humor even in these issues in his syndicated comic strip, Sherman's Lagoon, which stars a dimwitted shark and other coral reef dwellers in an imaginary Pacific community. For example, when a polar bear named Thornton floats by on a stray iceberg, Sherman observes that Arctic ice is melting fast and asks what it will take to shift from polar bear to beach bear. "Time. Sun. A little Botox," Thornton replies.

"With every strip I want to evoke a giggle and not alienate people," says Toomey, MLA '97. "When I take on an issue like finning [slicing fins off living sharks for shark fin soup, a delicacy in Asia], I try to show aspects like wastefulness that resonate with everyone, and subversively make readers more aware. People tune out when you tell them it's all their fault."

Toomey drew political cartoons as an engineering major at Duke University and later as a hobby while he worked designing museum exhibits in Virginia. He moved to California in his late 20s and worked for another museum company but decided that a comic strip could be a steady job if he could get syndicated. As he learned that most syndicates get around 2,000 submissions a year and accept only one or two, he decided to self-syndicate. Early clients included the Denver Post and Dallas Morning News. In 1991, he signed with Creators Syndicate, then jumped to King Features Syndicate in 1998. "They've been great. They grow the strip and expand it—I do nothing but work the crayons," Toomey says.

Along the way Toomey decided that more liberal-arts education would help make the strip more polished. "I took one English course while I was getting my engineering degree, so I didn't really know how to write, which is more than 50 percent of cartooning," he says. As a grad student at Stanford, he immersed himself in poetry and creative writing courses and explored his heritage with a 120-page thesis on the roots of the Irish Republican movement in America—not exactly a humorous topic, but one he calls "a great blast of reality."

Sherman's Lagoon now appears in more than 200 U.S., Canadian, Asian, Pacific and Caribbean newspapers. Sherman and his aquatic pals type on laptops, debate ethical issues and fret about their weight. "My overarching mission is to show that fish can be cuddly, Disney-esque characters," Toomey says. "We're used to seeing dogs and cats on the comic page, but sharks and rays live in a dark wet world that no one really pays attention to."

With the newspaper business in turmoil, Toomey is exploring ways to take his characters into new media. He's published 14 Sherman's Lagoon anthologies (the newest, Confessions of a Swinging Single Sea Turtle, appeared last fall) and draws posters and comic books for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the lead federal agency for ocean issues. Toomey co-developed a musical stage version of Sherman's Lagoon with former Stanford screenwriting instructor Winter Mead. And he's won awards from conservation groups who recognize that their movement could stand to lighten up a little.

It's not easy to address complicated problems in four panels, but Sherman's persona helps it work. The more complex ocean life becomes, the more bemused the shark becomes. Toomey compares Sherman to Chance, the naïve gardener of the novel and film Being There. "Sherman is kind of dumb, but he's wise in his own way," Toomey says. "He doesn't pretend to know it all, and that's valuable."