‘Sherman’s Lagoon’ creator discusses science and the environment
by Bill Chameides | August 30th, 2012
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)
Jim Toomey tackles the practice of shark finning in his comic strip 'Sherman's Lagoon.' See video below for more on the series.
The second of 2 posts on cartoonist Jim Toomey (Duke B.S.M.E. ’83, M.E.M. ’08).
“Sherman’s Lagoon” is a comic strip created by Nicholas School alumnus Jim Toomey that features two great white sharks, a green sea turtle, a hermit crab and a generic fish. TheGreenGrok Skyped Jim recently to talk about his work, his characters, and the ocean setting.
Last time we dove into his early career before and after Duke as well as his love affair with the ocean. Today we learn how he weaves science and sustainability into the strip. We end the interview, appropriately, by asking which sea critters he’d use if he had to cast Barack Obama and Mitt Romney as ocean dwellers.
Interview with ‘Sherman’s Lagoon’ creator Jim Toomey
Below is an edited transcript and audio podcast of the interview as well as a video of Jim discussing two environmentally themed series from his comic strip.
TheGreenGrok: I understand, Jim, that you’re not a scientist. But it’s certainly apparent that you have knowledge of science and the ocean. For instance, you talked a little about Fillmore and the annual migration to Ascension Island. And one thing I love are these little nuggets of info like that sprinkled throughout. I think I read, right, that hermit crabs when they spawn there are thousands of them. And of course the sea horse pregnancy. It’s the male sea horse that is the one that carries baby sea horses. So I wonder how you go about fitting these types of things into the comic strip.
Toomey: Well, I love looking for odd facts like that, like the seahorse. And what makes it odd by my definition, and what makes it really good fodder for cartoon, is if it goes against our notions as a human.
There’s certainly a lot of odd things out there in marine biology, but humans can’t really relate to bioluminescence, for example, but they can relate to carrying children. So I try to pick these things in marine biology that have a direct human corollary, but maybe they are completely the opposite. Or maybe they’re similar.
For example, Sherman and Megan are great white sharks, right, and there’s a lot of work being done on the California coast. Another Duke grad, Barbara Block, who is at Stanford now, is doing work tagging these sharks that swim out to what’s called the great white shark café, which is a couple hundred miles off the California coast. They’re not quite sure what goes on out there. It’s a very difficult place to get to and work on, work with, but I created a series around that, because it sort of reminded me of shark couples going on vacation or shark couples getting away from their usual haunt. (Read more about the actual great white shark cafe, thought possibly to be a spot for foraging or mating, here and here.)
So I look for these quirky little marine biology facts that really have some kind of human corollary, and then it’s really easy. It sort of writes itself.
TheGreenGrok: What about the nexus between your storytelling and sustainability?
Toomey: Sure, sometimes, as it pertains to the marine environment. Sustainability fisheries, for example, I’ve done not that many, maybe a handful of strips on sustainable fishing. I did one strip, for example, where Sherman was looking for a fish to eat and Hawthorne the hermit crab said you shouldn’t eat the bluefin tuna because they’re very endangered; you shouldn’t eat this, you shouldn’t eat that. It’s okay to eat this Pacific sockeye salmon. I was trying to point out to the readership that you do have an impact as a consumer of seafood.
And I’m not trying to preach that, I’m just trying to maybe stimulate that conversation over the breakfast table. I really, really have to avoid preaching, because you lose your audience very quickly.
TheGreenGrok: What I love about the way you work in these environmental issues it’s like you’re turning the tables on the species.
Toomey: That’s sort of the technique I’ve picked up from Gary Larson, Far Side. All he does is simply take a human activity and flip it completely around. Bears hunting hunters or whatever. And it’s just instantly funny.
TheGreenGrok: It’s like we’re looking at our own behavior but through another species doing it. Course, it’s much easier to laugh at ourselves, perhaps, that way.
More from ‘Sherman’s Lagoon’ Series on Shark Finning
TheGreenGrok: When you dive, do you get ideas down there for the strip? Try to figure out how you’d riff on the interactions you see with the sea life down there?
Toomey: I do. The difference between looking a documentary footage of the underwater world and being there is that you can spend a lot of time just sitting in one place watching a fish, and watching fish behavior, and that’s a lot of fun for me as a diver. To just kind of sit there and Zen out; just look at a particular part of the reef and not move and try to make minimal movement and minimal sounds so that the animals don’t feel disrupted. And it’s there that I kind of imagine my characters and try to see, is this animal behavior, does this grouper look like he’s grocery shopping, for example. So I try to anthropomorphize a little bit and I try to observe animal behavior, which is the best thing for me to do when I’m diving.
TheGreenGrok: One last question, and this kind of ties it back to the beginning of the interview when you talked about how you started a little bit with more political leaning and more of a political bent to your drawings. If you had to make Mitt Romney and Barack Obama as sea creatures, which would they be?
Toomey: Oh, wow. Good question. I have never thought of that actually. Mitt would probably be something big and lumbering like a walrus. I’m not sure what I would make Barack, though. (pause) He could be an octopus, as a matter of fact.
Post-interview closing thought
So there you have it. I know what I’ll be on the look for in Sherman’s Lagoon. The appearance of two new characters: Romalamadingdong the walrus and Obabadubop the octopus.
Jim Toomey Discusses Two Series Developed in His Strip [VIDEO]
Read the first post in the series.
Jim Toomey Introduces Sherman and Fillmore [VIDEO]
Jim Toomey Discusses His Series on Plastic Pollution [VIDEO]
and: Duke University, Jim Toomey, Nicholas School of the Environment, podcast, sharks, Sherman's Lagoon