Remembering Jim Unger
The highest compliment any cartoonist can pay to another is to see one of their cartoons and think: “I wish I’d thought of that.” I have a framed original Herman hanging on the wall of my studio. In it, Herman is sitting in his chair, holding up a musical triangle. His wife is looking over his shoulder and saying: “You’ve been practicing for three days and you still can’t hit it.” It is a classic Jim Unger creation, the caption is perfect, the drawing is brilliant, it’s very funny, and I wish I’d thought of it.
I first met Jim after he had retired to the Bahamas. The main attraction to Jim’s house, besides Jim and his generosity with cold beer, was, when it hadn’t been blown over by a hurricane, the giant satellite dish he had on the roof, which meant I could watch TV, a luxury I didn’t have on the sailboat I was living on at the time. I was drawing editorial cartoons and would need to catch up on the news after mucking about in the islands. So while I watched CNN, Jim would lie on the couch and give a running commentary on the news, his dry delivery and quick wit so intoxicating, I’d end up on the floor laughing and never actually get any work done. Jim had a unique ability to find humour and absurdity in almost anything, a talent he channeled so effectively into Herman.
Jim pioneered the offbeat single panel cartoon at a time when the newspaper comics pages were dominated by innocuous family strips like the Blondie and Hi and Lois. Herman landed among them like your favourite uncle crashing an invitation-only ladies temperance tea party – after he’s had a dozen beers. The cast of Herman had a delightful air of seediness about them; Herman was a slob, the women wore shapeless hats and equally shapeless overcoats, there were no cute kids saying cute things, and if there were any kids, they were probably little monsters. Collectively, these wonderful characters did something no other comic was doing at the time, they made you laugh out loud! Herman was an instant hit, and possibly Herman holds the record for the most cartoons stuck on the most fridges at any one time.
While Herman changed the comics, Jim changed lives. He had a big heart and was most generous to those who were less fortunate – especially during his time in the Bahamas. He always had time for aspiring cartoonists and welcomed anyone into his beautiful home near Nassau, situated right on the ocean, and featuring a swimming pool, into which he tossed me a number of times. Jim’s brother, Bob, who lived next door, often collaborated with Jim on Herman and Jim always claimed Bob was funnier than he was. Sadly, Bob passed away in 2003.
Besides his unique wit, Jim had a unique drawing style and a firm, confident hand. If you look closely at a Herman cartoon you’d swear he never once lifted the pen off the paper. For 17 years, seven days a week, Jim produced consistently funny cartoons - a testament to his dedication and skill at his craft, although, like so many cartoonists, he found the pressures of constant deadlines wearing. To the point that he ended Herman’s run in 1992 at the height of its popularity. Fortunately, a few years later Herman and the supporting cast of characters we loved so much were dragged out of retirement, and Jim picked up his pen again, creating new, equally funny material along with the old panels.
Jim may be gone, but Herman will live on in books, newspapers, and online, and perhaps somewhere, sometime, you will see this classic Herman…
Herman’s wife: “I made you a meat pie but the dog ate it.”
Herman: ‘I’ll miss the dog.”
We’ll all miss Jim Unger.
For a celebration for all things Herman, and for those who wish to leave comments and condolences, go to: facebook.com/hermancomics
Adrian Raeside is the editorial cartoonist for the Victoria Times Colonist and creator of The Other Coast comic strip, syndicated by Creators.