Jim Toomey’s nautical comic strip, “Sherman’s Lagoon,” is set somewhere in the South Pacific, but in recent days the titular, clueless shark and his buddies dove into a controversy about our own mighty waterway.
“We need to help the seals and sea lions in the Columbia River!” Filmore, the morally upstanding sea turtle, announced in a strip last week. That was after he learned that sea lions and seals venturing upriver to feast on endangered salmon have been penalized a bit more harshly than being offered a “handsome relocation package.”
“It’s such an unusual situation at the Columbia River, where you have environmental forces, governments and fishermen all condoning the killing of sea lions, or actually doing the killing. That really caught my eye,” Toomey said. “I try to incorporate real issues into the strip as much as possible, especially something related to the environment and animals.”
Last week’s strips had brainy fish Ernest writing a report about the problem and Filmore urging political activism. Simple, lovable Sherman and his skeptical wife, Megan, adopted a sea lion into their home.
“It seems sea lions are really between a rock and a hard place,” Toomey said. “We love them because they’re so darned cute and their faces are so close to ours. But this charismatic animal has become something of a problem for our ecological policies and mandates.
“There’s a delicate balance in nature, and every single actor plays a vital role,” he said, even including people-eating sharks like Sherman. But when people intervene dramatically it throws off the balance and creates all sorts of unintended consequences, he said. For example, damming the Columbia River created this salmon-poaching opportunity.
These are serious issues, but Toomey’s main job is to keep “Sherman’s Lagoon” fun, he said. That’s one reason why Sherman’s sea lion adoptee turns out to be a smarmy, cigar-smoking irritant.
“My first priority is the comedy,” Toomey said. “I always use the metaphor of a Trojan horse. You get inside with something charming, then you have an opportunity to make an argument or acknowledge the complexity of the issue once you’re inside.”
An engineering major and comic strip artist in college, Toomey said he worked an engineering “cubicle job” for years afterwards, even while trying to figure out what magic might propel a successful syndicated cartoon.
“I concluded that there was no underwater comic strip,” he said. “The cast of characters in the ocean could be more infinite and rich than a Hollywood casting agent could ever dream of.”
This was in the early 1990s, long before the arrival of mega-popular underwater fantasies such as “Spongebob Squarepants.”
“Sherman’s Lagoon” took right off, he said. After a few years Toomey started to tire of the joke-a-day routine. Fortunately, right around then, he was contacted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“They wanted to use my comic strips for outreach,” he said. “I realized I had a pretty big audience and I could put what I was doing to a higher purpose. The strip would be more educational and more entertaining if it incorporated some real world elements.”
So Toomey started scanning the daily news for ocean and environmental issues.
“There are so many aspects of the ocean that people are completely unaware of,” he said. “The ocean covers 70 percent of the surface area of the planet, yet we know so little about it.”
“Sherman’s Lagoon” has had a long, successful run since 1991, with many book publications and a stint as a Broadway musical too. Toomey has also deployed Sherman and his undersea gang in educational videos about ocean science.
Based in Annapolis, Md., Toomey has visited the San Juan Islands — but never the Columbia River, he admitted. He seemed a little embarrassed about that during our interview, and offered to draw a special Columbia River cartoon, just for us. It’s here on Page B1: Sherman the shark meeting a Columbia River sea lion. We hope the sign in the cartoon helps Toomey find his way here, someday.
“You have to work hard to get and keep an audience,” he said. “If I can’t deliver a little entertainment every day, I lose my newspapers and my audience. What value is there to a cartoon that expresses a point of view, but nobody is there to read it?”